Saint Helena The Man

Napoleon’s Exile on St Helena 200th Anniversary

Approaching St Helena at Dawn

On October 15, 1815, four months after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived on St Helena Island for his second and last exile. As you can see in the photo above, the island rises out of the south Atlantic Ocean like a forbidding rock in a vacant sea. It’s the very definition of remote: five thousand miles from France, a thousand from the coast of Africa, and eighteen hundred from South America. Its sheer cliffs could forestall rescue attempts. And British forces had already fortified it. During Napoleon’s stay—ending in his death on May 5, 1821—those troops would increase to over 2,000 men.

Just eight months before arriving in St Helena, Napoleon had escaped his loosely-guarded exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. He’d made the three-day sail to the French coast, and marched 500 miles to Paris, gathering an army and the support of the French people along the way.

But it didn’t really matter what the French wanted. The British, the Austrians, the Prussians, and the Russians were not going to accept Napoleon’s return under any circumstances. Even if Napoleon had defeated the British and Prussian armies at Waterloo, the enemy coalition would have fought on until he was defeated. Ultimately, he had no chance against their overwhelming numbers.

Napoleon Dictating on St HelenaSo why did Napoleon leave his comfortable exile in Elba? Some speculate that he was bored. Others blame Louis XVIII, the restored French king, for reneging on his treaty commitment to supply Napoleon the funds to maintain his 1,000-man army and his status as Emperor of Elba. Or perhaps it was because he’d been separated from his beloved son, the Eaglet. And then came the final straw: rumor that the Coalition powers, meeting at the Congress of Vienna, planned to move him from Elba to St Helena.

Despite his heroic effort to avoid that fate, St Helena is where Napoleon spent his last five and a half years under an ignoble British house arrest.

Corsica The Man

Napoleon Bonaparte, A True Corsican?

Above the entrance to the Bonaparte house in Ajaccio, Corsica

A belated happy birthday to Napoleon Bonaparte who was born 246 years ago, on August 15, 1769, in this house on the island of Corsica.


corsica_mapThat lightly-populated island’s strategic position in the Mediterranean led to its repeated conquest and colonization, starting with the Phoenicians in 565 BCE. Over the next two millennia, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Saracens, Barbary pirates, Greeks, and various Italians followed.

In a fascinating coincidence of history, one year before Napoleon’s birth, the Treaty of Versailles ended four hundred years of Genoese rule and transferred the island to France. The Corsicans, who had waged rebellion against Genoa for decades, rose up against the invading French. Napoleon’s father, Carlo Buonaparte, numbered among the rebels. On May 8, 1769, just two months before the future French emperor was born, the Corsicans surrendered. Still, his parents named their second son Napoleon after an uncle who had died in the last major battle for Corsican independence.

Thus, with the thinnest of margins, Napoleon Bonaparte was born a French citizen. Nine years later, due to the support of Corsica’s French military governor the Comte de Marbeuf, young Napoleon entered French military school in Brienne, France. In 1785, sixteen-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte became a commissioned officer in the French Army he was later to lead into both glory and defeat.

Angry drummers during parade in Ajaccio on August 18,  2011. To celebrate the Virgin Mary, patron saint of CorsicaBut how much of his Corsican roots did Napoleon retain? The proud, rebellious Corsicans have long held a reputation for ruthless violence in the name of honor. The concept of “vendetta”—in strict definition, an honor feud between two families in which the slaying of a member of one family results in the murder of a member of the murderer’s family which in its own turn is revenged and so and on and on—comes from Corsican practices that continued into the twentieth century. Where Frenchmen might challenge you to a duel, a Corsican was more likely to slit your throat—or your brother’s—while you slept. At least that was the Corsican reputation.

As it turns out, it still is. A recent Atlantic magazine featured an article about French license plates, all of which bear a symbol indicating a region of France. Originally, the symbol on the plate was the area where the vehicle’s owner resided. In recent years, an owner has been able to choose any region they would like to display. Now there’s a huge demand for plates with the Corsican Moor’s Head, apparently because it tells other drivers that this is a vehicle owned by a tough guy, “not to be honked at, cut off, or otherwise crossed.”

