Updated: Nov 5, 2020
Napoleon’s living conditions on Saint Helena were of interest to both British and French authorities, with certain French representatives hoping to use Napoleon’s ‘mistreatment’ and poor health as an excuse to repatriate him to Europe. This particular debate also found its way to the press, with both sides’ arguments reproduced at length in the Royal Gazette of Jamaica on 7 June 1817.
Jean-Noël Santini, one of Napoleon’s principal servants on Saint Helena, wrote a letter to the British papers in the spring of 1817 describing the habitation of Longwood House as a “wretched asylum...his [Napoleon’s] sleeping chamber is scarcely large enough to contain a bed and a few chairs. The roof of this hovel consists of paper, coated with pitch, which is beginning to rot, and through which the rain-water and dew penetrate.” As a description of the famously uncomfortable Longwood this is recognisable, even if some points are exaggerated for effect. Santini also describes a semi-famous situation in which Napoleon was “forced” to sell his family silver to reduce his expenses to the levels that the British had permitted.
Underneath this, the Gazette printed an informative response by John Wallis, who had visited Saint Helena in December 1816, intended to provide a “correct account” to dispel the image of
Napoleon’s poverty created by Santini. Included in this was a list of Napoleon’s daily provisions on Saint Helena.
Included among these provisions was a considerable quantity of wine: “6 Bottles Claret... 9 Ditto Cape ditto... 6 Tenerife... 1 Madeira... 1 Constantia”. However, it is Santini who has the final word in the Gazette edition, remarking on the subject of the wine that “his [Wallis’s] statement [is] nearly correct, but he has not stated the number of persons who partook of it... When the number of bottles is compared with the number of persons, it will be seen that the allowance is not sufficient.”
"6 Bottles [of] Claret, 9 Bottles Cape, 6 Tenerife, 1 Madeira, 1 Constantia etc."
From a modern perspective, the fact that only “one bottle of Constantia and of Madeira remain for the dessert” hardly seems like a travesty, but it would have been substantially less than that expected to fete a former emperor, even if Napoleon did supposedly have poor taste in wine anyway.
The conclusion of the argument, if any is to be drawn, is left to the reader’s judgement. Regardless of the Gazette’s opinion on the matter, this newspaper debate is strong evidence that the reading public were interested in Napoleon’s status on Saint Helena.
This blog post was written by Joseph Geldman, who took part in our September Micro-Internship Programme with the University of Oxford Careers Service.