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Footsteps: St. Helena, ‘Cursed Rock’ of Napoleon’s Exile

After a five-day sail and one day in the port of Cape Town because of engine trouble, we had reached our destination, St. Helena island. This basalt outcropping of land in the South Atlantic, surrounded by thousands of miles of water and not much else, was where, after years of searching the haunted houses of history and literature for Napoleon’s ghost, I would finally find him. It was on this remote island that the deposed emperor was exiled and died.

Napoleon arrived in St. Helena, a British protectorate, nearly 200 years ago aboard the puddle-filled planks of the HMS Northumberland, after having been captured by the allied powers. British authorities wrote Napoleon that he would be confined there to prevent him “from disturbing the repose of Europe.” His enemies had chosen well.

Then as now, the island of St. Helena (the Saints, as the Islanders immodestly call themselves, pronounce it Sint huh-LEE-nuh) is one of the most inaccessible and forbidding-looking places on Earth, reachable only by the mail ship, which travels there once a month from Cape Town, or by private yacht (though in 2015, an airport is scheduled to open). The island, with a population of roughly 3,500, occupies 47 square miles and sits some 1,200 miles from the coast of Angola and 1,800 miles from Brazil. The nearest land is Ascension Island, 703 miles north, which is also a British territory serving as an R.A.F. and United States air base. The moonscape appearance as we approached by sea belied the surprisingly green hills and valleys of the interior. It is a land of contrasts and contradictions, the black rocks of Sandy Bay in the south clashing with the green meadows of nearby Mount Pleasant; the tropic sun of Deadwood Plain tempered by the shady arbors of Geranium Valley.

Still, not many tourists make the journey, which on the mail ship offers few frills: two lounges, sunbathing decks, a formal dining room and swimming pool not much bigger than a kiddie pool. At the final destination, there are no sandy beaches, five-star hotels, renowned chefs or nightclubs filled with celebrities. There are also no A.T.M.’s, businesses that accept credit cards, or cellphone towers. And the island, long a dependency of Britain, lacks a vital local economy. Its main economic driver is the British bureaucracy. So most of the people who sailed with me, apart from a few adventurers and many Saints returning for a visit or permanently, had a special reason to visit. I was traveling with my wife, Maria, to continue research into the life of Napoleon Bonaparte for a novel. I had visited many other places connected with his history, including his birthplace, Ajaccio, Corsica, and his resting place, Les Invalides in Paris. The trip to St. Helena would bring me into intimate contact with his last years, allowing me to walk the same worn floorboards as he did, follow the paths he traveled and more easily summon his spirit.

We anchored off the coast, in Jamestown Bay, and were ferried in tenders from the boat to the wharf steps. We entered Jamestown, which becomes an anthill of activity when the ship docks. The stone archway leading to the main square dates from 1832 and is embossed with the coat of arms of the British East India Company, which ruled the island for a time, and an image of the wirebird, an indigenous and endangered species. The Georgian and Regency buildings would transport you to the 19th century were it not for the cars that clogged the cobbled streets.

We stayed at the Consulate Hotel, an 18th-century building in the heart of town, fronted by trellised verandas, filled with antiques and Napoleonic relics, and ably run by Hazel Wilmot, who broods over her guests like a peahen. The hotel, restaurant and bar serve as popular meeting places for locals who trade gossip over mugs of South African beer. It is also one of only three Wi-Fi hot spots in town.

Napoleon’s trail was easy to pick up. The angle is heavily played, forming the biggest pitch in all the tourism brochures for the island. To follow his path, we relied on one expert and also hired local drivers, who spring into action when the ship arrives. One, Colin Corker, ferried us around in a Charabanc, a 1929 open-air Chevy bus, along the hairpins and steep ascents of many of the island’s 68 miles of single-lane roads. The three main Napoleonic sites — the Briars, Longwood and Napoleon’s Tomb — stand under the fluttering tricolor flag. Queen Victoria transferred Longwood Old House, the surrounding gardens and the land around the Tomb in Geranium Valley to French rule in 1858.

Napoleon’s first home on the island was the Briars, where he spent a few brief weeks while his permanent residence at Longwood was being refurbished. It was deeded to France in 1959 by Dame Mabel Brooks, an Australian descendant of the Balcombe family. Betsy Balcombe was a teenager who delighted the emperor with her pranks and unceremonious attitude during his short stay at the pavilion on the estate of William Balcombe, purveyor of the East India Company. The pavilion lies in a shady spot surrounded by gardens where one could easily imagine Napoleon’s enchantment. The small one-room house has been restored to its original neo-Classical style, with imperial green walls and period furniture.

We made a stop at the Doveton House in Mount Pleasant, where Napoleon shared his Champagne and food with the family of William Doveton, a member of the town council (whose daughter the emperor called “the prettiest girl on the island”). There we imitated Napoleon and his retinue by lunching on the lawn overlooking Sandy Bay.

A short ride from the Briars brings visitors to Longwood House where, in his own words, the great ruler wore his “crown of thorns” and ultimately died on May 5, 1821, at age 51. Today the place looks nice, newly painted and restored, surrounded by trees and shrubbery. The interiors are fresh and clean after an international fund-raising effort by the French Consul.

But when Napoleon and his retinue arrived, they found it a great disappointment. It lay on an arid and damp plateau 1,800 feet above sea level, open to the buffeting trade winds and often blanketed with mist. The Emperor’s Grand Marshal Count Bertrand described the place as “a few dark rooms with low ceilings,” a far cry from the palaces of the Élysée and Tuileries of Napoleon’s glory days. Contemporary accounts paint the domicile, which Napoleon shared with his courtiers, their families, several servants, his doctor and the British orderly officer assigned to observe him, as a damp and cheerless place crawling with mold and festooned with cobwebs that his servants camouflaged by hanging fabric and paper on the walls and ceilings. And, of course, there were the rats and other pests scurrying under the floorboards.


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