How did Napoleon Bonaparte spend the 2,029 days of his exile on St Helena? After all, the Great Man (or Monster, depending on your point of view) jam-packed his previous forty-six years.
At sixteen, he rushed through Paris’ École Militaire to graduate after one year instead of the normal two. In 1798, on his way to Egypt, young General Bonaparte conquered Malta, where he removed the corrupt Knights of St. John from power, wrote the island a new constitution, freed the Jews from religious prosecution, reorganized the legal system, and set up a French garrison—all in one week.
Throughout his reign, Emperor Napoleon kept his ministers awake much of the night strategizing campaigns, writing the Napoleonic Code, planning roads and canals, and designing France’s modern education system. He scrutinized budgets, even correcting mistakes in their addition.
No detail was too small, no ambition too large for him to contemplate.
So faced with house arrest on remote St Helena, how did he fill the empty hours? For work, he dictated his memoirs. For his pride, he waged petty wars with the British governor, Sir Hudson Lowe. For his health, he gardened. But for amusement?
Although a prisoner, Napoleon Bonaparte had retained his sword and his dueling pistols. At what must have been a low point for him, he used the pistols to take potshots at rabbits and at a neighbor’s goat that wandered near his vegetable garden. In a happier time, he played at sword-fighting with his young friend, Betsy Balcombe.
When I visited St Helena’s archives, I found this hint of another pastime: a receipt for the repair of “General Buonaparte’s” crossbow. I’ve never come across mention of a bow in the various memoirs from the period, but I like to imagine a bored Napoleon brightening his afternoon with archery practice.
For more peaceful activity, he played chess with his generals. I’ve read accounts that Napoleon Bonaparte—one of history’s most brilliant military strategists—was a poor chess player and, to appease him, his generals always let him win. Albine de Montholon, the wife of one of those generals, in her memoirs contradicts what she claims was this British propaganda.
She states that, “It was not easy to play with the Emperor. He marched out his pawns quickly and it amused him to begin the match with unusual moves.” She goes on to say that just when it looked as if he had lost, Napoleon would gain the final advantage using strategy his opponent hadn’t foreseen. That seems much more like the Napoleon I’ve come to know.