The ‘human’ side of Napoleon on St Helena, one of the most remote places on earth
The most famous resident of Saint Helena, a tiny island in the South Atlantic, was larger than life. Napoleon Bonaparte spent the last five years of his life in exile on the island–one of the most remote places on earth. Residents had hoped that the bicentennial of his death on 5 May 2021 would attract visitors. Covid-19 has made that impossible.
Sixteen acres of Saint Helena, a British territory some 2,000 kilometres off the coast of Angola, belong to France: the French national properties of Saint Helena. The man tasked with overseeing them – and as a consequence, preserving Napoleon’s legacy on the island – is Michel Dancoisne-Martineau.
He is the only French person of the island’s 4,500 residents, and has lived there for over thirty years.
Saint Helena is extremely isolated, with a commercial airport opened since late 2017. Previously the only way to get to Saint Helena was by mail boat. That isolation was why Britain decided to send Napoleon there in 1815, to make sure he would not escape and reclaim his position as Emperor.
Listen to an interview with Michel Dancoisne-Martineau in the Spotlight on France podcast:
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and his abdication in June of 1815, he planned to escape to the United States but ended up surrendering to the British.
Saint Helena was chosen for his exile, because he had managed to escape from the island of Elba, in the Mediterranean, after his first abdication the year before.
Napoleon, who had risen through the military ranks during the Revolution, took power in France in 1799 and crowned himself Emperor in 1804 at the age of 35. Over the next decade he conquered much of Europe.
In France, he imposed reforms – codifying laws, putting in place the civil code known as the Napoleonic Code – that still exists today. He also introduced public education.
But by 1815, all that was over. On Saint Helena, Napoleon started to write and dictate his memoirs, and after two years he withdrew further into his exile and “was much more concentrated on redoing the garden”, says Dancoisne-Martineau.
“It’s such an abstraction when you think about the Napoleonic Code and all his political accomplishments… When you come to Saint Helena, he is a human,” he says. Napoleon “is an ordinary man dealing with his own fall. And you can relate to personal feeling and human feeling”.
When Napoleon first arrived in Saint Helena he stayed at The Briars, the home of an English merchant, before he was moved to Longwood, a house originally built for the island’s lieutenant governor.
Dancoisne-Martineau lived in the officers’ quarters of Longwood when he first arrived in Saint Helena in 1986 to take over as honorary consul when he was barely 20 years old.
At the time the building was rundown, not very different from when Napoleon lived there.
Longwood sits on the top of a hill, which has “the worst climate of the island”, says Dancoisne-Martineau. “Most of the year it is extremely damp, extremely gloomy, because it's 500 metres high. It's always in the clouds. And when there is a bit of sunshine it makes the whole place even more steamy.”
But he says the choice of location was not necessarily intended as a punishment for Napoleon – rather, as the highest point on the island, it was the most visible, and therefore strategic to keep an eye on the high-profile prisoner.
Longwood was meant to be temporary quarters. London had ordered a more luxurious, well-furnished house to be built for Napoleon, but he rejected the plans, and did not live to see it finished.
He died on 5 May 1821 of stomach cancer, though traces of arsenic found in his hair have lead to speculations that he was poisoned.
Napoleon was buried on Saint Helena. In 1840, his body was exhumed and brought to Paris to be interred in the mausoleum at the Invalides.
Since 1987, Dancoisne-Martineau has been in charge of the French national properties of Saint Helena, which include Longwood, The Briars and the grave site, all of which Napoleon’s son had purchased and donated to France in 1858.
Over the years Dancoisne-Martineau has managed to convince the French foreign ministry to finance the restoration of Longwood, which was falling into disrepair. He argued it was worth conserving, even though Napoleon lived there after his political career was over.
“The life of an exile, a politician and statesman is on its own a story to tell: somebody who touched the top and fell deep down,” he says.
As he has a background in landscaping, Dancoisne-Martineau first worked on restoring Longwood’s gardens, designed by Napoleon himself.
He also went looking for the furniture and objects, most of which were still on the island, as they were sold at auction after Napoleon’s death. He tracked down some 120 pieces of furniture, out of the 180 sold.
The aim of the renovation was to make the house look as it would have the day Napoleon died, though in better shape.
“The fact that the wood in the floor was rotten, rats were crawling under the floor, slates were falling from the roof, water running on the walls... that I can’t offer to the public because I’m concerned about the conservation of the objects,” says Dancoisne-Martineau.
He wanted to avoid any interpretation of Napoleon and his legacy in the house.
“Because, let’s face it, Napoleon is very polemical… I keep my distance,” he says, refusing to comment on what he thinks of the man who transformed France and Europe, but who ruled as a dictator and reintroduced slavery, which had been abolished in France’s colonies during the Revolution.
“When you visit the house, you are visiting the house of a man who died yesterday. The furniture is there,” says Dancoisne-Martineau. “There is no text explaining the story, just an audio guide giving the facts. It’s up to you to make up your mind.”
The island, dependent on aid from the UK, banks on tourism to boost the economy. Dancoisne-Martineau and others on Saint Helena had been building up to the bicentennial of Napoleon’s death, hoping to draw in visitors to the sites and commemorative events.
But Covid has put that on hold. The pandemic made the already difficult-to-access island even more inaccessible. The weekly flight to South Africa was suspended in late March 2020, and the island was effectively closed to outsiders.
“It’s like being doubly punished, a double confinement. We were already cut off from the rest of the world, but now we are also confined from the rest of the world with restrictions: no more flights, no more ships, nothing," says Dancoisne-Martineau.
However, the isolation had its upside: no Covid.
“Over the last 18 months, nobody wore masks, we walked around kissing each other in the street, shaking hands,” he says. Life was normal, and now, thanks to a shipment of vaccines from the UK, everyone is vaccinated.
The events to mark the bicentennial of Napoleon’s death will be held as planned, but with only islanders present. They will be transmitted live online: a way for Napoleon to reach out, via satellite, from his isolated exile.
Listen to an interview with Michel Dancoisne-Martineau in the Spotlight on France podcast.
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