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The Black Room at LongwoodNapoleon's Exile on Saint Helena
By Jean-Paul Kauffmann
Four Walls Eight WindowsCopyright © 2000 Jean-Paul Kauffmann
All right reserved.
The First Day
Arrival at St. Helena * The curator of the French properties * Devil's Island * The ultramarine blue of Jamestown * Atlantic melancholy * The typical St. Helenian * The castle register * The climate, a thorny subject * Napoleon Street * The attendant at the Briars * Supremum vale * Napoleon's accent * "He was deathly pale" * The puzzle of his face *"Sire, we shall live on the past" * The Emperor's companions * Saturn at the Exiles' Club * A crown of thorns * Discernment and the ability to discriminate * Napoleon plays the fool * The destruction wreaked by termites * The St. Helena ordeal
I SOMETIMES PASS THROUGH ST. HELENA, but I've never stopped there. It's an empty place, silent and solitary. The houses sit on the grass as they do in Africa. Unlikely shops, a closed church, a deserted crossroads. Every time I pass, the place seems a little more deserted and sad. And yet I find an air of grandeur in that rather dismal severity. It's an unaffected, unfounded grandeur, I know. St. Helena: a little village, not at all picturesque, in the middle of the Gironde forest in France. Yet the pompous, melancholy sound of the name impresses me every time I see the sign by the road at the entrance to the town.
On this November morning, it's my St. Helena I'm thinking of--the village in the Medoc.
Standing on the foredeck, I'm watching for the moment when dawn lights up the island. Even though I'm prepared for it, the monumental citadel rising up from the sea is a frightening sight. "A catafalque of rock." The viscount of Chateaubriand found just the right word for it, although he never set foot there. There is a threatening, gloomy atmosphere surrounding the 300-meter-high black cliffs that fall sheer into the ocean. It gives the impression of a ravaged fortress. St. Helena lives up to its legend. Right from the outset, it bluntly states the fact that it is a maritime prison. 5:40 A.M. The ashen-colored dawn hangs oppressively over the nearby land. Daybreak holds no promise; on the contrary, it already suggests the fatigue of the day's end. Only one ray from the rising sun manages to pierce the clouds, falling on a corner of the coast with a dull light, as through a basement window. This slit in the sky gives the basalt towers and crumbling coastline of the island an outline of black shadows.
I look at the passengers' faces. Like me, they have all insisted on getting up before dawn to get a view of the island. The Helenians, or the "Saints" as they are called, show no surprise on seeing their homeland again. After two weeks at sea, their faces express relief, which changes to an almost blase contentment as the ship approaches land. I note the stunned faces of the other passengers. The shock they feel on seeing the island for the first time expresses disbelief, fear, and perhaps compassion. At this moment, I feel a mixture of all of them. The desolate rock seems to live up to its reputation almost too well, and yet I can hardly believe my eyes. The shore and the turrets are bristling with various pieces of artillery. There are walls and loopholes everywhere, as if you were meant to believe that nothing has changed since 14 October 1815.
On that day the Northumberland, with the deposed Emperor aboard, dropped anchor in Jamestown bay after seventy days at sea. "There was not a ridge on that sterile facade that did not have a canon hanging from it: they seemed to have wanted to receive the prisoner in a way that was appropriate to his genius," Chateaubriand also noted.
It looks massive and obstinate, hostile to anything coming from the sea. The ceiling of clouds that are always banked up over the island, increases the impression of stillness, heaviness, and dullness. The low, leaden sky hangs over the island fortress like an unhealthy vapor.
There is a disconcerting reaction from the defeated general of the Battle of Waterloo when he first sees his prison, which will also be his tomb. Both the English and French on the bridge of the Northumberland are waiting for the moment when he will look at the coast through his telescope, then give his opinion. He takes in the escarpments, observes the defenses of the formidable volcanic fortress ... and says nothing. No doubt the man famous for his ability to assess anything at a glance, the strategist whose quick eye won so many battles, the eagle who takes in the whole scene at once, has already understood the situation. He goes back to his cabin without saying a word.