By Jerry "Woody" from Edmonton, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Yet, for all Emperor Napoleon’s overvaulting ambition, for all General Napoleon’s cold-hearted ability to send troops into bloody battle, he was surprisingly forgiving on a personal level. When his wife Josephine was unfaithful, when his brothers turned on him, when his generals, friends and subordinates betrayed him, he forgave them, often multiple times for repeated offenses.

Sometimes he was being expedient to his own needs, as when he accepted Marshal Ney back to his side in 1815. On the other hand, when after his first abdication his second wife Marie Louise deserted him for another man, he refused to even acknowledge that her perfidy had happened. He could express his anger when Tsar Alexander broke a treaty or when the malicious Talleyrand maneuvered in Europe’s courts against him, but when those he held dear betrayed him, he forgave or turned his head so as not to see. How very un-Corsican.


Miscellany The Man

200th Anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Loss at Waterloo


Battle of Waterloo 1815, William Sadler II, Pyms Gallery, London

On June 18, 2015, people around the world who either admire or despise Napoleon Bonaparte will pause to remember his greatest loss, the Battle of Waterloo.

Two hundred years later, endless arguments continue. Did the French Marshal Ney betray Napoleon? Or was it Napoleon’s reluctance to send Ney reinforcements that caused the loss? Why didn’t the French general Grouchy, when he heard the distant sounds of battle, rush his troops back to the site of the fighting? Why did Napoleon attack so late in the day? Was the Emperor sick or at forty-six years old already past his prime? And which general was responsible for Napoleon’s defeat, the British general Wellington or the Prussian general von Blücher? I’ve seen people get red in the face over these and a hundred other details about the battle.

Napoleon addresses guard at WaterlooA few things are clear. The Allied victory was, as Wellington himself said, “a near-run thing.” The count of dead and wounded for that one battle amounted to an astonishing 47,000 men, about 55% of them on the French side. And in the end, when a valiant charge of Napoleon’s revered Imperial Guard failed, the French army fled in disorder, as word spread that “La Garde recule! Sauve qui peut!” (The Guard is retreating! Every man for himself!)

Certainly, the Battle of Waterloo destroyed any prospect of Napoleon Bonaparte’s remaining ruler of France. While his enemies, if defeated, could have gone on to fight more battles, Napoleon’s position was so precarious and France so weak that one great loss was enough to bring him down for good. Thus, the name Waterloo became synonymous with resounding defeat.

A few months ago, I was amused to hear the battle mentioned at (of all places) the Kennedy Center during a revival of Lerner & Loewe’s musical, Gigi. In the play, a young Gigi sings Say a Prayer for Me as she prepares to go out on her first assignation with the man she loves. Here’s a charming rendition by Julie Andrews who was originally going to sing the song in My Fair Lady.

In case, you missed them, the lyrics are:

On to your Waterloo, whispers my heart

Pray I’ll be Wellington, not Bonaparte



Miscellany The Man

Napoleon Bonaparte: Always Relevant, Always Current

War Games by Donna Lomangino (Fun Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte)


War Games, by Donna Lomangino, available at

My brother Jimmy and my sister-in-law Helen gave me this fun portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte playing video games. That someone would even think to paint it reminds me how much Napoleon remains a part of our collective memory.


Miscellany The Man

Finding Napoleon in Richmond, Virginia (and Spain)

Jean-Claude Bonnefond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Napoleon Bonaparte was a brilliant military and political leader, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t make disastrous mistakes. In that regard, the Russian Campaign of 1812 deserves top billing. His misadventures in Spain, poignantly illustrated in this painting from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, come in a close second.

