Tag Archives: St Helena

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

 

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.

Writing Links

A Great Literary Agent for Finding Napoleon

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve signed with a terrific and talented literary agent, Russell Galen of Scovil Galen Ghosh, to represent my Napoleon novel. Russ, who bills himself as the only person he “knows of who grew up wanting to be a literary agent,” represents an amazing group of authors, including many New York Times Bestsellers.

Russell Galen, Literary Agent extraordinaireI started out searching for an agent with experience in historical fiction. I ended up with much more.  Russ’s list goes on and on beginning with his early career success with The Mists of Avalon, a tale of King Arthur’s court told from the women’s perspective, that has sold over twenty million copies.  It continues with Diana Gabaldon’s remarkable Outlander series, James Rollins’ thrillers, and Cory Doctorow’s science fiction. And as much as I love his fiction selections, I’m equally attracted to his many non-fiction books on Nature and science topics.

As I told Russ in our initial conversation, I think we’ll be compatible partners because if I were a literary agent, I’d want my list to look just like the one he developed. I’m incredibly pleased that he chose to represent me. So wish Russ (and me) success in placing my manuscript with a great publisher.

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