Napoleon and Longwood House
On December 10, 1815, former French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte moved to Longwood House on the British island of St. Helena. He was confined there until his death, five and half years later. What did Napoleon think of Longwood?
Satisfied at first
Napoleon arrived, as a British prisoner, at St. Helena in October 1815 with such little advance notice that there had not been time to prepare a secure long-term residence for him (see my post about Napoleon’s arrival at St. Helena). The island’s East India Company governor, Colonel Mark Wilks, recommended Longwood House – a rambling one-story farmhouse that was serving as a summer residence for the island’s lieutenant-governor Colonel John Skelton and his wife. Longwood lay on a windswept plateau about five miles from the island’s main settlement of Jamestown. It had the advantages of being isolated and clear of large vegetation, and thus easy to keep an eye on. It was also near a plain called Deadwood, where the regiment guarding Napoleon could live.
The Emperor arrived at Longwood, and was not particularly enchanted with the house that enjoyed no shade or water, and was exposed to the southeast wind that prevailed there constantly, and was quite strong at the present time. He immediately realized all the work remaining to be done for him to take up residence there, and paid little attention to everything the admiral would say regarding construction projects and improvements. The only advantage he saw there for himself was that it was a plateau extending several miles that would allow him to ride and even go out in his carriage if they were willing to cut paths through the woods of gum trees that stood a short distance from the house. (1)
While Napoleon stayed at the Briars, carpenters and crew from HMS Northumberland, aided by soldiers, repaired and enlarged Longwood House to accommodate Napoleon, his companions and servants. On December 10, Napoleon moved in.
At the entrance of Longwood, we found a guard under arms, who rendered the prescribed honours to the august captive. The Emperor’s horse…was startled at the sound of the drum; he refused to pass the gate, and it was only by the help of the spur that his rider succeeded in forcing him to advance….
The Admiral [Cockburn] took great pains to point out to us even the minutest details at Longwood. He had superintended all the arrangements, and some things were even the work of his own hands. The Emperor was satisfied with everything, and the Admiral seemed highly pleased. (2)
Marchand, who had arrived ahead of Napoleon, notes:
The Emperor changed nothing in my arrangement of the furniture. In place of a large bed that had been put in his room, he told me to substitute his field bed, as it was an old friend he preferred to all others. This change was made while he was in his bath into which he had jumped with childish joy. The bathtub was a tremendous oak chest lined with lead. It required an exceptional quantity of water, and one had to go a half mile away and transport it in a barrel. I informed the Emperor that it had taken an extremely long time to heat this bath, as the furnace was much too inadequate for the bathtub. A few days later, due to Dr. O’Meara’s efforts, another bathtub was brought from town that held less water…. (3)
Unhappy to the end
Napoleon and his suite soon became unhappy with their new quarters. Complaints included the damp and stuffy rooms, a rat infestation, the lack of shade, and exposure to the wind. Conditions at Longwood became a constant source of irritation between Napoleon and St. Helena’s new governor, General Hudson Lowe, who arrived in April 1816. Napoleon thought he should have been offered the governor’s residence, Plantation House, an elegant, well-furbished mansion set in a beautiful park, like an English country house.
On July 8, 1816, General Charles de Montholon wrote to Governor Lowe on behalf of Napoleon:
Longwood is the most unhealthy part of the island. There is no water, no vegetation, no shade. It has never been possible to establish a kitchen garden there: the soil is parched up by the wind: in consequence this part of the island is wild and uninhabited. If the Emperor had been settled at Plantation House, where there are fine trees, water, and gardens, he would there have been as well placed as this wretched country will allow…. The idea of adding wings to the bad building of Longwood, would involve all kinds of inconveniences. It would be enlarging a ruin, and occasioning for five or six months all the annoyance of workmen. Nothing is wished for at Longwood, but repairs. For two months it has rained into the rooms of Count Las Cases and Baron Gourgaud, rendering those lodgings very unwholesome. There should be at Longwood a reservoir of water, to serve, in case of fire. The roofs are mostly of pitched paper; and a single spark might burn down the house. A great quantity of linen, and other effects, have been rendered useless by the rats; and for this want of wardrobes and drawers. The books, brought by the Newcastle, have been, for fifteen days, exposed to the same damage, for want of bookcases or shelves, to place them on, &c. (4)
Longwood had always been intended as a temporary residence for Napoleon. In 1818, construction began on a new house for him, not far from the old one. Napoleon wanted nothing to do with it. His second valet, Louis Étienne Saint-Denis tells us:
Before the work was begun the governor had sent the plan of the house and all its outbuildings to General de Montholon, that he might submit them to the Emperor, who would make any changes and corrections in them which he should consider necessary. But the Emperor would not hear of these plans spoken of and even had the governor told that he earnestly begged him to let him alone; that he, Napoleon, did not need any house other than that in which he lived, which was all that he needed for the time which was left him to life; that when the building was ready he would need nothing but a coffin. (5)
By January 1821, the new Longwood House was finished.
[T]he Emperor, in spite of the disgust he felt at the idea of changing his residence, decided to go and become acquainted with the place which was destined for him…. He examined everything in the greatest detail, praised the good arrangement of the apartments, their size and their character as a whole, but found that his quarters were not well fitted for his use; he found that he was too far from his valets de chamber, whom he liked to have under his hand. According to the English custom, everything had been sacrificed to the master. Except for some garrets, which were over his rooms, there was not a spot near him where Marchand could be lodged.
After going over and examining everything, the Emperor went home and told M. de Montholon what he desired to have done in order to have two members of his household service near him, Marchand and me. The details of what His Majesty wished were transmitted to the governor. The workmen had hardly finished the changes which His Majesty had ordered when the illness which was to take him from us assumed a very serious character. (6)
Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, in the original Longwood House. After going through a period of dilapidation, the house was restored and is now a museum owned by the French government (see the website – in French – here). There’s more information and photos of Longwood on the Saint Helena Island Info website. For some great photos of the bicentennial re-enactment ceremony on St. Helena, visit What The Saints Did Next. New Longwood House was destroyed in 1947. To read more about it, see John Tyrrell’s Reflections on a Journey to St. Helena. For a look at Napoleon’s expense account at Longwood, see the excellent article by Lally Brown on A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life.
You might also enjoy:
- Louis-Joseph Marchand (Proctor Jones, ed.), In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), pp. 343-344.
- Emmanuel de Las Cases, Memoriale de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. 1, Part 2 (New York, 1823), p. 16.
- In Napoleon’s Shadow, p. 369.
- Observations on Lord Bathurst’s Speech in the House of Peers on March 18, 1817 (London, 1818), pp. 96-97.
- Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter, (New York and London, 1922), p. 230.
- Ibid., pp. 252-253.
Longwood is the most unhealthy part of the island. There is no water, no vegetation, no shade.... If the Emperor had been settled at Plantation House, where there are fine trees, water, and gardens, he would there have been as well placed as this wretched country will allow.
Charles de Montholon