Hudson Lowe gets a bad rap

Sir Hudson Lowe, Napoleon's jailor

Sir Hudson Lowe, Napoleon’s jailor

British general Sir Hudson Lowe was the governor of St. Helena during Napoleon’s imprisonment on the island. Napoleon reached St. Helena before Lowe did and looked forward to the arrival of a fellow soldier. “Did you not tell me,” he reportedly said to his companions, “that he was at Champ Aubert and at Montmirail? We have then probably exchanged a few cannon balls together, and that is always, in my eyes, a noble relation to stand in.” (1)

Napoleon’s view of Lowe

After their first meeting on April 16, 1816, Napoleon pronounced Lowe “hideous; he has a most villainous countenance.” Still, he said,

we must not decide too hastily. The man’s disposition may perhaps make amends for the unfavourable impression which his face produces; this is not impossible. (2)

Napoleon’s impression of Lowe did not improve. It got worse. After a total of six interviews between April and August 1816 (their conversations were conducted in Italian), Napoleon refused to meet with Lowe again. The next time Lowe got a good look at Napoleon was when he saw the Emperor’s corpse on May 6, 1821, the day after Napoleon died.

There is no need to rehash the details of the relationship, as they are well documented elsewhere. Peter Friedman has written a good summary, posted on the Fondation Napoléon’s website. For a fuller treatment, I recommend Napoleon’s Jailer – Lt. Gen. Sir Hudson Lowe: a Life by Desmond Gregory (1996), or Sir Hudson Lowe and Napoleon by Robert Cooper Seaton (1898).

Just doing his job

Although Lowe could be petty, pedantic and vindictive (see my post about Engelbert Lutyens), he was not the villain Napoleon’s supporters made him out to be. He was a conscientious administrator who adhered, for the most part, to the British government’s instructions. He was also, at times, sympathetic to Napoleon, such as when he convinced London to increase the annual allowance for Longwood from eight thousand to twelve thousand pounds. Lowe lacked the tact and intelligence necessary to handle Napoleon well, but he had a difficult job. Whoever was in the post would have been prey to a clever propaganda campaign designed to paint him as the bad guy. As Count Montholon said, “an angel from heaven could not have pleased us as Governor of St. Helena.” (3) The Duke of Wellington, when asked whether he thought Lowe an unnecessarily harsh jailor of Napoleon, responded:

Buonaparte is so damned intractable a fellow there is no knowing how to deal with him.… As for Lowe he is a damned fool. (4)

When Napoleon died, Lowe was magnanimous.

[H]e was England’s greatest enemy and mine too, but I forgive him everything. On the death of a great man like him, we should only feel deep concern and regret. (5)

Napoleon’s adherents showed no such generosity towards Lowe. In July 1822 Dr. Barry O’Meara published Napoleon in Exile; or A Voice From St. Helena. O’Meara had been Napoleon’s doctor on St. Helena until July 1818, when he was expelled by Lowe for trying to undermine the governor behind his back. The book showed Lowe in a very bad light, adding to the undercurrent of feeling against him. Lowe wanted to sue for libel, but his lawyers took so long to compile the evidence that the judge declared the time for bringing the case to court had expired. Having spent most of his military life outside England, Lowe lacked a local crowd of friends and supporters. He appealed to the British government to defend him, but received a cool response. The government was content to make Lowe the scapegoat for any criticism of British treatment of Napoleon.

The Duke of Wellington thought Lowe’s treatment shameful. In November 1822, he wrote to Lord Bathurst, Secretary for War and the Colonies, in respect of an unprovoked assault with a whip on Lowe by one of Napoleon’s erstwhile companions, the son of Count de Las Cases.

I hope that government propose to do something upon this outrage committed upon Sir Hudson. If Sir Hudson treated De las Cases [sic] ill, which I don’t believe he did, government ought to disapprove of his conduct. If he did not treat him ill, if, on the contrary, government either approved of his conduct, or took no notice of it at the time, they ought to protect Sir Hudson; and at all events ought not to allow a blackguard to insult him with impunity in the streets for his conduct in the performance of his duty…. [Y]ou may rely upon it that if you don’t take some steps to mark the sense of the government upon this occasion, there is no well-thinking man in either of the military professions who will not feel it; and you will not easily find another who will brave the popular cry to serve you. (6)

Wellington later rose to Lowe’s defence in the House of Lords when, in 1833, another Lord made a disparaging remark about Lowe.

I have the honour to know Sir Hudson Lowe, and I will say, in this House or elsewhere, wherever it may be, that there is not in the army a more respectable officer than Sir Hudson Lowe, nor has His Majesty a more faithful subject. (7)

Hudson Lowe’s sad end

In 1825 Lowe became commander of British forces in Ceylon. After returning to England in 1831, he petitioned the government for an office in recognition of his services. But O’Meara’s and others’ uncontradicted lies had done their work, and Lowe was not given a high post. Neither was he given a pension. In 1842 the King of Prussia advanced Lowe to the First Class of the Red Eagle of Prussia, recalling his “signal services to the common cause in the glorious campaigns of 1813-14.” (8) The next year Lowe was belatedly given the Grand Cross of St. Michael and St. George.