It is not until the second day that General Gourgaud hears the first comment from the exile: "It's not a very appealing abode; I would have done better to stay in Egypt. By now I would be emperor of the entire Orient." This sentence is worth looking at more closely. It's a sulky, almost childish remark. As if the empire he had founded counted for nought; as if the defeated Emperor now only wanted to remember a time before anything was fixed and defined. A pathetic remark which shows the extent of the tragedy the exile will live out on St. Helena: rather than undertaking a critical examination of the past, he will keep going back over it.
The sight he saw from the Northumberland has probably changed very little: a few white houses, a square church tower, some trees. What still today saves Jamestown from being an ordinary little town is the fragility of its situation. Every traveller has been struck by the position of this village squeezed between two mountains. It seems like an open mouth about to bite through the long thread of a street with its few buildings clinging down each side.
Ships have to lie at anchor in the open sea, just as they did in 1815. Passengers and goods are brought ashore in open boats and rafts. St. Helena still has no port. Everything comes from England: from marmalade to videos (which the Helenians are very fond of, as there is no television). Michel Martineau, the French consul to St. Helena, is very obliging with the usual formalities. Our representative, a colossus of a man with a wide brow and piercing, deep-set eyes, remains very reserved for the time being. He took over from his father, Gilbert Martineau, in 1987. The two men live at Longwood, which, together with the Valley of the Tomb, makes up the French enclave. After long negotiations with the British cabinet, initiated by Napoleon III, the property was sold to France for the sum of 178,565 francs. Michel Martineau is both honorary consul and curator of French property on St. Helena. We have exchanged numerous letters. His paper has the letterhead: Michel Martineau, Longwood House, Island of Saint Helena, South Atlantic. I'm very impressed by it, especially the "South Atlantic." This seventh continent, the limitless oceanic kingdom where he represents us and watches over our interests, inspires respect. Today, as in Napoleon's time, you have to look sharp to catch hold of a rope to jump on to the jetty. Napoleon had written "St. Helena, a little island ..." on an exercise book when he was a lieutenant at Auxonne. His pen wrote nothing more on the subject. Many comments have been made about the ellipsis. It was added to indicate that the statement is interrupted. And yet, are there any more appropriate three little dots anywhere? "St. Helena, a little island ..." The phrase is still accurate. I'm struck by the extreme narrowness of Jamestown, a cramped, ill-formed, lilliputian village. St. Helena ... this grain of soil in the middle of the ocean is an accident, a scab on Neptune's skin. "The devil sh-t this island as he flew from one world to the other," General Bertrand's wife later said. The waves of the Atlantic, which pound against the black stone of the Jamestown jetty, trace a long silvery strip that looks very like a shroud. But even though banishment, loneliness, and decline take hold of one's imagination from the moment one arrives, there are also certain details that do their utmost to contradict this gloomy first impression. I have scarcely put my foot on the little flight of steps on the pier when something that looks like a little principality from an operetta comes into view.
Customs formalities take place in a mud brick shed: it's Africa without the chaos, a hybrid of the dignified courtesy of British officials and a very tropical sense of improvisation. The traveller is asked to open his bags and spread them out. That's all; they don't inspect any of it. Like Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands, St. Helena belongs to the group of British dependencies. St. Helena has only 6,000 inhabitants, but it has its own police, money, constitution, and judicial system. And its own prison. After you enter the handsome town gate, that is all you see. Its well-kept ultramarine blue facade is quite elegant. The building was erected in 1827, six years after Napoleon's death.
There is a paradox in Napoleon's captivity: as a prisoner, the Emperor was never actually imprisoned. He stayed in a prison without walls, which measured 122 square kilometers, the area of the island. Beyond this space was the limitless horizon of the ocean. St. Helena, the jail on the heights, looks over vastness, emptiness, infinity. The prisoner has freedom of movement, it's true, but the size of the jail is not important when the warders never stop spying on him. It was Wellington, the victor of Waterloo, who chose St. Helena. He had stayed there in 1805 on his way back from India.
