The nature of Napoleon
The story of Napoleon on St Helena consists of three different issues: Napoleon; Hudson Lowe; and finally the environment of St Helena. Let’s start with Napoleon.
As Napoleon gained power, he acquired and mastered the skills of a politician, and used those skills to keep the loyalty of the Army and the support of the common people, of which he was once one.
The consummate soldier, Napoleon was used to giving orders and having those orders obeyed without question. He always promoted from within according to merit, not seniority or heredity. The majority of Napoleon’s Marshals and generals were the sons of tailors, merchants, lawyers, and the like.
At the height of Napoleon’s career he wielded supreme power and authority over most of Europe. Napoleon was very familiar by this time with court intrigue, various political conspiracies both inside and outside of France, and the personal nature of people who tried to curry favor for their own selfish interests. In such environments, those closest to the leader are constantly betraying others who are also close to get the most favors. It is human nature, and Napoleon knew it and he exploited it for his own agenda.
Lowe’s career before St Helena
Imagine Napoleon’s fury when he lost at Waterloo – in his view because of others on whom he had relied to follow orders. Then he was forced to surrender to his arch enemy, England, when there was no alternative. Napoleon’s mind was an engine that had always run at full power, and then was shut down abruptly, left to deteriorate from disuse. He believed the British had not dealt honorably with him. He expected the British to practice what they preached without regard to politics. This added further to his depression. To be exiled to St Helena was devastating to him as it was completely unexpected. This is the context under which Napoleon stepped off the ship in October, 1815 at St Helena.
Napoleon spent close to seven months on St Helena prior to the arrival of General Sir Hudson Lowe. For the first seven months of Napoleon’s exile he was in the care and custody of Admiral Cockburn, who had transported Napoleon from England to St Helena. Napoleon had held the British Navy in high esteem. This was not always the case with British Army officers, most of whom had purchased their commissions rather than having earned them. It was a system based upon nobility and heredity with some exceptions.
Hudson Lowe was the son of an Army surgeon and not part of the British aristocracy. Lowe was born in 1769 two weeks before Napoleon making them exactly the same age. (Wellington, ironically, was also born in 1769.) Lowe was gazetted an ensign just prior to his twelfth birthday and assigned to his Father’s regiment. Up until the time Lowe assumed the care and custody of Napoleon at St Helena in April, 1816, he rose through the ranks based upon his merit:
1781 At 12: posted in the East Devon Militia as Ensign and served in America.
1787 At 18: posted with his Father at Gibraltar in the 5th Regiment.
1791 Promoted Lieutenant.
1793 Formed the Corsican Rangers. Active in Corsica, Elba, Portugal, and Minorca.
1793 Was in Toulon at the siege with Napoleon.
1795 Promoted Captain.
1797 Posted to Elba.
1798 Posted to Portugal as Deputy Judge Advocate.
1800 Sailed to Egypt with Corsican Rangers as Commanding Officer.
1801 Commanded Rangers at landing at Alexandria and advance on Cairo.
1803 Promoted Major & Assistant Quartermaster General.
1803 Promoted to Lt. Colonel and sent to Portugal as Inspector.
1803 Created the “Royal” Corsican Rangers – Captured Capri with the Maltese.
1808 Departed Capri being overwhelmed by Gen.Lamarque 3-to-1.
1809 Lowe and Royal Corsican Rangers captured other islands from French.
1809 Became Governor of Cephalonia, Ithaca and Santa Maura.
1812 Promoted Colonel and returned to London.
1813 Sent to liaison with Russian-German legion being formed with Blucher.
1813 Campaigned with Blucher and Allies in 13 battles including Leipzig.
1814 Sent by Allies to tell London about Napoleon’s 1st abdication! Knighted (KCB) and promoted Major-General. Decorations from Alexander and Blucher.
1814 Promoted Quartermaster General in Netherlands with Wellington.
1815 Posted to Genoa as Commander of British forces.
1815 Appointed as custodian of Napoleon on St Helena. (August 1st)
1816 Arrived at St Helena as Napoleon’s jailer. (April 14th)
Lowe and Napoleon
General Sir Hudson Lowe appeared to be exactly the type of soldier who might have risen to the rank of Marshal had he been on the side of Napoleon. Lowe was a very competent and devoted soldier with unquestioned loyalty – just the type of soldier to impress Napoleon.
