Bonaparte and Betsy Balcombe
The Island of St Helena is a bleak storm-tossed rock in the South Atlantic some 1,200 miles west of the African coast. The Portuguese only discovered it in 1502 and the first British troops did not arrive there until 1658. The island is forty-seven square miles in extent and most of it is rugged and uninhabitable.1 After The Hundred Days and the Battle of Waterloo, the Allied powers were so terrified that Napoleon might rise to power yet again, they decided to banish him to this benighted place. As the veteran Bonapartist Colonel Santi de Odoards said: ‘It is only from this moment that [the Bourbons] now considered themselves firmly seated on the throne. For even when chained in the middle of the ocean, the giant who made them tremble for so long was still a bugbear and an endless nightmare.’2
The paranoia felt by the European powers was almost palpable. So nervous was the British Government in particular, they even went to the trouble of establishing garrisons on two other isolated outposts lost amidst the huge Atlantic Ocean, Ascension Island in 1815 and Tristan da Cunha: ‘the most remote inhabited island on the planet,’3 in 1816. This extraordinary policy was a testimony to their greatest fear - that even when trapped on St Helena and watched over night and day, Napoleon might yet be helped to escape from his forbidding prison.
Betsy describes the island in her book Napoleon & Betsy - Recollections of Napoleon on St Helena: ‘The appearance of St Helena, on viewing it from the sea, is different from that of any land I ever saw, and it is certainly but little calculated to make one fall in love with it at first sight. The rock, rising abruptly from the ocean, with its oblong shape and perpendicular sides, suggests to one’s mind more the idea of a huge dark-coloured ark lying at anchor, floating on the bosom of the Atlantic, than a land intended for the habitation and support of living beings; nor, on a nearer acquaintance, does its character become more amiable.’4
This was to be the place of Napoleon’s final exile, where he was buried alive in a desolate remote wilderness, as far away from civilization as it was possible to be.
Napoleon was very fortunate to have met the Balcombes early on during his incarceration on St Helena. Betsy, born on November 26th 1802, was the second daughter of William Balcombe, the superintendent of public sales to the East India Company and purveyor to their ships and other vessels docking at Jamestown, the capital of the island.5 During his time in power, the British authorities were forever claiming that Napoleon wanted to conquer the world, and Nelson virtually had apoplexy just at the mere thought of it. But just who was dominating the Indian sub-continent and the world’s oceans by 1815? It certainly wasn’t the French. And it never had been.
Napoleon arrived on the island just before Betsy’s thirteenth birthday. No one could possibly have foreseen the amazing friendship that developed between the forty-six-year old ex-Emperor and the lively, brash, hoydenish English ‘Mees Betsy.’6
While his official residence-to-be Longwood was supposedly being repaired, refurbished and upgraded, Napoleon was able to spend some delightful weeks with the Balcombe family at the Briars. They let him use a small ballroom that had a lawn in front where he also had installed a large marquee that housed his famous camp bed and variegated glittering detritus from his fallen empire.
As Alan Sutton remarks: ‘Napoleon’s fall from an unprecedented position of power to humiliating confinement must have been an impossible burden to have lived with and yet despite this - or possibly because of it - Napoleon befriended this child and held genuine affection for her.’7 Napoleon had many brothers and sisters and like a lot of people brought up in a large family, he loved children. He doted on his son, the exiled King of Rome, whose own fate was likewise tragic. The merciless so-called Allies never allowed Maria-Louise or his son to join him on St Helena. The Emperor of Austria, Francis II, a spineless nonentity who Napoleon had allowed to remain on his throne despite Austria attacking France in 1805 and 1809 and collaborating with the Russian enemy in 1812, was so cynical as to engage a titled male prostitute, Count von Neipperg, to seduce his own daughter and turn her away from Napoleon forever.
Francis was typical of the ‘legitimate’ rulers of the period: vain, useless, ignorant, arrogant beyond measure, the likes of the Prince Regent of England, Tsar Alexander of Russia, (who was implicated in the murder of his own father and slept with his sister), Frederick William of Prussia, and Francis himself, had no talent for ruling and precious few achievements of any kind between them. They exploited and overtaxed their poor benighted peasant populations and, with copious amounts of English gold, they cloaked them in uniforms in order to attack Napoleon and everything he stood for. To these overdressed mental weaklings, their greatest dread was that democratic ideas crystallized by the American and French Revolutions might undermine their divine right to rule. If there was a god in the early C19th – he must have had a weird sense of humour.
