Napoleon Bonaparte: England’s Prisoner, by Frank Giles

The sun comes up like news from Africa.
–Stevens, “A Word with José Rodríguez-Feo”

There was the germ of a conspiracy to hide Napoleon in a barrel and get him to America, but he had a family and a suite of sixty hangers-on to look out for. An attempt by a constitutional lawyer named Capel Lofft to serve a writ of habeas corpus on the theory that the Emperor’s presence on the Bellerophon made him subject to English legal protection met bad luck, so Napoleon never had the benefit of English law, but only English custom and the respect of one military man for another.

St. Helena is 700 miles southeast of Ascension (the nearest land), 1,695 miles northwest of Cape Town, and 4,477 miles from Southampton. It lies within the tropics, but its climate is temperate.

He was housed at Longwood, a converted farmhouse set on a high plateau. Napoleon suggested that he move into Plantation House, the governor’s residence, but Major-General Hudson Lowe would not move out to suit his prisoner’s sense of decorum.

There lasted a period of stubbornness. Napoleon refused to meet with his jailer, who refused to modify what he saw as his duties. There were strict orders never to address the prisoner as “Emperor.” This went so far that a gift of books inscribed by the author to “Imperatori Napoleon” was confiscated. The book considers from all sides the performance of Lowe, much vilified for his maltreatment of the great man, but defended by the Duke of Wellington.

The prisoner’s death came under some suspicion. The official verdict was stomach cancer; conspiracy theories abounded. He was buried in an unmarked grave on the island; unmarked, because of a dispute between Lowe and Napoleon’s aides.

By 1840, memories had softened enough to allow his disinterment and reburial in the Invalides, “near the bank of the Seine,” as he had wished. Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort paid their respects in 1855. A witness recalled that the Queen whispered to the thirteen-year-old Prince of Wales to “kneel down before the tomb of the great Napoleon.”

Looking back at St. Helena

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