Friday, 21 January 2011

How far is St. Helena ..

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).

- English poet, short-story writer, novelist and British imperialist,

- he was born in Bombay, and was brought to England at the age of 5.

- named after Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire, a popular holiday location in Victorian times, which Kipling's parents visited in 1863.

- awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, turned down a Knighthood, but accepted an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the Sorbonne.

- married Carrie Balestier, an American of French Huguenot descent.

The Kiplings experienced much personal sadness, losing their eldest daughter in 1899, and their only son who was killed in France in 1915.

They never really stopped mourning their lost children, a situation which their only surviving child, Elsie Kipling Bambidge (1896-1976), found very difficult.

Like his near contemporary and fellow imperialist, Winston Churchill, Kipling was a life long francophile. He visited France many times, and was well known and respected there. In 1905 following the entente cordiale he gave his thoughts to M. Huet on relations between the two nations.
our two nations have had so much friction all these centuries that their angles have been rounded off. The two countries have grown side by side like two trees. Their mutual inclination is towards the light, and what gives me faith in the efficacy of the entente is that it in no way depends upon Governments. It has sprung among the people themselves. At least that is how it is in England. (1)

St Helena Lullaby

In 1910 Kipling published his poem about Napoleon and St Helena: St. Helena Lullaby. I have reproduced a number of rather poor poems about the island in the course of writing this blog. This poem is of a rather higher standard!
'How far is St. Helena from a little child at play?'

What makes you want to wander there with all the world between?

Oh, Mother, call your son again or else he'll run away.

(_No one thinks of winter when the grass is green!_)

'How far is St. Helena from a fight in Paris street?
I haven't time to answer now--the men are falling fast.

The guns begin to thunder, and the drums begin to beat.

(_If you take the first step you will take the last!_)

'How far is St. Helena from the field of Austerlitz?
You couldn't hear me if I told--so loud the cannons roar.

But not so far for people who are living by their wits.

(_'Gay go up' means 'Gay go down' the wide world o'er!_)

'How far is St. Helena from an Emperor of France?
I cannot see--I cannot tell--the crowns they dazzle so.

The Kings sit down to dinner, and the Queens stand up to dance.

(_After open weather you may look for snow!_)

'How far is St. Helena from the Capes of Trafalgar?
A longish way--a longish way--with ten year more to run.

It's South across the water underneath a setting star.

(_What you cannot finish you must leave undone!_)

'How far is St. Helena from the Beresina ice?
An ill way--a chill way--the ice begins to crack.

But not so far for gentlemen who never took advice.

(_When you can't go forward you must e'en come back!_)

'How far is St. Helena from the field of Waterloo?
A near way--a clear way--the ship will take you soon.

A pleasant place for gentlemen with little left to do,

(_Morning never tries you till the afternoon!_)

'How far from St. Helena to the Gate of Heaven's Grace?
That no one knows--that no one knows--and no one ever will.

But fold your hands across your heart and cover up your face,

And after all your trapesings, child, lie still!



In 1910, 1911 and 1914 Kipling stayed in Vernet les Bains, and in 1913 wrote a poem "France" as a public celebration of the French President's visit to London.
Broke to every known mischance, lifted over all
By the light sane joy of life, the buckler of the Gaul,
Furious in luxury, merciless in toil,
Terrible with strength that draws from her tireless soil;
Strictest judge of her own worth, gentlest of man's mind,
First to follow Truth and last to leave old Truths behind-
France beloved of every soul that loves its fellow-kind!

These lines may be heard in the only existing recording made by Kipling himself.

For a time Kipling went out of vogue. Now the balance seems to be swinging back, and people seem better able to appreciate the complex talent that was partially obscured by his too public association with imperialism.
1. Interview with M Huret, quoted in New York Times, Sept 29th 1905
2. Like Churchill, Kipling never visited St. Helena. His first trip from India was after the opening of the Suez Canal, otherwise he almost certainly would have stopped there.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Napoleon Kake

As an Englishman I was surprised to find that a number of nations, including Russia, eat what are described as Napoleon cakes. Normally the term is given to what I learned to call a mille feuille, but which others might call a vanilla slice. Clearly the Norwegian version pictured above is not a mille feuille, but it is delicious and undoubtedly very fattening.

I was intrigued as to why on earth Norwegians would ever name a cake after Napoleon. He never went there, and had no direct impact on its history. (1)

A little research indicated that the cake and its variants has nothing to do with Napoleon. The name almost certainly derives from Napolitain, the French adjective for Naples.

I am still a little intrigued though as to when the transition from Napolitain to Napoleon took place. Nobody seems to know. I would hazard a guess that had there been no Emperor Napoleon there would be no Napoleon Cakes. It is probably significant also that Canada, which has a large French population, is apparently the only country in the former British Empire that eats "Napoleon cake".

That still leaves me wondering about Norway's delicious Napoleon kaker.

