Napoleon visited England

France and England
argue about Napoleon

The general died on St. Helena 200 years ago. Author Peter Sichrovsky on the spectacle with Napoleon souvenirs.

On October 15, 1815, an English ship brought the former Emperor of the French and ruler over half of Europe to the lonely island of St. Helena after a ten-week voyage. There he died on May 5, 1821, only 51 years old, surrounded by servants and doctors, plagued by stomach pains in his simple cot, which he had brought with him, into which he liked to retreat behind drawn blue curtains.

Napoleon actually wanted to flee to the USA after the Waterloo disaster and follow his brother Joseph, the former Emperor of Spain, who bought an estate in New Jersey and took on American citizenship. But the British blocked the ports and banished Napoleon to St. Helena, that rugged, rocky, ever-windy island between South America and Africa, which he could not leave like the island of Elba once did. Discovered in 1502 by the Portuguese admiral João da Nova, it remained a secret of the Portuguese for eight decades, who used the uninhabited island as a stopover between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Verde. They left three slaves to build a house and a church, grow vegetables, and tend the imported pigs and goats. It was discovered by the British explorer Thomas Cavendish in 1588, and after it was taken over by the East India Company, it was more and more populated and a British governor was installed.

Napoleon hated the island from day one. "If I die on the throne, in the midst of the cloud of my omnipotence, I would be a problem for many people; today, however, thanks to the misfortune that has befallen me, I can be judged nakedly," is one of the sayings he has Posterity left behind. He lived bitter and lonely in the "Longwood House" built especially for him, which was difficult to heat and which, apart from the French prisoner and his servants, allegedly mainly housed rats.

View through the toilet window

The British appointed Governor Sir Hudson Lowe was responsible for ensuring that the prisoner would not leave the island. A task that made him so nervous that he himself became a prisoner of his panic and fears. He set up a security system with 2,000 soldiers guarding Napoleon's home and gardens, and insisted on seeing the French in person at least once a day. He is said to have played this game, hid in the gardens or did not leave the house for days, locked the doors and did not respond to calls or knocks. Some days the governor tried the toilet window and waited for hours in front of it, hoping Napoleon would show up there at least once a day. He had cannons set up on the hills around the property and dispatched several ships that circled the island in the opposite direction to prevent an attempt to escape. In his memoir, Hudson Loew mentions only six extensive conversations with the prominent prisoner and emphasizes that he has refused to address him as King of France.

The approaching 200th birthday is now leading to a conflict in the culture of remembrance between France and Great Britain. The area where Napoleon spent his last years, including the building and garden, belongs to France. A French honorary consul rules there. He feels responsible for the celebrations in honor of the French general, organizes lectures, coordinates visits by historians and other scholars and is of the opinion that only he and his team should organize the festivities. The houses that Napoleon lived in were renovated and turned into museums.

The garden, in which Napoleon lovingly planted local fruit and vegetables and where he loved to hang out, is to be reconstructed as an original. Since there was absolutely nothing to do on St. Helena and he was watched and pursued by British soldiers at every turn, the once most powerful man in Europe threw himself into gardening. Not just to kill time, he had other plans too. He started planting flower beds around his house, and his small retinue from France had to help. He understood the growing garden as a method of "expansion policy", as soldiers surrounded his house day and night and had to retreat due to the growing area around the building.

The years of loneliness and illness made him bitter and desperate. Everyday life on St. Helena did not correspond to the ideas of the last years of his life. Absolutely nothing happened, there were no visits, and one by one his companions left the island. The bored court and the soldiers suffered as much as their prisoner. Reports of intrigue, quarrels and dozens of duels can be found in the messages the governor sent to London.

British territory

The island is British territory. Until a few years ago, only one British mail ship reached the island's only port once a week. Now there is an airport and the British governor is expecting tourists who would finally visit this forgotten island. The anniversary of Napoleon's death is to be used for advertising purposes, much to the displeasure of the French honorary consul, who sees memory as a rather elitist affair and who dislikes a tourist spectacle with Napoleon souvenirs. Elba is the negative example with Napoleon schnapps, chains, pendants, badges, hats and beer mats.

But the British governor is not deterred. A new hotel and numerous souvenir shops recently opened. Flight operations were expanded from one to two landings per week. Lord Ashcroft, a British millionaire, donated £ 300,000 to renovate the island's attractions, including Tobby's Cottage, where Napoleon was held after he landed. A "Napoleon Bicentenary Trust" was founded to finance the restoration of the security systems. The French concentrate on the "Longwood House" museum with Napoleon's original furniture and over 900 everyday objects. In the governor's residence, a chandelier hangs from Napoleon's living room, and in the Farm Lodge, the only hotel, there is a rocking chair on which Napoleon was supposedly sitting. After a painting by Napoleon's doctor, the walls of the house were even repainted in the original colors. France brought a teacher who teaches French to the 4,000 residents of St. Helena in one of the few schools. The British administration has rebuilt his grave in Sane Valley, where Napoleon was buried. France did not allow the transfer to Paris until 19 years after his death.

The only source of income - apart from the hoped-for tourism - is the St. Helena coffee. It is one of the most expensive types of coffee in the world and has been grown on the island since 1732. The image of coffee is also based on the French. Shortly before his death he had only one wish - a cup of St. Helena coffee.

Incidentally, Napoleon was not the last prisoner on the island. Later Zulu chiefs, prisoners from the Boer War and the Sultan of Zanzibar including his harem were interned here. This tradition only ended in 1961. Three conspirators from the Sultanate of Bahrain, who had been taken into custody by the British at the request of the Sultan after an attempted coup, sued against the violation of the Habeas Corpus Act (repeated arrests for the same offense) and won justice in a British court. Would Napoleon have also succeeded in a habeas corpus lawsuit? Yes, my lawyers, if he hadn't voluntarily embarked on a British ship.

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