Napoleon’s Final Isle
“‘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.
Rudyard Kipling, “A St. Helena Lullaby,”
It was nearly one hundred days before the residents of St. Helena learned of Emperor Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in June of 1815. Within days of this defeat, Napoleon I abdicated his throne. He evidently believed the British would provide him with some sort of comfortable lodging just beyond the outskirts of London. Instead, he was banished as a prisoner-of-war to the remotest of isles, St. Helena.
Citizens Prepare for Napoleon’s Arrival
British authorities advised the 3,500 souls living on St. Helena that they were, from that point on, under the rule of the crown rather than that of the East India Trading Company and that Napoleon would soon arrive on their island. They were now subject to strict regulations enacted to protect their soon-to-be prisoner/neighbor from escape or capture. All efforts to prevent Napoleon from slipping from the long arm of the British law were to be put in place.
All vessels required formal permission to land, and even the comings and goings of the local fleet of fishermen were restricted to certain hours of the day. A strict curfew was enacted with stiff fines for violators.
The island’s population virtually doubled overnight with the addition of some 2,000 soldiers plus a naval contingent of 500 sailors, stationed aboard ships guarding Jamestown’s harbor. Ancillary government officials and their families also arrived.
And in the midst of this collection of humanity was to be the island’s celebrated prisoner, the 46-year-old Napoleon.
October 14, 1815. Napoleon’s ship, escorted by five others filled with soldiers, arrived off St. Helena. He was horrified at the bleakness of the island and the crowds lining the shore, awaiting his arrival. Napoleon’s displeasure was noted in his words, “It is not a pretty place to live. I would have done better to stay in Egypt.”
Nonetheless, St. Helena was to be his home. And his residence would be Longwood House. Napoleon elected to come ashore in the veil of night, avoiding the scrutiny and curiosity of the crowds, and so he did on October 17th. Even then, some 3,500 gathered to witness the moment he set foot on the island.
Napoleon’s Life On St. Helena (1815-1821)
Napoleon, his servants, and his black stallion named “Hope” all made their way to what would become his new home, Longwood House. However, while the home was being refurbished, Napoleon stayed briefly with the Balcombe family in their home, The Briars. He befriended their young daughter, Betsy Balcombe, who later wrote of this extraordinary friendship.
Trappings from Napoleon’s regal past eventually decorated Longwood House. Dedicated servants performed their chores there as though they were still living in a palace, instead of Longwood. They were among the fifty or more who resided at Longwood House.
Napoleon’s days were spent riding his horse, dictating his memoirs, learning English (his jailer’s language), overseeing garden projects, and playing chess with pawns resembling the emperor.
Some 2,000 soldiers established their base camp at Deadwood from where they could observe the prisoner’s every move. He so despised being under such close watch by the soldiers that he ordered carpenters to drill holes in the window shutters so he could observe the soldiers without being seen. Napoleon was pleased to learn that, during his confinement, several of these soldiers were killed when gusts of wind tossed them from their look-out posts.
Napoleon also walked the grounds, an area confined by four miles of high walls. He even entertained those aristocrats who joined him in exile. He also hoped he would be rescued, however this was not to be. Worse yet, the new commander, Sir Hudson Lowe, created greater misery by restricting access to Napoleon, stepping up his monitoring, and building stronger and bigger fences around the prisoner.
Napoleon’s days grew bleaker. Several friends and servants returned to France. They were gone forever. Others simply stopped visiting. Napoleon began to decline physically.
Death Comes to Napoleon
Was Napoleon poisoned, perhaps by his English physician? Maybe his body just succumbed to cancer. Experts are divided on this issue. But die he did, in Longwood House on May 5th, 1821. His captors then prepared for his burial and for their return to England.
An autopsy was performed. A plaster mold of Napoleon’s face was made. Strands of his hair were taken to be woven into bracelets. He was dressed in his military uniform and laid out for viewing at Longwood House.
Then his body was encased in four separate coffins, one inside the other. His funeral procession, literally involving everyone on the island, ultimately reached the Vale of Geranium (also known as the Valley of the Tomb). This final resting place was chosen by Napoleon for it was here that he had gotten his fresh drinking water.
His body was lowered into the grave. Cannon shots rang out. Soldiers broke off small tree branches as mementos of the occasion. Then everyone departed except the sentries assigned to guard the quiet grave.
Napoleon’s entourage returned to France, without him. Then, nineteen years after his death, his body was exhumed on October 15, 1840, and he too made his final voyage to France after 25 years on St. Helena. Napoleon I’s body now rests in Paris, in the Hôtel des Invalides.