The most perceptive work on the Emperor's exile, Napoleon: The Last Phase, was written by an Englishman--not just any Englishman, as this man, Lord Rosebery, was prime minister to Queen Victoria. "Was it necessary to send the defeated Emperor to St. Helena?" he wonders. When Napoleon gave himself up to his enemies on 15 July 1815, he imagined that he would end his days in some English manor house. A few weeks later he learned that he was to be deported to the island of St. Helena. The British note states that "The climate is healthy and its geographical situation will permit him to be treated with more leniency there than elsewhere." To which Napoleon protests that he had surrendered "of his own free will." They had deceived him. "They pretended to extend a hospitable hand to this enemy and, when he was handed over in good faith, they destroyed him," he complains. Lord Rosebery, a self-confessed "intelligent admirer" of the Emperor, examines the decision and Napoleon's hopes. Could he not have led the life of a "country gentleman" in England? "This we think, though we say so with regret, was impossible," he maintains, adding that the proximity of such a man who had "a genius for upheaval" in Europe would have been too dangerous.
This surrender is still something of a mystery. When he retired to the Chateau de la Malmaison after Waterloo, Napoleon very clearly indicated his intention of taking refuge in the United States. He took many books on America with him. On the island of Aix, off Rochefort, he changes his mind and decides to give himself up to the English. The reasons he gave for this change of heart remain obscure. Perhaps he set too much store on the victors' generosity.
Napoleon and his entourage finally enter Jamestown on the evening of 17 October 1815. They have had to wait on the ship for three days, long enough for the English to find a house for the prisoner. Whites and blacks line up to look at the loser of Waterloo in silence. We can imagine their amazement. Had they not learned in quick succession that Napoleon had left Elba to reconquer France, that he suffered a crushing defeat at Waterloo, that he gave himself up to the English, that they had decided to deport him to their own little island, and that he was finally there in front of them, coming up towards the main street by lantern light?
At the entrance to the little town, he probably saw the castle on the left. The building was destroyed by termites and rebuilt in 1860. The citadel, which is now the administration building, must have seemed more forebidding then. It displays all the exterior signs of a fortress: ditches, bastion walls, loopholes. A joke of a fortress now: the mouths of the cannon only contain beer bottles.
Jamestown seems to have come right out of one of those American cartoons that feature naive pictures of the police station, the church, the prison, the post office, etc. What is more, the square is called the Grand Parade. It's neither grand nor particularly suitable for parades. The lack of space is explained once again by the looming mass of the mountains--two great millstones that crush the town. All that is left is the pulp: a main street. The Porteus house, where Napoleon spent his only night in Jamestown, used to be on that street but has since disappeared. In its place is a cinema rarely frequented by the inhabitants these days. They prefer to watch films on video, available in all the Jamestown grocery shops.
White and ultramarine blue houses with iron posts and verandas: ultimately a more Portuguese than British look, with the Atlantic melancholy, the languidness, and the emptiness that overwhelm countries at the outer confines of the world. Confined, is indeed the right word to describe the little capital of St. Helena. It's as if life could scarcely change in this limited space. The cars and the few little shops show no sign of modernization; but there are no makeshift repairs, as you find in Africa. It's a kind of ambivalent inertia. A refusal to choose. The physical appearance of the inhabitants is itself almost impossible to define. Being a mixture of black slaves, Chinese coolies, Malays, and whites, the Saints have olive or coffee-colored skin, green or almond eyes, and jet black hair reminiscent of India.
Time has not stopped, it simply lags behind. It's visibly dawdling somewhere around the 1960s, judging by the models of the carefully repainted Fords and the shops with their wooden floors.
There is heaviness rather than slowness, which corrects the too generally accepted image of tropical indolence; a sluggishness created by this unusual union of disparate elements. It's old-fashioned but not worn out, outdated but not at all down-at-the-heel. There is a feeling of emptiness. The main street makes you think of "Potemkin villages": a decor on a canvas backdrop with nothing behind it. The fronts of the buildings are like trompe-l'il paintings. The two mountains prevent them from having any real existence.