Before she met Napoleon, Betsy thought of him in apocalyptic terms: ‘The earliest idea I had of Napoleon was that of a huge ogre or giant, with one large flaming red eye in the middle of his forehead, and long teeth protruding from his mouth, with which he tore to pieces and devoured naughty little girls, especially those who did not know their lessons. I had rather grown out of this first opinion of Napoleon; but, if less childish, my terror of him was still hardly diminished. The name of Bonaparte was still associated, in my mind, with everything that was bad and horrible.’8 She goes on to explain why she had this opinion of him: ‘I had heard the most atrocious crimes imputed to him; and if I had learned to consider him as a human being, I yet still believed him to be the worst that had ever existed.’9
From their earliest days, British children were brought up to believe that Napoleon was evil incarnate, nothing less than a monster, for he had become the national bogeyman. The cartoons by Gilray and Rowlandson and the lies and propaganda spread by a nasty and scurrilous press only added to this impression. Hence as Betsy remarks: ‘Most of the newspapers of the day described him as a demon; and all those of his own country who lived in England were of course his bitterest enemies; and from these two sources alone we formed our opinion of him.’10
Many people even today have a stereotypical view of Napoleon as the short fat man who lost the Battle of Waterloo. They would be astonished with Betsy’s description of him upon their first meeting. He rode into her life on a magnificent jet black horse: ‘Napoleon’s position on horseback, by adding height to his figure, supplied all that was wanting to make me think him the most majestic person I had ever seen.’11 As to his physical presence, she adds: ‘He was deadly pale, and I thought his features, though cold and immovable, and somewhat stern, were exceedingly beautiful… When he began to speak, his fascinating smile and kind manner removed every vestige of the fear with which I had hitherto regarded him.’12
A strange and wonderful friendship would very quickly develop between these two people, a fallen Emperor and a young girl in the full flush of youth. Both of them liked to play crude practical jokes upon the other and each of them had a decidedly wicked sense of humour. As Napoleon sat on one of the cottage chairs at the Briars, Betsy studied him with wide-eyed fascination: ‘I have never seen anyone with so remarkable and striking a physiognomy. The portraits of him, give a good general idea of his features, but his smile, and the expression of his eye, could not be transmitted to canvas, and these constituted Napoleon’s chief charm. Hs hair was dark brown, and as fine and silky as a child’s, rather too much so indeed for a man, as its very softness caused it to look thin…’13 As for the ‘large flaming red eye in the middle of his forehead’ - there was no sign of it.
Betsy’s father had offered Sir George Cockburn - who presented Napoleon to the Balcombes - room at the Briars - but he was happy to consign his place to the Emperor.14 Napoleon liked and respected Sir George Cockburn and had he been the Governor of the island instead of the infamous Sir Hudson Lowe, his life in captivity might have been far more pleasant. But as he settled himself at the Briars, far from the gawping crowds that had greeted him at Jamestown harbour, Napoleon could have had no idea of the torments and horrors that lay in store for him, not could such a healthy man ever have conceived that he had less than six years to live. Yet, for some eight weeks, the friendship of a child restored and buoyed up his formerly depressed spirit.
Napoleon took and instant liking to the Briars with its fine views and pleasant gardens and he would have preferred to remain there rather than move to his official residence at Longwood. He was not to know that the moment he left the Balcombes he was facing a death sentence. But in the meantime, thanks to Betsy’s energy and mischief Napoleon got a new zest for life. The two of them delighted in playfully tormenting the other.
Not surprisingly, Napoleon soon picked up on what the English thought and said about him. Thus, when a prim young girl called Miss Legg visited the Briars, he decided to pull both her legs at the same time. Clinging to Betsy in terror when she heard Napoleon was crossing the lawn to greet her, she had no idea that Betsy had already revealed to him the horror she felt at the mere sound of his name. Forearmed as it were, Napoleon knew exactly what to do; ‘He walked up to her, and, brushing up his hair with his hand, shook his head, making horrible faces, and giving a sort of savage howl. The little girl screamed so violently, that mama was afraid she would go into hysterics… Napoleon laughed a good deal at the idea of him being such a bugbear…’15 When he tried his Cossack howl on Betsy, however, she just laughed at him.
