Imperial island

When my boyfriend tells people that he proposed to me at the site of Napoleon’s tomb on St Helena Island, they smile as though humouring a macabre child. “Er, lovely,” they say, wondering why he chose one of the remotest pieces of land on Earth for such a question — not to mention the spot where a French corpse was once interred.

What stirs him most about St Helena is that it is the place where a fallen Napoleon devoted himself to philosophical reflection and building human relationships. It’s also not the easiest place to get to.
There is no airstrip and just one mail ship — the RMS St Helena, which sails from Cape Town once a month and is the islanders’ only link with the rest of the world. The journey takes a week, with stops at Luderitz and Walvis Bay, then five days and nights on the Atlantic Ocean.

Travelling on this charming vessel in some ways prepares passengers for the bygone era that infuses St Helena. This is a working ship that carries 100-odd passengers, who are treated to the pleasures of sea travel as the Noël Cowards and Agatha Christies used to enjoy it. A ship’s officer plays host to each dining table, where the food is abundant and exquisite, produced in a sparkling nutshell of a galley by South African maestro Roy Richards. The traditional entertainment activities — from deck cricket to quoits, bowling, shuffleboard, trivia quizzes and line dancing — are run by the purser and his staff with infectious enthusiasm.

We were at the rail at sunrise, watching porpoises leaping alongside and terns circling overhead, when the RMS St Helena docked in James Bay. It was October 15 2004, 189 years since Napoleon arrived as a prisoner aboard the Northumberland. He saw the same forbidding cliffs rising from the sea, the same steep gash in the side of the island, down which the Georgian houses tumble, the same narrow dock from which boats were being launched to collect goods and passengers.

It must have looked very small and bleak to him. St Helena is about 17km long and nine and a half kilometres wide. Its closest neighbour, Ascension Island, is more than 1 000km away. In stormy weather the island is lashed by rollers that grow to the size of small buildings. Its peaks are invariably shrouded in mist and its perimeters are massed heaps of volcanic basalt. Once inland, however, the island is richly fertile. Locals describe it as “an emerald set in bronze” and if you could fly there that’s how it would look from the air — a ring of scarred rock surrounding lush hills and valleys.

Napoleon was taken ashore under armed escort. He rode a horse through Jamestown and up on to the high plains where he would spend the remainder of his life. On the way he was stared at by a crowd of St Helenians, or Saints, as they call themselves. (The island’s population numbers just less than 4 000 — almost the same as in Napoleon’s day. But in 1815 this number was swelled to about 6 000 by squadrons of British soldiers sent to guard the feared Frenchman.)

We were met by a similar, though smaller, crowd. On the day the ship anchors in the bay every one of the tea rooms and restaurants in Jamestown is open for business. Dozens of Saints turn out to greet friends and relatives, to collect guests, hire cars to visitors and sign for awaited purchases. They’re a dignified lot. No touting or shouting and a curious lack of inquisitiveness.

That afternoon we watched the inauguration of the island’s new governor, complete with marching bands and much pomp and trumpeting. St Helena is one of the only remaining British colonies. Its people speak with a strange hybrid accent that the English say is part west-country drawl, part Cockney. They are unfailingly friendly — a walk through Jamestown is liberally peppered with greetings.

Napoleon was denied this social side of island life. Afraid that he might raise an army and escape, the governor of his day restricted his contact with people. After his first ride through its streets, he never entered Jamestown again. His best friend was a young girl, Betsy Balcombe, who lived in a house called The Briars. Napoleon spent the first two months of his exile in a garden pavilion there, while Longwood House was being prepared for him. Betsy played endless games with him and visited him frequently when he moved.

It’s an odd picture — the man who once tore a savage path through the world, seizing land and slaying soldiers, now dreaming up stories to tell a child. Standing on any of the high points of St Helena and looking out at the boundless ocean is a stirring sight for the visitor, but it must have been soul-deadening for Napoleon. Here stood the man whose world had once been limitless, who ruled wherever he set foot, reduced to someone who could not leave the grounds of his house without permission, who could not write letters without censorship, who could not move without being watched. His horizons had shrunk to the mundane routine of his household, his empire to a handful of faithful consorts imprisoned alongside him.

History books tell the legacy of Napoleon the emperor. But on the island of St Helena the legacy of Napoleon the man remains. That he was accompanied and served by faithful followers says a great deal about him. From their writings we know that his last years were those of a gentle and thoughtful soul, who remained loyal even to those who had betrayed him, who maintained his dignity and read prolifically. We read of Napoleon the gardener, who created sunken paths among flowering shrubs to shield him from the trade winds that howl relentlessly over Longwood Plain — as well as from the eyes of the British garrisons who watched him from their encampment alongside. We read of his favourite place, a shady hollow in Geranium Valley, which he chose as the place where he should be buried.

“Such a small grave,” murmured my boyfriend as we stood beneath the towering Norfolk pines that guard the tomb. A wrought-iron railing surrounds the unmarked concrete slab. Napoleon’s body is no longer there — it was removed 20 years after his death and taken to lie in state in Paris — but a peaceful air remains.

That the emperor chose such a remote spot to be put to rest is in keeping with his life on St Helena. It was here, perhaps, that he found his inner self, that he discovered the truths that remain when all venial accomplishments and ambitions are gone. And so, fittingly, it was here that I agreed to marry the person who means the world to me.

We spent a week on St Helena, exploring forests and flax-covered peaks and hiking through cactus-strewn deserts. We saw the beautifully restored Longwood House, with the small canopied bed where Napoleon died. We visited Jonathan, the giant 180-year-old tortoise that lives in the grounds of Plantation House, the governor’s mansion. We climbed the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder, which rises from Jamestown to the fort on Ladder Hill. We got to know some of the Saints around the pool table at the Consulate hotel, and then it was time to board the RMS for the journey home.

Sue de Groot travelled courtesy of the RMS St Helena. For booking and information contact the St Helena Line at Andrew Weir Shipping, Cape Town. Tel: (021) 425 1165 or e-mail:

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