Jamestown has all the attributes of a town: a public library, a municipal garden, two hotels, a restaurant, a market, but in an abridged form. Napoleon's captivity was also subject to the same obsession with the minute and the mean. On the subject of the Porteus house, the Emperor's valet Louis Marchand complains that it is "uncomfortable because of its position and its cramped quarters." Even today, Jamestown cannot avoid a sense of oppression that crushes both buildings and open space. The tar-colored basalt rock and the heavy sky tightly seal the little town like the hull of a boat. How could anyone escape?
Close by the prison, the eye is caught by a steeply rising line streaking the mountain wall. Jacob's Ladder cut into the rock is Jamestown's only curiosity. It's a staircase with 699 steps, so steep that a trick of perspective makes the handrail in the rock rising towards the summit look like a slack rope. This 270-meter-long sloping ascent was built in 1828 and was used to haul stores and munitions to the citadel on the top.
"Be sure to inform the governor of your arrival," the consul advised.
"Is it important?"
"It's customary," Michel Martineau said. "It's the usual practice for visitors, especially if they're journalists, to sign the register at the castle. You'll no doubt want to seek an audience with the governor during your stay."
We enter the paved courtyard. The castle, which was built in 1710, now houses the offices. It is also the seat of the island's Council. The governor only has his offices there. Like Hudson Lowe, Napoleon's jailer, he lives in his official residence at Plantation House, three kilometers away.
With polished floors, panelled walls in tropical wood, old prints, a cosy club atmosphere, the studied air of the place suggests respectability, and yet it can't dispel the impression of a certain lack of precision. The only thing that gives any firmness to the ensemble is the iron staircase that resounds when walked on. Perhaps it's because wood here has a precarious and uncertain existence, as it's always threatened by termites. I sign the parchment-bound register. My cramped, French handwriting stands out in contrast with the rounded script of the English.
After his one night in Jamestown (to which he will never return) Napoleon is invited to visit Long-wood. It has not yet been renovated.
On that morning of 18 October 1815, he does something strange. While the English are waiting to show him around the former farm, the Emperor goes off on his own. He mounts his horse and gallops full tilt up the main street, which ends in a "Y." He doesn't know which path to choose. The one he takes is now called Napoleon Street, the only allusion to the Emperor in present-day Jamestown. No doubt one should not attach too much importance to this caprice. The prisoner is not trying to escape; he simply wants to annoy his jailers, to show them that he still has some leeway, that there is still a bit of slack. One should not overlook the fact that he has an almost childish love of playing tricks. He loves to tease, to provoke, to mystify. His tall stories make his adversaries reveal themselves.
The souvenir industry is nonexistent. Not one shop selling knick-knacks. Not the slightest trace of a cult of Napoleon, apart from a map of the island with Longwood and the tomb printed on a rough square of cloth.
During the crossing, I noticed that the Helenians are not ashamed to mention the figure of the man who made their island famous; it's more a kind of shyness. On the boat, I took a perverse pleasure in noting several indications of a contradiction or at least a confusion. An English engraving of Napoleon on the bridge of the Northumberland hangs in one of the passageways of the RMS St. Helena. The Emperor looks like a big, sulky baby. The members of his party have been drawn in a flattering pose with their legs elegantly placed: they look more like dandies than soldiers. A text at the bottom of the print recalls the fact that with the surrender "the Emperor had run his earthly course." The best place on the ship, however, is reserved for the famous Coronation by Jacques Louis David. A fairly good reproduction of it hangs in the lounge. The library on board only has about a dozen works in French, all of them on the Napoleonic era, and all written by the former consul to St. Helena, Gilbert Martineau.
Napoleon Street, a steep alley of brightly colored houses, leads up to a very narrow road called the Sidepath. It is cut out of the mountainside and leads to Longwood. There is only room for one lane of traffic, even today. A car coming down must give way to one going up by pulling over into one of the lay-bys along the road. The tall stalks of aloes and the cacti scarcely brighten up the coal black ground. There's a certain faded quality that spoils the Helenian landscape, dulling the brightness of the tropical vegetation. "A damned awful country," the Emperor announced as soon as he saw it. Neither he nor his retinue ever got used to the extreme changeability of the climate. Hence the many different landscapes, which could come from the Mediterranean, Scotland, or even the moon, judging by the ash grey petrified mounds that could be seen from the boat this morning. The unpredictability of the climate and the difficulty in identifying uncertain natural surroundings quickly become trying. In one of his books Gilbert Martineau notes: "The climate of St. Helena is a very thorny subject.