I won’t presume to explain the Spanish debacle in detail, but for those who don’t know much about it, here’s a brief primer. When Napoleon came to power, Spain and France were allies, particularly in their opposition to England. In 1805, Napoleon’s French navy joined with the Spanish fleet to challenge Britain’s great naval hero, Admiral Lord Nelson, in the Battle of Trafalgar. Although Nelson died in the conflict, the Spanish and French were so thoroughly trounced that neither mounted a substantial navy again for years. Worse, the British established a continental foothold in Portugal.

Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's older brotherThe Spanish-French alliance never recovered. First, Napoleon moved French troops onto Spanish territory, using a proposed joint invasion of Portugal as a pretext. Then, in 1808, Spain’s King Charles IV lost a feud with his eldest son and fled to France, expecting Napoleon to support him. Instead, Napoleon used the opportunity to depose both Charles and his son, the newly crowned Ferdinand VII. Installing his brother Joseph Bonaparte as king in their place, Napoleon made Spain a client state of the French Empire.

Joseph, usually a man of good intentions, tried to be an enlightened ruler. Unfortunately, only a small number of educated city dwellers, the so-called afrancesados, wanted modern reforms. Understandably, the Spanish population resented foreign intervention in their cultural traditions. The Spanish Catholic church, forced to end the Inquisition, called upon the peasants to save their souls from the invaders’ influence. 

goya.shootings-3-5-1808Who can say who committed the first atrocity against the other side? Asymmetrical warfare ensued, as Spanish guerrilla fighters picked off, tortured and killed unwary French soldiers. The French responded with overwhelming force, sometimes against civilians. Francisco de Goya, initially the favored painter for Joseph Bonaparte’s court, depicted the French atrocities with a series of horrific images.


The painting at the top of this blog is by a Frenchman, Jean-Claude Bonnefond (1796-1860). The information card at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts reads in part:

At a well in a courtyard of a monastery, two soldiers have just discovered a comrade’s epaulet and shako, or hat, and traces of a bloody struggle. A monk furtively retreats in the background. Although not a specific incident in the Peninsular War, this scene directly alludes to the tensions that flared between Napoleon and the Catholic church. 

In 1813, the British led by Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, defeated the French troops in Spain. Joseph Bonaparte beat a hasty retreat across the Pyrenees and home to France.


Corsica Miscellany Paris Saint Helena Sources The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte FACE-to-FACE

During my travels to do research on Napoleon Bonaparte, I’ve taken hundreds of photographs of Napoleonic sites, art, memorabilia, and related objects. I’ve learned a lot about about military campaigns, geopolitics, and daily life in his times. I’ve become fascinated (and distracted by) the countless characters who surrounded Napoleon, from his birth in Corsica through his time in power to his death on St Helena. And I’ve enjoyed new friendships with many people, particularly members of the Napoleonic Historical Society, who share my enthusiasm for The Man and his times. But the biggest challenge has been coming to terms with who that man, Napoleon Bonaparte, really was.

In his time, without photography, video or voice recordings, it was easier that it is today to be opaque. On one hand, Napoleon Bonaparte was the first modern celebrity so everything from the sleeve of a discarded coat to his camp toilet was scrupulously preserved. There must be thousands of images of his face. Until recently, however, I thought those images so varied that it was impossible to know what he really looked like. Then my husband Bert and I gathered together seventy-three photographs into the slide show featured above. Certainly Napoleon’s appearance changes as he ages, but these photos helped me to come face to face with the man I’ve been trying to understand. Bert and I hope you enjoy them! 


Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon in London — Admiral Cockburn

 London's Big Ben seen from the National Gallery

The more you learn about Napoleon Bonaparte the more likely you are to find connections to him. As I mentioned in my last blog post, “Finding Napoleon” was particularly easy during my recent trip to London.  Still, here’s a London connection among Napoleon Bonaparte, the burning of the American capital during the War of 1812, and my sixth grade school that surprised me. 