Far from being afraid of Napoleon, when he asked her why the English were so fond of roast beef, she retaliated by showing him a caricature of an open mouthed Frenchman in the process of shoving a frog down his throat. Napoleon laughed and pinched her ear. The Emperor then got his own back by making her stand still while the fourteen-year-old son of Las Cases kissed her, saying that the young couple ought to marry. Afterwards, Betsy boxed the lad’s ears and planned revenge upon Napoleon.16
When it was later decided to play whist, the party had to descend steep and narrow steps from Napoleon’s pavilion to the cottage. Perhaps the phantom of Wellington whispered: ‘Now’s your time,’ for, waiting until the Emperor set off followed by Las Cases, his son, and her sister Jane – Betsy ran pell-mell at her sister who collided with the boy who pushed his father, who then rammed into Napoleon’s back: ‘I was in ecstacies at the confusion I had created, and exulted in the revenge I had taken for the kiss…’ However, Las Cases was horrified at this breach of etiquette and shoved Betsy hard against a rock for her temerity. When she cried, Napoleon responded: ‘ne pleurs pas - I will hold him while you punish him.’17 Betsy boxed Las Cases ear - for England, it might be said. Napoleon thought that this was hilarious: ‘clapping his hands and laughing immoderately at our race round the lawn. Las Cases never liked me after this adventure, and used to call me a rude hoyden.’18
Betsy was amazed at Napoleon’s hands: ‘the fattest and prettiest in the world; his knuckles dimpled like those of a baby, his fingers taper and beautifully formed, and his nails perfect.’19 She was surprised that such delicate looking palms could ever wield a sword. Napoleon showed her an exquisite blade with a sheath of tortoise-shell decorated with golden bees. When he let her handle the weapon she cheekily brandished it in his face until she had pinned him into a corner. She continued her daredevilry by telling him so say his prayers because she was going to kill him. Only when the full weight of the sword told, did she lower her arm. Napoleon grabbed one of her ears, which had just been pierced, making her cry out and then pulled her nose, but he never once lost his temper with her.20
Betsy states that: ‘His manner was so unaffectedly kind and amiable, that in a few days I felt perfectly at ease in his society, and looked upon him more as a companion of my own age, than as the mighty warrior at whose name “the world grew pale.” His spirits were very good, and he was at times almost boyish in his love of mirth and glee, not unmixed sometimes with a tinge of malice.’21 She helped Napoleon with his English while he checked her French translations. From reading her memoirs it is clear that he understood the language of his captors much better than many historians seem to think.
Betsy pestered him to throw a ball in the Balcombe’s own small ballroom but he persistently declined. He had no wish to be gawped at again by the multitude. In the end he said he would agree to anything but a ball so Betsy suggested they play blind man’s buff. Napoleon had never heard of the game so she had to explain the rules to him. When he failed to convince her to choose something else, he acquiesced. The Emperor suggested lots should be drawn and he controlled the tickets. All were blank save for one with “la mort” written upon it. Betsy found herself being blindfolded first. After tying his own cambric handkerchief over her eyes, Napoleon asked her if she could still see. She fibbed that she could not even though some light was just visible. To make sure she could not see he wafted his famous hat right in front of her face. Startled by the shadow and the flurry of its motion, she recoiled: ‘Ah, leetle monkee, you can see pretty well,’22 Napoleon remarked. He wasn’t satisfied until a second hankie had been tied over the first and he proceeded to avoid all her attempts to catch him.
When she heard that Sir George Cockburn was going to give a ball, Betsy naturally wanted to attend. When her father said she was too young she pleaded with Napoleon who took her part and persuaded him to let her go. When the Emperor asked to see her first ball dress, Betsy showed him and then left it on the sofa while they played whist. Napoleon cheated at cards on purpose to irritate her and, when she complained, he teased her all the more. When she caught him red-handed: ‘He laughed until the tears ran out of his eyes… and catching up my ball dress from off the sofa, he ran out of the room, and up to the pavilion…’23 to his own quarters. Despite Betsy’s tearful pleas, Napoleon chuckled and refused to return the gown to her. Betsy was distraught and cried herself to sleep. The next day he again refused to relinquish his prize. Only when it was time to go to the ball did he relent: ‘to my great joy, I saw the emperor running down the lawn to the gate with my dress.’24 He then accompanied her a little way on foot as she continued on horseback along the bridle path to the ball.
On another occasion, Betsy more than got her own back. The Emperor had been writing in the garden of the Briars next to a goldfish pond. That same day Sir George Cockburn paid a visit along with his Newfoundland dog, Tom Pipes. The animal had a penchant for bathing in ponds and then having a good shake afterwards. Betsy called the dog and directed it towards the goldfish pond. Afterwards Tom Pipes ran to Napoleon and drenched him and all his papers. She says: ‘It was impossible to help laughing, although he was very angry, for Tom Pipes would not go away; he had been a shipmate of Napoleon’s on board the Northumberland, and was so glad to see him again, that he kept jumping on him with his wet paws, thereby adding mud to wet and dust.’25
It is interesting and instructive to set Betsy’s words alongside those of another English writer - H.G. Wells. This is what Wells wrote about Napoleon in 1920 in his The Outline of History Volume II: ‘The figure he makes in history is one of almost incredible self-conceit, of vanity, of greed, and cunning, of callous contempt and disregard of all who trusted him…’26 And: ‘It would be difficult to find a human being less likely to arouse affection. One reads in vain through the monstrous accumulations of Napoleonic literature for a single record of self-forgetfulness. Laughter is one great difference between man and the lower animals, and there is no evidence that Napoleon ever laughed… There is no proof that this unbrotherly, unhumorous egotist was ever sincerely loved by any human being… He had never even a dog to love him.’27
If one is generous to H.G.Wells we can accuse him of consummate ignorance. He was a great writer but a terrible historian. In fact, he wasn’t an historian at all. And it shows. However, his manufactured lies poisoned a whole generation of English readers against Napoleon, and the same calumnies have been repeated ad nauseam ever since. Even the reference to ‘monstrous Napoleonic literature’ is a dead give away. He literally cannot understand the greatness of the man he is writing about and he obviously resents his acclaim. It is to our shame as a nation that generations of British people have swallowed his malevolent spoon-fed tosh.
