Tag Archives: St Helena

Corsica Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

FINDING NAPOLEON BONAPARTE IN CUBA, PART 2

 

Street scene in Havana, Cuba, photo by Margaret Rodenberg 2017

If you read my last blog post, you know I visited Havana’s Museo Napoleónico. Thanks to the Cuban sugar magnate, Julio Lobo, the museum houses the Western Hemisphere’s largest exhibition of Napoleon Bonaparte’s artifacts.

My favorite piece is Napoleon’s pocket watch from his exile on St Helena. But how did it end up in Cuba? Like so much about Napoleon, it’s complicated.

Napoleon Bonaparte's pocket watch from St Helena in the Museo Napoleónico, Havana, Cuba, photo by Margaret Rodenberg, 2017

When Napoleon Bonaparte went into exile, the British provided him a Navy doctor. Dr. Barry Edward O’Meara was a cultured, genial Irishman who played chess and spoke fluent Italian, Napoleon’s native language. Before long, he and Napoleon became fast friends. In 1818, the British, suspecting O’Meara of treason, recalled him to London and dismissed him from the Navy.

The British offered Napoleon replacement physicians, but refused to guarantee patient-doctor privacy. Napoleon, saying he didn’t want his bowel movements discussed in the British parliament, declined their services.

So, in 1819, Napoleon’s mother sent the Corsican-born physician Francesco Antommarchi to St Helena. From the start, Antommarchi and Napoleon had a stormy relationship. On several occasions Napoleon dismissed the doctor, only to relent. By then, the Emperor was ill and Antommarchi was the only doctor on St Helena who would protect his privacy. When Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, Antommarchi performed the Emperor’s autopsy under the watchful eyes of British doctors. In this famous painting of Napoleon’s death scene, Antommarchi stands on the left with his hand on Napoleon’s pillow.

The Watch After Napoleon’s Death

Von Stuben's painting of Napoleon's death scene in the reception room of Longwood House, St Helena. Photo taken in Museo Napoleonic, Havana, by Margaret Rodenberg 2017Napoleon’s official Will doesn’t mention Dr. Antommarchi. In that document, Napoleon bequeathes to his valet Marchand’s care “two watches, with Empress’s hair-made chains, and a chain made with my hair for the other watch.” Marchand was supposed to give them, along with other personal items, to Napoleon’s son.

But when Marchand inventoried Napoleon’s possessions after the Emperor’s death, he listed only “one large silver watch (Frederick the Great’s alarm clock).” Did Napoleon before his death give Antommarchi the gold pocket watch? Or did Marchand take it upon himself to give it to the doctor? I don’t find any mention of either event in the various memoirs about Napoleon’s time on St Helena. Perhaps Antommarchi helped himself to it.

In an unfinished codicil to his Will, Napoleon did ask his wife “Marie Louise to take in her service Antommarchi and to pay him a pension of 6,000 francs, which I [Napoleon] bequeath to him.” But everyone, including Antommarchi, knew that Marie Louise would never follow Napoleon’s wishes. She’d already had three children with the man she would marry as soon as Napoleon died.

The Cuba Connection to Napoleon’s Watch

After Napoleon’s death, Antommarchi’s career took him to Poland, Louisiana, and Mexico. In 1837, he arrived in Cuba where some distant but wealthy relatives lived. Within a year, he died from yellow fever.

Fast-forward one hundred twenty-two years. In 1959, Antommarchi’s Cuban heirs—perhaps currying favor with Cuba’s new revolutionary government—presented Comandante Raúl Castro with Napoleon’s pocket watch as a wedding present. After his wife’s death in 2007, Raúl Castro donated the watch to the Museo Napoleónico.

The Museo Napoleónico’s pocket watch stops the time at a few minutes to six, the approximate hour of Napoleon’s death on St Helena. Boussot de Villeneuve, its manufacturer, no longer exists. But one other watchmaker, Breuguet, is proud enough to have had Napoleon as a client to use his image in its recent advertising.

 

Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

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.”

 

Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte in Baltimore

Napoleon 1814, by Jean-Louis Ernest Meisonnier, Walters Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, photo by Margaret Rodenberg

Last November I posted about Ernest Meissonier’s paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte. This month I came across another of Meissonier’s paintings (shown above) in the Walters Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. It depicts a sad but stoic Napoleon at the end of his reign.

Napoleon III, by Adolphe Yvon, Walters Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, photo by Margaret RodenbergMeissonier painted his images of Napoleon Bonaparte fifty years after the emperor’s defeat. Napoleon I was back in fashion since his nephew Napoleon III was on the French throne. In 1875, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s large Meissonier painting (shown in my November post) sold sight-unseen to an American collector for an astonishing $60,000. An informational placard at the Walters Museum sheds light on the buyer: Alexander Turney Stewart, an American retailer and railroad magnate.

