IT was a long trip from England—from August 8 to October 15. Accustomed to action and quick speech, Napoleon bore the tedium hardly. Admiral Sir George Cockburn thought to ease the situation by daily inviting Napoleon and one or other of his companions to dine with him and some officers; the British, however, spent two and a half hours at dinner; Napoleon easily persuaded them to excuse him when the drinking began. He winced when they addressed him as “General” instead of “Emperor,” but he admired their courtesy. His friends suggested that a good way to anesthetize time would be for him to dictate to them his memoirs of rule and war. Now began the narratives, taken down by O’Meara, Las Cases, Gourgaud, or Montholon, which, published by them after his death, played a part in making the memory of Napoleon a living force in France throughout the century.
Men at sea long so for land that even Napoleon must have been pleased when he sighted the rocky coast of St. Helena. One glance could take in most of the island; it was only twenty miles in circumference, and nearly all its population was gathered in the port city, Jamestown, with its one street and five thousand souls. A rough, uneven terrain, rising to a plateau at Long-wood; a tropical climate of heat, mist, and rain; no regular succession of seasons, but incalculable alternations of wet and dry; an unfriendly soil slow to reward tillage with food. It was a “spot of earth” ideal for insulating a troublemaker, but a torture for a man whose life was action demanding a continent for its stage.
He and his party remained on board while Admiral Cockburn sought temporary lodging for them till work should be completed on the big house that the British government had chosen for their collective home. For Napoleon, Las Cases, and son the admiral found a pleasant place, “the Briars,” whose owner, William Balcombe, thought it would be interesting to have an emperor as his guest. Two daughters, aged sixteen and fourteen, brightened the scene; they spoke a little French, played and sang, and became so fond of Napoleon that the younger one wept when he had to move to “Long-wood.”
This was an old farmhouse, some six miles from Jamestown. Its many rooms had been simply but adequately furnished. According to the excellent ground plan drawn by Las Cases, Jr., Napoleon was given six rooms: a large “antechamber and waiting room for visitors,” a parlor, a bedroom, a study, a library, and a large dining room. The inner walls were inelegantly covered with tarred canvas, but there were many windows. Napoleon accepted his suite without initial complaint; he even rejoiced in the bathroom, which he described as “an unheard-of luxury in this unhappy island.”1 “The Emperor,” Las Cases reported, “was satisfied with everything.”2 In another wing of the building rooms were arranged for Las Cases and son, for the Comte and Comtesse de Montholon, General Gourgaud, and Dr. O’Meara, Napoleon’s physician. Large common rooms were provided for Napoleon’s servants,3 and for the servants of his staff. General Bertrand, his wife, and their servants occupied a separate cottage on the road to Jamestown. Servants served for hardly more than their keep.
Napoleon had freedom of movement—on foot, or mounted, or in a carriage—within a radius of five miles from the house; but he had to submit to surveillance by British troops when he went outside the Longwood plateau. Meals for Napoleon and his retinue were sent up daily from the governor of the island, and, within limits, they could order their food.4 Usually the Emperor ate sparingly until eight o’clock in the evening; then he and his staff dined with a leisureliness that left him ready for bed. Napoleon had brought a costly silver service with him from France; it was regularly used; and we hear also of knives, forks, and spoons of gold.5 The dishes were mostly of Sèvres porcelain. The servants were in full uniform of green and gold. Las Cases was impressed by “the elegance of the dinner service, and the neatness with which the tables were laid out.”6 The etiquette of the Tuileries was maintained at Longwood. Napoleon allowed his faithful friends much candor of speech, but no familiarities; they always referred to him as “the Emperor,” and addressed him as “your Majesty.” Letters addressed to him as “General” remained unopened; visitors had to address him as “Emperor” or stay away.
There were many irritations, and some hardships. Rats made themselves at home, even in the Emperor’s hat; they ran around the table legs while he ate; fleas and bugs made no distinction of human ranks; “we are absolutely eaten,” Las Cases complained.7 There were damp mists every other day. Water sometimes failed, and the Emperor missed his hot bath. Constant surveillance, however distant or polite, usually compelled a monastic chastity, just when excessive leisure made temptation doubly acceptable. But where else did a prisoner have so many friends on call, and servants, and a horse and buggy, and all the books he could use? All in all, it was as tolerable a prison as a prisoner could expect, especially after escaping from previous confinement and requiring the expenditure of millions of pounds sterling and flesh to recapture him. Matters went reasonably well till Sir Hudson Lowe came.