Letter from Mrs Catherine Younghusband to her aunt (St Helena, 4 January 1816) including an account of a new-year dinner with Napoleon.

Author(s) : YOUNGHUSBAND Catherine
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What follows is a first-hand account of dinner with Napoleon at Longwood House in the new year of 1816. This dinner was not recorded by Las Cases in the Memorial.

The authoress, Catherine, was the wife of a military man on the island, Robert Younghusband. Captain Younghusband, of the 2nd battalion of the 53rd foot regiment, was relatively senior in the military hierarchy of the troops guarding St Helena. Indeed, he was to be interim battalion commander from late March to early May 1816. He had met and married his wife, Catherine née Whinyates, in June 1811 in Calcutta where he had been stationed with the Bengal artillery. Catherine had recently been widowed. She was later to become quite close to the French at Longwood, as the letter here attests. Indeed, another letter of hers was to be found among Las Cases’s papers when the latter was expelled from the island in December 1816.

Catherine Younghusband’s account of her encounters with the French Emperor appeared (anonymously) in various places in late 19th century publications, such as for example the Cambridge Chronicle, Volume 44, Number 2273, 21 September 1889, under the title “Reminiscences of Napoleon Bonaparte, at St Helena, by a Lady”. Here she tells us that she first met Napoleon at the Briars in December 1815. Eschewing all politics in her account – she remarked that she should follow one of Napoleon’s favourite maxims, namely “Let women mind their knitting” – she recorded several visits to Longwood with a charming natural style. The text here is a transcription of an original letter from Catherine to her aunt, written a few days after her new-year dinner with Napoleon. (The original is held at the National Army Museum, Chelsea, London, and is viewable online here).

Letter from Mrs Catherine Younghusband to her aunt (St Helena, 4 January 1816) including an account of a new-year dinner with Napoleon.
A View of Longwood House, St Helena, The Residence of Napoleon Bonaparte. 1817



Plantation or Government House. St. Helena Jan[uar]y 4 1816

My dear Aunt,

Altho’ I wrote to you a very long letter only three weeks ago. I am certain you will be glad to hear from me on account of my having dined by invitation with the Great Bonaparte. – The invitation came to me alone, for Napoleon makes it a rule never to invite husbands and wives the same day. Sir George Bingham and myself were the only two invited. I went accompanied by Marshal & the Countess Bertrand. She professes the greatest love for me & acknowledgements for the attentions I have been able to pay her.

We arrived at Longwood at 7 – The Emperor was walking, but he came in & seemed very cheerful. “You are come to live in Camp, Madame – ah c’est très bien”. He then asked me to try a Grand Piano Forte of Stodards [sic] arrived from England the day before (This piano is still at Longwood House.). “I want your opinion, tell me if it is as good as the Piano at Plantation House”. I told him it was better. He was pleased – “Come try it. I will teach you to pronounce Italian”. He then read the words of a song I was about to sing. After I had sung two songs he asked me to play at Tric Trac with him, being told this was Backgammon. I sat down, but I found it was different & said I could not play. “Ah c’est domage [sic]! Will you teach me English Backgammon?” The idea of my instructing the Great Napoleon threw me into a flutter, but he found placing the men so difficult that he gave it up. Dinner was announced. I was placed to Bonaparte’s right hand. The party consisted of Marshal & Countess Bertrand, General & Countess Monthalon [sic]. Baron Gourgaud. Count Las Cases, and his son. And Sir Ge.[orge] Bingham. During the whole dinner no-one uttered a syllable but the Emperor & myself. A dead silence prevailed. The Emperor asked me a number of questions about India & several about Camp. The first course was off silver. The dinner excellent. The servants magnificently dressed. Nothing was cut at Table. Everything carved by the servants & brought round. Bonaparte eat [sic] of about ten different dishes and drank very little. He took a glass of wine before his soup. The vegetables were eaten separate [sic], & after the meat. The desert [sic] or second course was off the most superb Seve [sic] china. The plates all solid Gold. The sweetmeats were exquisite. The Emperor filled a plate with his own hand & sent them to Camp. “Carry these to the little girl who sings so well, from me” said he to the servant. I own I felt highly pleased at this kindness of remembrance of Emily. (Emily had sung for Napoleon at the Briars) He offered me several things with his own hand, which did not strike me at the time, but Count Las Casas [sic] told me yesterday it was the highest mark of his favor. A thing said he the Emperor would not have done to a Queen in Paris. & I assure you he paid you more attention than he has to many Queens – & as for Princes, I have seen seven Princes waiting in the Anti:room [sic] and not able to gain admittance”. –

But to return – dinner was no sooner over, & we all got up when the Emperor rose and we all returned to the drawing room. A Table was laid out with a Coffee set – the most beautiful & superb I imagine in all the world! The Cups and saucers were 25 guineas each.

