Category Archives: Saint Helena

Paris Saint Helena The Man

The 193rd Anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death

Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on remote St Helena Island on May 5, 1821. His body was laid to rest in this modest site in the island’s Valley of Geraniums. The British government, fearing his influence even from the grave, kept the location carefully guarded.

MAR at Les Invalides sarcophagusIn 1840, Queen Victoria allowed the French to return their hero to his adopted homeland. The French king, Louis Philippe I, dispatched his son, the Prince of Joinville, along with two of Napoleon’s generals, to bring the Emperor home. With great ceremony and according to Napoleon’s own wishes, his body was laid to rest near the banks of the Seine.

During my visits, I’ve been surprised how Napoleon’s charisma envelopes both of the gravesites. They are solemn, sacred places.

Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Dove Named After Napoleon Bonaparte’s Niece

Zenaide Doves cuddling up on my back deck, named after Napoleon's niece

As mentioned in my previous post, Napoleon’s nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte was a prominent ornithologist. He was also married to his cousin, Zénaïde, who was Joseph Bonaparte’s daughter. The first to scientifically identify the American mourning or turtle dove, Charles named the affectionate bird the Zenaida macroura

Joseph Bonaparte's daughters (Napoleon's nieces), painted by Jacques Louis DavidIn this lovely painting, Jacques Louis David depicts Zénaïde Bonaparte with her younger sister, Charlotte. After Napoleon’s final abdication in 1815, the girls and their mother fled to Belgium. Here the young ladies are shown reading a letter from their father, Joseph, who had escaped to America. Their mother was too afraid to cross the ocean, but in 1821, nineteen-year-old Charlotte travelled alone to her father’s estate outside of Philadelphia.  Amazingly, Dr John Stockoë, a former British Navy surgeon who had treated Napoleon on St Helena, was on the same ship.

A year later, after Zénaïde married her cousin Charles, she and her new spouse joined her father and sister in the United States. Charlotte stayed in Pennsylvania for about three years; Zénaïde for almost six.

Their father, Joseph, lived in the United States for almost twenty years, always hoping—some say scheming—for the restoration of the Napoleonic empire. But, after fleeing in 1815, he never set foot in France again.

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Anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Death

Longwood Reception Room Where Napoleon Died 

On May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte died in this room in exile on St Helena Island.

Two years ago, on May 5, 2011, I was in Cape Town, South Africa, on my way to St Helena to do research for my novel.

Margaret at Groot Constantia May 5, 2011 Toasting the EmperorTo commemorate the anniversary of the Emperor’s death, my husband and I visited Groot Constantia, the still-operational vineyard that supplied the Emperor’s wine during his exile. This evening we’ll drink a toast with some of his favorite Grand Constance wine that we brought back to the United States with us.

The Emperor has been dead for 192 years, yet he has been a constant companion to me as I write my novel from his point of view. So, today, a part of me mourns his death while another part of me says Come on. Really?

If you’re not a writer, if you don’t cry over sad books, if you’re not a Napoleon enthusiast, that may sound odd to you. Chalk it up to the wonders of human imagination.

Corsica Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Napoleon on Camelback in the Musée Fesch

After seeing the photo of me riding an elephant, one of this blog’s readers asked if Napoleon had ridden a camel during his Egyptian Campaign (1798). Yes, Melanie! Here’s a photo I took of a small bronze statue of the Man himself on camelback. It’s displayed in the Musée Fesch in Ajaccio, Corsica, Napoleon’s hometown.

The Musée Fesch is named after Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch, who was his mother’s half-brother. A great collector of art and artifacts, the wily Cardinal acquired considerable wealth during Napoleon’s reign.

After Napoleon’s fall, he retired to Rome with his sister, Madame Mère, as Letizia Bonaparte was known. There the two fell under the spell of an Austrian clairvoyant. The woman convinced them that angels had rescued Napoleon from exile in St Helena and were holding him in safety until time came for him to rise into power again. I’ve often wondered if the clairvoyant was an Austrian spy charged with keeping Napoleon’s mother and uncle from promoting plots for Napoleon’s escape from St Helena.

All of which proves (at least to me) that there is almost no end to the interesting stories about Napoleon and his family.

Corsica Saint Helena The Man

Bonaparte or Buonaparte?

As far back as Corsican records go, Napoleon’s family signed their name “Bonaparte.” In 1759, Napoleon’s father, Carlo, in his quest to establish hereditary links to Tuscan nobility, changed to the Italian “Buonoparte” form. Ten years later, his second son, Napoleon, was born under that surname.

Because Carlo had succeeded in establishing the family’s noble rank, young Napoleon was accepted as an eligible student in the French king’s military school. Seventeen years later, on March 9, 1796, twenty-six-year-old Napoleon signed his name Buonaparte for the last time—on documents marrying him to Josephine Beauharnais. From that date forward he reverted to “Bonaparte,” which appeared more French. Some claim that’s when he made a final break with his Corsican roots.

In later years, British propaganda used the foreign sounding “Buonaparte” to undermine his legitimacy as a French ruler.  That’s why the Englishman in this 1803 cartoon is gobbling “Buonaparté pie.” On St Helena, when the British refused to acknowledge the defeated Emperor’s imperial rights, they insisted everyone call him “General Buonaparte.”

