Napoleon’s Arrival at St. Helena

Former French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte arrived at St. Helena, his final place of exile, in October 1815. What were his first impressions of the island, and what did the inhabitants think of him?

HMS Northumberland and HMS Myrmidon entering James Bay, St. Helena, Oct. 1815, by Thomas Shepherd, 1827

HMS Northumberland and HMS Myrmidon entering James Bay, St. Helena, Oct. 1815, by Thomas Shepherd, 1827

First impressions

After being defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and abdicating the French throne, Napoleon gave himself up to the British. The British government decided to imprison him on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena. On August 8, 1815, Napoleon left Plymouth Harbour on the Royal Navy’s ship Northumberland. St. Helena came into view over two months later, on October 14, as a small dark dot on the horizon. The following day, the Northumberland dropped anchor off the island’s main settlement of Jamestown. British naval surgeon William Warden observed:

The morning was pleasant, and the breeze steady: at dawn we were sufficiently near to behold the black peak of St. Helena. Between eight and nine, we were close under the Sugar-Loaf Hill. The whole of the French party had quitted their cabins, with the exception of Napoleon, and taken their respective stations…. We did not see Napoleon until the ship had anchored in front of the Town. About eleven he made his appearance. He ascended the poop, and there stood, examining with his little glass the numerous cannon which bristled in his view….

While he stood there, I watched his countenance with the most observant attention, and it betrayed no particular sensation. He looked as any other man would look at a place which he beheld for the first time. (1)

Napoleon’s valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, wrote:

Contrary to his normal practice, the Emperor got dressed early to go up on deck and get an overall view of the island, which he could only see imperfectly from the porthole in his cabin. He had before him a sketch of that part of the island where we were; he had told me to bring it along, and I had given it to him, heavy with sorrow. Once dressed, he went up on deck with his small spyglass in hand. One could not see the town, hidden by a terrace that followed the contours of the bay; one could only see the square church tower through the foliage, sitting between two enormous bare rocks that rose perpendicularly above the sea to a considerable height and seemed to be equipped with gunnery units on several levels.…

After watching for a few moments, the Emperor went back into his cabin without comment, allowing no one to guess what was transpiring in his soul. (2)

Count Emmanuel de Las Cases also remarked on Napoleon’s lack of expression.

The Emperor viewed the prospect through his glass. I stood behind him. My eyes were constantly fixed upon his countenance, in which I could perceive no change; and yet he saw before him, perhaps his perpetual prison! – perhaps his grave! (3)

Another of Napoleon’s companions, General Gaspard Gourgaud, noted in his diary for October 15 that Napoleon was not entirely complacent at the prospect of his new abode.

I was in the Emperor’s cabin as we approached the island. He said: ‘It seems no charming place to live in. I should have done better to stay in Egypt. I should now have been Emperor of the whole Orient.’ (4)

Napoleon goes ashore

Rear Admiral George Cockburn, the commander of HMS Northumberland, and Brigadier General George Bingham, commander of the troops sent to guard Napoleon, went ashore to look for a dwelling large enough to temporarily accommodate Napoleon and his 26 companions. They settled on a house belonging to Henry Porteous, superintendent of the East India Company gardens.

On October 17, Napoleon and his party disembarked. John Glover, Admiral Cockburn’s secretary, noted:

Maréchal Bertrand went on shore in the afternoon to arrange the lodging, but Bonaparte, at his own particular request, delayed disembarking until it was dark, to avoid the gaze of the inhabitants, who were crowded on the wharf to see a person who had heretofore kept nations in a state of warfare and dread for nearly twenty years. (5)

Las Cases described the scene on the Northumberland.

