The facts are well-known. By the summer of 1813 the French had been pushed out of Spain and Portugal, Napoleon’s Grande Armée was decisively defeated at the Battle of Leipzig (16-19 October 1813) and by January 1814 France was being attacked on all frontiers. Under the Treaty of Chaumont (March 1814) Austria, Prussia, Great Britain and Russia undertook to continue the struggle to overthrow the Emperor.
As the allies advanced towards Paris, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord led the French Senate in establishing a provisional government and began negotiations with Louis XVIII, brother of the executed Louis XVI. Napoleon was in Fontainebleau when he heard that Paris had capitulated. He abdicated on 6 April 1814.
Under the Treaty of Fontainebleau, signed on 11 April, Napoleon was granted the island of Elba as a sovereign principality. Corsica, Corfu and Sardinia had all been considered. The French refused to give Corsica to Napoleon. Corfu was too close to Greece. The House of Savoy did not wish to part with Sardinia. Elba had been taken from Tuscany and annexed to France by Napoleon in 1802. Tsar Alexander was concerned about the islands proximity to Italy. Emperor Francis I of Austria wrote to his Foreign Minister:
‘The important thing is to remove Napoleon from France, and God grant that he may be sent very far away. I do not approve of the choice of the Island of Elba as a residence for Napoleon; they take it from Tuscany….Besides, Napoleon remains too near to France and to Europe.’
Napoleon was permitted to retain the title of Emperor, keep a guard of 400 volunteers and receive an annual income of 2,000,000 francs paid by France. After unsuccessfully trying to poison himself, Napoleon landed at Elba on 4 May, accompanied by Colonel Sir Neil Campbell, tasked by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh to monitor and report on his activities.
As the Congress of Vienna convened to redraw the map of Europe there was concern that Elba was not sufficiently secure and that Napoleon remained a threat. St Lucia, Trinidad, St Helena and the Azores were discussed. As French Foreign Minister Talleyrand wrote to Louis XVIII:
‘A very decided intention of removing Bonaparte from the island of Elba is manifesting itself. As yet no one has any settled idea of a place in which to put him. I have proposed one of the Azores; it is five hundred leagues from any coast. Lord Castlereagh seems inclined to think that the Portuguese might be induced to agree to such an arrangement.’
Napoleon was keeping a watchful eye on events. Sir Neil Campbell reported a conversation he had with Napoleon on 14 January 1815 in which the Emperor
‘spoke of the statements which had appeared in some of the newspapers respecting his removal to St. Helena or St. Lucia, in a way which showed his belief in them, said he would not consent to being transported from Elba, but would resist the attempt by force.’
On 16 February Campbell left Elba for Italy carrying a dispatch for Lord Castlereagh in which he expressed his anxiety about Napoleon’s intentions. No sooner had he gone Napoleon issued orders to prepare the Inconstant, a brig of about 300 tons, for a sea voyage. She was to be painted like an English ship. She was to be re-armed and provisioned furnished with sufficient food for 120 men for three months. In other respects he continued to issue orders and act as though life was continuing as normal.
On 26 February, with Campbell still away, Napoleon escaped from Elba. He landed at Cannes on 1 March. By the 20th he was in Paris, intent on restoring his military reputation. Louis XVIII had fled.
The Duke of Wellington was at the Congress of Vienna when the news of Napoleon’s escape was announced. The allies resolved to deal with the fugitive and pledged nearly a million men to mobilize.
On 16 June French soldiers of the Armée du Nord under Napoleon’s command, defeated part of Field Marshal Prince Blucher’s army. It was Napoleon’s last victory. At Quatre Bras on the same day, 18,000 men of the Armée du Nord under Marshal Ney were defeated by an Anglo-Dutch-German force commanded by William Prince of Orange and the Duke of Wellington.
Two days later, on 18 June 1815, Wellington and Blucher defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
Napoleon abdicated for the second time on 22 June and made his way to Rochefort, attempting to set sail for America. But the British had blockaded the ports, determined to capture Napoleon.
On 14 July Napoleon wrote a letter to the Prince Regent, the future George IV.
