Promoting New Perspectives
Napoleon 200 tells the lesser-known story of Napoleon's imprisonment on Saint Helena through the eyes of those who were there
Within that story, and the differing perspective of those on the island in his final years, can be found the fault lines of history which are still felt today.
On 15th October 1815, Napoleon arrived at Saint Helena on the HMS Northumberland and displayed no outward emotion on deck. To one of his retinue however he is supposed to have declared;
“It seems no charming place to live in. I should have done better to stay in Egypt. I should now have been Emperor of the whole Orient.”
After one night in Jamestown, Napoleon was moved to the Briars, the house of the Balcombe family. At the Briars, Napoleon was relatively content, and formed a close friendship with the family’s daughter, Betsy, which has inspired writers ever since.
He also is supposed to have struck up a friendship with Toby, one of the Balcombe's slaves, and offered to buy his freedom.
On Sunday 10th December 1815 Napoleon moved to Longwood House which had been adapted and extended for his retinue of twenty or so people. Here, Napoleon spent his time taking long baths, dictating his memoirs, entertaining guests, and walking and riding within the permitted areas of the island.
The climate at the house was - and still is - damp, and Napoleon was irritated by the restrictions placed upon him by the new Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, with whom he very quickly developed a fractious relationship. Napoleon’s health gradually deteriorated, and he died on 5th May 1821.
Toby, a malay slave on the island and according to both Las Cases and Betsy Balcombe, Napoleon was moved by his situation, Betsy Balcombe writes that Napoleon tried to buy Toby's freedom but was refused. Las Cases writes that According to Las Cases, Napoleon was deeply troubled by Toby’s situation, saying: "Certainly there is a wide step from poor Toby to a King Richard. And yet, the crime is not the less atrocious, for this man, after all, had his family, his happiness, and his liberty; and it was a horrible act of cruelty to bring him here to languish in the fetters of slavery."
Betsy was the younger daughter of William and Jane Balcombe. ‘Betsy’) was the only family member who spoke French and she became Napoleon’s translator. A deep friendship quickly developed, with Betsy being allowed to claim that all Frenchmen ate frogs (which she even illustrated with a cartoon) , to play blind man's buff with Napoleon, even play-threaten him with a sword. Governor Hudson Lowe became suspicious of the Balcombes and in 1818 they were forced to leave St Helena and return to England. Under her married name, Mrs Abell, she published in 1844 ‘To Befriend an Emperor’.
A life-long soldier, Lowe served in many campaigns. In 1813 he was appointed liaison officer to the Russian and Prussian armies and was highly rated by Marshal Blücher. He was not present at Waterloo but in August 1815 he was selected by the British Government to become military governor of St Helena and Napoleon’s jailor. Lowe arrived there in April 1816 but his relationship with the Emperor quickly broke down and Napoleon refused to see him again after only their sixth meeting. He nevertheless continued as Governor until Napoleon’s death, and returned to London, mission accomplished. Lowe was, however, treated poorly by the British Government, and arguably has been a scapegoat for those critical of the treatment of Napoleon.
A distinguished sailor who served in most theatres of the Napoleonic wars and was also involved in the burning of Washington. Cockburn was chosen to convey Napoleon to St Helena on the Northumberland in July 1815 and remained in command of the forces on the island until the arrival of the new Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, in April 1816. He established good relations with Napoleon, who
regretted that he did not become the Governor. He left St Helena in June 1816, was promoted vice-admiral in 1819, full admiral in 1837, and First Sea Lord in 1841.
Count de Balmain
Dr Barry O’Meara
Alexandre Antonovich, Comte de Balmain, was descended from a Scottish family, the Ramsays of Balmain, which had left Scotland in 1685 and emigrated to Russia...
Balmain was The Russian Commissioner on Saint Helena, who arrived on St Helena in June 1816 and left in May 1820, havin married Sir Hudson Lowe’s elder step-daughter. He sent regular reports to Russia, much of it gossip, and was generally supportive of Lowe’s policies and conduct.
A native of County Cork, after service as an army doctor he became surgeon on the Bellerophon, quickly gaining Napoleon’s confidence. With British permission he accepted the post of physician to Napoleon and established a close rapport with him at Longwood. Sir Hudson Lowe’s suspicion of this relationship led to his removal from St Helena in July 1818 meaning he had left the island by the time Napoleon died. O’Meara had his revenge with the publication of his best-selling A Voice from St Helena in 1822, which seriously damaged Lowe’s
reputation. He subsequently became a founder member of the Reform Club in London.
