Coming Soon – August 15th
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It is dusk on Monday 16th October 1815 and we are floating amid the tension, fear and expectation rising from a hushed crowd gathered on the edge of one of the most remote islands on earth.
Soldiers, slaves, shopkeepers and ladies jostle for a view of the shadowy figure being ferried across the still, dark water from the 74-gun ship-of-the-line whose silhouette dominates the bay. Will he have one burning eye staring out of his forehead? Will he growl and gnash his teeth and eat the children? Will he rage and shake his chains, this daemonic, petulant, parvenu midget who has bled Europe almost dry with his insatiable power lust?
Napoleon Bonaparte walks down the gangplank into the lantern-light a man of average height, his chin buried in his buttoned up greatcoat, eyes averted, riled at the gormless staring of the multitude. As what seems like the entire population of the island swells closer the sentries are ordered to stand with fixed bayonets and bark warnings: “Stand back! Give him space!”
Napoleon will sleep his first nights on St Helena in the house of Mr Porteous in James Town and he heads there now, head bowed, hurrying uphill with his most trusted aides. His suite of almost thirty people – men, women, servants and children – will be lodged about the island and aboard ship until permanent dwellings can be found. This has all happened so quickly nobody is quite sure how things will be organised.
None of the onlookers can quite believe that man walking away from them is really Napoleon Bonaparte. They´d only learned he was coming a few days earlier, the same time they had heard about Elba, the hundred days and the Battle of Waterloo.
But, yes, there he goes.
Just a man.
The decision to exile Napoleon to St Helena was debated by the British cabinet on the same day as London received news of his surrender to Captain Maitland aboard the Bellerophon off the French coast: 24th July, 1815.
Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, explained the government´s decision to the Duke of Wellington thus:
We have nearly determined, subject to what we may hear from Paris in answer to Lord Liverpool’s letter a week ago, to send Bonaparte to St Helena. In point of climate it is unobjectionable and its situation will enable us to keep him from all intercourse with the world without requiring all that severity of restraint which it would be otherwise necessary to inflict upon him. There is much reason to hope that in a place from whence we propose excluding all neutrals, and with which there can be so little communication, Bonaparte’s existence will be soon forgotten.
Although Napoleon had wanted to be allowed to live out his remaining years in England, perhaps anonymously, the British government and its European allies were wary. Could Napoleon ever live anonymously? Crowds of locals had swarmed to him in small boats for a glimpse when he was anchored, a prisoner, off the English coast; there would be rescue attempts, the constant fear of another escape. While some European leaders called for Bonaparte´s execution there were also moves to try him in a court of law.
With his official status murky, legally speaking, the British decision was quickly made and acted upon: take him as far away from anywhere as possible and keep him there under strict supervision.
“It looks like something the devil shat out,” the wife of one of Napoleon´s intimate generals said when she and everyone else got their first sight of St Helena from the deck of the Northumberland. Fanny Bertrand, daughter of an Irishman, mother of three and Parisian socialite, immediately tried to escape this horrible vision, her new home, by jumping through an open porthole. She became stuck and was saved.
Napoleon was no less impressed by the sheer, dark cliff walls of his prison but he hadn´t made it from stuttering foreigner to Emperor of France without being made of sterner stuff. The man who´d rattled the thrones of Europe, who´d captured the imagination of romantics, who´d controlled an Empire which stretched halfway around the world, who´d won some of the most audacious military victories ever seen, who´d changed mankind´s thinking, laws and history, despite not being one of them, was not going to do anything else but wonder how this ghastly rock and all it meant could be not be turned somehow in his favour.
He was the Emperor Napoleon, after all.
This, like everything else, was war.
And war he was good at.
From the foreward to the first installment.