“Confronted by the factions which divide my country, and the enmity of the greatest powers of Europe, my political career has come to an end. I come, like Themistocles, to sit within the home of the British people; I put myself under the protection of its laws, which I claim from Your Royal Highness, being the most powerful, the most constant, the most generous of my enemies.”
On 15 July he embarked on HMS Bellerophon commanded by Captain Frederick Maitland.
The Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and his Foreign Secretary corresponded over what to do. Gibraltar, Malta, the Cape of Good Hope were all under consideration. Castlereagh suggested that Napoleon be detained at Fort St. George in Scotland. Liverpool wrote:
‘We incline at present strongly to the opinion that the best place of custody would be at a distance from Europe and that the Cape of Good Hope or St Helena would be the most proper stations for the purpose.’
On 21 July, the choice of Saint Helena had been made. Lord Liverpool was categorical:
“…in such a place, all intrigue will be impossible, and at such a long distance from Europe, he will be quickly forgotten,”
How wrong he was.
Betsy Balcombe was 13 years old and living at the Briars when she heard that Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo and was about to arrive in St Helena. In 1844 her memoires “Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon” were published in London by John Murray.
‘It was in October, 1815, that this news first burst upon us. We heard one morning an alarm gun fired from Ladder Hill, which was the signal that a vessel was in sight, off the island. The same evening, two naval officers arrived at the Briars, one of whom was announced as Captain D., commanding the Icarus man-of-war. He requested to see my father, having intelligence of importance to communicate to him. On being conducted to him, he informed him that Napoleon Bonaparte was on board the Northumberland, under the command of Sir George Cockburn, and within a few days’ sail of the island. The news of his escape from Elba, and the subsequent eventful campaign had, of course, not reached us, and I remember well how amazed and incredulous they all seemed to be at the information.’
For 150 years after the discovery of St Helena in 1502, the island was visited by Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English ships stocking up on fresh water on their voyages to or from the Indian Ocean and landing sailors suffering from scurvy and illness.
Originally established as a merchant trading house in 1600, the East India Company became a joint stock company in 1657, the forerunner of a modern multinational corporation. Over the next 150 years it would go on to account for half the world’s trade, have its own private army and governed most of India, Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaya. By the middle of the 19th Century a fifth of the world’s population was under its trading influence.
The East India Company administered St Helena almost uninterrupted from 1659 until 1815. The island came under British rule during Napoleon’s exile (1815-1821) after which the East India Company resumed control until St Helena finally became a British Crown Colony in 1834.
In 1981 St Helena and other Crown Colonies were reclassified as British Dependent Territories. In 2002 these became British Overseas Territories.
Boer Prisoners of War
During the South African War of 1899 to 1902 the British took as many as 20,000 prisoners, resulting in overcrowded prisoner of war camps in South Africa. They were also vulnerable to attack by enemy forces. These difficulties influenced the decision to ship prisoners to Bermuda, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and to St Helena.
St Helena received around five and half thousand Boer prisoners-of-war. Prior to the arrival of the first contingent of 514 prisoners on 10 April 1900, the Governor, Robert Armitage Sterndale, published the following proclamation:
Most of the prisoners were held in canvas tents on Deadwood Plain surrounded by barbed wire. Some went on to create makeshift huts from biscuit tins. A later camp was created at Broad Bottom in the Blue Hill district. A number were employed on building projects around the island. Others were given permission to work as household servants, cooks and grooms. Some were even permitted to live in the homes of their British employers. They established a string quartet, a piano trio, a brass band and a male choir. Two were allowed to marry local women.
After the war was over it took time to repatriate the POWs. The peace was signed on 31 May 1902. The first shipment of returning prisoners left on 26 June 1902, the last on 23 October. Some decided to stay.
There is a Boer Cemetery at Knollcombes with the graves of 180 prisoners who died on St Helena. The cemetery was cared for by the Bapist Church until 1945, when the Government of St Helena took over the responsibility.
It reads like something from Who’s Who. In addition to the following a number of Royals have also visited St Helena:
Joao da Nova 1502
Sir Thomas Cavendish 1588
Edmond (Edmund) Halley 1677
Captain James Cook 1771
Horatio Nelson 1776
Captain Bligh 1792
Duke of Wellington 1805
Charles Darwin 1836