After dinner, the Emperor, accompanied by the Grand Marshal, got into a boat to go ashore. By a remarkable and irresistible impulse, the officers all assembled on the quarter-deck, and the greater part of the crew on the gangways. This was not the effect of curiosity, which an acquaintance of three months’ duration could not fail to have removed, and which was not succeeded by the liveliest interest. The Emperor, before he stepped into the boat, sent for the captain of the vessel, and took leave of him, desiring him at the same time to convey his thanks to the officers and crew. These words appeared to produce a great sensation on all by whom they were understood or to whom they were interpreted. The remainder of the Emperor’s suite landed about eight o’clock. We were accompanied by several of the officers, and every one on board seemed to be sincerely affected at our departure. (6)

What the Saints saw


The Natives of Saint Helena Island Flee Before Their New Sovereign/Napoleon’s Triumphal Arrival in his New Kingdom. Caricature of Napoleon's arrival at St. Helena.

The Natives of Saint Helena Island Flee Before Their New Sovereign/Napoleon’s Triumphal Arrival in his New Kingdom

Because of the slowness of communications, the inhabitants of St. Helena – then numbering some 5,000, including over 1,000 slaves – had not heard of Napoleon’s escape from Elba, or of the Battle of Waterloo, let alone of the choice of their island to house the world’s most famous conqueror, until a few days previous. That news came via the Havannah, Icarus and Ferret, ships that had left Plymouth Harbour with the Northumberland, but had arrived ahead of it.

Betsy Balcombe, the then 13-year-old daughter of an East India Company superintendent, described the sensation this produced.

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. Captain D. was obliged more than once to assure them of the correctness of his statement. My own feeling at the intelligence was excessive terror, and an undefined conviction that something awful would happen to us all, though of what nature I hardly knew.…

The earliest idea I had of Napoleon was that of a huge ogre or giant, with one large flaming red eye in the middle of his forehead, and long teeth protruding from his mouth, with which he tore to pieces and devoured naughty little girls, especially those who did not know their lessons…. The name of Bonaparte was still associated, in my mind, with every thing that was bad and horrible. I had heard the most atrocious crimes imputed to him; and if I had learned to consider him as a human being, I yet still believed him to be the worst that had ever existed. Nor was I singular in these feelings; they were participated by many much older and wiser than myself; I might say, perhaps, by a majority of the English nation. Most of the newspapers of the day described him as a demon; and all those of his own country who lived in England were of course his bitterest enemies; and from these two sources alone we formed our opinion of him. (7)

For two days St. Helena residents gathered at the wharf, waiting to see Napoleon. Each night they returned home disappointed. Finally, on the 17th, the “ogre” appeared. Betsy described the moment.

It was nearly dark when we arrived at the landing-place, and shortly after, a boat from the Northumberland approached, and we saw a figure step from it on the shore, which we were told was the emperor, but it was too dark to distinguish his features. He walked up the lines between the Admiral and General Bertrand, and enveloped as he was in his surtout, I could see little, but the occasional gleam of a diamond star, which he wore on his heart. The whole population of St. Helena had crowded to behold him, and one could hardly have believed that it contained so many inhabitants. The pressure became so great that it was with difficulty way could be made for him, and the sentries were at last ordered to stand with fixed bayonets at the entrance from the lines to the town, to prevent the multitude from pouring in. Napoleon was excessively provoked at the eagerness of the crowd to get a peep at him, more particularly as he was received in silence though with respect. I heard him afterwards say how much he had been annoyed at being followed and stared at ‘comme une bête feroçe’ [like a wild beast]. (8)

Settling in

Napoleon did not like the Porteous house, in which the Duke of Wellington had stayed on an earlier voyage from India (the building was destroyed by a fire in 1862).

It was extremely clean. It was however not practical, because of its smallness and its position, and did not allow the Emperor to move about inside without being seen by passersby, nor to go out without finding himself suddenly in contact with the inhabitants of the few nearby houses making up what was called the town. (9)

On October 18, Napoleon went with Admiral Cockburn to examine Longwood House, which had been selected as his long-term residence. He was not particularly enchanted with it. In any case, the house needed to be renovated and enlarged before it could accommodate Napoleon and his retinue. On the way there, he noticed a small house that struck him as charming. This was the Briars, home of Betsy Balcombe and her family. Napoleon stopped there on his return, and asked if he could stay there instead of returning to Jamestown. The Balcombes graciously agreed, so Napoleon lived in a pavilion at the Briars until December 10, 1815, when he moved to Longwood. He remained there until his death on May 5, 1821. If you’re curious about what might have happened if Napoleon had escaped from St. Helena, read Napoleon in America.

