Professor Alan Forrest writes on the St Helena’s part in the Napoleonic legend.
If Waterloo marked the end of Napoleon’s imperial dream, his exile from Europe and imprisonment on St Helena brought a new dimension to the mythology that would be constructed around him. On receiving news of his defeat at the hands of the Allies, public opinion in France hardened against him and he was widely satirised as a leader who may have talked the language of heroism but who had surrendered to Britain in order to save his own life amongst the carnage and destruction around him. This French caricature from 1815 does little to hide underlying feelings of contempt and resentment:
And yet by the time of his death six years later, the foundations of his legend had been laid, to the extent that, for many in France and across the world, he emerged as a tragic hero, a man who had sacrificed everything for the welfare of the French people, the patriot whose dying wish was to be buried in Paris, on the banks of the Seine, surrounded by the people he loved. Napoleon had not wasted his time on St. Helena. Rather he had used it to burnish his image, to prepare his destiny. He was concerned, as he had been throughout his career from time of his first campaign in Italy, with guaranteeing his place in History.
And though much of that reputation would be based on his achievements in war and politics, his years of exile on a remote South Atlantic island, cut off from Europe and the world, unquestionably played their part. For a Romantic age the image of Napoleon condemned to solitude and ennui several thousand miles from France was both powerful and emotive, and that sense of isolation was only heightened by Napoleon’s own words, as they were dictated to Las Cases (and published, as the Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, two years after his death, in 1823) or communicated to the French army officers, Montholon and Gourgaud, who had accompanied him to St Helena to share his exile, and who would return to France with their memories and their stories to tell.
Artists and writers were attracted by the story of Napoleon’s exile, by the Shakespearian tragedy of a man whose ambition had led him to be the master of Europe, yet now found himself reduced to roam across a rocky island surrounded by ocean. One of many depictions of the former Emperor in exile, painted around 1855, is by the French artist Hippolyte Paul Delaroche. It shows Napoleon lost in reverie, staring mournfully out from the harsh landscape of St Helena at the sea beyond and seemingly abandoned to his thoughts. It would form a fitting final chapter to the story of a Hero for the Romantic Age.
Even Napoleon’s enemies found tragedy in his final years: his sense of abandonment, his animosity towards his jailor, the constraints he increasingly felt as a result of his failing health. Across Europe, the person of the former emperor continued to arouse more interest, and more passion, than the Allied leaders who had defeated him. Walter Scott, no radical or Bonapartist, nevertheless devoted a short biography to him; while Southey, Byron and others could not conceal their fascination for the man and his myth. Among British painters who found inspiration in his South Atlantic exile was J.M.W Turner, in his thought-provoking canvas on ‘War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet’, first exhibited in 1842. Here, as so often with Turner, colour is everything. As Katharina Fritsch expresses it in the Tate Gallery’s house publication, Tate Etc: ‘We see Napoleon standing in an apocalyptic landscape on the banks of an undefined, almost dried-out river against a blood-red sunset on the horizon’. It is a deeply personal and highly romanticized image, one that memorably reflects the nation’s fascination with Napoleon and his exile on St. Helena:
It may also leave us with the thought that in his battle for history Napoleon had perhaps claimed his final victory.
Prof. Alan Forrest is Professor Emeritus at the University of York and author of Napoleon (Quercus, 2012). He is a trustee for the British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust.