Trace the final Footsteps of Napoleon
By Matt Joshua
St Helena’s history is rich and fascinating, spanning over 500 years. Discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, the island was possessed by the Dutch and then became British, initially under the East India Company, then The Crown.
Until the opening of the Suez Canal, the island was of immense strategic importance for the British. Due to its location, the island played a vital role in the abolition of slavery, and because of its remoteness has been a place of exile for many, including 6,000 Boers, Chief Dinizulu, Bahraini Princes, and of course the island’s most famous exile, Napoleon.
Napoleon was exiled to St Helena in 1815 and remained on the island until his death in 1821. His body was exhumed and taken to Paris in 1840.
Domaines Nationaux de Sainte-Hélène
There are three main French-owned Napoleonic sites or Domaines Nationaux de Sainte-Hélène on the island: the Briars Pavilion, Longwood House and The Tomb. Mr Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, the island’s French Consul, has been the custodian of the properties since 1987.
The Briars Pavilion was Napoleon’s first residence on St Helena and comprised the original house that was then called the ‘apartments of the three English admirals’ because it housed the commanders of the surveillance of flotilla. The rooms were extended after the Emperor’s departure. Napoleon lived at Briars Pavilion from October to December 1815 while the renovations to Longwood House were underway.
Longwood House was Napoleon’s principal residence and the place of his demise. It is now a world-class museum and function space surrounded by beautiful gardens. Personally designed by Napoleon, the gardens were subsequently replanted and maintained for the last thirty years to adhere to his original concept. The French Government owns the land within the boundary walls, so when visitors step through the gate of Longwood House, they step onto French soil. Longwood House has many keepsakes of France’s great Emperor, most notably an abundance of artefacts and furniture, with much of the furniture painstakingly restored in Paris and recently exhibited at Les Invalides, now returned to the island.
In anticipation of an order to bury his body on the Island, the Emperor chose Sane Valley as his burial place. He came to the tranquil setting on one of his walks and was delighted with the peaceful landscape and plants that grew there. Napoleon’s empty tomb lies here.
Napoleon’s St Helena Timeline:
- 18 June 1815 – Battle of Waterloo
- 22 June 1815 – Emperor Napoleon abdicates
- 3 July 1815 – Napoleon flees to Rochefort, hoping to find passage to the United States
- 15 July 1815 – Napoleon surrenders to the English and boards HMS Bellerophon
- 31 July 1815 – At Torbay, Napoleon learns that he will be held on St Helena
- 7 August 1815 – Napoleon is transferred to HMS Northumberland which sets sail for St Helena
- 17 October 1815 – Napoleon lands ashore at St Helena. After one night in Jamestown, he moves to The Briars
- 10 December 1815 – Napoleon moves into Longwood House
- 14 April 2016 – Sir Hudson Lowe arrives on St Helena
- 31 December 1816 – Count Las Cases is expelled from St Helena
- 14 March 1818 – General Gougaud leaves St Helena
- 2 August 1818 – Dr Barry O’Meara expelled from St Helena
- November 1818 – Napoleon falls ill
- 5 May 1821 – Napoleon dies at Longwood House
- 9 May 1821 – Napoleon is buried in Sane Valley
- 15 October 1840 – A French mission exhumes Napoleon’s remains to transfer them to Paris
- 15 December 1840 – Napoleon’s ashes are returned to Paris where over a million people accompany the cortege to the Invalides.
The Restoration of Longwood House
Between 2010 and 2014, the Fondation Napoléon, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Domaines Nationaux de Sainte-Hélène undertook the challenging restoration of Longwood House, at the cost of nearly 2.2 million Euros.
Initially, the idea was to restore the generals’ wing of the House. Poorly rebuilt in the 1930s, this section of Longwood was in such immediate danger that the French Minister of Foreign Affairs dedicated an initial fund of 700,000 Euros. The Fondation Napoléon agreed to increase the sum by a further 700,000 euros. To amass funding, the Fondation worked alongside the Souvenir Napoléonien and the Fondation du Patrimoine (Heritage Foundation). Together, the partner organisations launched an international public fundraising campaign. The campaign closed on the 31st December 2014 and raised 1.4 million euros from around 2,000 individual donors.
The honorary chief architect of France’s Historical Monuments directed a detailed historical and architectural study before commencing work on the General’s wing at Longwood House. Completed on time and within budget, the building was rebuilt and adequately protected from adverse weather conditions, with the interior structure being rearranged to cater for a range of functions. Since its reconstruction, Longwood House has held the collections of the Domaines Nationaux de Sainte-Hélène (engravings, paintings, furniture and historical artefacts), and the Gourgaud and Montholon apartments were returned to their previous use as the Domaines’ reception rooms.
The remaining funds went towards restoration work which was as vital and as urgent as the architectural work.
The restoration work included:
- The salon where the Emperor died on the 5th May 1821
- The bathroom Napoleon used during his exile
- The repair of the roofing of the kitchen areas
- 32 historic pieces of furniture were transported to France for restoration then returned to Saint Helena.
There are an additional eighty pieces of authentic furniture which were worked on in a workshop that has been set up in the old local stables for local furniture restorers. A specialist heritage restorer was explicitly sent from France to train trained all the local restorers.
For this training initiative, the government of Saint Helena committed a subsidy of 100,000 Euros. The generous donations funded a few more projects including new signage across the Domaines and consultation to reorganise the management of the Domaines in preparation of the opening of St Helena Airport in June 2016. Further works comprised of the creation of new welcome documents, and the presentation of all the work undertaken in the form of a large exhibition – ‘Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène’ at the Musée de l’Armée in Paris (March-July, 2016).
Moment de Mémoire
Each year on the 5th May, a ceremony to commemorate Napoleon’s death – or ‘Moment de Mémoire’ – is held at the Tomb. Various dignitaries, including the island’s Governor, the French Consul, and a representative from the Fondation Napoléon are present, and wreaths are laid by the tomb.
During the ceremony there is an opportunity for anyone to lay a wreath; visitors to the island are invited to take part in this act of respect.
There are mixed opinions about Napoleon, but his legacy is a significant part of St Helena’s tourism offering, and the Napoleonic properties are of great interest to the French and historians from all over the globe, some flying in for just 24 hours to pay homage to the renowned Emperor.
Trace the footsteps of Napoleon with a bona fide Napoleonic French tour of St Helena from the 11th to the 22nd of October 2018. Voyagez sur les traces de Napoleon en 2018 will be hosted by Sainte-Hélène Voyage, visit the website for more information.
To read the blog of Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, Director of the French Properties on the island: https://shnhltd.blogspot.com
The Briars Pavilion is open Wednesday and Friday, 10:00-11:00; Longwood House is open Monday to Friday from 11:00 to 13:00; The Tomb is open Monday to Friday, 09:00-15:00.
An all-inclusive ticket to visit the three sites costs £10.00
Audio guides are available for hire at Longwood House for £2.
It is possible to visit outside the official opening hours but only by prior arrangement by emailing BEPSP@helanta.co.sh The basic price for a private visit is £150. If the number of visitors exceeds six, an additional £10 per person will be charged.