Napoleon’s sympathy and empathy for his fellow man was broad and wide-ranging. Tending the Balcombe’s gardens at the Briars was an old Malay slave called Toby. He was quite a character and ruled his small roost as if the turf belonged to him personally. Napoleon asked William Balcombe if he could purchase Toby’s freedom, but this was not allowed - presumably it would set an awkward precedent for all the other slaves on this British island. But Toby’s heart was full of wonder at this noble gesture: ‘The old man retained ever afterwards the most grateful sense of Napoleon’s kindness, and was never more gratified than when employed in gathering the choicest fruit, and arranging the most beautiful bouquets, to be sent to Longwood, to “that good man, Bony,” as he called the emperor.’28 Ever after, Napoleon repeatedly asked after the old man’s heath and when he finally left his enchanted garden at the Briars, he gave Toby twenty napoleons - 400 francs - a stupendous sum for a mere ‘slave’.
H.G. Wells, a slave to his own puerile nationalistic prejudices had either never read Betsy’s account or else he wilfully chose to ignore it. There must have been a reason why tens of thousands of his own soldiers and millions of French peasants loved Napoleon – and there are many more accounts of his generous and kindness to be found for those who are bothered enough to look. On the retreat from Moscow in 1812, the first thing Napoleon did was to give up his own carriage for the wounded. Furthermore, can anyone imagine a dry old stick like Wellington playing with a child or concerning himself with the future of a slave? He was a notoriously bad husband and father and so unpopular when he became Prime Minister that the crowds smashed the windows of Apsley house, his London residence.
Napoleon also liked to entertain Betsy’s brothers. He often sent his lamplighter who had a flare for invention to make toys to amuse the children. One day the servant attached four mice to a small carriage but neither he nor the two brothers could get the terrified creatures to move. Napoleon suggested tweaking their tails - and that did the trick: ‘to our great amusement, Napoleon enjoying the fun as much as any of us, and delighted with the extravagant glee of my two brothers.’29
As Napoleon’s ‘best friend’ Betsy allowed herself to take liberties with the questions she asked him and the subjects they talked about. On one such occasion she enquired about the supposed poisoning of his own troops at Jaffa during his Egyptian campaign. He told her that before leaving Jaffa he had been told that some men were far too dangerously ill to be moved from the hospital. As a consequence, he asked his medical team what could be done about this. Many of the sick had plague and most were not expected to live for more than twenty hours. For the Army to take them along would risk the lives of hundreds of others. Yet, if the very ill were left behind the cruel and merciless Turks would torture and kill them. Hence Napoleon suggested to Desgenettes that as an act of mercy they be given opium to ensure a pain free death. But the physician refused saying his job was not to kill but cure: ‘Accordingly I left a rear-guard to protect these unhappy men from the advancing enemy, and they remained until nature had paid her last debt and released the expiring soldiers from their agony.’ Napoleon added that had his own son be one of them he would have wished for the drug to be administered and had it been himself: ‘I would insist upon it…’30
Betsy also asked about the massacre of Turkish prisoners that had taken place at Jaffa some time before. She does not excuse him remarking that: ‘The execution of the Turkish prisoners at Jaffa was equal in cruelty, though not in extent, to the fusillades of the revolution. Besides which, it was unjustifiable by the usages of war, the Turks having given up their arms and surrendered themselves prisoners of war on condition of safety of life at least.’31 In this she is mistaken. It was customary for the attacker to demand surrender from a besieged fortress before an all out assault that would inevitably cause the death of many of the attackers - they were not called the forlorn hope for nothing. On March 3rd 1799, Napoleon sent an emissary to the enemy commander saying their lives would be spared if they surrendered immediately. In reply the head of the emissary was chopped off and brutally displayed on the battlements at Acre.32 After this bloodthirsty action all bets were off and the defenders had no right whatsoever under the accepted customs of the day.
Napoleon had never wanted to fight the Turks there in the first place - it was called The Egyptian Campaign after all. He initially had no intention of invading Syria. Talleyrand had promised him that he would personally lead a diplomatic mission to Constantinople to try and persuade the Sublime Porte to switch from his British alliance to one with the French. But Talleyrand, as so often, did the exact opposite of what he had said he would do and as a result Napoleon was left in the lurch.33
The fighting at Acre lasted two days and once inside the fortress the French soldiers gave no quarter - remembering how their friends had been massacred during the Cairo insurrection. Even French stragglers and soldiers lost in the desert had been tortured and murdered. As General Michel Franceschi says in his Bonaparte in Egypt: ‘Thus they were engaged against the garrison and against inhabitants captured with weapons in hand. In such circumstances, it was impossible to avoid excesses.’34 The officers tried to reign in the soldiers’ worst behaviour and General Robin even struck his own men with his sabre in an effort to restrain them. By this time, the survivors of the garrison were holed up in the citadel, their last place of refuge. It must be repeated, that by the conventions of the day these were dead men walking. They had no rights whatsoever after refusing to surrender before the walls were stormed.
