Napoleon’s Exile In Saint Helena: Prisoner of State or War?

Sophie Gee

Age of Revolution French Revolution and Napoleon
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They needed a prison for the most dangerous man in the World. Napoleon had seized supreme power in France. He’d marched his armies from Portugal to Moscow. But now he was a prisoner.

The British were determined that the former Emperor’s place of exile be secure. He had escaped exile on Elba earlier in 1815 and gone on to engage in the Battle of Waterloo.

With this in mind, a tiny island in the South Atlantic was chosen, over one thousand miles from the African mainland. This was Saint Helena.

It was on this remote Atlantic island that Napoleon spent his final six years.

Napoleon being greeted by the 5th Regiment at Grenoble, 7 March 1815, after escaping his first exile on Elba. Painted by Charles de Steuben, 1818. (Credit: Public Domain)

Arrival in Exile

On 15 October 1815 Bonaparte disembarked the HMS Northumberland at dusk, having decreed that he would not come ashore to Saint Helena whilst it was still light. He did not wish to be observed arriving in exile.

Nonetheless around 400 islanders stood by as Napoleon entered Jamestown. He remarked bitterly: ‘it is an unlovely place’.

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Saint Helena’s Trade and Security

For the first few weeks of his exile Napoleon lived in Briar’s Pavilion, as a guest of William Balcombe.

Balcombe was an employee of the East India Company for, as well as being an ideal location for Napoleon’s secure imprisonment, Saint Helena was important to Transatlantic trade.

Discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, the island was used as a rendezvous and provisions stop between Asia and Europe. Saint Helena was claimed by the Dutch in 1633, and then by the East India Company in 1657.

The British presence on the island extended even to Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Wellington had stayed on Saint Helena in the very same building where his foe spent his first night in exile ten years later.

Saint Helena’s strategic importance makes it no surprise that High Knoll Fort was constructed, overlooking Jamestown 600 metres above sea level.

High Knoll Fort painted by James Whathen, 1821 (Credit: Public Domain).

Once Napoleon arrived, however, High Knoll acquired the new role of defending against French rescue missions. Whilst living in Briar’s Pavilion at the base of the hill, the former emperor was under constant surveillance by the fort’s sentries.

In addition the British stationed an entire garrison on Ascension Island, a fellow volcanic island north-west of Saint Helena, as a precaution against the possibility of Napoleon escaping.

Conditions of exile

Bonaparte was not alone under these circumstances. He had been voluntarily accompanied into exile by several of his aides, including former adjutants and their wives.

Notably missing from the group, however, were Napoleon’s son (later Napoleon II) and wife Marie-Louise, who had declined to join him in his previous exile on Elba and had since become estranged.

Marie Louise with her son Napoleon, the King of Rome, 1811 (Credit: Public Domain).

After a couple of months as a welcome guest of Balcombe and his family, Bonaparte was moved to Longwood House in December 1815. His new residence was more spacious and private. But it was also reportedly damp, cold and had the benefit, for the British, of being more secure.

Whilst he was permitted to go anywhere on the island in the presence of a British officer, Napoleon chose to remain inside the house and grounds for much of his remaining life.

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Throughout this time, however, the ex-Emperor stubbornly expressed his right to be a prisoner of State, rather than of War, and thus to be afforded superior treatment.

Bonaparte ate well, had daily long baths and spent his time gardening in the grounds of Longwood. He also spent time reading, writing, dictating, and learning English.

Among the products of Napoleon’s exile were books written by Emmanuel, Comte de Las Cases, General Gaspard Gourgaud and the Comte Charles de Montholon. Each recounted conversations held with the former Emperor about his career, political philosophy and exile conditions.

Only de Montholon remained on Saint Helena until Napoleon’s death, but none of the texts were published until later.

Longwood House (Credit: Public Domain/National Library of France).

Napoleon’s treatment was lenient in regards to packages of books received from Britain. Sent by Lady Holland, the wife of a high ranking British opposition politician who saw the ex-Emperor as a prisoner of State rather than War, these parcels could not be rejected. As such, Bonaparte had a sizeable collection of books in addition to maps.

Napoleon had a difficult relationship with the Governor of Saint Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe. Lowe treated his prisoner with less respect than the latter felt he deserved, ruling that he should not be addressed by his imperial titles.

It was, and is, often suggested that the conditions in which Napoleon was kept attributed to his death. Two doctors – Barry O’Meara and John Stokoe – were dismissed after advocating for better conditions at the signs of illness. O’Meara argued that there was a connection in a book published in 1822.

The Governor was eventually persuaded to build a new Longwood. But its famous resident would not live to see it finished.

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Death and Burial

Napoleon Bonaparte died on the 5 May 1821, aged 51. He had reconnected with the Catholic Church and been granted confession, extreme unction and viaticum by Father Angelo Vignali.

Autopsies were carried out by both the British and the French, with the conclusion that the former Emperor had died of damage to his stomach, intestines and liver.

After two days on public view, his body was buried in the Sane Valley on Saint Helena, where he had been known to walk among the geranium bushes. This was his second choice of burial site, the first being:

‘I wish my ashes to rest on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of that French people which I have loved so much.’

19 years after his death this wish was granted. On the request of the July Monarchy, which had revitalised France in 1830, Napoleon’s body was exhumed and returned to France in 1840. His final resting place is under the dome of the Place des Invalides.

The ‘Retour des Cendres’, Return of the Ashes, of Napoleon. The funeral carriage heads towards the Place des Invalides in the distance (far right). Adolphe Jean-Baptiste Bayot and Eugène Charles François Guérard, 15 December 1840 (Credit: Musée de l’Armée/CC).

Many voices of dissent have hypothesised that Napoleon’s death was a murder, that he was slowly poisoned. This would account for reports of the unusual preservation of his body noted when it was moved.

The French have since bought Longwood House and Napoleon’s former burial place to commemorate the Emperor’s final exile. They were also determined to prevent trophy hunting. Even branches from the trees in the Sane Valley were reportedly taken as souvenirs of the leader of the largest European Empire since the Caesars.

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Sophie Gee