The careers of Napoleon and Lowe, ironically, were intertwined without their knowledge. During the British occupation of Corsica, Hudson Lowe spent a great deal of time in the Bonaparte house in Ajaccio since British officers were quartered there. At the time Napoleon and Lowe had no cognizance of one another. Then, in 1793, at the siege of Toulon where Napoleon first rose to prominence, Hudson Lowe was on a ship offshore waiting to land his troops. Lastly, to Napoleon’s consternation, Hudson Lowe created the “Corsican Rangers”, expatriates from Corsica loyal to England, to fight the French. Lowe’s Corsican Rangers fought the French at the Battle of Alexandria when Napoleon was in Egypt. After Egypt they were disbanded, but reconstituted as the “Royal Corsican Rangers” for the Sicily campaign later on. Napoleon somehow was aware of these facts when he first met Lowe on St Helena on April 16, 1816 and threw them up to him as insults. It began the feud; one which Napoleon found could be very useful to him.
Lowe married for the first time in his life only a month before embarking on the 2-month sailing trip to St Helena. (Lowe had had a mistress when posted to Genoa by whom he fathered a son and daughter, but he had never been married.) So at the age of 46, Lowe left for St Helena with his new wife. Lady Lowe, to say the least, was not very pleased. Lady Lowe, in her own right, is a most interesting character.
Lowe had married a widow, Susan DeLancey Johnson. She had been married to Col. William Johnson who died in battle with the French in 1811 leaving two teenage daughters, Susanna and Charlotte, twelve and fourteen respectively. Needless to say, Lady Lowe despised Napoleon. She was the daughter of Col. Stephen DeLancey, a New York loyalist who immigrated to England after the American Revolution. (DeLancey Street in New York City memorializes their name.) Her brother was Sir William DeLancey, who relieved Sir Hudson Lowe as Quartermaster to Wellington in Holland. Wellington then posted Lowe to Field Marshal Blucher as the highest ranking British liaison officer.
Susan Lady Lowe came from an aristocratic family with great political ties. She was used to having her own way and being treated as she thought her elevated station in life deserved. As a widow with children, she was interested in Lowe as he was intimately involved with Wellington who was the British rising star. She was much taken aback when she found out that Lowe had accepted his commission as the jailer of Napoleon. Once arriving at the Governor’s house on St Helena, Plantation House, Lady Lowe attempted to convert it into an aristocratic residence such as would be found in London, complete with a staff of servants and an enviable “table” at each meal. Unfortunately, the “table” available at St Helena, which was over a thousand miles from anywhere, was greatly wanting. Everything had to be imported, which usually was a minimum eight-week voyage. Much food rotted before it arrived.
Lady Lowe was constantly frustrated in her attempts to “civilize” her environment and, as a result, became more of an alcoholic than she was before she arrived at St Helena. In fact, according to journals kept by staff at the time, Lady Lowe imbibed at least one bottle of Sherry each day, plus additional wine with her meals. There is also some evidence that she may have been having an affair with one of her husband’s staff officers, Captain Den Taaf.
In conclusion, General Sir Hudson Lowe was not only dealing with Napoleon and his entourage, but with his new wife as well; the latter, regularly improprietous. To make matters worse, Lady Lowe constantly harassed and insulted Lowe’s staff and her servants. She was both demanding and petty. In short, Lady Lowe turned out to be a shrew. As a result, Hudson Lowe visited the local tavern in Jamestown frequently to enjoy the company of some of his trusted officers. Imagine Lowe’s state of mind as a Major General, knighted by the Prince Regent personally, at the age of forty-six married for the first time to an alcoholic shrew, having to spend five years in seclusion on an island in the middle of nowhere. As if this weren’t enough, he was now responsible for the custody of the former master of Europe, held in awe and admiration by many of his own troops as well as many merchants and other residents of St Helena. It’s a wonder he survived at all.
