An emperor in exile: Napoleon in St Helena
Before its airport opened in 2016, St Helena was accessible only by a five-day voyage by Royal Mail ship from Cape Town, making it a candidate, given its position in the middle of the Atlantic between Brazil and Angola, for the most isolated inhabited place on earth. Occupied spasmodically by Portugal, Spain and the Dutch Republic since its discovery in 1502, the island would pass into the hands of the English East India Company in 1652, when they found it abandoned and took possession for use as a way station.
The newly released third module of our resource East India Company contains the complete set of records from the islandâ€™s centuries as a Company outpost, including a batch relating to its most famous inhabitant, a man considered simultaneously so dangerous and so important that a 47-square-mile open prison thousands of miles from anywhere was held to be the only suitable home for him: Napoleon Bonaparte, (ex-)emperor of the French.
Having surrendered himself to the captain of HMS Bellerophon on 15th July 1815, Napoleon was taken first to Torbay. He was not permitted to disembark, however, as the decision had already been taken to send him south. Beginning on the 21st, dozens of letters passed between ministers and the Companyâ€™s headquarters discussing suitable arrangements for his accommodation. Since the 1770s the British state had exercised increasing control over the Company, so refusal to co-operate was not a realistic option for its directors. Nevertheless, concerns were raised.
Jacob Bosanquet, a Company servant, listed the island's flaws as a place of incarceration. Its isolation was as much a curse as a blessing as regarded security â€“ a well-equipped foreign force could take it, and its captive. The garrison, 700 of the Companyâ€™s own troops, was sub-par; though improved of late, they were â€˜enervated by habitual drunkennessâ€™ and could not be said to be â€˜good and regular soldiersâ€™. Even British Army men would have to be relieved regularly to remain â€˜undebauched by the manners of the islandâ€™.
Bosanquetâ€™s pessimism, however, was not universal. A ringing endorsement of St Helena is provided in a memorandum by Alexander Beatson, a Company army officer and, from 1808 to 1813, governor, and so one of the few people in East India House or Whitehall, one assumes, who had actually been there. The island, said Beatson, was essentially impregnable, â€˜being encompassed on all sides by stupendous and almost perpendicular cliffsâ€™, and the few landing places fortified with gun batteries and â€˜furnaces for heating shotâ€™. Semaphore telegraph communication had recently been set up at lookout points, so an approaching ship could not be more than sixty miles away but that the governor would know about it. Such was the small size of the resident population â€“ no more than a few thousand â€“ that no foreign agent could arrive among them without immediately being noticed. The only chink in the islandâ€™s anti-Gallic armour was the prevalence of private fishing boats, and these Beatson suggested simply banning. In sum, St Helenaâ€™s suitability as Napoleonâ€™s jail was â€˜not to be equalled or surpassed in any other part of the British dominionsâ€™.
As for exactly where the exile might reside, Beatson suggested Longwood, the house of the lieutenant-governor. Napoleon did indeed find himself installed there, complaining constantly that it was damp and wind-battered, and while the building of a new house for him was begun (another Beatson suggestion), it had not been finished by the time he died in May 1821.
With its inmate gone, Longwood reverted to the Company, but, as Franco-British relations improved through the nineteenth century, it was sold in 1858 to the French government, now headed by Napoleonâ€™s nephew. Since then a museum run by a French civil servant, this place of ultimate isolation is, in the twenty-first century, at the forefront of the newly accessible St Helenaâ€™s efforts to attract tourists. Hopefully, for their sake, the shot furnaces have been safely mothballed.