In a terrible Irony, Napoleon then sent his own stepson Eugene de Beauharnais and another ADC Crozier: ‘ “to calm as much as possible the furor of the soldiers.” ’35They were meant to save women, children and the elderly from the ravages of war, but when their uniforms were recognized, the besieged soldiers asked to surrender to them on condition that they would spare their lives: ‘This was an appalling misunderstanding.’36 Here was yet another bitter irony. Out of the goodness of their hearts, the young French ADCs accepted their surrender and took them to the French camp!
This put Napoleon in a terribly invidious position. Accounts of the numbers who surrendered vary from about 2,000 to 3,500. Franceschi says there were 2,500 Turkish prisoners, most of whom were Albanians.37 Some 300 or so of them had already been set free once before under parole. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Turks and Egyptians were not au fait with the all the conventions of European warfare. These men had given their word not to fight the French but had been captured a second time. Nevertheless, if Napoleon freed them again, what was there to stop them fighting him for a third time? Another act of clemency on his part would clearly be seen as a sign of weakness by a merciless enemy. Not only that, there was already a shortage of food and water in the French Army. There was not enough of either to succour so many prisoners. To abandon the prisoners in the desert would consign them to death by dehydration or if they did survive they could once more join the ranks of the enemy. It was an impossible situation.
Not surprisingly a young general of twenty-nine in a situation not of his own making did not want to harbour the responsibility for such a moral dilemma alone. He held a council of war but it ended without agreement. Two more meetings met with the same result. Only after all the generals of division had debated the question was a decision made - the prisoners were to be executed.38 It was indeed a terrible outcome. Of course, had the situation been reversed, the Turks would have tortured their French prisoners before executing them. Whenever Napoleon’s career is discussed this incident should rightly be weighed in the scales of history. But why do all the British historians who damn Napoleon for his actions at Acre during a time of war never mention the fact that the British navy bombarded Copenhagen in neutral Denmark in 1807 in a sneak surprise attack at the dead of night and murdered some 2,500 civilians in their beds, in order that we could steal all their navy without even a declaration of war?39
The Bombardment of Copenhagen (Anon)
Considering what was to happen to him within a few short years, it is very interesting to read Betsy’s comments about Napoleon’s health when he first arrived at St Helena. When at the Briars he loved to go for long walks in the valley and on the nearby mountain.40 He was also a great horseman on one occasion spurring his mount up a very steep incline, its hooves scattering rocks in all directions and leaving his companions Bertrand, Montholon, Gourgaud and a British orderly floundering in his wake as none of them dare follow him.41 Betsy also witnessed him riding at speed around the lawn of the Briars, putting his black horse Hope through its paces and showing perfect control of the animal.42 He told her that he had once ridden 120 miles in a day to visit his sick mother. She adds: ‘I remember being much surprised at his powers of endurance. His great strength of constitution… enabling him to reach the pinnacles of his ambition… In how many periods of Napoleon’s life would not the illness of a week have been fatal to his future schemes of empire!’43 At the time, despite being overweight, he was fit and vigorous. It might appear that he could live for decades on his island prison, as long as he continued to exercise. Yet he would not even live to see his fifty-second birthday.
Too soon, the happy times at the Briars came to an end and he moved to Longwood. Initially, when the Northumberland docked at Jamestown, even Admiral Cockburn did not know where Napoleon was going to live. He supposed he would get Plantation House, the best residence on the island, but the then Governor Sir Mark Wilks wanted to remain there himself.44 In 1812 Longwood, a former cattle barn and storage shed, had been turned into a summer house by the simple expedient of putting floor boards over the mounds of muck and cow dung it contained.45 The place teemed with rats and was damp and unhygienic. This was the place the British Government thought fit for the former French Emperor. It was also isolated and uncomfortable but Lord Bathurst thought it made Napoleon’s chances of escaping from the island even more remote. Napoleon could sense that trouble was coming: ‘As the time drew near, for Napoleon’s removal from the Briars to Longwood, he would come into the drawing-room oftener, and stay longer. He would, he said, have preferred altogether remaining at the Briars; because he beguiled the hours with us better than he ever thought it possible he could have done on such a horrible rock as St Helena.’46
The scene had been set for the murder of Napoleon.
The Emperor was now well and truly isolated physically and watched over constantly by his former enemies. He had very little personal freedom and virtually none when it came to the harsh living conditions he was forced to accept at Longwood. Furthermore, in regard to his emotional state, his mind must have been in constant turmoil. Although he was a past master at hiding his feelings, even more so as a prisoner he would not wish to reveal his innermost thoughts to his captors, he must have had to fight continually to bolster his own spirits. Above all else, he had little or nothing to hope for. He might have half-persuaded himself that the British Government might relent and allow him to return to Europe eventually - even if under permanent house arrest in England itself, as he had envisaged when he boarded the Bellerophon. But in his heart of hearts, he must have known that he was doomed to die on that unforgiving island.