Then there were the regulations which were imposed on Napoleon and his followers. In fact, Hudson Lowe did not create them. They were, in fact, supplied to Lowe by the British Government through the office of Lord Bathurst, the Foreign Secretary for the Colonies. They were confirmed by an act of Parliament and transmitted to Lowe. Lowe was following specific orders in carrying out these regulations, created to preclude Napoleon from escaping from St Helena as he had done from Elba. The records in the British Library confirm this in spite of all the journals published from the likes of Dr. O’Meara and Count Las Cases. Again, Lowe was the consummate soldier and followed his specific written orders. Napoleon understood this, but nevertheless used it against Lowe in his attempt to garner public sympathy. Napoleon was a master of manipulation.
The island of St Helena
We last must consider the island of St Helena itself. It lies about fifteen degrees below the Equator. The African mainland is over a thousand miles east. The nearest British colony was at the Cape, some twelve hundred miles south. London was over five thousand miles north. Brazil was over eighteen hundred miles to the west. On its best day, a British ship could travel some one hundred miles. From London it would take about eight to ten weeks direct to St Helena depending on the winds.
St Helena had originally been discovered and settled by the Dutch in the 1600’s. It was then taken over by the British as a food and fresh water stop for the British East India Trading Company. It remained a stop for ships traveling from India and China to England. As such, there were numerous accommodations and merchants available to travelers in the only town on the island, Jamestown, which was just ashore from the only anchorage available. Wellington had stopped at St Helena on his way back from India early in his military career.
St Helena Island is roughly 10 miles long by 6 miles wide. It was a very pleasant way- station located in a temperate, sub-tropical setting where the prevailing temperature rarely was over 80 degrees. It had an environment similar to the winter months in Hawaii. St Helena had lush vegetation, and the highest peak was about twenty-seven hundred feet. Jamestown was situated on the northwest side of the island. There was a level plateau at the 1800 foot altitude which was subjected to the often blowing trade winds. This plateau was about 5 miles southeast of Jamestown. On this plateau was the “country” home of the Deputy Governor of St Helena, “Longwood”. It was here, after it was enlarged and refurbished, that Napoleon and his followers would be accommodated. Since Longwood sat on a wide plateau, soldiers could be stationed around it to provide constant security.
Napoleon was allowed a circumference of twelve miles around Longwood to venture forth without supervision by a British officer. He was provided a stable of horses and even firearms he could use for hunting game. His annual subsistence allowance was originally 8000 Pounds, but Lowe, after reviewing the budget, voluntarily increased it to 12000 Pounds, Napoleon was allowed anything he requested with respect to his “table”, to include various wines and food not even provided to the British officer’s mess. Napoleon was also allowed visitors, with passes from Lowe, who stopped at St Helena periodically. He was also allowed correspondence to and from the island, provided letters were first reviewed by Lowe to assure that no conspiracy might be involved effecting his escape.
The “politics” of the relationship
We need now regard the “politics” involved in the relationship between Napoleon and Lowe. With respect to Lowe, there were no politics. His directions for the care and custody of Napoleon were written and straightforward. Napoleon, on the other hand, was playing a completely different game, and Lowe was merely an unwilling participant.
Napoleon had shortly determined, after finding out he was to be exiled to St Helena, that his only hope of getting off the island was to create sympathy from his former followers in France, as well as sympathetic liberals in England. It was pure politics, of which Napoleon was a master. To Lowe, Napoleon appeared to be a petulant adolescent not content with his situation nor having a reasonable understanding of it. The more Lowe attempted to reason with Napoleon, the worse things got. In fact, Lowe and Napoleon only spoke face-to-face five times, the last time near Napoleon’s birthday in August 1816. They never spoke personally again; communications took place through intermediaries only, many of whom had their own agendas. Napoleon was very afraid if he acquiesced to Lowe and the regulations, he would be forgotten by the public. He was undoubtedly correct – out-of-sight, out-of-mind. The fact that Napoleon has been elevated in history as a martyr has kept his name alive. The antagonist of course, had to be Sir Hudson Lowe, which is very far from the actual truth.
