An emperor in exile: Napoleon in St Helena

11 January 2019

Empire and Globalism | History | War and Conflict

'Napoleon in St Helena' by Franz Josef Sandmann, c. 1820. From the Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau.

 

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 island’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.

 

Longwood House in 2008. By Michel Dancoisne-Martineau.


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 Company’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 – a well-equipped foreign force could take it, and its captive. The garrison, 700 of the Company’s own troops, was sub-par; though improved of late, they were ‘enervated by habitual drunkenness’ and could not be said to be ‘good and regular soldiers’. Even British Army men would have to be relieved regularly to remain ‘undebauched by the manners of the island’.

 

Alexander Beatson outlines St Helena's defences. Memorandum to the Earl of Buckinghamshire, 28th July 1815, in IOR/G/32/162. Image © British Library Board. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


Bosanquet’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, ‘being encompassed on all sides by stupendous and almost perpendicular cliffs’, and the few landing places fortified with gun batteries and ‘furnaces for heating shot’. 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 – no more than a few thousand – that no foreign agent could arrive among them without immediately being noticed. The only chink in the island’s anti-Gallic armour was the prevalence of private fishing boats, and these Beatson suggested simply banning. In sum, St Helena’s suitability as Napoleon’s jail was ‘not to be equalled or surpassed in any other part of the British dominions’.

 

St Helena's telegraph system explained. Beatson to Buckinghamshire, ibid. Image © British Library Board. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


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 Napoleon’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 Helena’s efforts to attract tourists. Hopefully, for their sake, the shot furnaces have been safely mothballed.

 

 

All three modules of East India Company are available now. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Nick Jackson

Nick Jackson

Since joining Adam Matthew my main field of work has been with British diplomatic documents, having edited several of our Archives Direct collections of material from The National Archives in London. But I've also helped build resources featuring everything from guides to London nightlife to records of American slaves' court appearances.

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