When the French-speaking Cultural Foundation of London started to work on the memory of Napoleon in the United Kingdom, the British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust immediately accepted to support this project. May it be thanked sincerely!
The Trust, set up by St Helena Government a few years ago, has the privilege to have HRH the Duke of Gloucester and Jean-Christophe, Prince Napoleon, as patrons. Alongside the French-speaking Cultural Foundation of London, it is a partner of the Year Napoleon 2021, coordinated by the Fondation Napoleon in France.
James Bramble, Executive Director of the Trust, is talking to us about St Helena, the Trust and its purposes.
Interview by Thomas Menard. A French version is available here.
First of all, James, could you remind us where St Helena is? In the middle of the Atlantic! St. Helena sits about 1200 miles due West from Angola. It is one of the remotest places on Earth, 700 miles from the ‘nearest’ habitation on the island of Ascension.
When Napoleon died there on 5 May 1821, it was a possession of the East India Company. What was the island used for?
It was essentially a strategic outpost and victualling point. In 1659, having realised the Island’s strategic value, The English East India Company established a settlement under the command of Captain John Dutton. The Dutch realised the same thing and invaded but the East India Company took it back.
Why did the British government decide to exile Napoleon there?
By the mid 18th century St. Helena was very heavily fortified and when Napoleon was in exile on Elba it was already being talked of as a suitable place to send him, as the European powers were nervous – rightly – of him being so close. After the 100 days and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo the decision to send him to Saint Helena happened incredibly quickly – within 2 months of defeat at Waterloo he was on his way to St Helena.
It is now a British Overseas Territory. What does it mean?
Importantly, it means that it’s a self-governing territory. The Queen is the Head of State, and of course the UK provides funding and protection, but they have their own government, currency, courts etc. The Crown is represented by a Governor, but the island is governed by elected councillors.
You are the Executive Director of the British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust, set up by St Helena government a few years ago. What are the purposes of this Trust?
The Trust has two purposes, to preserve the built heritage of Saint Helena, and particularly of course that broadly relating to the period of his imprisonment, and to promote new perspectives on the story of Napoleon on Saint Helena. By that we mean the stories of the people of Saint Helena at that time, as well as Napoleon himself.
Longwood Old House, The Briars and the Tomb Valley now belong to France. What are the other heritage buildings linked with Napoleon in St Helena?
The sites maintained by the French authorities are in excellent condition – largely thanks to the efforts of the Honorary French Consul, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau. However there is a wealth of military and civilian infrastructure which is also at risk from the elements. We are focussing immediately on Toby’s Cottage, a small house at The Briars – where Napoleon lived before moving into Longwood. A slave, Toby, lived there and is known to have spoken to Napoleon. By conserving the site we can shine a light on a different aspect of the story of Napoleon on Saint Helena, and on the lives of the island’s slaves at that time. We also want to preserve some of the island’s fantastic fortifications – such as Munden’s Battery, Banks Battery, but everything is subject to funding.
What kind of activities did you organise for the bicentenary?
We of course faced significant challenges because of Covid and all our grand plans for an event on the 5th May had to be cancelled. Instead we organised a series of six online events – one every month leading up to the May and exploring the history of the island from different angles. These are all still available on our website. On the 4th May we posted a series of short vignettes, with volunteers in character as some of the people who shared Napoleon’s final years on Saint Helena and who had very differering opinions on him, and his trreatment. And finally, on the 5th May we had a live stream of the ceremony on the island – which was able to go ahead as the island thankfully has had no cases of Covid.
You also planned a ceremony in Kensal Green Cemetery, in London. Why and what was supposed to happen there?
At Kensal Green we were going to have a ceremony to lay plaques at the graves of many of the people I just mentioned including Betsy Balcombe, the teenage girl who struck up a friendship with Napoleon or Gideon Gorrequer who wrote a bitter diary about events on the island in code. It just so happens that many of these are buried at Kensal Green Cemetery – which was obviously the place to be buried around that time. Instead we have installed these plaques and you can see them in some of the short vignettes I mentioned.
You are British, James. What does Napoleon represent for British people nowadays?
I think Napoleon has always represented the possibility of deciding your own fate and achieving ‘great’ things. Of course, there are many people now – including in France – who are questioning just how ‘great’ those things were. The Trust doesn’t have any position on that – we simply want to open up discussion, and introduce more people to the particularly fascinating story of Napoleon on Saint Helena, which is of course also an interesting entry point to some of the arguments about Napoleon such as his approach to slavery. If anything, I would like to get over the idea of a ‘British’ or ‘French’ perspective. It was 200 years ago and we should be able to look at the events, and the man, objectively by now.