Discover more about Napoleon's exile on St Helena.
31 Jan 2022
23 Mar 2022
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Following his defeat in the Battle of Waterloo on the 18th June 1815, Emperor Napoleon had returned to Paris where he learned that the Prussian Government were looking to capture him, dead or alive. A plan was formulated to flee to the United States, however he soon discovered that all the ports in France were blocked to prevent his escape, compelling him to surrender to the British, in the form of Captain Frederick Maitland and HMS Bellerophon on 15th July.
His Arrival on St Helena
Napoleon eventually arrived on St Helena with his entourage on 15 October 1815, commenting on his arrival “It is not an attractive place, I should have done better to remain in Egypt”. His initial indifference to the island was a theme that would run throughout the years he spent on the island, despite the leniencies afforded him by British.
A large crowd gathered to greet the Emperor’s arrival but, keen to avoiding creating a scene, it was decided he would be brought ashore under the cover of darkness and taken to his temporary residence. After just one night at the home of Henry Porteous in Jamestown, Napoleon’s petulance came to the fore, claiming the house to be unfit for him and his 26 companions.
Napoleon at Great Longwood
The following day, in the company of Sir George Cockburn and General Bertrand, Napoleon rode out to Great Longwood which would become his eventual permanent residence on St Helena. Whilst required improvements took place, he was billeted in a guest cottage a Briars Village, home of the Balcombe family for 2 months. The guest and hosts became firm friends during this short time, and it seems this wasby far the most convivial time he spent on St Helena. It was, with great sadness, in the December of 1815 that he bid farewell to the Balcombes to take up residence at Great Longwood.
Originally a cowshed, Great Longwood was a five-bedroom home when Napoleon arrived on the island, with a sixth room – used as a billiard room – added prior to his moving in. Despite the apparent space, living here was a cramped affair – remember almost 30 staff made up his entourage.
Boasting a seemingly idyllic location for those making brief visits, Longwood suffers from the extremes of climatic conditions on St Helena – extreme heat during the summer and damp mists during winter. Marry these challenges to the limits the British placed on independent movements by Napoleon and it is clear to see why he was unhappy during his time here.
It is easy to make the conclusion that Napoleon was far from a model “prisoner”, resenting the fact he was in exile and the great restrictions placed on his freedoms, although he was far from imprisoned. Allowed to move independently in a designated area around the property, with the company of an officer required beyond that, he sought to constantly outwit his guards and roam further than allowed. His guards were as frustrated with his actions as he was with the situation, so it was no surprise that on his arrival in April 1816, the new Governor, Hudson Lowe, tightened the restrictions on the Emperor. Indeed, one of these restrictions was to forbid the use of said title, a strict curfew between sunset and sunrise imposed and a large reduction in the area he was allowed to explore unaccompanied. Through their shared time on the island, the animosity between Napoleon and Lowe was clear for all to see.
1818 saw a marked deterioration in Napoleon’s condition, compounded by the restrictions placed on him, the fluctuating conditions at Great Longwood and the inevitable mental toll such an incarceration takes on a person. The situation came to a head on the 2 August 1818 when his personal doctor, Barry O’Meara, left St Helena due to long-held frustrations with the restrictions placed on him by Lowe, as well as the Governor’s attitude towards Napoleon. Indeed, it was some 6 months before another physician attended to him, but when his reports concurred with O’Meara’s previous findings, he was dismissed by court martial. Further Doctors and attendants were sent by his Mother, although the rigours of exile were too much for them and they departed seemingly as quickly as they arrived.
In 1820, after long periods of convalescence, it appeared there was an improvement in Napoleon’s condition, with plans laid to grow an extensive vegetable garden and citrus orchard. Added to this was a small pavilion area where he could gaze out to see and, for a short time, all seemed well with the exile.
Napoleon's Resting Place
Napoleon's upturn was short-lived, and he took his final ride from Great Longwood in October 1820. By the March of 1821 he was bed-ridden and finally, he succumbed on 5 May 1821, with his entourage all around him. The official cause of death was recorded as stomach cancer, although wild conspiracy theories did, and indeed do, still abound including poisoning by arsenic in the wallpaper.
Befitting the control he exerted over all elements of his life, Napoleon chose where he would be buried on St Helena, the Sane Valley, where a simple, heavily guarded tomb marked his final resting place on the island. 25 years to the day from his arrival on St Helena his body was repatriated to France and laid to rest at the Esplanade des Invalides in Paris.
Napoleon on St Helena Today
There are plenty of reminders of Napoleon's exile to St Helena still on the island. Longwood House where spent his final years is owned by the French Government and is one of the best Napoleonic museums in the world, with original furniture and over 900 artefacts. From here is just a 15 minute stroll to see Napoleon’s tomb and the beautiful heart-shaped waterfall.
You can also visit Fisher’s Valley where Napoleon rode his horse during his exile on the island.