Sunday, 27 August 2017

Napoleon’s Representative on Earth : "I am the keeper of the empty tomb"

To the Saints, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, the Honorary French Consul and Curator of the French Properties on St. Helena, is simply “THE Frenchman”, but to many tourists he is, along with Jonathan the 185 year old tortoise that resides at Plantation House, one of the curiosities of the island.

Apparently French visitors just want to meet him, and often have little or nothing to say. Those from the English world seem to be more loquacious, sometimes telling him how much they disapprove of the work he has done at Longwood House. Michel recounts in detail one such meeting with three British visitors in 2016. The first, a Hong Kong resident, asked him what Napoleon would have thought of Brexit, and said that now it would no longer be politically incorrect to quote Lord Nelson: "you must hate a Frenchman as much as you hate the Devil." He also added that it would now not be necessary to follow the dictatorial directives of Brussels. "Delivered with such arrogance" said another who now resides in Port Elizabeth, with the approbation of the third, the only one to live in the UK!

The title of the book was given unwittingly by a man Michel met at the Castle in Jamestown, the centre of Government on the island. The man, whom Michel did not know, voicing the typical contempt of the Saints for officialdom, said that they all perfected the art of seeming indispensable even when they were only in charge of the broom cupboard. But Michel he said excelled them all: he had received the Légion d'Honneur for looking after an empty tomb!

Michel Dancoisne-Martineau and Inger Tyrrell, in Les Invalides, a non-empty tomb. (April 2016)

This is a fascinating read for anyone interested in St. Helena, but more than that, it provides a frank account of Michel’s own amazing story. Napoleon once was reported to have said “What a novel my life has been.” Michel could justifiably say the same. Growing up as the youngest and eighth child in a poor, conservative, religious farming family in Picardy, Michel knew nothing about Napoleon other than a nursery rhyme, although curiously he played as a child in the ruined fortress at Ham, from which the future Napoleon III and the Count de Montholon had escaped in 1846. It was Michel's meeting with Gilbert Martineau that changed his life.

Although an agricultural student, Michel had developed an interest in literature, and particularly in Lord Byron. So he wrote to Gilbert, the author of a recent biography of Byron, they corresponded a few times, and eventually they met. Apprised of Michel's very unhappy childhood, within a few hours of their meeting Gilbert astonished Michel by saying he would like to adopt him. Then, as later, Gilbert was distressed to find that others suspected his motives, but as he protested to Michel, "I want a son, not a lover". He also wanted someone to take over from him on St Helena. He had reached retirement age, and after some four years nobody had applied for the job!

So Michel was adopted, and soon succeeded his adopted father as French Consul and Curator of the French Properties, a job which he has filled with distinction and increasing confidence over 30 years. His aim was to make Longwood a place of memory, not a museum of the greatness of France, which he felt it had become in Gilbert's time. With some satisfaction he claims that after a century of indifference, ordinary Saints have now become aware of the importance of the years of exile and the death of Napoleon on their island.

A young Gilbert Martineau

The book affords an interesting insight into Gilbert Martineau. A proud Gaullist who had moved in the highest intellectual circles in Paris in the decade after the second world war, Gilbert was determined to maintain French prestige on St Helena. A recluse for whom appearances were all important, he remained on the island for some 40 years, interspersed with lengthy trips back to his home on Ars-en-Ré, an island he loved. For many years Gilbert's life on St Helena was shared by his parents. His mother died on the island, and his father died at breakfast the day after they arrived back in France with her embalmed body.

Gilbert was apparently respected by many Saints for being able to contact the recently dead, and claimed to be in touch with Lord Byron, and through him to spirits on the "other side". After Gilbert's death Michel consigned his ashes to the Atlantic, close but not too close to St Helena, the island to which he had dedicated his life and to which he was irrevocably attached, but which at the same time he actually hated.

Michel clearly differed from Gilbert on many things, but his love and admiration for him shines through: his intellectual sophistication, his verve, his presence, his art of living, the scars he bore, his elegance. Whether he or anyone else ever got close to Gilbert is another matter.

There is much in the book about the changes to St Helena over the 30 years, and many anecdotes about locals and about expatriates and the hostility of a number of the latter to the French presence on the island. Unlike Gilbert, Michel has mixed freely with ordinary Saints, and it was their relaxed, accepting approach to life, the ambient amoralism, that attracted him to the island. He writes openly about his bisexuality, and among the most surprising encounters was his seduction at the age of 19 by a 71 year old Countess, a friend of Gilbert's whom he assures us was still very beautiful and looked at least 20 years younger! He writes also of the sexual mores on St Helena, and of the tolerant and at times rather surprising reception he has received, living in an openly gay relationship on an island which has still not legally accepted same-sex marriage.

The very last sentence in the book, which does not translate easily into English, acknowledges Michel’s mother who confirmed all the awful details of his early life. Elle le fit avec un simplicité et une aisance dont je luis d'autant plus reconaissant que je ne lui en soupçonnais pas l'aptitude.*

Michel's book has already gone into a second printing in France. It is a pity that it is unlikely ever to be translated into English. Whether it will succeed in Michel's aim of making him less of an object of curiosity is I fear rather unlikely.
* My best effort at a very loose translation: She did so with a simplicity and ease which made more impression on me because I did not think she was capable of it.

Friday, 18 August 2017

1815: Napoleon's Abolition of the Slave Trade

Pro-Napoleon propaganda produced by William Hone in 1815

William Hone(1780-1842) was a satirist, a writer and a bookseller whom the authorities tried to silence in the years after Waterloo. His acquittal in three trials in 1817 proved highly popular, and a public collection was made on his behalf. Among those publicly contributing were the Duke of Bedford and his son the Marquis of Tavistock. Like many reformers and Foxite Whigs, Hone was highly sympathetic to Napoleon.

This piece, in the British Museum Collection was dedicated to Sir William Wilberforce, and to the memory of Charles James Fox, "who abolished the slave trade in England". It reminded readers that Napoleon, "by a stroke of his pen," had abolished the slave trade in France.

In the same year Hone wrote Buonapartephobia, a satirical piece attacking the editor of the Times, Sir John Stoddart, "Dr Slop", a staunch Tory, for his vitriolic articles about Napoleon.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Imperial Exile: The Napoleon Diaries

Imperial Exile by James Hartley, now published on Kindle

Everybody around him at Longwood wrote their accounts of Napoleon's exile, but until now we have not heard from the man himself! Only joking! This is a work of fiction!

Some time ago I was in correspondence with James Hartley about the book he was then writing on Napoleon and St. Helena. It turned out to be a rather long labour of love?, and James has now decided to publish it on Kindle. I understand that it is going live tomorrow, which happens to be Napoleon's 248th birthday!