Hudson Lowe died on January 10, 1844 in relative poverty at the age of 74 (he was born on July 28, 1769, making him two-and-a-half weeks older than Napoleon). He was buried in the crypt of St. Mark’s Church, North Audley Street, London. St. Mark’s is no longer used as a church and is generally kept locked (judging from this slide show, it has a lovely interior). According to Friedman, Lowe’s grave has never been located; only a plaque remains on the church wall, citing his burial. (9)

Seaton closes Lowe’s biography with apt words from an unnamed “military writer”:

To have been charged with an amount of responsibility from which most men would have shrunk aghast; to have performed a painful duty with sleepless vigilance; to have been exposed from circumstances not of his own seeking to an amount of obloquy almost without parallel in the annals of party; to have firmly carried out what he had reluctantly undertaken – the safe custody of a baffled tyrant; to have ‘obeyed instructions,’ and then to have been rewarded by coolness and neglect when he might have expected cordiality and praise, seems a hard destiny. It was that of Sir Hudson Lowe. (10)

You might also enjoy:

General Bonaparte vs Emperor Napoleon: The sad case of Engelbert Lutyens

Napoleon and Longwood House

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

Charles de Montholon: Napoleon’s murderer or devoted Bonapartist?

Napoleon’s Nemesis: The Duke of Wellington

  1. Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, Memorial de Sainte Hélène (London, 1823), Vol. 4, p. 48.
  2. Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 35. Napoleon’s first valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, whose memoirs are considered to be more accurate than those of Las Cases, reports Napoleon saying after that first meeting: “This man has a repulsive appearance and does not have an honest gaze. We must not rush to judge him, but I need to have his behavior reassure me about his physical appearance. His looks remind me of a Sicilian thug.” Proctor Jones, ed., In Napoleon’s Shadow: Being the First English Language Edition of the Complete Memoirs of Louis-Joseph Marchand, Valet and Friend of the Emperor, 1811-1821 (San Francisco, 1998), p. 403.
  3. Major Basil Jackson, “A Slight Tribute to the Memory of Sir Hudson Lowe,” Colburn’s United Service Magazine, March 1844, p. 420.
  4. Herbert Maxwell, ed., The Creevey Papers: A Selection from the Correspondence & Diaries of the Late Thomas Creevey, M.P. (New York, 1904), Vol. 1, pp. 288-289.
  5. Walter Henry, Events of a Military Life: Being Recollections After Service in the Peninsular War, Invasion of France, the East Indies, St. Helena, Canada, and Elsewhere (London, 1843), Vol. 2, p. 80.
  6. Arthur Richard Wellesley, Despatches, Correspondence and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington (London, 1867), Vol. 1, pp. 517-518.
  7. Robert Cooper Seaton, Sir Hudson Lowe and Napoleon (London, 1898), pp 220-221.
  8. Ibid., p. 222.
  9. Peter Friedman, “Emmanuel Augustin Dieudonné: The Real Victor of St. Helena,” First Empire Review, Issue 111, March/April 2010, pp. 35-43; http://www.napoleon.org/en/reading_room/articles/files/476651.asp, accessed October 14, 2013.
  10. Seaton, Sir Hudson Lowe and Napoleon, p. 229.

12 commments on “Hudson Lowe gets a bad rap”

  • Lally Brown says:

    Poor Sir Hudson Lowe, I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for him, caught up in ‘La Politique de Longwood’. The Lowe Papers in the British Library state that after his last disastrous meeting with Napoleon on 18th August 1816 Sir Hudson told Major Gorrequer ‘to treat with General Bonaparte one must be either a blind admirer of his faculties or a yielding instrument to work with, a mere slave in thought to him’.
    At least he had a friend in Wellington!
    On a positive note, I understand Sir Hudson was instrumental in abolishing slavery on St. Helena.
    Love your blog and really looking forward to the book.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I feel sorry for Sir Hudson too; he was not the right man for the job, but he did his best and ended up being treated badly. I hadn’t come across that quote after his last meeting with Napoleon – it’s very good. I gather a few people thought that about the Emperor. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog! Book is coming soon…

  • Bob Fletcher says:

    Hudson Lowe was the British Commander at the fall of Capri, having to evacuate it October 1808. Lowe had been involved in Italian campaigns with Italian and Corsican troops.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Bob. That probably explains why he was fluent in Italian.

  • Sheldon says:

    Lowe received the typical ‘English’ treatment, which doesn’t value loyalty but rather practicality. Winston Churchill sum it up nicely: ‘We have no lasting friends, no lasting enemies, only lasting interests’.

    Remind me of captain Kidd who was wrongly accused of piracy. When questioned by parliament, he ‘refused to name names’ and ‘naively confident his Whig MP would reward his loyalty by interceding on his behalf. ‘ Eventually executed with his body gibbeted over River Thames for three years.

    Compare Lowe to Neil Campbell who let Napoleon slip away from Elba, was ‘promoted to Major General in 1825 and served as governor of Sierra Leone in 1826’. Simply because he was friend of Lord Castlereagh.

    Poor guy, I guess Lowe hasn’t really figured out what’s being British after all.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Lowe really was treated shamefully, particularly compared to Campbell. I didn’t know that about Captain Kidd. Thanks for sharing.

  • John Adan says:

    Blackard is a bad guy. There is no blackguard.
    The British and Irish love team players.
    So always support your team.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks for the comment, John. Blackguard (pronounced blaggard) is an old-fashioned term for a scoundrel. There probably was some “team support” involved in Wellington’s defence of Lowe.

  • Fay says:

    I am attracted to this site at the moment as I have a good friend who is from St. Helena. It’s quite unusual to see a reference to it and it catches my eye.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Fay. I’m glad the St. Helena posts are of interest. I’ve found it fascinating to do the research about Napoleon’s time on the island.

  • Andrew says:

    An interesting book by Thomas Keneally “Napoleon’s Last Island” about the initial host family on St Helena, the Balcombes who it seems were despatched by Hudson Lowe for being too friendly with Napoleon

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The man’s disposition may perhaps make amends for the unfavourable impression which his face produces.

Napoleon Bonaparte