Manufacture de Sèvres: Cabaret du Service particulier de l'Empereur, Musée du Louvre.
Manufacture de Sèvres: Cabaret du Service particulier de l’Empereur, Musée du Louvre.

Every cup had a beautiful view of different parts of Egypt & the saucers a highly finished miniature of the different Bays of Egypt. They were made at Sevè [sic] and presented to the Emperor by the City of Paris. He took great pleasure in showing and describing them (The Manufacture de Sèvres produced seven “Egyptian” cabaret sets. Shapes and composition vary from one service to another, as does the ornamentation culled from Dominique Vivant Denon’s book on Egypt. The first set was given by Napoleon I to Czar Alexander I in 1808. The second, for Josephine, is now in the Château de la Malmaison. The third was also delivered to Josephine at the Palais des Tuileries, and the fourth to Napoleon on March 31, 1810 to be used at the palace (now held at the Louvre Museum). The fifth was given to the Duchess de Montebello in 1813, the sixth to the Duchess de Bassano, and the seventh to the Countess de Luçay. Napoleon enjoyed his set very much. He gave pieces from it to his close relatives and took the rest with him to St Helena. (The Fondation Napoléon Collection also includes some pieces from one of the sets /en/history-of-the-two-empires/objects/egyptian-tea-service/). He then asked me if I could play at Renversé (a game like whist) I said I could not. He then made his party, and General Monthalon [sic], Countess Bertrand, Sir Ge.[orge] Bingham & myself made a whist table. The Emperor was in high glee. He sang all the time he was playing. He won a great deal & seemed to pay the greatest attention to the Game and to be entirely interested in it. It was near Eleven when the party broke up. Bonaparte observes the same etiquette and state with his Court here as at Paris, none of them sit down or speak in his Presence. He makes a sign when he chooses they should sit. They dress every day as if at Court. He took notice of my dress which was a silver muslin of a peculiar pattern. “I know, said he, that is Indian”.

Count Las Casas [sic] is a most agreeable man & I imagine one of the greatest genius’s [sic] of the age. He is the author of that admirable work, the Attlass Historique, Genealogique, Chronologique et Geographique [sic], by the name of Le Sage [sic]. He is old & diminutive but I wd. rather talk to him than almost any person I ever saw. He yesterday accompanied Madame Bertrand, Emily, & myself from Longwood to Plantation House in the coach, it is five miles but as we had to pass 3 tremendous Mountains, it took us more time than travelling 15 miles wd. in England. The carriage was drawn by six Bullocks. During the whole of the time Count Las Cases entertained us with the most witty, most instructive, & most lively conversation. He Emigrated at the Revolution, & went to London with two Louis in his pocket. He began to teach French at a shilling a lesson. He remained 10 years in England – this price rose to a Guinea. He left England with many thousand pounds. Bonaparte showed his sense and penetration in the selection of such a friend & counsellor. There is not a Noble family in England whose Genealogy he is not perfectly acquainted with or an anecdote in ancient or modern history that he does not know.

Portrait of Robert Younghusband by John Wright c.1817

We are now spending some time with this amiable family, Governor & Mrs. Wilks – they are both extremely kind to us & wish us to stay here till the new Governor arrives. We have now moved to Camp and live in a large Tent close to the House we are building. I like it exceedingly. The weather is now getting hot to my joy, for we have had nothing but rain & cold since we arrived. We spent the Xmas with Mr. and Mrs. Balcombe at the Briars, the late residence of Bonaparte. We are overwhelmed with invitations & kindnesses. If my dear little James were here I should be extremely happy at St. Helena. Bonaparte said Captn. Younghusband was one of the handsomest men he ever saw – “Ah! c’est un homme superb”! He marked him out from all the officers of the 53d who were introduced to him in a body last week. He rides out every day but has particular limits when unattended by one of our officers. He rides up & down precipices where no mortal but himself would choose to venture. He looks best on Horseback. His smile is particularly agreeable but the usual turn of his countenance is heavy & grave. He hates Longwood & fancies the water there disagrees with him. He composes an immensity every day, and Las Cases [sic] who transcribes, says the flow of his ideas is amazing. “I never said he really know the Emperor till within these two months, but now I am convinced he is good as well as great”! I have written so many letters to Cheltenham lately that I am afraid of ruining my Sisters in Postage. Will you my dear Aunt have the goodness to send them this letter and also to my Uncle Sir Thomas. I think it will be a matter of curiosity to have so minute an account of the most extraordinary Personage who has yet ever existed.

Emily & Captn. Yd. write in best regards of love & duty & I am your

S. A. C. Younghusband

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