Today, we see this same trick used in our own country when those who wish to diminish Barack Obama—a strange enough sounding name in its own right—call him “Barack Hussein Obama.” It’s in our genes to fear “the other,” but one can hope someday we’ll learn to rise above the instinct.

Miscellany Saint Helena

Darwin, Tortoises and St Helena

The recent death of the Galapagos Islands’ iconic tortoise, Lonesome George, sent me scrambling for my copy of The Voyage of the HMS Beagle. Sure enough, Charles Darwin, who made the Galapagos famous, had also stopped at St Helena Island. He arrived there on July 8, 1836, five and half years into his six-year trip around the world and fifteen years after Napoleon’s death.

In his memoir, Darwin writes that the “island rises abruptly like a huge black castle from the ocean.”  He “obtained lodgings within a stone’s throw of Napoleon’s tomb . . . [where] the weather was cold and boisterous, with constant showers of rain . . . In [his] walks, [he] passed more than once over the grassy plain, bounded by deep valleys, on which Longwood stands.   Viewed from a short distance, it appears like a respectable gentleman’s county-seat . . . On the whole the view was rather bleak and uninteresting. The only inconvenience . . . was from the impetuous winds.”

Darwin also describes how the introduction of goats, pigs, and non-native vegetation had ravaged St Helena’s own flora and fauna. On the other hand, the fame Darwin brought to the Galapagos, coupled with Ecuador’s recent careful stewardship, has preserved much of its unique ecosystem. I can attest to its wonders—in May 2000, I spent ten fabulous days there.

St Helena boasts its own tortoise, Jonathan. At least 179 years old, he may be the oldest living creature on earth. Jonathan, however, is an immigrant to St Helena, while Lonesome George was the last of a unique subspecies that evolved on the Galapagos island of Pinta. I’m lucky to have seen both of these famous tortoises in person.

Corsica Saint Helena The Man

Bonapartes Branded Corsican Outcasts

In exile on St Helena, Napoleon regretted not enriching Corsica when, as French emperor, he easily could have. Having developed an idyllic memory of his youth, he dictated to his secretary Las Cases that, “the Bonaparte family had retired [from Corsica] to Nice [in mainland France].”

Napoleon’s last visit to Corsica was a quick stopover in 1799 on the way back from Egypt. Soon to be First Consul, he was already the war hero of Toulon and the Italian Campaign. The Corsicans feted him as a famous returning son, but that wasn’t how he had left six years before.

On graduation from French military school in 1785, sixteen-year-old Napoleon received his commission as a second lieutenant. He spent the next eight years shuttling between stints in the army and long leaves in Corsica. This period, encompassing the turbulent years of the French Revolution, was an equally unsettled time in Corsica. Local factions vied for power and argued for either independence, integration in the French republic, or alliance with Britain. After a struggle that makes today’s partisanship seem tame, Napoleon and his brother Joseph were rejected politically and personally.

In May, 1793, the Corsican assembly voted unanimously “to inflict on the individuals making up [the family] Bonaparte an eternal brand that renders their name and their memory detestable to [all Corsican] patriots.” Napoleon went underground, hiding out for a time at the 16th century Tour de la Parata until his own faction rescued him. He in turn rescued the rest of the family.

On St Helena, Napoleon recalled that the British had ransacked the family home in Ajaccio. In reality, it was his fellow Corsicans.

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Coincidence and the Man of Destiny

“Destiny urges me to a goal of which I am ignorant. Until that goal is attained I am invulnerable, unassailable.  When Destiny has accomplished her purpose in me, a fly may suffice to destroy me.”  Napoleon Bonaparte (from Napoleon: In His Own Words, 1916, edited by Jules Bertaut)

These words, attributed to Napoleon, reflect the belief he had in the power of an unknown force called Destiny.  Personally, I’m inclined to view Destiny, if anything, as a combination of genes, circumstance and free will.

Coincidence, too, plays a role. While I don’t think Destiny drives me to write this novel about Napoleon, here are a couple of fun coincidences:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The chair on the left is in the Briars, Napoleon’s first residence on St Helena.  The one on the right is in my library where I do most of my writing.  I inherited it from my mother who bought it at auction, then recreated the original needlepoint cover.

I took the photo on the left of the rug in Napoleon’s dining room in Longwood House on St Helena.  The photo on the right is a close-up of the similar Bokhara rug in my library at home.

I hope that my Destiny is not so tied to Napoleon’s that when I finish this book “a fly may suffice to destroy me!”

Saint Helena

St Helena Slideshow

While I focused on writing my novel (working title: The Eaglet’s Legacy), October has flown by. As a final post before November, here’s a reminder to take a look at the video of photos from my trip to St Helena.

Saint Helena

Napoleon’s St Helena Tomb

Before Napoleon died in 1821, the British government had instructed Governor Hudson Lowe that the emperor’s body was to stay on St Helena. A burial site was chosen about a mile from Longwood House on land owned by the merchant Richard Torbett. Initially, Torbett received £650 as an indemnity plus an annual subsidy of £50, but later, he negotiated a lump sum payment of £1200—not a bad deal as the emperor’s body was returned to France in 1840.

Thanks to information a descendent of Richard Torbett sent me, I learned that after the death of Richard Torbett’s widow, the house on the  property ended up in the hands of a freed slave named Sally Phil.  According to David Torbett, Richard’s great-great-great grandson, Miss Sally wrote the following poem:

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