Monday, 29 October 2012

St Helena One Man's Island: "He had little time for Napoleon"

Front Cover of Ian Baker's, "St Helena: One Man's Island" (1)

I have recently been reading Ian Baker's interesting and beautifully written book on St Helena. The first few paragraphs of the Introduction hooked me

Islands are special places. They are finite, complete. They are of the sea, and because of that, their land has added value.

An island can become part of you, though perhaps not you part of it.

An island allows you to stop and stare, to look anew at things with which you're familiar , and to find the things with which you are'nt. It gives you chances to look more closely at yourself."

He has woven together a fascinating account of St Helena, rooted in his unrivalled knowledge of its geology, which began with a lengthy research visit in the early 1960's.

Created over a period of millions of years from volcanic eruptions in the mid-Atlantic rift, which ceased in St Helena's case about seven or eight million years ago, it is at its longest only ten miles across, about the size of Greater Manchester he tells us, but at its base, deep below the surface of the Atlantic, it is eighty miles across, and higher than Mont Blanc before it breaks the water's surface.

One Man's Island might perhaps be seen as an early example of what is coming to be known as "Big History", an approach which gives homo sapiens a less privileged position in the story of our planet. Such an approach presents challenges when you are telling the story of a small remote island largely unknown apart from its association with the captivity of the legendary Emperor of the French.

"One Man" and Napoleon

Please don't get me wrong. I've as much time as the next for Napoleon, probably a lot more. But there is much more to this island than even that special bird of passage. (2)

So in his attempt to focus on the bigger picture, Ian Baker enlists the support of Charles Darwin, certainly focused on far greater forces, who during his short stay on St Helena in 1836 never bothered to visit Napoleon's tomb and, as the author says, probably "didn't have a great deal of time for Napoleon".

Similarly he is able to call on the the first man to sail around the world single handedly, Joshua Slocum, who presumably had had time enough to think about more fundamental things. Slocum, with some justification, described St Helena as "an island of tragedies", but added with a sting in the tail, "tragedies that have been lost sight of in wailing over the Corsican." (3)

Ian Baker is I think on shakier ground when he tells us, "Gorrequer certainly had little time for Napoleon" , a conclusion based on the fact that in his long diary entry on May 5th 1821 Gorrequer did not mention Napoleon, and on the next day referred to him as defunct Neighbour". It is impossible to know precisely what he thought of Napoleon, and it doesn't much matter, but while Gorrequer's diary is full of venom directed at Hudson Lowe, Lady Lowe and Sir Thomas Reade, I cannot recall any negative comments about Napoleon. Ian Baker also somewhat misleadingly describes Gorrequer's nickname for Lowe as "Chief". He certainly used it at times, but far more common was the sobriquet "Mach", short for Machiavelli, which throws rather a different light on Gorrequer's sympathies! (4)

I also have my doubts about the rather sweeping conclusion as to why Longwood was allowed to deteriorate after Napoleon's death:

"When Napoleon died in exile in 1821, most of the world felt that he had got no more than his just desserts. It is all too easy to see Napoleon, the great leader, in hindsight, but at the time he was hated, feared and vilified. Many would rather the Prussians had taken him after Waterloo, and executed him, as they had wanted to." (5)

Having read this one might be surprised to hear of the large numbers who queued up to see Napoleon's body after his death, the crowd that attended his funeral, and the steady stream of visitors to his grave in succeeding years. It was indeed the fuss about Napoleon, rather than Napoleon himself, which Darwin commented on. There would of course not have been that fuss had Napoleon not had significant support in England and the New World, though not of course among the absolute monarchs who wielded power on the continent and for a time at least felt more secure that Napoleon was gone, and wished that he would be soon forgotten.

As for the neglect of Longwood, the house itself was in a state of dilapidation and presumably would have been demolished had Napoleon lived and moved into New Longwood House. Unlike the Valley of the Tomb, which was in private hands and earned a reasonable income for its owners, ownership was in the hands of the East India Company, and clearly it had neither commercial nor political interest in creating a memorial to Napoleon.

Perhaps though the most questionable section on Napoleon is the description of his removal from the Briars to Longwood. The book paints a picture of Napoleon playing for time, and of Cockburn losing patience with him. According to this version Napoleon was "furious at having to leave the Briars. Cockburn was impassive, either Napoleon moved or he would bring guards to move him. Take it or be taken. Napoleon took it." (6) This version of events had then as now a very satisfying ring for British patriots. All one can say is that there is no support for it in French sources, nor from O'Meara nor indeed from Betsy Balcombe. Those closest to Napoleon were of the view that he was pleased to move to Longwood, and to assemble all his followers in one place. One would like to know the source for this version, but One Man's Island is not that kind of book.


1. Ian Baker St Helena One Man's Island (Wilton 65, 2004)
2. op cit p 101
3. op cit p 113
4. op cit p 164
5. op cit p 119
6. op cit p 62