Napoleon and Lowe got off on the wrong foot from the onset. Lowe, unannounced, attempted to visit Napoleon the day after Lowe arrived. Lowe, with Admiral Cockburn, rode up to Longwood and announced himself to Marshal Bertrand who screened everyone for Napoleon. It was 9 o’clock in the morning. Bertrand advised Lowe that Napoleon could not be disturbed at that hour, and besides, Lowe had no invitation! Lowe restrained himself and asked Bertrand to advise him when it would be convenient to see Napoleon. Bertrand sent word to Lowe shortly that Napoleon would see him at 2 o’clock in the afternoon two days hence.
When Lowe went to meet Napoleon, Lowe was again escorted by Admiral Cockburn. Lowe and the Admiral were brought by Bertrand into the foyer at Longwood. Napoleon’s domestic, St. Denis, also known as Ali, ushered Lowe through the door into Napoleon’s study, but slammed the door in the Admiral’s face! He then advised Admiral Cockburn that he had no invitation! Napoleon met with Lowe alone and during their brief meeting Napoleon cajoled Lowe about his defeat at Capri by Murat’s troops, and then admonished Lowe for creating the Corsican Rangers whom Napoleon considered to be traitors to Corsica and France. Lowe needed to retain his composure, which he did. Napoleon however, became keenly aware of Lowe’s martinet attitude and used it against him from then on. Napoleon admitted privately to Bertrand he was cajoling and irritating Lowe on purpose for public sympathy, but he also stated that he felt a man of Lowe’s position should have handled it much better than he did.
Lowe was completely frustrated with Napoleon and his seemingly naïve attitude toward his exile. Lowe was totally unaware that Napoleon was acting and merely playing with him. It was a tug-of-war. Lowe was determined to keep Napoleon in safe custody and Napoleon irritating Lowe as much as possible, on purpose, to engender public sympathy. This was managed by Napoleon very deftly through meetings with traveling visitors and complaining about his treatment by Lowe and the British Government, namely Lord Bathurst. There are numerous examples.
Napoleon consistently complained about the lack of decent food. He complained also that food was in short supply because England had refused him an increase in his monthly allowance. This, of course, was completely untrue. Supplies were actually being consumed by Napoleon’s followers, not Napoleon. Even so, as a propaganda stunt, Napoleon had his valet, Cipriani, take a large amount of Napoleon’s silver to Jamestown to sell it at public auction, making sure that everyone knew it was being sold because Lowe was treating Napoleon so badly.
Napoleon, through his intermediaries, complained heavily about the quantity of rats at Longwood. While it is true there was a rat problem on St Helena, and the poison used to control them was arsenic, which was widely used everywhere, Napoleon had his servants leave food and garbage out to attract them. This was done purposefully so that visitors would see the problem and validate the complaint back in England. In truth, the rat problem at Longwood was no worse, or would have been no worse than at Plantation House had it not been exacerbated on purpose. The arsenic used at Longwood has been the basis for the accusation that Napoleon had been poisoned.
Napoleon had bribed his English doctor, Barry O’Meara, as well. O’Meara had sailed to St Helena as a naval surgeon with Napoleon, where they became friendly, and requested to be assigned as Napoleon’s doctor, which was granted. Lowe therefore inherited O’Meara.
O’Meara was an interesting character. He had been an Army surgeon, but had been caught pilfering Army materials. He was given the choice of going to Australia or transferring to the Navy as a shipboard surgeon. He chose the latter. It was only by chance that he was aboard the ship that conveyed Napoleon. Napoleon saw that O’Meara was the type of person who could be manipulated. In the end, it was proven that O’Meara was provided a great sum of money and a pension from Napoleon’s supporters in France. To his disgrace, O’Meara was cashiered from the British Navy because of the false accusations he had publicly made against Lowe.