In his daily life, he also very much missed the company of those he held dear. Undermining Napoleon all the time were the vast distances that separated him from not only his wife and child but all the other members of his family. He was denied contact with all those that had been most close to him, to those whom he had loved and those who loved him. Josephine was dead and that knowledge alone must have been a terrible burden to him. Indeed, Betsy recalls a visit by the wives of Montholon and Bertrand when he was still at the Briars, when Madame Bertrand showed him a miniature of Josephine: ‘He gazed at it with the greatest emotion for a considerable time without speaking. At last, he exclaimed it was the most perfect likeness he had ever seen of her, and told Madame Bertrand he would keep it, which he did, until his death.’47 Betsy’s own mother reminded him a lot of Josephine and he was often caught staring at her in a wistful fashion: ‘Her memory appeared to be idolized by him, and he was never weary of excelling on her sweetness of disposition and the grace of her movements. He said she was the most truly feminine women he had ever known.’48 No wonder the ungainly and self-important Madame de Staël was never able to worm her way into Napoleon’s affections despite her crass and unwelcomed flirtatious behaviour. Then, as a result of her failure in the romantic sphere, this same woman who once sang paeans of praise about him as the greatness man living, having been well and truly rejected, turned her pen into one of the most poisonous ever to be used against him: hell hath no fury like a woman scorned - particularly an ugly one.
After Madame Bertrand had shown her miniature of Josephine, Napoleon displayed portraits of Marie Louise. He spoke warmly of her also and expressed his fondness for the younger Empress. He told Betsy she would have followed him to St Helena if she had been allowed to go. She had intended to rejoin him but, as we have seen, her own heartless father and the revolting predatory Neipperg made sure that she did not. As a consequence, Napoleon was also denied the company of his son The King of Rome whom he dearly loved. He brooded over the absence of his child daily. Betsy adds that she thought Marie Louise was not attractive unlike: ‘his own handsome and intellectual looking family.’49 However, all these reminders of what once had been and could never be again, played havoc with Napoleon’s emotions, churning up the depths: “he had been in low spirits since receiving his visitor, and after all the portraits of the empress Josephine and Maria Louisa (sic) had been produced, he appeared absorbed in mournful reflection, and was still more melancholy and dejected for the rest of the evening.’50
The world was closing in on Napoleon. Once he seemed to hold heaven in the palms of his hands; now there was only a hell of isolation and sorrow focussed with unbending malevolence on a tiny island, with himself at its centre. Things could only get worse and they did with the arrival of Sir Hudson Lowe in 1816.
The weather and climate of St Helena played havoc with the health of all its inhabitants, not only Napoleon and his entourage, but the indigenous population and with the British troops and sailors garrisoned there as well. Betsy makes a pointed reference to the Emperor’s own situation once he left the Briars: ‘Napoleon’s health and activity began to decline soon after his arrival at Longwood. In consequence of the unfortunate disputes with the governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, his health became visibly impaired.’51 When Napoleon left for Longwood, Mrs Balcombe was not there to see him off because she was ill in bed and, some months later, Betsy herself became seriously ill and Dr O’Meara feared for the worst. Here again, she records a side of him seldom mentioned by many writers - his sympathy for those that were ill: ‘The emperor’s kindness in making enquiries after me, and his other attentions, I can never forget.’52 Similarly, upon hearing that her mother was ill, he had insisted on going up to her, enquiring after her health, and presenting her with a gold snuffbox as a gift and mark of friendship for her husband.
Napoleon’s acts of mercy for his fallen foes, is another quality utterly absent from books by most British historians. One morning while walking in the gardens of Longwood, Betsy encountered him and he bade her come and see his new toys. In his billiard room was a superb set of chessmen, a present for a Mr Elphinstone. Every single piece was beautifully carved and an exquisite artistic item. These priceless gifts were given to him: ‘from the circumstance of the emperor having humanely attended to his brother, when severely wounded on the field of Waterloo - on which occasion Napoleon sent for his refreshment a goblet of wine from his own canteen, on hearing he was faint from the loss of blood.’53
More than once was he solicitous about the welfare of his former enemies. Captain Henry Meynell, Commander of HMS Newcastle, often accompanied Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm, Admiral Cockburn’s replacement, when he visited Longwood. On hearing that Meynell was dangerously ill and being cared for at the Briars, Napoleon sent his servant Cipriani to enquire after his health every day. Later, when he was moved to Plantation House, Meynell had a relapse and: ‘the emperor begged, when next we saw Lady Lowe, we would send him word how the brave Captain was.’54
What a contrast with his worthless highborn British jailors who never forgave him for being greater than all the so-called ‘legitimate’ divine right monarchs put together. Lord Bathurst, a fully paid up member of the real ‘scum of the earth’, did not have a drop of sympathy for his helpless victim.
