English translation of an extract from the introduction of Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène. Le manuscrit original retrouvé

Author(s) : HICKS Peter, HOUDECEK François, LENTZ Thierry, PRÉVOT Chantal
Share it

This extract from the introduction of the 2017 publication of the recently-discovered 200-year-old manuscript of Emmanuel de Las Cases’s Memorial of St Helena, under the editorial supervision of Thierry Lentz, Peter Hicks, François Houdecek, and Chantal Prévot, Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène: Le manuscrit original retrouvé, is reproduced with permission from the editors, Perrin (Paris).

Thierry Lentz, Peter Hicks, François Houdecek, Chantal Prévot (eds), Emmanuel de Las Cases, Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène: Le manuscrit original retrouvé, Paris: Perrin, 2017

Extract from the introduction (with permission).

[…] It is difficult, indeed, almost impossible, to determine precisely what, in the Mémorial, are Napoleon’s own words and what are extrapolations, or – why not ? – inventions or a “manipulation” of the text (Le Gall) by his secretary. To get to the bottom of this, you would have to have before you the notes taken by the Las Cases, father and son, on St Helena so as to be able to compare them, indeed to test them against what was eventually published. But the whereabouts of that “original manuscript”, in other words the papers confiscated in November 1816 and handed back after Napoleon’s death, was unknown. Generations of historians sought for it tirelessly, even consulting Las Cases’s descendants, but in vain. The exegesis of that gospel would forever rest on uncertain foundations, sometimes contested, sometimes accepted (albeit unwillingly) by a certain section of the faithful. It was not even known what form those notes took. Were they scattered fragments or a continuous text? Was it a rough draft or a finished item?

The version of the Mémorial published here is a significant, possibly even decisive, step with regard to this interminable debate. It is in fact a copy of the manuscript confiscated from Las Cases on his departure from St Helena, in other words, the text closest to the manuscript which we may ever find (unless of course Las Cases’s own manuscript should ever finally emerge). And though we have not written “identical to the original manuscript”, we only omit such a remark in order to allow for a – hard to quantify but probably minimal – shadow of doubt as to the errors and omissions possibly committed by the British amanuenses when copying the pages handed to them at the Colonial Office in 1817.

We would have liked to be able to say that the manuscript was miraculously preserved in a dingy cellar or dusty attic somewhere. Alas, it was not the case. It was “discovered” in 2005 by Peter Hicks in quite the simplest of ways possible as part of research undertaken for an article in the edited volume Sainte-Hélène, île de MémoireP. Hicks, «Hudson Lowe, un portrait», Sainte-Hélène, île de mémoire, edited by Bernard Chevallier, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau and Thierry Lentz, Fayard, 2005, p. 73-85. His project was to get a new view of the governor Hudson Lowe, the subject of his article, and so he went to the British Library. Consultation of the catalogues revealed, in particular, the volumes deposited at the library by the descendants of the Secretary of State for War and Colonies to whom Lowe answered directly, namely, Lord Henry Bathurst (1762-1834), amongst which lay a handwritten copy of the original Mémorial. Delighted to have found such a thing, but also quite sure that he could not have ‘discovered’ it, he checked to see if it had been noted, or better still, used by other historians. To his great surprise, the answer was negative. And yet, the existence of the manuscript had been known at least since 1923. At that date, the Historical Manuscripts Commission, a body whose job it was to list historical manuscripts in private hands, had published a report on the Bathurst collection entitled: Report on the Manuscripts of Earl Bathurst, preserved at Cirencester Park. Report on the Manuscripts of Earl Bathurst, preserved at Cirencester Park, published by Historical Manuscripts Commission (H. M. Stationery Office), London, 1923. The author of the introduction, Francis Bickey, added this rapid and superficial comment: “This differs in some respects from the published version, as the latter Las Casas (sic) made certain alterations in order not to contradict O’Meara’s account of the same transactions” (p. xix). Whilst it is true that, for certain passages, Las Cases compared and aligned his text with that by O’Meara, his Mémorial had, as noted above, other ambitions than that of simple eyewitness, hence the additions and changes made for political reasons, not to mention the adding of material for financial reasons.The existence of the manuscript was therefore not a secret. Nevertheless it remained either unknown or neglected by the different publishers of, and commentators in, contemporary editions of the Mémorial, including some quite recent, namely, Gérard Walter (Pléiade), André Fugier (Garnier) and Marcel Dunan (Flammarion). What is more, the latter had in fact asked “a young English scholar” (sic), F. G. Healey, to check the Hudson Lowe Papers held in Britain, whose inventory gave the impression that extracts of the Mémorial, either copied on St Helena or later, did indeed exist there. M. Dunan, « Introduction », Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, p. XVIII. After consultation, Healey concluded that these extracts in no way challenged the printed version, and Dunan accepted this. F. G. Healey, “Las Cases: Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, a commentary on documents relative to this work in the British Museum», French Studies, 1951, p. 18-29. These documents are held at the British Library under the shelfmark: “Hudson Lowe Papers, Additional Manuscripts, n° 20215, f° 1-72”. They relate almost entirely to relations between Hudson Lowe and the captives, and, with the exception of a brief paragraph, they have all been published in the printed versions of the Mémorial. For Dunan’s adoption of Healey’s conclusions, see Dunan, “Introduction”, Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, p. XVII-XVIII. The British researcher did not go further and see what lay amongst the Bathurst papers, still held at the family estate at Cirencester Park, despite the fact that the inventory (though not the papers themselves) was available to him.

