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Napoleon on St Helena

A British East India Company colony since 1658, the small island of St Helena in the southern Atlantic Ocean was selected by the British government as the place of detention for the former Emperor. He was brought to St Helena in October 1815 and died there in 1821.  

Title page and frontispiece colour portrait of Napoleon in military dress on St HelenaTitle page and frontispiece portrait of Napoleon on St HelenaThe haunting figure of Napoleon, the brilliant military commander who had ruled over much of continental Europe and brought suffering and liberty alike to its peoples, ending his days in lonely exile on a remote and windswept island, was a potent emblem of the fickleness of fortune.  Personal recollections by those who encountered him during his final exile served the reading public’s insatiable appetite for knowledge of the man whose genius had dominated Europe for two decades. Three such works are featured here.

A tour through the island of St Helena, shown on the right, is the only one to be published during Napoleon’s lifetime. The author, an East India Company captain and surveyor and mayor of Jamestown, St Helena’s capital, notes with satisfaction the impossibility of escape by the illustrious prisoner, so remote is the island and so well was Napoleon guarded.  

Plate showing Longwood House on St Helena, in which Napoleon was confinedThe house in which the Emperor Napoleon expired after a confinement of nearly six yearsRather more controversial is Barry O’Meara’s Napoleon in exile, in which the author accuses Sir Hudson Lowe, the island’s governor, of undermining the prisoner’s health by restricting his movements and choosing Longwood House, which is shown in the image on the left, a former governor’s residence then in poor repair, as his cold and damp place of confinement.

O’Meara was the naval surgeon on board HMS Bellerophon, the ship which brought Napoleon to St Helena, and he remained on the island to serve as the captive’s physician. He became increasingly sympathetic to his patient and spent many hours listening to Napoleon’s reflections on his career.  First published in 1821, the resulting book went through numerous editions in both French and English.

Lucia Abell, the author of Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, was born Lucia Balcombe in 1802, the daughter of an East India Company official on St Helena.

Plate showing the rocky and inhospitable James Town side of the island of St HelenaThe James Town side of the island of St HelenaFor his first two months on the island Napoleon was held in temporary quarters in the grounds of the Briars, the Balcombes’ house, while Longwood was being made habitable. The teenage Lucia struck up a friendship with the prisoner, attracting the disapproval of Sir Hudson Lowe.

Although the Balcombes left St Helena the following year and Lucia never saw Napoleon again, the Bonaparte family kept in contact with her throughout her life. In 1960 her descendant, Australian writer Mabel Brookes, donated the Briars to the French government, and, like Longwood, it is now French territory.

The image shown on the right conveys the inhospitable terrain of St Helena.

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