By Nick Sundin – The United Kingdom commemorated in June 2015 the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, marking the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In the months surrounding the bicentenary of 18th June 2015, battlefield visits abounded, with key sites in the vicinity of the battlefield and the town of Waterloo itself seeing large increases in tourism.
As many Friends of the British Overseas Territories will know, soon after Waterloo Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, forming the now-British Overseas Territory’s main claim to fame. But Saint Helena, in the words of veteran journalist and steadfast friend of Saint Helena, Michael Binyon, “missed a trick” by not tapping into this uptake in Napoleonic tourism at the bicentenary of his arrival in October 2015. As we approach the bicentennial of Napoleon’s death in 1821, the overseas territory is therefore determined to capitalize on the occasion.
Saint Helena came under informal British rule via the East India Company in 1657, when Oliver Cromwell granted them a charter to govern the island. It was an important port of call for East Indiamen voyaging to India and China, and was selected for its remoteness as the place of detention for Napoleon after Waterloo, with Napoleon himself arriving in October 1815. He stayed his first night at Porteous’ House, then his first few months in a pavilion called Briars, at the house belonging to the Balcombe family, until Longwood House, his permanent residence, was completed in December 1815.
Saint Helena was annexed from the East India Company for the duration of Napoleon’s exile, along with Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, the former of which was reinforced to defend against any potential effort from France to recapture their former emperor. This was an idea explored by the French, but never put into action. Napoleon’s time on Saint Helena was harsh and un enjoyable, and he died, supposedly of stomach cancer, on 5th May 1821.
Having “missed a trick” with the bicentennial of his arrival in 2015, Saint Helena was eager to make the most of the opportunity to commemorate Napoleon’s time on the island with the bicentenary of his death in 2021. A joint initiative between the Saint Helena government and the UK Department for International Development, the British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust, has been set up to utilize the Napoleonic reputation of Saint Helena in raising more general awareness of the island and its rich history. A separate French committee exists which will conduct a more celebratory campaign dedicated to Napoleon’s life and exploits, whereas the British efforts are aimed at five key areas separate from those of the French, according to committee member Michael Binyon. They are:
1. To publicize the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death, as it may have otherwise flown under the radar in the UK.
2. To create a virtual Napoleonic Saint Helena heritage trail and audio guide available online, titled “In the Footsteps of Napoleon,” to raise awareness of the number of sites on Saint Helena linked to Napoleon.
3. To find out who was involved in handling the exile and if they have descendants that may wish to explore their Napoleon-related ancestry, for example the governor of Saint Helena during Napoleon’s exile (Sir Hudson Lowe). At present, there are also roughly 18 graves in Britain that will have plaques installed relating to their involvement in Napoleon’s time on Saint Helena.
4. To raise funds to restore the historic sites on Saint Helena associated with Napoleon. Longwood house and the original grave of Napoleon are owned by the French government, given by Queen Victoria, so their upkeep is the responsibility of the French. However, 2,000 troops were sent to guard and fortify Napoleon, with cliff defenses and batteries left from this fortification that need to be restored and repaired. There do exist for the committee time and financial constraints so the initial campaign will be aimed at raising awareness and some funds for these sites, though the COVID-19 pandemic presents further difficulties. Therefore this remains a more long-term objective of the Trust, with a launch for possible programs on the bicentenary in May 2021 a more realistic focus. The sites include Jacob’s Ladder, Hainault Fort, and Cockburn’s Battery. A full restoration will perhaps cost in the region of £1 million, and as some monuments are deteriorating there is an amount of urgency to the restoration efforts.
5. To promote tourism to Saint Helena on the back of its Napoleonic heritage. Some current difficulty exists in the area of tourism, with a small community susceptible to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as such the island imposes a two-week quarantine on arrival at present. Looking ahead to May 2021, Saint Helena is aiming their tourism marketing at French tourists coming for the bicentennial because of the significant publicity expected in France.
The British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust committee is chaired by Sir Brian Unwin, a former civil servant who wrote an acclaimed book on Napoleon’s time on Saint Helena. The rest of the committee is made up mostly of historians specializing in Napoleon’s life, with some having St Helena experience such as the aforementioned Michael Binyon, and finally the honorary French consul on Saint Helena, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau. FOTBOT wishes them all the best in their endeavors to bring publicity and prosperity to Saint Helena, and will keep our supporters updated on developments related to the bicentenary. One such development related to the bicentenary was the Saint Helena Tourism Office advertising in 2019 for a Napoleon impersonator - the advert sought ‘a well-presented male with the ability to act as an ambassador for Saint Helena and interact with dignitaries’. A short stature was not required, though applicants did have to try on a custom-made suit.