Interestingly, Jean-Baptiste Cipriani, Napoleon’s much valued Corsican servant, was yet another person whose life was cut short on St Helena. He unexpectedly fell seriously ill on February 24th 1818, suffering from severe stomach pains and cold chills. Despite every attempt being made to save him, he died two days later.55 Up to then, like his master, he had hardly ever been ill in his life. He was immediately buried but it was rumoured that a post mortem was impossible because his body had disappeared! Perhaps with the telltale symptoms described above, he had been poisoned with arsenic, commonly used on the island as a rat poison. Was his probable murder a dummy run for that of Napoleon himself?
Sir Hudson Lowe soon began to get rid of people he did not like, especially those that seemed to have too much contact with his illustrious prisoner. The surgeon of the Conqueror John Stokoe attended Napoleon for three days in 1819 and because he did not follow the exact protocol ordained for such contact by the Governor, he found himself not only banished from the island and dismissed from the Navy on half-pay, he was also subsequently court-martialled. Lowe was a vindictive man and it was unwise to cross him.56
Betsy had cried bitterly when Napoleon left the Briars. He said to her: ‘You must not cry, Mademoiselle Betsee; you must come and see me next week, and very often.’57 As William Balcombe was the purveyor to Longwood, she was able to visit on a weekly basis: ‘… I remember being in a state of ecstasy at the prospect of again beholding my old playmate - the loss of whose society I had so deeply regretted.’58 However, she was not impressed on her first call at Longwood, describing the bedroom as small and cheerless, while the views from the house could only be called savage, wild and rugged. It was a relatively small soulless residence for a man who had once had the whole of Europe at his feet and must have been a big disappointment to Napoleon after his pleasant stay at the Briars.
One of the highlights of the St Helena social calendar were the Deadwood Races inaugurated by the Honourable Henry John Rous. Having been barred from attending them by her father due to her inattention to her studies, Betsy was downcast and miserable. Even her pony Tom had been given away for the day to make sure she stopped at home. However, when Napoleon heard of her distress from Dr O’Meara, he sent her a horse called Mameluke, the most docile animal in his stable, already equipped with a side-saddle. But as so often in life, a good deed does not go unpunished: ‘This simply good-natured act of the emperor occasioned no small disturbance on the island, and sufficiently punished me for acting contrary to my father’s wishes, by the pain it gave me to hear that he was considered to have committed a breach of discipline in permitting one of the family to ride a horse belonging to the Longwood establishment, and for which he was reprimanded by the governor.’59 Such pettiness and pedantry was typical of the man. Only the Governor could stoop so low. He even took umbrage when he discovered that Betsy’s birthday cake sent from England had been adorned with a large eagle. It is no wonder that when Madame Bertrand presented her newborn son Arthur to the Emperor she joked: ‘Allow me to present to your majesty a subject who has dared to enter the gates of Logwood without a pass from Sir Hudson Lowe.’60 On another occasion, when the piano at Longwood needed tuning, the only person able to perform that task was the bandmaster on the General Kid, Mr Guinness who was just about to set off when he got an order from the Governor preventing him from leaving the ship. No wonder that Napoleon and his entourage came to hate the very sound of his name.61
Despite being exiled by the British Government, Napoleon did have friends in England. Lady Holland sent him many books and gifts and he always called her ‘La bonne Lady Holland.’62 He also spoke to Betsy about his admiration for Charles James Fox: ‘He was sincere and honest in his intentions, and had he lived, England would not have been desolated by war; he was the only minister who knew the interests of his country.’63 He told her how welcome Fox had been when he visited France and how every town and city vied to do the greatest honour to him. When the famous Englishman visited St Cloud he found himself by error in Napoleon’s private apartments and there, to his surprise, along with busts of great men like Washington and Cicero, his wife noticed a bust of Fox.64
Shortly after Napoleon left for Longwood, a distinguished French lady visited the Briars and asked to see the rooms where he had stayed. When she saw the crown carved in the turf by members of his entourage she burst into a flood of tears and sank to the ground in despair. Betsy was shocked by this outburst of emotion: ‘She entreated me not to mention to anyone what had occurred, and proceeded to say that the memory of Napoleon was treasured in the hearts of the French people as it was in hers, and that they would all willingly die for him.’65
The longer Napoleon remained on St Helena, the worst he felt: ‘He constantly complained of illness from the exposed situation of Longwood, the wind continually beating in his face, or the sun scorching his brain; he used to observe, when at the Briars, that he never suffered any ailment, for there he had shady and sheltered walks.’66 Shortly before the Balcombes left the island for the last time, Betsy states that he had been very ill and that as Dr O’Meara felt that he might never recover, he was anxious for a second opinion. However, Napoleon would have none of it, saying that any other medical man would say the same thing, namely exercise, and that he would not do so when surrounded by sentries and being under constant surveillance.