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon and Longwood House

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

Why didn’t Napoleon escape to the United States?

What did Napoleon say about the Battle of Waterloo?

Napoleon’s First New Year’s Day on St. Helena

Caricatures of Napoleon on St. Helena

Napoleon and the Ice Machine on St. Helena

What were Napoleon’s last words?

Boney the Bogeyman: How Napoleon Scared Children

  1. William Warden, Letters Written on Board His Majesty’s Ship the Northumberland and at Saint Helena (London, 1816), pp. 213-215, 101.
  2. Louis-Joseph Marchand (Proctor Jones, ed.), In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 339.
  3. Emmanuel de Las Cases, Memoirs of the life, exile, and conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. 1, (New York, 1855), pp. 154-155.
  4. Gaspard Gourgaud, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena, translated by Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer, 2nd edition (Chicago, 1904), p. 33.
  5. John R. Glover, Taking Napoleon to St. Helena, From the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine of October and November, 1893, p. 90.
  6. Memoirs of the life, exile, and conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. 1, p. 156.
  7. Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, during the First Three Years of His Captivity on the Island of St. Helena (London, 1844), pp. 10-13.
  8. Ibid., pp. 14-15.
  9. In Napoleon’s Shadow, p. 341.

34 commments on “Napoleon’s Arrival at St. Helena”

  • Lally says:

    lovely article – says it all!

  • steve hopkin says:

    Lovely insight to the moment of exile. I managed to experience Waterloo 200 in Belgium. Cannot believe how satisfying it was for me to be at the re enactment…this piece has added to those memories. Thank you.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    My pleasure, Steve. Glad you enjoyed the article. I’ve enjoyed watching videos of the re-enactment – it must have been wonderful to be there.

  • Gary says:

    Excellent summary with some interesting quotes. For the curious, it appears that the Icarus reached St. Helena on 10th October and that Captain D. was a Captain Devon. It seems strange that Las Cases quotes Napoleon as landing on the 16th when it seems certain that it wasn’t till the late evening of the 17th as detailed in the article.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Gary. It’s good to know when the Icarus arrived, and who Captain D. was. I must admit I puzzled over Napoleon’s disembarkation date, as several sources seem to have picked up on Las Cases. In the end, I thought there was more credible evidence in favour of the 17th. I’m glad to have your corroboration of that.

  • Geoffrey says:

    He regretted not having stayed in Egypt and become the emperor of the Orient. Did he ever think of anyone but himself, and just perhaps his immediate family? Perhaps you know, Shannon.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      He occasionally thought of his soldiers, but you’re right, Geoffrey, Napoleon’s primary consideration was himself, and (especially once he was on St. Helena) how he would be regarded by posterity.

  • R.Yadav says:

    Napoleon arrived at St. Helena October 15, 1815 and remained on the board of NORTHUMBERLAND ship till 7 p.m. of October 16. After 7p.m. he left the boat to land on the island.

  • Lois Steeves says:

    Very interesting article. Family history is that my G.G.grandfather, John Brill, was the first mate on ship that took Napoleon to St Helena. He named his daughter Helena. Later he settled in Ottawa valley.

  • Nigel Crompton says:

    Hi Shannon,
    Lovely account of Napoleon’s arrival at St. Helena. I’m interested in the event for a personal reason. Could you please help me with a question? My great grandfather’s grandfather, a Lloyd, was said to have”guarded” Napoleon while at St. Helena. I know it’s not much to go on. Is there any way I can find out more?

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Nigel. It’s lovely to hear from you. According to A St. Helena Who’s Who, or a Directory of the Island During the Captivity of Napoleon by Arnold Chaplin (1914), Lieutenant Vaughan Lloyd served on HMS Conqueror, the 74-gun flagship of Admiral Robert J. Plampin, which arrived at St. Helena on June 29, 1817, and left St. Helena on July 20, 1820 (see p. 39 I hope that helps.