This charming family portrait hangs in London’s National Gallery. The museum’s identification card lists the artist as Sir Joshua Reynolds and the subject as “Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons, 1773.” When I read the children’s names, I realized that the darling cherub peeking over his mother’s shoulder was none other than the future Admiral Sir George Cockburn who, at age 43, escorted Napoleon Bonaparte to his exile on St Helena Island. 

Sir Joshua Reynolds' Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons, 1773 in London's National GalleryAccording to many reports from the time, Napoleon and his head jailer did not always see eye-to-eye. First, Admiral Cockburn immediately implemented the British policy of denying Napoleon his imperial title. Henceforth, he insisted, the former emperor was to be addressed as “General.” More than that, in a effort to delegitimize his right to lead the French, the British used the Corsican spelling of his name so “Bonaparte” reverted to the Italian-sounding “Buonaparte.” Napoleon himself refused to play the role as prisoner. He reasoned, if he were a prisoner of war, well then, those wars were over and, by international accord, all prisoners were to be released. Moreover, by European tradition, deposed sovereigns were granted dignified asylum. Why should he be treated any differently?

Needless to say, the British and their allies didn’t buy those arguments. Admiral Cockburn delivered Napoleon to St Helena on October 16, 1815. He stayed on the island long enough to turn over custody of Europe’s most famous prisoner to the island’s new governor, Sir Hudson Lowe.

The connection to the burning of my country’s capital? A year before escorting Napoleon to St Helena, Admiral Cockburn had been second-in-command of the British naval forces in the War of 1812. For two years, he had waged war against American ships and ports in the Chesapeake Bay.

Admiral Sir George Cockburn by John James Hall, Royal Museum GreenwichOn August 24, 1814, following orders that included “laying waste to towns,” he led the torching of Washington. The White House, the Library of Congress, and the Capitol were all but destroyed. You can see the city burning in this portrait of Cockburn by John James Hall, now in the Royal Museum in Greenwich, England.

And my sixth grade school? I was living in France and gaining my first knowledge of Napoleon. As a US Navy dependent, I attended a small school named after the American naval hero, Commodore Joshua Barney.

In the summer of 1814, Commodore Barney had led a US Navy flotilla in the Chesapeake Bay, causing Admiral Cockburn a great deal of trouble.

Unfortunately for Commodore Barney, Napoleon Bonaparte’s future jail warden had the last word: Barney had to scuttle his fleet to avoid its capture. He and his troops joined in the defense of Washington under the personal leadership of President Madison. Ultimately, all fled in what was deemed at the time to be the American military’s greatest humiliation. It took the September Battle of Baltimore—which is memorialized in “The Star Spangled Banner”—to turn the tide against Cockburn’s navy.

The Man

Finding Napoleon in London

Bert & Margaret kayaking on the Thames Sept 2014 

Part 1: Napoleon Bonaparte at Wellington’s House

When I traveled to London earlier this month, it wasn’t difficult to find traces of Napoleon Bonaparte. After all, he was arguably the British Empire’s greatest foe until the World Wars of the twentieth century. What I found is that, at least in some quarters, Napoleon was admired during his lifetime and continues to be of interest today. 

Apsley House, LondonBefore leaving on this trip, I queried my colleagues at the Napoleonic Historical Society for recommendations with a Napoleonic twist. I’ve been to London several times, yet a historic site I’d never visited topped their list: Apsley House museum, the Duke of Wellington’s home. Located at Hyde Park Corner, its address is nicknamed “No. 1 London” due to its prominent location. Arthur Wellesley, who defeated Napoleon’s forces in Spain and handed him his ultimate defeat at Waterloo, bought the house in 1817 from his older brother. He then enlarged it to befit his status as the Duke of Wellington, England’s greatest hero.

