Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIV, 10

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XXIV, 9 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIV, 11


Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXIV, chapter 10
Napoleon lands on St Helena – His establishment at Longwood – Precautions – Life at Longwood – Visits.



Before being moved to the residence of Longwood, Bonaparte occupied a villa, The Briars, near Balcomb’s Cottage. On the 9th of December, Longwood, hurriedly enlarged by carpenters from the English flotilla, received its guest. The house situated on a plateau in the hills, consisted of a drawing room, a dining room, a library, a study, and a bedroom. It was not much: those who had occupied the tower of the Temple and the keep at Vincennes were still worse lodged; true, their hosts were considerate enough as to abridge their stay. General Gourgaud, Monsieur and Madame Montholon with their children, Monsieur Las Cases and his son, camped out provisionally in tents; Monsieur and Madame Bertrand installed themselves at Hut’s Gate, a cottage at the edge of the Longwood grounds.

For his exercise-yard, Napoleon had a stretch of sand twelve miles long; sentries surround the tract, and look-outs were sited on the tallest summits. The lion could extend his walks further, but he then had to agree to be guarded by an English watch-dog. Two camps defended this enclosure for the excommunicated: at night the circle of sentries contracted around Longwood. After nine, Napoleon was constrained from going out; the patrols made their rounds; cavalry on mounted sentry duty, and infantry posted here and there, kept watch over the creeks and ravines which sloped towards the sea. Two armed brigs cruised about, one to leeward, the other to windward of the island. What precautions to guard one man in the midst of an ocean! After sunset, no vessels could put out to sea; the fishing-boats were counted, and at night they were moored in harbour under the eye of a naval lieutenant. The sovereign leader who had summoned the world to his stirrup was called upon to present himself before a junior officer twice a day. Bonaparte would not acquiesce to that order; when he chanced to escape the notice of the officer on duty, that officer dare not say if and when he had seen that man whose absence it was more difficult to prove than to prove the presence of the universe.

Sir George Cockburn, the author of these harsh regulations, was replaced by Sir Hudson Lowe. The bickering then began that all the Memoirs speak of. If we are to believe these Memoirs, the new Governor was related to the species of giant St Helena spiders, and was the reptile of those woods where snakes are unknown. England lacked nobility, Napoleon dignity. To put an end to the demands of etiquette, Bonaparte sometimes seemed determined to conceal himself beneath a pseudonym, like a monarch when in a foreign country; he had the touching idea of taking the name of one of his aides-de-camp killed at the Battle of Arcola. France, Austria and Russia appointed Commissioners for the St Helena residence; the prisoner was accustomed to receiving the ambassadors of the two latter powers; the Legitimacy, which had not recognised Napoleon as Emperor, would have acted more nobly by not recognising Napoleon as a prisoner.

A large wooden house, constructed in London, was sent to St Helena; but Napoleon did not feel well enough to live in it yet. His life at Longwood was arranged thus: he rose at no set time; Monsieur Marchand, his valet, read to him as he lay in bed; when he rose each morning, he dictated to Generals Montholon and Gourgaud, and the son of Monsieur de Las Cases. He breakfasted at ten, went for a ride or a drive until three, returned indoors at six and went to bed at eleven. He affected the costume in which he is depicted in Isabey’s portrait: in the morning he wrapped himself in a caftan and wound a Madras kerchief round his head.

St Helena lies between the two Poles. Navigators journeying from one to the other welcome this first station where the land soothes eyes wearied by the sight of the Ocean and offers fruit and the coolness of fresh water to mouths chafed by the salt. Bonaparte’s presence changed this promised isle to a plague-stricken rock: foreign ships no longer touched there; as soon as they were sighted fifty miles off, a cruiser went to challenge them, and ordered them to stand away; they were not allowed to anchor, except in stormy weather, unless they were Royal Navy vessels.

Some of the English travellers who had recently admired, or were off to view, the marvels of the Ganges visited another marvel on their way: India, accustomed to conquerors, had one chained at her gate.

Napoleon reluctantly allowed these visits. He agreed to see Lord Amherst, on the latter’s return from his Chinese embassy. Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm he liked: ‘Does your Government,’ he asked one day, ‘intend to keep me on this rock until I die?’ The Admiral replied that he feared so. ‘Then my death will soon occur.’ – I hope not, Monsieur; you must live long enough to record your great deeds; they are so numerous that the task will guarantee you a long life.’

Napoleon was not offended by that simple title of Monsieur; he revealed himself at that instant in his true greatness. Fortunately for him, he never wrote his own life; he would have diminished its dimensions: men of that nature should leave their memoirs to be recounted by that unknown voice, which belongs to no one and which issues from nations and centuries. Only we, the commonplace ones, are allowed to speak of ourselves, since otherwise no one would speak of us.

Captain Basil Hall presented himself at Longwood: Bonaparte remembered having met the Captain’s father at Brienne: ‘Your father,’ he said, ‘was the first Englishman I ever met; that is why I have remembered it all my life.’ He spoke with the Captain about the recent discovery of Loo-Choo: ‘The inhabitants have no weapons,’ said the Captain. – ‘No weapons! Bonaparte exclaimed – Neither cannon nor rifles – Spears surely, bows and arrows? – Nothing like that. – No daggers? – No daggers. – Well how do they fight? – They know nothing of what is happening in the world; they know nothing of the existence of France and England; they have never heard of Your Majesty.’ Bonaparte smiled in a manner that amazed the Captain: the more serious the face, the more beautiful the smile.

The various voyagers remarked that there was not a trace of colour in Bonaparte’s features: his head resembled a marble bust whose whiteness had yellowed slightly with time. No furrows on his brow, no hollows in his cheeks; his soul seemed at peace. That visible serenity gave the impression that the flame of his genius had died. He spoke slowly; his expression was pleasant and almost tender; sometimes he revealed a penetrating glance, but the state swiftly passed; his eyes misted over and became saddened.

Ah! Other voyagers known to Napoleon had once appeared on that shore.

After the explosion of the ‘infernal machine’, a senatus consulte of 5th of January 1801 pronounced judgement, a simple matter for the police, the exile overseas of three hundred Republicans: embarked on the frigate La Chiffone and the corvette La Flèche, they were taken to the Seychelles and shortly afterwards scattered through the Comoros archipelago, between Africa and Madagascar: there almost all of them died. Two of the deportees, Lefranc and Saunois, who managed to escape on an American vessel, landed on St Helena in 1803: it was there twelve years later that Providence was to imprison their great oppressor.

The all-too-famous General Rossignol, their companion in misfortune, a quarter of an hour before his last sigh, exclaimed: ‘I die conquered by the most terrible pain; but I would die content if I knew that my country’s despot was to endure the same suffering.’ So, even in that other hemisphere, freedom’s curses awaited him who had betrayed her.