Finding Napoleon (and Shakespeare) on St Helena Day

 

 

May 21st is St Helena Day, when the local population celebrates the remote island’s discovery in 1502. For the 4,500 residents, it’s a big holiday with speeches, parades and picnics. I haven’t found any historical record of Napoleon Bonaparte joining in the festivities during his exile there. In all likelihood, he preferred that the place had never been found. Napoleon called his exile there “the anguish of death.” He wondered why instead “they did not put a few musket balls in my heart.”

St James Church, Jamestown, St Helena Island, Photo by Margaret Rodenberg 2011But in 1502, its fresh-water stream would have been a welcome sight to Admiral João da Nova and his Portuguese sailors. As was the custom, they claimed the deserted island for their king. Before leaving, they built a small timber chapel on the spot where, in 1774, the British constructed today’s St James Church. That history gives St Helena bragging rights to the oldest continually operating church in the Southern Hemisphere.

While St Helena’s fame rests on Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile, a Portuguese named Fernão Lopes ranks as the island’s strangest inhabitant. In 1512, in India, Lopes (also known as Don Fernando) converted to Islam and joined in a rebellion against Goa’s Portuguese rulers. He received a grisly punishment: the loss of his ears, his nose, his right hand and left thumb. On the way home to Portugal, he jumped ship in uninhabited St Helena, where he survived as a hermit for several years. Eventually, he returned to Portugal. Fearing for his soul, he traveled to Rome to beg forgiveness from Pope Clement VII. Afterward, poor mutilated Lopes returned voluntarily to St Helena. He died there in 1545 (or 1546, depending on your sources).

In his book Shakespeare’s Island: St Helena and The Tempest, author David J. Jeremiah makes the case that St Helena is the island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Furthermore, he claims the play’s savage character Caliban is Fernão Lopes. As befits someone who served as the island’s attorney general, Jeremiah lays out convincing, although circumstantial, evidence. Of course, Shakespeare himself never visited St Helena. Instead, Jeremiah says the playwright met people who had and had access to journals of their voyages. If you are fascinated with both William Shakespeare and Napoleon Bonaparte (as I am), you’ll enjoy Jeremiah’s book.

In St Helena 500: A Chronological History of the Island, the authors speculate that Daniel Defoe based his 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe on Fernão Lopes. If both these stories are true, St Helena Island inspired one of the most famous plays in the English language as well as one of the first novels in English.

We’ll never know for certain, but as Napoleon Bonaparte himself said, “What is the truth of history? A fable we have all agreed upon.”

 

2 Comments

  • Desaix
    June 2, 2017 - 8:06 pm | Permalink

    This is a great website.

  • mrodenberg
    July 3, 2017 - 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Thanks!

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