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington by Francisco de GoyaNapoleon and the Bonapartes can be found throughout the museum. Wellington’s extensive art collection includes portraits of Napoleon and of Josephine, and a huge panorama of Waterloo with Napoleon in the foreground. The Sèvres dessert service that Napoleon gave Josephine on their divorce (and which she refused to accept) and a sword of Napoleon’s are displayed in a room off the entrance foyer. Upstairs, one grand salon features priceless Spanish paintings recovered from Joseph Bonaparte’s lost baggage carts as he fled his throne in Spain with Wellington’s troops hot on his heels. Amusingly, there is a portrait of Napoleon’s scandal-prone sister Pauline in a salon that is designated the “Military Valhalla” or “Hall of Heroes,” because the paintings in there (except hers) are all of generals. I think she would have liked that.

But most striking is the 12-foot-tall nude statue of Napoleon as Mars.

Napoleon as Mars by Antonio Canova, at Apsley House, LondonIn 1806, Antonio Canova, then considered one of the greatest living artists, sculpted it from a single block of marble (except the raised arm). The head is magnificent, but I think most of us today have the same reaction to it that Napoleon Bonaparte himself had. He deemed it “too athletic” and banished it to a hidden corner of the Louvre where the public would never see it. After Waterloo, the British government bought it from the French and presented it to Wellington.

It’s difficult for me to imagine a modern victor surrounding himself with portraits of his vanquished foe.  Yet, in his time, Napoleon’s genius was widely admired by military men on all sides of the conflicts.  On hearing of Napoleon’s death in St Helena, the Duke of Wellington reportedly said, “Now I can safely say I am the most successful general alive.”

No photography is allowed in the Apsley House so some of the photos in this blog were sourced on the Internet. But not, of course, the one of my husband and me kayaking on the Thames. That one is here to show that I don’t spend all my time looking for Napoleon.

The Man

Napoleon Bonaparte’s School Days

As schools begin their fall sessions, Napoleon Bonaparte’s educational experience comes to mind.

Napoleon the new boy at school, by Realier DumasBRIENNE, by Realier-Dumas.At nine years old, little Nabulio Buonaparte traveled a thousand kilometers from Ajaccio, Corsica, the only home he’d known, to a military school in Brienne, France. Along the way, he spent four months in Autun, France, long enough for the Italian-speaking child to learn French. Four years passed before Napoleon had one brief visit from his parents. He turned seventeen before he returned home to Corsica.

I know it’s not wise to superimpose our cultural norms on the past, but can you image doing that to your child or to any young person today? Have children changed that much?

In addition to being foreign, young Napoleon was poor. He attended the school on a scholarship the French King provided, a circumstance the wealthier students mocked. Legend tells us that he made few friends at school, but ultimately became a leader there. Indeed, it was at Brienne that he directed the first of his many battles: a snowball fight among the students. 

Napoleon commands snowball fight at Brienne by Horace Vernet

Saint Helena The Man

A Childhood in 19th Century St Helena

If you are reading this blog, you probably know that Napoleon Bonaparte spent his last six years in exile on St Helena Island in the remote south Atlantic Ocean. I visited  the island in 2011 and I’m always interested in learning more about its fascinating connection to Napoleon.

I owe this blog post to one of my readers, Roger Knights. Roger’s been researching his ancestors who were members of the Moss family on St Helena. They married into the Solomon family, prominent merchants whose name still graces the largest retail business in Jamestown, St Helena. You can see one of their establishments in the background of my photo of the St Helena Day parade in 2011.

St Helena Day with Solomon's store in background

Roger’s great aunt saved this clipping of a Melbourne newspaper article, which he believes his ancestor, Walter Frederick Moss, wrote around 1940.  In it, Moss reminisces about his childhood on St Helena during the 1860s. I love the part where he describes how his elderly nursemaid, who in her youth had been in Napoleon’s household, professed a strong dislike for the Great Man.

(Readers, please forgive the old-fashioned views of the ethnic groups that peopled St Helena. Authentic documents from the past often leave us modern readers uncomfortable with our history.)


Article in Melbourne journal circa 1940


Part 2 - Article in Melbourne journal circa 1940


Thank you, Roger, for providing this material. 

Copyright © 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Margaret Rodenberg