Talking Point with Peter Hicks: “Hope springs eternal…”

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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In the spring of 1819, the 20th foot regiment arrived on the island of St Helena where it was quartered in Jamestown, Francis Plain, Lemon Valley, at High Knoll and Ladder Hill. They were to replace the 66th in February the following year, whence they would have the honour of accompanying the Emperor to his last resting place. Rather surprisingly to modern eyes, there was a kernel of soldiers in this regiment who were “serious and zealous Christians”, notably, Robert Carter Oakley and George Horsley Wood.

Talking Point with Peter Hicks: “Hope springs eternal…”

In 1820, the Royal Navy ship Vigo arrived for its tour of duty guarding the island with an invalid young midshipman aboard, barely 21, a certain Robert Grant (1799-1820), cared for by his dear colleague midshipman, R. J. Mellish. Grant was from a large Scottish Lowlands family, who (it would appear) frequented the noble Hope family at Granton House in downtown Edinburgh and probably went to school with his near contemporary, Rear-Admiral Charles Hope. After a turbulent youth, Robert entered the navy and found himself on board Vigo heading for St Helena.

Catching consumption (and religion) shortly after Vigo set sail from Britain, Grant asked his friend Mellish to read to him from the holy scriptures as he lay suffering in the Flag Lieutenant’s cabin. On arrival at St Helena, the young Scot was initially hospitalised at the insalubrious High Knoll hospital. Later, after requests made by his friend and ‘brother in Christ’, George Horsley Wood of the 20th regiment, he got himself sent finally to Mason’s Cottage (Teutonic Hall), an outlying piquet from Deadwood camp, ‘a gunshot’ from Longwood House that marked one of Napoleon’s limits. Wood, Armstrong (a local Saint lieutenant in the St Helena artillery), and Mellish (who came as often as he could) all tended to Grant and accompanied his final days, witnessing notably the miracle of him surviving (just) to his birthday, his 21st and his majority and so being able to bequeath £10,000 to his mother (instead of to his younger brother).

All the details concerning Grant’s invalidity and death on the island (including, verbatim, all the prayers the dying Grant offered up) were later communicated (mostly by Wood, but also by others) to the (Reverend?) Thomas Robson (in India at Ahmednagar in 1825) who published them in two editions, one in India and the second in London in 1827, under the title St Helena Memoirs. An account of the remarkable revival of religion that took place at St Helena during the last years of the exile of Napoleon Buonaparte.

Why is all this interesting? Well, according to Robson, when they were praying together (Grant, Wood, Armstrong, Oakley, and Mellish), they got it into their heads they should pray not only “that God would mitigate [the Emperor’s] severe bodily sufferings during his long illness” but also for his conversion to Protestantism! George Horsley Wood (presumably the source for Thomas Robson’s information) himself recounted that he had received from David Bogue a French translation of the latter’s celebrated religious tract on the New Testament (written in 1801 and subsequently translated into several European languages). David Bogue was an extremely influential non-conformist minister who played an huge role in the growth of British Christian missionary work abroad. His wife, Charlotte (née Uffington), had already had a go at converting Napoleon five years earlier while he was still in France. She confessed to Wood that she had sent a version of her husband’s tract to Carnot during the Hundred Days, hoping that Lazare would hand it onto the Emperor. The St Helena Memoirs recount how Bogue’s tract in French was sent to Longwood, and how Madame Bertrand handed the copy actually read by Napoleon back to Oakley (who was employed teaching the Bertrand children); though the Grand Maréchal Bertrand could not vouch for how attentively the Emperor had actually read the document. In the end, in February 1822, George Horsley Wood sent the copy supposedly read by Napoleon back to Bogue in England, much to Bogue’s delight.

It had, however, all been in vain. As Napoleon had confessed to Barry O’Meara four or so years earlier, “io credo in quanto crede la Chiesa [Cattolica]” (I believe what the [Catholic] Church believes); the Emperor probably received extreme unction and noted in his will that he “die[d] in the Apostolical Roman religion, in the bosom of which [he had been] born more than fifty years” earlier.

Peter Hicks
September 2020

Peter Hicks is International affairs manager at the Fondation Napoléon

The phrase “Hope springs eternal” was coined by Alexander Pope in his poem, An Essay on Man (1733-34)

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