Betsy describes how much he had changed in only a couple of years: ‘When we saw Napoleon after this illness, the havoc and change it had made in his appearance was sad to look upon. His face was literally the colour of yellow wax, and his cheeks had fallen in pouches on either side of his face. His ankles were so swollen that the flesh literally hung over his shoes; he was so weak, that without resting one hand on a table near him, and the other on the shoulder of an attendant, he could not have stood.’67 This remarkable decline is telling: is this just the result of not enough walks and horse riding? That is very hard to believe. Betsy could not restrain her tears at his terrible appearance and her mother said he had the look of death about him. Ironically, it was the fact that Mrs Balcombe herself was seriously ill that necessitated the family leaving for England on doctor’s advice.
Betsy went with her father and sister to visit him one last time. Napoleon saw his own future clearly: ‘Soon you will be sailing away towards England, leaving me to die on this miserable rock. Look at those dreadful mountains - they are my prison walls. You will soon hear that the Emperor Napoleon is dead.’68 They shared a final meal and he embraced them, saying he would never forget their kindness and friendship. Napoleon asked Betsy what she would like as a parting gift. She asked for a lock of his hair. Marchand cut four locks, one for Betsy and others for her father, mother and sister: ‘I still possess that lock of hair; it is all left me of the many tokens of remembrance of the Great Emperor.’69
1. Lucia Elizabeth Abell Napoleon and Betsy - Recollections of Napoleon on St Helena
(UK: Fonthill Media Limited, 2012) 12
2. Sam Llewellyn Small Parts in History (London: Sidgwick & Jackson Limited, 1985) 76
3. Roger Lovegrove Islands Beyond The Horizon (Oxford: OUP, 2012) 104
4. Abell op.cit. 43
5. Ibid. 7
6. Ibid. 7
7. Ibid. 18
8. Ibid. 46
9. Ibid. 46
10. Ibid. 47
11. Ibid. 49
12. Ibid. 49
13. Ibid. 49-50
14. Ibid. 50
15. Ibid. 53
16. Ibid. 54
17. Ibid. 55
18. Ibid. 55
19. Ibid. 56
20. Ibid. 57
21. Ibid. 52
22. Ibid. 68
23. Ibid. 59
24. Ibid. 60
25. Ibid. 110-111
26. H.G. Wells The Outline Of History Volume II (London: The Waverley Book Company Ltd, 1920) 490
27. Ibid. 499
28. Abell op.cit. 62
29. Ibid. 67
30. Ibid. 119
31. Ibid. 119-120
32. General Michel Franceschi Bonaparte in Egypt (Montreal: International Napoleonic Society, 2006) 45
33. Ibid. 43
34. Ibid. 45
35. Ibid. 46
36. Ibid. 46
37. Ibid. 46
38. Ibid. 46-47
39. Thomas Munch-Petersen Defying Napoleon (UK Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2007) Flyleaf:
‘Britain’s operation against neutral Denmark was prompted by fears that her navy might fall into the
hands of Napoleon and be turned against Britain… The operation is also the first example in modern
history of terror bombardment being used against a major European city. To gain quick possession of
the Danish fleet the British had to secure Copenhagen’s surrender, in the words of one of the staff
officers ‘by the sufferings of the inhabitants themselves’. The terrifying bombardment was the first
occasion on which rockets (the ‘Congreve rocket’) were employed on a large scale.’ See also Preface
page ix : ‘And there is no getting away from the fact that the operation, whether justified or not,
involved unprovoked aggression against a neutral state and the terror bombardment of a civilian
40. Abell op.cit. 53
41. Ibid. 63
42. Ibid. 99
43. Ibid. 65
44. Ibid. 7-8
45. Ibid. 9
46. Ibid. 73
47. Ibid. 71
48. Ibid. 71
49. Ibid. 72
50. Ibid. 72
51. Ibid. 74
52. Ibid. 75
53. Ibid. 87-88
54. Ibid. 94 and Note 57.142
55. Ibid. 134
56. Ibid. 112
57. Ibid. 73-74
58. Ibid. 76
59. Ibid. 81
60. Ibid. 83
61. Ibid. 87
62. Ibid. 102
63. Ibid. 102
64. Ibid. 103
65. Ibid. 126
66. Ibid. 106
67. Ibid. 107
68. Ibid. 122
69. Ibid. 123
Abell Elizabeth Lucia Napoleon and Betsy - Recollections of Napoleon on St Helena (UK: Fonthill
Media Limited, 2012)
Franceschi General Michel Bonaparte in Egypt (Montreal: International Napoleonic Society, 2006)
Llewellyn Sam Small Parts in History (London: Sidgwick & Jackson Limited, 1985)
Lovegrove Roger Islands Beyond the Horizon (Oxford: OUP, 2012)
Munch-Petersen Thomas Defying Napoleon (UK Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2007)
Wells H.G. The Outline of History Volume II (London: The Waverley Book Company Ltd, 1920)
© John Tarttelin 2016
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