In 1965, the Bathurst family deposited the entirety of the papers of their illustrious ancestor at the British Library, and they immediately added the items to their catalogue (see below). Though permission is required to consult the documents, this is usually granted without special difficulty. Several authors took advantage of this new access to the Bathurst papers, but only as part of monographs, not as an in-depth study of the Mémorial.Cf. notably: Neville Thompson, Earl Bathurst and the British Empire, London, Leo Cooper (Pen and Sword), 1977; N.-D. McLahan, “Bathurst and the Colonial Office, 1812-1817: A Reconnaissance”, Historical Studies, University of Melbourne, volume 13, 1967-9, p. 477-502; Rory Muir, Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon. 1807-1815, London and New Haven, Yale University Press, 1996. Then came Peter Hicks. Having received authorisation from the late 8e Lord Bathurst (1927-2011) to consult the document, he then informed us of his find. We then had a close look at the text and contents of the manuscript, with Dunan’s edition in hand, and quite excited (as can be imagined) we decided to copy the work during five work sessions in London between 2008 and 2011. Each of us was in charge of the restitution, and the typing up of, the text of one of the volumes: Thierry Lentz for volume I, Peter Hicks for volume II, François Houdecek for volume III and Chantal Prévot for volume IV. We then started on the commentary, again each one annotating their own volume following pre-agreed rules, and we then together worked on the introduction, the appendices and the index. Once the whole book was put together, we then revised each other’s work. This is the book we have prepared together and which we are presenting to you here: the editorial principles can be consulted at the end of this introduction.

The manuscript is held at the British Library, under the heading “Bathurst, Lennox and Melville papers (1417-1904)”, shelfmark, BM Loan, MS 57/49 to 52. The catalogue description reads as follows: “Copies of the original manuscript taken from Count de las Cases on his departure from St. Helena and returned to him on his arrival in England by the Colonial Office”.Contrary to the impression left by the inventory, the manuscript was not returned to Las Cases “upon his arrival in England”, but much later when Las Cases was living in the Paris region (see below).. The 996 pages of text are leather bound in four in-folio volumes. On the spine stand the words: “Journal du comte de Las Cases», followed by “MS” (meaning manuscript) and the volume shelfmark. Each volume comprises two folio gatherings of identical pagination.

The four volumes are referenced as follows:

  • Loan MS 57/49. June 1815. Memoires of the Count de las Cases written in exile on St. Helena, vol. 1, 234 pages (covering the period from 20 June to 9 December 1815);
  • Loan MS 57/50. Dec. 1815. Memoires of the Count de las Cases written in exile on St. Helena, vol. 2, 307 pages (covering the period from 10 December 1815 to 31 March 1816);
  • Loan MS 57/51. April 1816. Memoires of the Count de las Cases written in exile on St. Helena, vol. 3, 217 pages (covering the period from 1 April to 30 June 1816);
  • Loan MS 57/52. July 1816-Nov 1816. Memoires of the Count de las Cases written in exile on St. Helena, vol. 4, 238 pages (covering the period from 1 July to 23 November 1816).

English Translation: Peter Hicks (October 2017).

Share it