  • Margaret Connigale says:

    Hi, my husbands 3xgreat grandfather served on St.Helena with the 66th Foot. His name was Terrence Connigal, any info please?

  • Sally catalana says:

    Hello, My great grandmother was from St. Helena and talked to my grandfather of feeding or cooking for Napoleon. She later moved to Martha’s Vinyard do you have any record of Abigail Smith?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Hi Sally, I don’t see any mention of Abigail Smith in A St. Helena Who’s Who, and I haven’t come across her name in other sources.

  • catharine lancelles says:

    Hi, a relation of mine was in charge of, I think, the Northumberland and Napoleon wrote a letter, thanking him for looking after him well. Unfortunately the letter was destroyed in a fire in Devon about fifty years ago. I think my relation may have been Admiral Sir George Cockburn. Would be very interested to hear any information on this. My Grandfather was Peter Morey and this was the side of my family who was related to the Admiral of the Northumberland. Many thanks.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Too bad about that letter, Catharine. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about Admiral Cockburn’s descendants. Perhaps someone reading this post can comment. If you haven’t already read it, you might enjoy Admiral Cockburn’s account of the journey on the Northumberland, published as Buonaparte’s Voyage to St. Helena (1833) and available for free on the Internet Archive:

  • Irene HARTLMAYR says:

    I am sorry but I must protest about the comment that Napoleons “primary consideration” was for himself. The memoirs of the people who knew him well, and any amount of his letters, give proof of the contrary. However,it would take a book to cite all of these comments. But, as there is no dearth of literature on Napoleon( he is the most written-about figure of history), I suggest that whoever is
    interested may go on the adventure of looking it all up in the more than abundant literature on Napoleon! Its very revealing and may surprise a lot of prejudiced people!

  • Shannon Selin says:

    I think that’s a good idea, Irene, for people to read the literature about Napoleon and draw their own conclusions.

  • roseanne colagrosso says:

    i would like to know who accompanied napoleon to st helena. I understand 28 people went with him and would like to know who they were.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Hi Roseanne – There’s a list of the people who accompanied Napoleon to St. Helena in A St. Helena Who’s Who by Arnold Chaplin (1914). It’s available for free on the Internet Archive (see pp. 15-16):

  • Penelope Vernon says:

    I have in my possession 27 letters to Robert Maitland Roy whom I believe was one of the British Officers who guarded Napoleon on St. Helena. I also have inherited a pair of earrings I was told were given to Robert Roy by Napoleon. Do you have any information on this officer please?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Those letters and earrings sound like wonderful treasures, Penelope. Unfortunately I have not been able to find out anything about Robert Roy in relation to Napoleon or St. Helena. His name does not appear in A St. Helena Who’s Who. Good luck with your research.

  • Eileen Weber says:

    my husband’s grandfather was the great,great, grandson of Captain Willcox who was an officer in the british navy who guarded Napoleon and we have a small statue in gold of napoleon a watchfob given to him by napoleon. Do you know anything about this.

  • Kay Wilson says:

    Hi, I was informed William Whale, my 4x great grandad guarded Napoleon on St Helena and had 2 children on the Island. However, I can not find any information on him at all.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      If you haven’t already done so, you can try searching A St. Helena Who’s Who by Arnold Chaplin (1914), a directory of people on the island during Napoleon’s captivity. It’s available for free on the Internet Archive: It also lists the regiments on the Island, so if you can’t find his name but know what regiment he was with, that might help. Good luck with your search.

  • Andrew Metcalfe says:

    I am researching the Connigale family – the same as Margaret Connigale who sent you a message in 2018. Could you put me in touch with her please? I think we may be able to help each other. For example Gilbert Martineau wrote that Terence Cunningale of the 66th Foot died on Saint Helena.

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Napoleon was excessively provoked at the eagerness of the crowd to get a peep at him, more particularly as he was received in silence though with respect.

Betsy Balcombe