• Alex Kither

Barry O'Meara and the British Press

In July and August 1818, The Times newspaper published correspondence surrounding the dismissal of Napoleon’s first doctor, Dr. Barry O’Meara, from the Island of Helena, the ultimate consequence of a dispute between O’Meara, Napoleon’s household, and Governor Hudson Lowe. The collection of letters, predominantly dated from March and April 1818, published in six editions of The Times, have a fragmentary character. In the newspaper’s own admission of 28 August 1818, they are “so clumsily written and printed on all sides that we are frequently at a loss for its meaning. The arrangement of letters is also very puzzling.”

It is difficult to ascribe a particular motivation to The Times in publishing the letters. At times they seem to be on the side of Barry O’Meara, seemingly offering him the opportunity to have his voice heard, but in other places, O’Meara’s testimony serves to discredit him. O’Meara had been sending clandestine letters between Saint Helena and England from as early as 1816, often via his London correspondent, the Scottish civil servant, John Finlaison. O’Meara also communicated with superiors in the British Army and Navy, crucially without the knowledge of his immediate superior, Hudson Lowe.

The first published letter, dated July 20, 1818, describes its author as “Dr O’Meara, the attendant physician on Bonaparte”, an explanatory note which suggests that O’Meara and his circumstances were not necessarily known to the British public at this time. The letter, to Hudson Lowe, demands that Lowe choose between rescinding his resignation or immediately accepting it and dropping a case against O’Meara on the grounds of the latter’s clandestine communication with Napoleon’s officer Count Bertrand.

“I have therefore, Sir, the honour to demand from your Excellency, 1st, Either the rescinding of your directions of the 10th of this month [demanding O’Meara’s resignation], and the privilege of exercising my functions at Longwood as I have done for near three years; 2nd, Or to accept the resignation.”

Notably, O’Meara mentions a letter detailing “the stipulation which I had made in 1815, when Admiral Lord Keith [commanded] that I should be attached to Napoleon as surgeon.” The Times later published this letter in the 27 August edition of the newspaper, a move which seems to suggest its belief in O’Meara’s integrity.

The letter published 17 August 1818 resumes reporting on the Lowe/O’Meara hostilities. This letter, sent by Count Bertrand to Hudson Lowe on April 13, states that “if you take from him [Napoleon] Mr. O’Meara, without supplying his place by a French or Italian Physician already known, you oblige this Prince to die destitute of all assistance.” The letter reveals the implications of O’Meara quitting the island in such a way that lends credence to the theory that one of Hudson Lowe’s objectives was to speed (or at least, to not impede) Napoleon’s illnesses. But at the same time, it aligns O’Meara with the Napoleon camp, as an ally of the Emperor rather than of the British government. The letter from Bertrand published in the 19 August edition restates this and strengthens the perception of an alliance between Bertrand and O’Meara, with Bertrand writing: “I beg, therefore, to repeat my request, that you would restore Dr O’Meara to the exercise of his functions, and discontinue to annoy him.”

The letters published on 22 and 27 August seem to anticipate this criticism of O’Meara’s loyalty. The first is an uneasy report on O’Meara’s part on why he failed to inform Napoleon of his resignation, an instance cited by Hudson Lowe as evidence of his collusion:

“Finding him... indisposed, and in bed, I did not think it proper to communicate with him, and I therefore wrote a letter to Count Bertrand, in which I begged him to do so.”

However, O’Meara’s letter does not sit alone, and is accompanied by a response written by Gideon Gorrequer, who was Hudson Lowe’s military secretary on Saint Helena. “Your letter to Count Bertrand... was a direct breach of the regulations.” The Times itself makes no comment, but in this edition, the balance of evidence does seem to tilt against O’Meara.

This perhaps explains the content of the August 27 edition, which is perhaps the strongest advocation on behalf of O’Meara, opening with a letter in which the surgeon protests the injunctions against him:

“I must also protest against the repeated prohibitions against making known to the Governor whatever may be relative to my defence... I have had the felicity of being born in a free country, where the laws alone dispose of individuals [as opposed to individual Judgements].”

This is followed by compelling evidence of O’Meara’s national loyalty in the form of the letter he wrote in response to Admiral Keith’s aforementioned stipulation of August 1815, wherein O’Meara outlines that his loyalty is to be maintained to Britain, not to Napoleon: “I am willing to accept [this] situation... on the following conditions... that I am not to be considered in any wise depending upon, or to be subservient to, or paid by, the aforesaid Napoleon Buonaparte, but as a British officer, employed by the British government.”

This is followed, however, by instructions from Sir George Cockburn in 1815, that throw O’Meara’s statement of employment into doubt: “General Buonaparte... will be allowed to select... three Officers, who, together with his surgeon, will be permitted to accompany him to Saint Helena.” The implication is that O’Meara was Napoleon’s personal choice, which is accurate from the record.

The final letter in the 27 August edition is a letter from Hudson Lowe himself, wherein Lowe advocates for a Mr. Baxter to take the role of Napoleon’s doctor, instead of the allegedly disloyal O’Meara. While this gives Lowe the opportunity to make his own perspective known, arguably this is to his detriment in the case as it sets up an ulterior motive on his part which makes him seem biased against O’Meara for reasons other than the national interest.

Even here, it is difficult to discern The Times’s opinion on the situation, with both O’Meara and Hudson Lowe reflecting poorly in different editions. But it does, at least, give the last word to O’Meara, in the 28 August edition: “I do not conceive that I have committed the smallest crime in having communicated to Count Bertrand the circumstance which obliged me to leave Longwood.”

Regardless of whether the newspaper’s purpose here is merely informational, or whether the letters were printed with the deliberate intent of exonerating O’Meara, the existence of a lengthy newspaper series suggests a remarkable degree of public interest in the events taking place on Saint Helena. In their form, they are recognisably similar to modern reporting on public scandals.

In September 2020, Napoleon200 ran an internship programme alongside the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). Interns worked to produce research reports and blogs for use in bicentenary events.