When I was originally booking my trip to St. Helena, perhaps unsurprisingly most people kind of looked at me a bit blankly and had never heard of it, before having to have St. Helena's location and status explained to them. The few that had heard about it, basically knew because of a foreign guy who has been dead almost 200years. Although it is understandable, I still always find it a bit strange that such a person can hold that level of fascination for people even now. But then Napoleon Bonaparte was no ordinary foreign gent.
Napoleon had a fairly busy life, though we won't go into too much detail here. Suffice to say that after fighting the Napoleonic Wars (during which amongst much much else, he introduced the Metric system, re-introduced slavery, sold Louisiana, lost the Battle of Trafalgar and established Switzerland) and almost taking over the whole of Europe, surrendering and being exiled to Elba (where he was not as a prisoner as such, but was given sovereignty over the Island), deciding to escape, re-stablishing himself as French emperor and losing the Battle of Waterloo, he eventually choose to surrender to the British. Who promptly stuffed him on a ship and exiled him to St. Helena.
Portrait of Napoleon
Napoleon was not, necessarily, the happiest of campers by this turn of events. Upon arrival at St. Helena on 15 October 1815, he said “It is not an attractive place: I should have done better to remain in Egypt”. As the world knows, despite occasional rumoured plans by his supporters (including use of a submarine, at times when submarines were rudimentary at best, and certainly not capable of reaching St. Helena) the British were not going to let him escape from St. Helena bringing around 2000 troops – plus warships – to guard him, and event putting garison on Ascension and Tristan da Cunha islands to prevent their use as a staging post by supporters. He thus died on St. Helena 6years later on 5 May 1821.
I couldn't really come all this way and for so long without taking in some of the Napoleonic sites. His arrival has been in such a hurry, that the house being converted for his imprisonment was nowhere near ready. So, on arrival, he spent his first night in Jamestown in Porteous House (allegedly in the same bed as used a few years earlier by the Duke of Wellington, of Battle of Trafalgar fame, though it probably wasn't) before managing to convince a landowner, William Balcombe, to let him move into a residence at the Briars, roughly 2km out of Jamestown, and where he became very friendly with Williams 13year old daughter Betsy. Apparently they were the happiest 2months of his imprisonment. These days, the Briars Pavilion where he lived is owned by the French and open to tourists by appointment. And, it must be said, it is a very nicely sighted house.
The Briars Pavilion, and from the side with the Heart Shaped Waterfall behind. Below, Longwood House, Napoleon's final home and place of death
Longwood House, by contrast, was originally a cow shed before being turned into a 5room house, and extended to a sixth for Napoleon and his party. 20 people lived there, plus any number of large rats, and even now it is not exactly ideally located: Longwood plain alternates at random between misty and wet, and scorchingly hot. Nowadays, it is also owned by the French government, and has been preserved with many original items (such as his famous bathtub where he used to spend hours) and filled out with replica pieces. Walking around it now, it seems very pleasant and imagining how damp and miserable it must have been is slightly tricky, especially on a lovely sunny day. But there is still some sort of strange feeling that you get when you walk through the door, that is hard to explain. It seems almost irrelevant that the gardens are very picturesque until you discover that Napoleon took up gardening, and remodelled the grounds himself. Things were very different in those days, and somehow i can't imagine Hitler, for example, becoming the Alan Titchmarsh of his day.
Napoleon's favoured place of relaxation, his bathtub, and the Gardens at Longwood House
Napoleon died of stomach cancer in 1821. His tomb, in Sane Valley, is actually in a gorgeous little grotto that again somehow imparts a feeling of quiet awe being there. The fact that the grave is both massive and entirely unmarked somehow adds to the depth of seriousness: The grave is unmarked due to a political squable as Governor at the time, Hudson Lowe, insisted that it should be marked as “Napoleon Bonaparte” whereas the his remaining French entourage insisted on just Napoleon, as was customary for royalty. They never agreed, and so it remains nameless.
Napoleon's unmarked grave
Napoleon was also of such importance and esteem as a figurehead for the French, that even after his death he was closely guarded until his body was removed and passed over to the now more friendly French. Even now, 170years after his body was removed to France, the guardhouse remains. For anybody that happens to remember Ripping Yarns, I have visions of the British guards worried that Napoleon might attempt one last escape, as per Escape from Stalag Luft 112B...
Of course, the other reason for doing the Napoleon tour with a group instead of trying to arrange it personally, was the transport. Basil Corker transports guests in his 1929 Chevrolet Charabanc, and whilst it may not be the most practical of vehicles for the island (on the many steep uphill sections, it actually is quicker to get out and walk) it's still great fun.