(1) Napoleon's defeat however meant that Sweden was able to conquer Norway from Denmark. Whilst Napoleon was on the road to Moscow the Tsar Alexander met Napoleon's former General, Bernadotte, who in 1810 had become Crown Prince of Sweden and Regent for the ailing King Charles XIII. They agreed that in return for Russia keeping Finland, Sweden could have Norway. Alexander also hinted that Bernadotte might get the throne of France! Assured of Bernadotte's support, Alexander was able to withdraw three divisions from Finland and deploy them against Napoleon.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Myth of The Two St Helena's

My previous blog raised the issue of the myth of the two St Helena's. There seems to be two schools of thought - 1) that the depiction of two islands on the early charts was the inevitable result of inaccurate measurement of longitude. 2) that the island(s) charted were in fact large rock formations a few metres below sea level which at times would have been visible to early sailors.
I have no claims to expertise on this, but have been forwarded this reference which is I think worth perusing by anyone who is interested.
The origin of the myth of New St. Helena is unclear. Supposedly located east of St. Helena at approximately 16½°S 4°E, New St. Helena was coveted and sought for by the Dutch after they relinquished St. Helena for the Cape. New St. Helena is marked on the Universal Hydrographic Chart of Jean Guérard, 1634 and on Jansson's 1646 chart of the South Atlantic Mar di Æthiopia Vulgo Oceanus Æthiopicus (part of this chart is illustrated above) from Volume V of the Novus Atlas. Although New St. Helena continued to be marked on maps and charts to as late as 1803 (the map of Africa by Rochette), it appeared with decreasing frequency through the 1700s. The disappearance of New St. Helena could be very rapid; a 1713 map of Africa by Aa shows the island but it was removed from a subsequent map of Africa by Aa published just one year later.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

St Helena History

The Heart Shaped Waterfall, St Helena, from a sepia postcard purchased on St Helena in 1949.

Between the Cable and Wireless buildings and the waterfall is the pavilion in which Napoleon spent his first few weeks on St Helena.

Close to the Pavilion is the small house that in 1815 had been occupied by the Balcombe family. This house may already have been demolished by the time this postcard was purchased.

This picture is posted by courtesy of Pauline and John Grimshaw, who happen to live quite close to me, and contacted me after discovering my blog.

They have now visited St Helena twice, and I understand that Pauline's parents called there while working on the Union Castle Line in 1949 .

Their collection of photographs on St Helena History is well worth a visit. Each photograph is carefully documented, there are links to related photos in the collection, and some have fuller descriptions.

Their collection includes a number of old maps (some showing two St Helena's!), views of Jamestown, and images of famous visitors, including Halley and Darwin. (1)

One visitor whom I do not think I had previously heard of was William Dampier, who apparently visited twice, the first time in 1691. He wrote an account of his trip, which I referenced from the excellent description that accompanied the photograph. His description of St Helena, and particularly the young ladies, is worth a perusal.

For the islands afford abundance of delicate herbs, wherewith the sick are first bathed to supple their joints, and then the fruits and herbs and fresh food soon after cure them of their scorbutic humours. So that in a week's time men that have been carried ashore in hammocks and they who were wholly unable to go have soon been able to leap and dance. Doubtless the serenity and wholesomeness of the air contributes much to the carrying off of these distempers; for here is constantly a fresh breeze. While we stayed here many of the seamen got sweethearts. One young man belonging to the James and Mary was married and brought his wife to England with him. Another brought his sweetheart to England, they being each engaged by bonds to marry at their arrival in England; and several other of our men were over head and ears in love with the St. Helena maids who, though they were born there, yet very earnestly desired to be released from that prison, which they have no other way to compass but by marrying seamen or passengers that touch here. The young women born here are but one remove from English, being the daughters of such. They are well-shaped, proper and comely, were they in a dress to set them off.

Among the pictures I noted was one of Kent Cottage published in 1903. This was of course the home of the somewhat notorious Rev Boys, who has appeared on this blog before.

I wonder who the men in the photo were?

Anyway I thoroughly recommend this collection and am very grateful to them both for sharing it. I shall be posting a permanent link to their site in the near future.
1. I am informed that the two St Helena's had the same latitude. As soon as longitude could be measured accurately it was apparent that there was only one St Helena. Sounds like a football chant!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Meeting in Paris 12th January

On Michel Martineau's blog there is a notice of a debate/conference to be held in the Austerlitz Auditorium at les Invalides in Paris on the evening of 12th January. Michel himself will speak about the exile of Napoleon and the reasons behind the choice of St Helena.

An excellent opportunity to meet Michel without having to travel all the way to St Helena!

I wish I were able to attend, but other pressing matters prevent it at present.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

St Helena 1815: A Poetic Description


Rugged rocks and lofty mountains,

Interspers'd with crystal fountains,

Here and there a grove of trees,

Are all the wandering stranger sees;

The tradesmen, imitating fops,

With heads as empty as their shops;

The girls, drest out from top to toe,

Like painted dolls in puppet-show;

Unsocial wretches here reside,

Alike their poverty and pride,

Throughout this Isle, there's scarce a creature

With either breeding, or good nature:

For rugged rocks, and barren fields,

Are all that St. Helena yields*.

*Except an abundance of water-cresses and plenty of fish.

I think that neither Mme Bertrand nor Napoleon would have found much to disagree with here!
From The News , August 13th 1815.
The Image, of Friars Rock, is from G.H. Bellasis, Views of St Helena 1815.