One should not think ill of Napoleon and his manipulation of people on St Helena. His behavior should be taken in context. Napoleon, in fact, was a prisoner of war. Anyone who has a military background knows that it is incumbent upon captives during wartime to provide minimal inform
ation to their captors, assist fellow captives, and attempt to escape at every opportunity. With a complete understanding of Napoleon’s actions, it becomes obvious that his intentions were to be released from captivity through public sympathy. Had Napoleon’s health not deteriorated as it did, he may well have succeeded in his attempt at release. The Whig party in England, being liberals, was greatly in sympathy with Napoleon, but they were ultimately voted out of office. Napoleon acted precisely the way any prisoner of war would be expected to act, especially one so very brilliant in political acumen.
Since 1819, when Dr. O’Meara was recalled from St Helena and issued his first diatribe in England against Hudson Lowe, the majority of publications have excoriated Lowe for his cruel and harsh treatment of Napoleon. Many have cited it as the proximate cause of his death. O’Meara accused Lowe of asking him to poison Napoleon, the accusation that got O’Meara cashiered from the British Navy in disgrace. His accusation came more than two years after the alleged request so that the British Admiralty decided it was either false or O’Meara had failed to report it. Either way he was at fault.
Lowe, while on St Helena, was somewhat unaware of the accusations made against him in England and France. However, when confronted with them upon his return to England after Napoleon died in 1821, Lowe assumed, as the good soldier he was, that the British Government would defend him publicly. Lord Bathurst entreated Lowe to defend himself using all of the documents and correspondence available to him, all of which can be found in the British Library today. Lowe attempted to sue O’Meara, but the British court admonished him that he had waited too long and the statute of limitations had run out. The false accusations remained publicly unchallenged by Lowe, which only gave credence to them by his silence. His detractors took great advantage and continued to publish further accusations against him. Once the liberal Whig party was back in office, they supported the accusations purely for political purposes against the conservative Tory party. On one significant occasion during a debate in Parliament, when Lord Wellington had become Prime Minister, he defended Lowe stating that the King had no person of greater loyalty than Sir Hudson Lowe. Regardless, Lowe never received the customary pension for a knighted and decorated, high-ranking British officer. He died impoverished in London in 1844 and was buried without honors in St Marks Church on North Audley Street in London.
Was there a better man to be assigned as Napoleon’s jailer than Lowe? Had someone been assigned who would have established smoother relations than Lowe, Napoleon might have escaped. Napoleon easily smuggled letters away from the island and had them published in England and Europe. There were escape plans discovered, the most famous of which involved Napoleon’s family and supporters living in America. Napoleon also had access to enormous amounts of money both in America and Europe. This money was used to bribe people to write and publish the accusations against Lowe. Napoleon had numerous sympathetic St Helena islanders living in Jamestown who smuggled for him. Napoleon also had supporters in the British government such as Lord and Lady Holland, not to mention intellectuals such as Lord Byron. Had Lowe not been the military martinet he was, and had he not been in a constant state of frustration with both Napoleon and Lady Lowe, things might have been very different.
In any event, Napoleon was destined to die from stomach cancer as his father had. The idea that the environment of St Helena might have hastened Napoleon’s death, or that Napoleon was poisoned will always be a source of debate keeping his memory alive.
Tourists flock to the Invalides to view Napoleon, but very few go to St Marks Church right off Hyde Park Corner to pay their respects to General Sir Hudson Lowe, KCB.
Such is “history” and such is “legend”, and what happens when they are commingled.
British Library “Lowe Papers” Add. MSS. 20114, 20136, and 20119.
William Forsyth, History of the captivity of Napoleon at St Helena, London: J Murray, 1853
James Kemble, St Helena during Napoleon’s exile: Gorrequer’s diary, London: Heinemann, 1969
Emmanuel de Las Cases, Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène (English translation)
Barry O’Meara, Voice from St Helena, 1822
Basil Jackson, Notes and reminiscences of a staff officer,: Chiefly relating to the Waterloo campaign and to St Helena matters during the captivity of Napoleon, London: John Murray, 1903
Betsy Balcombe, To Befriend an Emperor: Betsy Balcombe’s Memoirs of Napoleon on St Helena, Welwyn Garden City: Ravenhall Books, 2005
Lady Malcom, A Diary of St Helena, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1929
Desmond Gregory, Napoleon’s jailer: Lt Gen. Sir Hudson Lowe. A life, London: Associated University Presses, 1996