On deck looking towards St. Helena (photo by Andrew Neaum, CC BY-SA 3.0)
In this strange pandemic year, most summer cruises have been canceled. But during another summer 205 years ago it was a different story for at least one man.
That August the former Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, set out unwillingly on a special cruise, designed just for him. His ship was no luxury liner; it was more like a prison transport, taking him to his final place of exile.
Consequences of Waterloo
I doubt Napoleon knew he’d wind up in St. Helena after the British coalition of armies led by the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army commanded by Field Marshal von Blücher decisively defeated the French forces at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. But Napoleon probably suspected that his glorious career as a general and an emperor had run its course.
St. Helena, circled in red, on a map
Napoleon’s first stop after his defeat was Paris. There he methodically prepared for the next phase of his life. After all, it wasn’t the first time he’d lost a battle and been forced into exile.
However, Napoleon’s exile to Elba in 1814 following the Treaty of Fontainebleau was upended when the emperor managed to escape to France and assemble another army.
Napoleon must have realized that the British were determined not to let history repeat itself. This time, the consequences of defeat would have to mean permanent exile. However, Napoleon wanted to exert some control over where he would spend the rest of his life.
But first, he had business to attend to. In Paris, he abdicated his throne in favor of his son. Which incidentally didn’t work – the French throne went to Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, the unfortunate monarch who was guillotined during the French Revolution.
The next step in Napoleon’s retirement plan was to escape France and go to the United States. He was even promised a passport to the U.S. by the French provisional government.
But the promised passport never materialized. So Napoleon decided to take matters into his own hands. He went to Rochefort, a port on the southwestern coast of France. Still determined to go to the U.S., he hoped to slip past the Royal Navy blockade.
On the Bellerophon in Plymouth, 1815
A thwarted escape
“I have come to put myself under the protection of your prince [that would be the Prince Regent] and your laws,” said the man who was once a feared British foe.
Next, the Bellerophon carried the former Emperor of the French (now known simply as General Bonaparte) to Plymouth and Torquay Harbour on the north shore of Tor Bay. At Torquay Napoleon stayed on the ship, becoming a tourist attraction for the curious who clustered onto small boats and rowed out into the English Channel hoping to catch a glimpse of the defeated emperor.
If Napoleon thought he’d ever get off a Royal Navy ship while in England he was sadly mistaken. British officials vowed they wouldn’t make the same blunder they’d made in 1814. So they decided to exile their old enemy to a remote location far away from Europe and any chance of a comeback. On July 31 Napoleon was told that he was headed for St. Helena, an island off the coast of Africa.
Concerned that the aging Bellerophon couldn’t make the voyage, the Navy transferred Napoleon to another ship, the HMS Northumberland, which set sail for St. Helena on August 7, finally leaving British waters on August 9.
Napoleon left the British Isles without ever having set foot on British soil.
St. Helena in 1815
Napoleon on board the Northumberland
On the globe St. Helena looks like an isolated speck in the middle of the vast South Atlantic Ocean. It’s basically a rock, 1,200 miles west of Angola on the African continent, and 2,500 miles east of Rio de Janeiro.
It is a volcanic island, 47 square miles in area, attached to the ocean floor with only the tip visible above sea level. St. Helena’s nearest neighbor is Ascension Island, another volcanic island and British possession, about 800 miles northwest of St. Helena.
And on the uninhabited Ascension Island, as yet another precaution, a garrison of British soldiers under the command of Sir Edward Nicolls of the Royal Marines was stationed.
During his stay on St. Helena, Napoleon was guarded by 3,000 troops, and four ships constantly patrolled the coastline to prevent any escape attempts. The man in charge of the famous prisoner, Sir Hudson Lowe, was a harsh and ruthless jailor. Napoleon was not going to escape on his watch.
Longwood House (photo by David Stanley, CC BY 2.0)
Death of the emperor
Napoleon had many health complaints, including liver problems, towards the end of his life, and he died May 5, 1821, at the age of 51. His doctor listed his cause of death as stomach cancer, but for years there was speculation that he was poisoned by arsenic, either deliberately or accidentally. Lately, though, the death-by-poison theory has been discredited.
The former emperor was buried on St. Helena, but in 1840 the French King Louis-Philippe arranged for Napoleon’s remains to be returned to Paris, where they were buried in splendor under the Dome of Les Invalides.
Napoleon spent much of his time on St. Helena dictating his memoirs. Of his contribution to France during the French Revolution, he said: “I have unscrambled Chaos. I have cleansed the Revolution, ennobled the common people, and restored the authority of kings.”
Following Napoleon's death, the last of his 20 companions in exile left St. Helena. They departed at the end of May in 1821 and arrived back in Europe on August 2 – another summer cruise courtesy of the Royal Navy.
St. Helena today
Although it’s still remote (the internet didn’t reach the island until 2015) today St. Helena is becoming a tourist magnet for history buffs, hardy hikers, rock climbers, bird watchers, and anyone who enjoys an adventure.
The “Saints,” as the residents are called, encourage the tourist trade with charming restaurants and hotels. I’m sure the cuisine and the accommodations are a decided improvement over what Napoleon experienced 200 years ago.
There is also much natural beauty on the island to enjoy, as well as boat tours that showcase the large pods of frolicking dolphins and scores of whale sharks in the surrounding sea. You can even visit a resident group of tortoises, one of which is almost 200 years old. And of course, there are many memorials to the island's famous former resident.
St. Helena airport (photo by Paul Tyson, CC BY 3.0)
Before the airport began to offer regular flights in 2017, to get to the island a traveler had to fly to Cape Town, usually by way of Johannesburg, and then be prepared to embark on a 5-6 day boat trip aboard the cargo liner RMS St. Helena. Bad weather or other complications could make the trip even longer.
That puts Napoleon’s 2-month voyage from England to St. Helena into perspective.
Traces of Napoleon
Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena seems an inglorious end for someone who had a spectacular career, especially considering his meteoric rise from the lowly ranks of an artillery officer to Emperor of France. But even in 1802, over a decade before his final exile, Napoleon seemed aware of the risk that was inherent in an ambition like his, and he accepted it.
As he put it, “It would be better never to have lived at all than to leave behind no trace of one’s existence.”
Napoleon would no doubt be relieved to know that in St. Helena, Europe, and across the world, there are plenty of traces that attest to the existence of Monsieur Bonaparte.
|"Napoleon on St. Helena," Franz Josef Sandmann, 1820