ST. HELENA

St. Helena

Where Napoleon Spent His Final Years

Longwood House on St. Helena Island, where Napoleon spent his final years

Longwood House, where Napoleon spent most of his final six years, was formerly the summer home of a St. Helena lieutenant governor. Owned by the French government, it still flies the tricolore.

PETER NEVILLE-HADLEY/Meridian Writers’ Group

IF ANYONE knows anything about St Helena, a small rocky island in the middle of the South Atlantic, it’s that Napoleon Bonaparte lived out his last years in exile here.

Napoleon’s escape from Elba taught the British a lesson, and after defeating him again at Waterloo in 1815 they took him to one of the most isolated inhabited spots on earth, 10 by 17 kilometres, 1,950 kilometres west of the African coastline, where he died and was buried in 1821.

The British increased the garrison at the already fortified island and stationed heavily armed vessels in surrounding waters ready to repel any attempt at rescue. But today three sites connected with his six-year stay draw visitors in on weekly flights from Johannesburg, and are among the island’s principal attractions.

The Briars Pavilion, where Napoleon lived for seven weeks while he waited for improvements to his permanent home to be completed, is just uphill from the tiny capital, Jamestown. The ex-emperor lived in a single green-painted room now restored to its early 19th-century condition with furniture of the period based on descriptions left by his entourage.

He then moved six kilometres inland to Longwood House, a farm building on an elevated plain which had become the governor’s summer residence, and where much of his 28-strong retinue now crowded into a warren of small rooms.

Today the French tricolore flaps above ornate gardens of tropical brilliance in whose organization Napoleon personally took a hand, and inside the house many of his original furnishings have been retrieved and restored. A billiard table brought for Napoleon from England dominates the first room, although he did not take to the game and covered its baize in maps while he relived past campaigns and dictated his memoirs.

The atmosphere is one of genuflection. The house guidebook describes the drawing room where Napoleon died, even its original wallpaper of ivory with blue stars now recreated, as the “holy of holies.” Signs warning not to touch artifacts or to sit on furniture almost outnumber the historical items themselves. Staff pad watchfully behind visitors as if to ensure that they do not pocket the spoons. Photography is strictly forbidden.

One of many contemporary prints and pictures on display shows Napoleon stepping up from his grave in full uniform, aided by Marianne, symbolic figurehead of France, and by the real-life French aristocrat who, in 1840, came to repatriate his remains to Les Invalides in Paris.

His former tomb, in a valley a short distance west of Longwood, is still a poignant spot. A leafy path leads gently downhill to the head of the valley and pretty, well-tended terraced gardens around a blank slab. The British, who throughout treated Napoleon as merely a general, declined to allow the French to inscribe his name in an imperial style, so it was left without inscription.

The French purchased Longwood House and the Valley of the Tomb in 1858, and a descendant of the original owners donated the Briars Pavilion in 1959—now three corners of a foreign field that are forever France.

 

ACCESS

For more information on Longwood House, the Briars Pavilion and Napoleon’s tomb visit the French government’s website at www.ste-helene.domaine-national.fr.

For information on St. Helena visit the St. Helena Tourism website at www.sthelenatourism.com.