Saturday, 27 June 2009

Churchill and Napoleon

Amidst his many reminiscences about the battle of El Alemain in which he appeared to have played a major part, I recall my history master recommending Churchill's My Early Life. Now, more years later than I care to admit, I have finally read it, and can confirm his judgement.

What an excellent read it is: beautifully written, at times funny, and a fascinating window into the world of late Victorian British Imperialism. I also like my Folio Society edition - in the digital age there are few pleasures greater than handling a finely bound book.

I was aware that Churchill was a francophile and vaguely thought that he was, like a number of his class and generation, an admirer of Napoleon. It was with interest therefore that I read his account of his capture in the Boer War.

Churchill, who had lost his pistol, was confronted by a lone Boer horseman whose rifle was pointed at him.
I thought there was absolutely no chance of escape, if he fired he would surely hit me, so I held up my hands and surrendered myself a prisoner of war.

"When one is alone and unarmed", said the great Napoleon, in words which flowed into my mind in the poignant minutes that followed,"a surrender may be pardoned".

I admit I had to read this more than once. Here is Churchill recording, some 30 years later, that at the moment when he was faced with likely death if he sought to escape, he had thought about what Napoleon would have done, and decided that in his circumstances the great man would have thought that a surrender was pardonable. I wondered whether this was simply another example of the ironic and self deprecatory humour which is a feature of the book, so I decided to fish around a little, and came across this extract from a recent article:

In September 1897, Churchill wrote to his mother from the North-West Frontier of India explaining the force of his ambition: "I have faith in my star--that is, that I am intended to do something in the world." As this allusion and innumerable others to Napoleon make clear, the 22-year-old soldier already imagined himself as the young emperor. During this period, he seems to have been consumed with Napoleon--he planned to write a biography of the French military genius, and the eponymous hero of his 1899 novel Savrola is nothing if not Napoleonic in his ambitions: "Ambition was the motive force, and he was powerless to resist it.... 'Vehement, high, and daring' was his cast of mind. The life he lived was the only one he could ever live; he must go on to the end." Right up to the devastating failure of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, Churchill was routinely criticized by his colleagues for his ebullient, Napoleonic sense of himself. In September 1913, Lloyd George noted that all politicians are keen on success but most lacked what Churchill possessed in abundance, that is "the Napoleonic idea." After the Dardanelles fiasco, he concluded in a similar vein that Churchill "had spoiled himself by reading [too much] about Napoleon." (1)

Hard to believe that Churchill has become the hero of American neo-conservatives, and that the US President who renamed French Fries "Liberty Fries" had a bust of him on his desk!

Size is Important

One of the things that the British have always held against Napoleon was his height, or rather his lack of it. A recent article in the left wing tabloid Daily Mirror described both Napoleon and President Zarkozy as French pipsqueaks . Napoleon has even been rewarded with his own syndrome, although modern scholars seem to think that he was actually of fairly average height for his time, 5' 6" - 5' 7". So the big question is, how tall was Sir Winston Churchill?
The answer seems to be 5' 7"!

Churchill on Captivity

Finally I was struck by Churchill's comments about captivity. When reading this it is worth recalling that he escaped after less than a month:

Prisoner of war! That is the least unfortunate kind of prisoner to be, but it is nevertheless a melancholy state. You are in the power of your enemy. You owe your life to his humanity, and your daily bread to his compassion. You must obey his orders, go where he tells you, stay where you are bid, await his pleasure, possess your soul in patience. Meanwhile the war is going on, great events are in progress, fine opportunities for action and adventure are slipping away. Also the days are very long. Hours crawl like paralytic centipedes. Nothing amuses you. Reading is difficult; writing impossible. Life is one long boredom from dawn till slumber
Moreover, the whole atmosphere of prison, is odious. Companions in this kind of misfortune quarrel about trifles and get the least possible pleasure from each other's society. If you have never been under restraint before and never known what it was to be a captive, you feel a sense of constant humiliation in being confined to a narrow space, fenced in by railings and wire, watched by armed men, and webbed about with a tangle of regulations and restrictions. I certainly hated every minute of my captivity more than I ever hated any other period in my whole life.

Although there are striking differences between Churchill's brief captivity and the captivity of Napoleon, this passage surely gives some indication of how Napoleon and his companions at Longwood must have felt.


(1) Paul Stevens, "Churchill's military romanticism"Queen's Quarterly , 2006.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Maldivia St Helena Revisited.

Another email, this time from Aishath Naaz, a clinical psychologist from the Maldives and a member of the Maldives 1st Human Rights Commission, who is currently living in Manchester where she is studying for a PhD.

Your Blog Reflections on a Journey to St. Helena, I think has caught the attention of every Maldivian who has access to internet. The article written by you on, Thursday, February 14, 2008 Maldivia, St. Helena has caught our attention and it has touched many in a very special way.

We never knew that our people were captured and taken as slaves, and something moved me to tears reading about these 10 people ( From the Jamestown Records) who were then made to work on these plantations. Our history is buried in mystery, may be even the fates of these people but after 256 years we suddenly, through your blog came to know that these people from our country settled elsewhere and lived and died as slaves.Yet, they left behind the name"MALDIVIA' perhaps so that one day ......that is today we would come to know some of our people lived and this spot.
I am very interested in finding even the smallest clue on what happened to these people,...any more details ...any possibility of finding any thing more about what happened to these people.
I would be very grateful if you can give your response.

Aishath has supplied a link to the Dhivehi Observer;
there is also a link to Aishath's blog, which deals with issues of real substance, and makes my efforts seem rather trivial and inconsequential.

I can understand why she and other Maldivians are so touched by this. Surprising perhaps that it has taken so long for them to find out about it. One more indication of the tremendous power of the internet. I just wish I had more information that I could pass on. If anyone can add anything to this story please let me or Aishath know.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Dartmoor Prison: 200 Years Commemoration

Michel Martineau has an interesting blog Les couleurs françaises sur une autre prison anglaise !, mostly in English, about an Anglo-French ceremony that took place on May 24th 2009 at Dartmoor prison.

Exactly 200 years earlier a long line of French prisoners straddled the 17 miles from Plymouth Harbour, where they had been kept in appalling, insanitary prison hulks, to Prince Town where a new prison was constructed to house them and later American prisoners of war. (1) Apparently there was snow on the ground when they arrived.

Painting by Paul Deacon.

Over 1100 Napoleonic prisoners subsequently died at Dartmoor prison in 1809-1816.

More information may be found on the Napoleonic Organization web site.

I notice on the Devon Council web site that
The brutal mistreatment of American prisoners of war was investigated after the war by an Anglo-American commission, which awarded compensation to the families of those who had died there.
According to this same site
Between 1812 and 1816 about 1,500 American and French prisoners died in Dartmoor prison and were buried in a field beyond the prison walls.
One sometimes wonders if we intentionally give the French cause for grievance! The 200 or so American casualties were dwarfed by the casualties suffered by the French, and there is no record of any compensation to French families for mistreatment of their relatives.

The following contains a video giving interesting historical background on the prison, which apparently now attracts 30,000 tourists a year. St Helena could do with some of those!

1. It is now often forgotten, by Brits if not Americans, that the UK was at war with the United States in 1812-1814 as well as with the French! Prince Town was named after the Prince of Wales, who later became George IVth.