Count de Montholon
Baron de Gourgaud
Following a modest military career he joined the Empress Josephine’s household and, after switching allegiance to the restored Louis XVIII, returned to Napoleon after the escape from Elba and was promoted to general shortly before Waterloo. Gorgaud accompanied Napoleon to St Helena, with his wife and son, Tristan, and remained until the end, becoming one of Napoleon’s most trusted companions and principal executor of his will. Following Napoleon’s death he wrote his memoirs and, after involvement in Louis-Napoleon’s abortive coup in 1840, ended his career as a deputy in the National Assembly.
An artillery officer who served in many of Napoleon’s campaigns, including Waterloo, and claimed to have saved his life on two occasions. Montholon was Master of the Horse at Longwood and shared Napoleon’s dictation duties with fellow ‘evangelist’, Count de Las Cases. He was, however, intensely jealous of his companions, even challenging General Montholon to a duel, and left St Helena in unhappy circumstances in March 1818. Promoted to lieutenant-general and aide de camp to King
Louis-Philippe, he was a member of the exhumation party in 1840, which he described in detail in his memoir, Le Retour des Cendres de l’Empereur Napoléon.
Of aristocratic background, his military service was confined to a junior rank in the royalist navy, but Las Cases was the author of the successful Atlas Historique, Généalogique et Géographique, which Napoleon admired. An emigre in England during the Revolution, he returned to France under an amnesty in 1802 and became chamberlain in Napoleon’s household. He accompanied him to St Helena in 1815 and, as Napoleon’s principal amanuensis, became very close to him. He was expelled by Lowe in November 1816 for conducting clandestine correspondence for Napoleon but earned great fame, and not a little reward, by publishing in 1823 the monumental Mémorial de St Hélène.
A military engineer by training, Bertrand served with distinction in many of Napoleon’s campaigns and was appointed Grand Marshal of the Court in November 1814. He was with Napoleon in exile on Elba and present at Waterloo, and followed Napoleon to St Helena, where he was the senior member of the Longwood household and bore the brunt of Napoleon’s fraught relations with Sir
Hudson Lowe. Despite much provocation and pressure from his wife to return to Europe, he served Napoleon with touching loyalty until the end. He was a prominent member of the party sent to St Helena in 1840 to bring back Napoleon’s remains to France
Keepers of Secrets
Albine de Montholon
Aide de Camp and acting Military Secretary to Sir Hudson Lowe, with whom he had served in Sicily and the Ionian Islands. Although not the most senior of Lowe’s aides, Gorrequer was the closest to him and the most influential. He resided with the Lowes at Plantation House throughout Napoleon’s detention, returning to Britain with them in July 1821. Although a supporter of Lowe’s policies, he nevertheless bitterly resented the way Lowe treated him and gave vent to his feelings in remarkably frank private diaries, which were not decoded and published until 1968.
The wife of the Count de Montholon, Albine
accompanied her husband to St Helena but left, with her recently born child, Napoléone-Joséphine, in July
1819. It has since been speculated that she became Napoleon’s mistress whilst on the island and that the child was his.
Louis Joseph marchand
Napoleon’s second valet, entered Napoleon’s service in 1806 and on being made ‘Second Mameluke’ in December 1811 (an appointment dating back to Napoleon’s 1798 Egyptian expedition) became known as Ali. He served Napoleon on many campaigns, including Russia and Waterloo, and accompanied him in exile on both Elba and St Helena, where he remained until Napoleon’s death one of his most loyal and trusted servants. His memoirs, published for the first time in 1926, form a touching account of his service. He was a member of the party sent to bring Napoleon’s body back to France in 1840.
Napoleon’s first valet, who joined his household in 1811 and accompanied him throughout his campaigns and exile on Elba and on to St Helena. Marchand was the devoted servant par excellence and before his death Napoleon made him an executor and beneficiary of his will and appointed him a count. He went with the 1840 expedition to recover Napoleon’s remains and his memoirs are an important source on Napoleon and St Helena.
Joseph Archambault served the Emperor alongside his elder brother throughout the Imperial campaigns, in the escape from Elba and the Hundred Days before before finally following them both into exile on Saint Helena. After only a year serving as Napoleon's second groom, Joseph was expelled by Sir Hudson Lowe in October 1816 but later found service with Napoleon’s elder brother, Joseph, in the United States.
Achille Archambault entered the imperial house as a picketer in 1805 and became one of Napoleon's favourite coachmen thanks to his agility. He thus followed Napoleon's campaigns and accompanied the Emperor in his exile to Elba, then in the adventure of the Hundred Days and during the Belgian campaign of 1815. Selected to go into exile with Napoleon on St. Helena, he took care of the Longwood stable, under the orders of General Gourgaud, and with the assistance of his brother and four grooms.