Baltimore’s Walters Museum also featured this fine portrait of Napoleon III, which Adolphe Yvon painted in the mid-19th century.

But best of all, as a final Napoleonic reference, the museum displays a 16th century Italian painting of Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. She’s known for converting the Roman Empire to Christianity. And, of course, she’s the saint whose name was given to the island in the South Atlantic where Napoleon Bonaparte spent his second exile and where he died.

 

Saint Helena, by Francesco Morandini, known as Il Poppi, ca. 1575, Walters Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, photo by Margaret Rodenberg

Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte on the Moon

For your amusement, a comic strip “honoring” Napoleon Bonaparte on the anniversary of man’s July 20, 1969 landing on the moon:

Napoleon Bonaparte: it’s hard to keep a determined man in check.   🙂

Thank you, XKCD.com.

Saint Helena The Man

Napoleon on St Helena: Reading Books

Napoleon reading with son sleeping by Karl Steuben; a tinsel print from Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Institute collection

My last post covered a few of the ways Napoleon Bonaparte filled his days during his five-and-a-half-year exile on St Helena Island. However, his most important pastime—the one he did every day—was reading.

Throughout his life, Napoleon was a voracious reader and book collector. As an impoverished young man, he lived a monkish life, often skipping meals and entertainment to purchase books. As a general and emperor, he carried a traveling library in a mahogany chest on all his journeys. So it’s no surprise that, during his enforced “retirement” on St Helena, Napoleon read and reread his favorite volumes as well as any new ones he could obtain.

Napoleon’s books reflected his broad interests. Of course, there were the histories: Arrian on Alexander the Great, Livy and Tacitus on Rome, Barrow on England, among many others. Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans was an early and perennial favorite. He preferred The Illiad to The Odyssey. Always open-minded about religion, he’s known to have read not only the Bible, but also the Koran and the Indian Vedas. In addition, he read science, philosophy, law, and geography.

But he also enjoyed poetry and fiction. On St Helena, he reread plays by Molière, Racine, Voltaire, Beaumarchais, and the ancient Greek authors. His favorite epic poems were Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and Macpherson’s Ossian. Perhaps surprisingly, he loved tragic romantic novels. He reread Bernardin de Saint Pierre’s Paul et Virginie and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther many times.

Napoleon didn’t just read alone. Memoirs by members of his St Helena entourage recall long evenings after supper when all remained around the table or moved to Longwood’s salon to listen to the Emperor read aloud. Albine de Montholon (1779-1848), wife of General Charles Tristan de MontholonMadame Albine de Montholon, for example, describes an evening when Napoleon read Voltaire’s tragic play Zaïre over dessert.

In her memoir, she says that when reading aloud, Napoleon’s style wasn’t “remarkable, but interesting. He paused over what appeared to him to be wrong or right, and expressed his opinion with true and beautiful feeling.” His secretary Las Cases mentions him reading from the Bible, while commenting on the places he had visited during his Egyptian Campaign, which had extended into Syria. Still others bemoan how difficult it was to stay awake as Napoleon read on and on.

All that reading had encouraged young Napoleon Bonaparte to believe that he, too, could be a Caesar or an Alexander. He must have wanted his own son to have the same exposure to knowledge and ideas. In his Last Will and Testament, written on St Helena and finalized on April 15, 1821, less than three weeks before he died, he added the following instruction (visible at the bottom of the page between the numeral “VI” and his signature and translated here):

  1. Four hundred books chosen from my library, among those I used the most.
  2. I instruct Saint-Denis [one of his valets] to keep these things, and to give them to my son when he will be sixteen.

Unfortunately those books never reached Napoleon’s son, known as the Eaglet. During Napoleon’s exile on St Helena, the boy grew up in his own exile in the Austrian court. There his education, movements, and outside contacts were tightly controlled to avoid his becoming a threat to the restored Bourbon French king. He died from tuberculosis in 1832 at the age of twenty-one.

For more information on the Emperor’s reading habits, I encourage you to visit my friend Shannon Selin’s excellent blog post on the subject.

Paris Saint Helena The Man

Napoleon’s Pastimes on St Helena

Napoleon in Exile on St Helena

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.

Emperor Napoleon Examining AccountsAt 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?

Napoleon Bonaparte's Dueling Pistols Musée de l"Armée Paris

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.

Cross-Bow Invoice, St Helena Archives, copyright Margaret Rodenberg

Napoleon Bonaparte Playing Chess on St HelenaFor 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.

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 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.

Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte in Iceland?

I’m on vacation in Iceland for a dozen days, but even there I’ve been on the look-out for references to Napoleon Bonaparte. I had begun to despair of finding any when I came across this sympathetic puffin. He obligingly posed in the exiled Emperor Napoleon’s iconic posture, hands clasped behind his back, staring out from St Helena’s shores in the direction of his beloved France. 

Please admit that you see the resemblance!

Puffin at Latrabjarg, Iceland

 

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