Two kilometers from Jamestown, on the road leading to Longwood, the consul draws my attention to a small valley framed by a grove of trees. The pleasantness of the place contrasts with the aridity of the surrounding countryside--a detail that did not escape the Emperor. He noticed this oasis with its Chinese pavilion. The Briars belonged to a man called Balcombe, a representative of the East India Company. On the way back from Longwood, at the end of the afternoon, Napoleon asks to stop at the Briars. He inspects the pavilion that is used as a playroom by the Balcombe children, and suggests to the English that he stay there while work is being completed at Longwood.
All that exists today is the little pavilion where the Emperor lived. At the entrance is a copper plaque stating that it was given to France as a gift by a woman descendant of the Balcombes. Another inscription in English points out that Wellington had stayed there earlier on his return from India. A small museum was opened in 1972. This little doll's house has just been saved thanks to Michel Martineau. The wood used in its construction had come from ships and was impregnated with salt. For a long time it resisted the termites, but eventually they got through the wood that had been softened by the weather.
A drizzle of rain envelops the valley, releasing that gamy smell mixed with cloves, sweetish and peppery at the same time, vaguely overripe, so characteristic of the tropics. A red brick path leads to the little pavilion. After the trauma of Waterloo and the distressing weeks that followed, it's here that the exile will enjoy the least bitter days of his captivity. He is not too unhappy here, in fact he is even described as calm.
The attendant stares at me almost in disbelief: a tourist.... You'd think I was the first person of the year to visit the Briars. I guess from his overzealous attitude that he's going to relieve his boredom by watching me as I go round the museum. He scrutinizes my every gesture but doesn't actually supervise me. He has a benevolent expression on his face, in which I even detect something like gratitude. He moves away, allowing me to look at the Balcombes' cup and saucer used by the Emperor during his stay at the Briars.
A small piece of the carpet that covered the floor is displayed in a glass case. The design has faded and it's impossible to work out the central motif. I make myself examine this web of worn wool that the imperial foot probably trod, until I've looked at it more than enough. As I force myself to examine the dull colors, I wonder about the value of these time-worn pigments. I stare at them, trying to imagine a secret pattern: as I gaze at them, they become iridescent. But there's no past left to be reconstructed in this well-lit but depressing room with its smell of damp, fresh paint and rather sickly spice. Nothing to be gained from this house with its paltry memories, a house as sad as the drizzle that sends a strange gurgling sound like laughter through the guttering.
Napoleon first entered this room on 18 October 1815. He is forty-six. What were the thoughts and feelings that filled his mind on that day? None of the books written by eyewitnesses give any satisfactory answer--those men who never took their eyes off him but never really saw him. Those who followed him into exile, like his jailers, closely watched the least of his gestures, but never really looked at him. Perhaps his companions were too preoccupied with their subject, too keen to register for posterity the way he bent his head and shrugged his shoulders, or what his words meant. It's impossible to describe a man when one's eyes are riveted on him!
When all's said and done, Napoleon's entrance into the pavilion at the Briars is quite a banal moment in his captivity: it has no dramatic significance at all. The English behaved fairly decently towards their defeated enemy--Hudson Lowe has not yet arrived on the island. Nonetheless, from now on Napoleon will be a prisoner and will be given no higher title than General Bonaparte. Five-and-a-half years will pass before his death. Once he stepped over the threshold of this pavilion, which, ironically he chose himself, he lost his freedom forever. Supremum vale. Goodbye for the last time. Those are the words given by Ovid to Orpheus when he loses his Eurydice for the second time. Napoleon goes in.... It's the end of everything. The room is so small! Hardly bigger than a hallway.
Excerpted from The Black Room at Longwood by Jean-Paul Kauffmann Copyright © 2000 by Jean-Paul Kauffmann. Excerpted by permission.
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