Irène Delage: Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, how does one become curator of the French properties on St Helena?
Michel Dancoisne-Martineau: The role is a contracted post for the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. In 1987, I applied for the position and, after the standard administrative and aptitude exams, I was offered a contract of three years, which was then renewed.
I.D.: What does the post entail?
M. D.-M.: My job is to formulate and execute all policy relating to the French properties on St Helena, which are owned by the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. This means that I supervise the day to day management and administration of these estates, as well as their cultural and scientific operations. On top of this, I also oversee the study and evaluation of the estates' collections and documentation in order to develop and strengthen our network of partners and sponsors.
I.D.: St Helena is a tiny little island in the Atlantic. You have been posted there since 1987. What qualities are required to succeed in such a position? What is your professional life like on the island?
M.D.-M.: You have to be able to work independently in surroundings of extreme geographical isolation, in an environment almost entirely lacking in medical, educational and cultural facilities. Such a solitary role also requires you to be a jack of all trades: forester, gardener, builder, carpenter, documentarist, secretary, accountant, and historian. If you are going to live and work on St Helena, you above all have to be in very good health! You must also demonstrate self-discipline, have a methodical nature, and be extremely well organised: you need to be able to anticipate and plan for everything you will need six months in advance, and prepare any trips at least a year ahead.
The Chronicles of St Helena
I.D.: These accounts and character portraits – far from being anecdotal – offer the perfect complement to the Napoleon-centric depiction of St Helena. What was the inspiration behind your research?
M.D.-M.: It all began when I was asked to write (following some friendly persuasion from Thierry Lentz and Bernard Chevallier) a history of St Helena for a collection of essays on the island [Sainte-Hélène, île de mémoire, published by Fayard in 2005]. I soon realised that the four works written on the subject all offered contradictory accounts, with discrepancies in the dates, names, chronology of events, and even in the so-called “facts”.
I had to go back to the beginning, which is to say the original source material: the archives of the East India Company, still held on the island. Upon investigation, I found hundreds upon hundreds of volumes and entries. I subsequently combed through this original source material, in the process rediscovering an island I thought I already knew.
After writing the history of the island from 1502 to 2002, I decided to read in detail all the reports, accounts and statements produced during Napoleon's exile. Originally, this was nothing more than an effort to set myself straight on the subject of “Napoleon on St Helena”. There are so many different works on the matter (not only on the causes of his death, but everything else surrounding it) that it has become extremely difficult to really know anything about this complex subject. This is not to suggest, however, that I found anything sensational or unexpected (nor was it my intention to go looking for such a thing), but I did learn much of life on the island – life behind the scenes of the Napoleonic exile – through fragments and characters' accounts. Reading about the lives of a soldier's wife, a Cantonese worker, a merchant, a farmer, a vicar, or a farmer's daughter, I was able to take a step back from the “bigger story” of the island and begin to appreciate life as it was during Napoleon's stay there.
I.D.: What difficulties did you encounter during your study of the different documents and archives?
M. D.-M.: The first difficulty is the sheer number of documents. It was rare that one volume would deal with just one story or individual. I had to do a lot cross-referencing. Take just one example: one girl would appear as a witness during a trial. That same girl would then reappear in another volume, this time in an administrative document relating to a proposed reform, before resurfacing a third time, again in a different volume, on the passenger list for the ship to Britain. It's like leading an investigation in which the smallest detail is of the greatest importance. The challenge for these chronicles was to be able to say that on such and such a day, at such and such a time, “the sky was blue”, and to be able to prove it! For this reason, it was much “easier” to recount the details of events that took place onboard a ship, rather than those that took place on land, because the ship's log recorded everything.
I.D.: How did the different communities living on the island co-exist?
M. D.-M.: Despite the small nature of the island, these different communities co-existed by ignoring each other. The only tie that bound them was the East India Company's authority in all administrative, military and religious matters.
I.D.: The arrival of Napoleon and the garrison charged with guarding him – about 2,000 individuals, all told – must have had a profound effect on the island.
M. D.-M.: Absolutely. Respect (and indeed fear) of the East India Company – which had the power of life and death over everyone on the island – was severely undermined the moment Napoleon arrived on St Helena. The company was obliged to cede all authority regarding administration and military matters for the duration of Napoleon's stay. Unsurprisingly, this handover was not without its own disagreements, suggested or otherwise. The most surprising examples of this rivalry can be found in discussions relating to farming and religious matters. Hudson Lowe, the governor on the island, was the first victim of this conflict, caught between the interests of the British crown (which he served) and those of the East India Company (whose representatives held a monopoly over civil administration and religious posts). The issues surrounding supplying the island, the imposed curfew, restrictions on the population's movements, and the added drain on resources did little to simplify matters.
I.D.: What struck you the most about these characters “on the other side of the glass”?
M.D.-M.: The history of these individuals – on the fringes of the bigger story – allowed me to really immerse myself in the general atmosphere of life on the island. Through their histories, I have been able to offer a background to the final years of Napoleon's life. Finally, they have enabled me to get some perspective on a subject that has been the basis for my work since 1987. By concentrating purely on the facts as they are described in the various different administrative accounts and discussions – the intention of which was not to write history but simply to give structure to daily life on an isolated island in the middle of the South Atlantic – I was no longer bound by the principles governing standard works of history. I just wanted to retell the story of a few “ordinary” people who crossed paths with this “extraordinary” man.
The project to save Napoleon’s residence
In November 2010, the Fondation Napoléon and the Souvenir Napoléonien, in association with the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, announced an international fund-raising campaign to restore and save Napoleon I's Longwood residence on the island.
I.D.: Can you take us through the different restoration projects since the middle of the nineteenth century?
M.D.-M.: When France took possession of the estates in 1858, the first curator discovered that the buildings had been transformed into a farm. The emperor's apartments were repaired in 1860, whilst those occupied by his companions (including Las Cases, and Generals Montholon and Gourgaud) were destroyed. In 1933, thanks to financial assistance from the Friends of St Helena association, these apartments were rebuilt as a residence for the curator, who at the time was living in Napoleon's own chambers. Finally, between 1953 and 1955, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided the money for a complete restoration of the emperor's apartments, something that had never been done (the project in 1860 constituting more of a repair job).
I.D.: What exactly is the nature of the restoration project launched by the Fondation Napoléon and the Souvenir Napoléonien?
M.D.-M.: Unfortunately, the 1933 reconstruction of the apartments commonly known as “the generals' wing” was completed with cheap materials entirely unsuited to Longwood's climate. The result is beyond repair: the buildings' metal framework has splintered, weakening the general structure of the property (the roof is held up by nothing more than a wooden brace supporting the central beam); everywhere you look there are sorry-looking tiles falling away; the metal windows have rusted and no longer keep the elements at bay; the lofts are full of basins which have to be emptied after each downpour. And although the restoration project of the emperor's apartments in 1954 was excellent, we now need to return the constituent rooms to their original, 1821 state. We have been working on this for more than twenty years, but there is still much to be done, particularly in terms of decoration (such as the wallpaper, the curtains and the carpet). Moreover, the entire furniture collection needs restoring too.
I.D.: In your opinion, why is such a project important?
M.D.-M.: Longwood House is a particularly precious element of both the story of Napoleon and our own collective memory. For more than one hundred and fifty years, France has maintained a presence on the island in honour and recognition of one of the most tragic chapters in its history.
– Official website of the French properties on St Helena (external link in French)
– Michel Dancoisne-Martineau's blog (external link in French)
– Operation St Helena on napoleon.org