Could Napoleon have fled St. Helena?

Saint Helena - Napoleon's last exile

Without Napoleon, the tiny island in the South Atlantic would probably never have achieved worldwide fame.

The journey from Cape Town to Jamestown, capital of St. Helena, the small British island in the southern Atlantic, takes five days. Five days of ocean, sky and stars. The only connection to this volcanic island is the Royal Mail Ship, the last British mail ship of its kind. St. Helena - 1950 kilometers west of Angola and 2900 kilometers east of Brazil in the middle of the Atlantic - is the perfect exile. Those who are banished there cannot get away on their own. And so Napoleon had no chance to escape either. He lived on the island until his death.

Secret discovery

The uninhabited patch of land in the middle of the Atlantic was discovered by the Portuguese admiral João da Nova. He was on his way home from the west coast of India in the spring of 1502. Because St. Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, was celebrated on May 21, the Portuguese baptized the previously unknown island with the name of the king's mother. And although St. Helena was then only inhabited by sea birds, sea lions and turtles, the island quickly turned out to be very practical: it served Portuguese ships as a stopover on their long voyage from the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Verde. Wood, fresh water and fresh provisions could be taken on St. Helena.

And so a small infrastructure developed on the island. Two houses and a church were built. Vegetables and trees were planted and pigs and goats were imported. Because only three slaves constantly looked after the island, the Portuguese were able to keep their valuable discovery a secret for more than eight decades. It was not until June 8, 1588 that the English explorer, Captain Thomas Cavendish, came across the island on his world tour. After that, it did not take long for all seafaring nations of the time to show interest in St. Helena and to file ownership claims. In the end - from the second half of the 17th century - the British East India Company was awarded the contract. This made the island part of the British Commonwealth. Since then, a British governor has ruled there on behalf of the crown.

Strict surveillance

It makes sense that the British would soon use the island as a prison. St. Helena is framed by bare, rugged cliffs, which allow a safe landing from the sea in practically only one place: at James Bay. The British naturalist Charles Darwin, who visited St. Helena on the occasion of his circumnavigation of the world in 1836, aptly stated: "This island, the unpromising sight of which has so often been described, rises out of the sea like a monstrous black castle."

Napoleon spent six years on St. Helena. Under the constant supervision of English soldiers and Governor Hudson Lowe for six years. The latter was terrified of losing his prominent prisoner. A real paranoia. He saw opportunities to escape everywhere. And so he not only made Napoleon's life downright hell, but his too. Apart from many guard posts around Napoleon's home and in the surrounding hills, he also had countless cannons installed on the island. In addition, British ships circled the island in opposite directions. Napoleon thus lived like a prisoner.

Nonetheless, the traces of his presence are spread across the island - even if they are mainly concentrated on Longwood, the residence of the former emperor and his entourage. More can be found in the Sane Valley, also known as the Geranium Valley, where the disgraced emperor was buried after his death in May 1821. It was not until 19 years later that the French citizen-king Louis Philippe negotiated the return of Napoleon's body with the English - and finally had it brought to the Invalides Cathedral in Paris.

Complex renovation

Today, 47-year-old Michel Dancoisne-Martineau is responsible for the preservation of the Napoleonic domain as the conservator of the French sites and at the same time honorary consul. A fundraising campaign is currently underway in Paris under the auspices of the Napoléon Foundation to restore Longwood. The project is anything but easy. Because ultimately everything depends on the Royal Mail Ship mentioned at the beginning, which operates between Cape Town and Jamestown. All materials required for structural renovation must be brought in by sea. This is not only costly, but also requires precise and extensive planning.

At the beginning of 2013, work was already in full swing and, for example, the “Generals' wing” had already been demolished. It was no longer the Napoleonic original, but a new building from 1933. This wing will now be rebuilt on better foundations and according to the exact plans from 1821. Exhibitions, events and receptions are to take place here.

The garden is also getting its dimensions back to the times of exile. Endemic plants are grown. And a visitor center is being built on the opposite side of the street. Longwood New House, which should have become the new home of the fallen emperor and his court in 1820 and which was demolished in the 1960s, is also experiencing a renaissance. With a boutique, café and hotel.

Nature worth protecting

The nature on St. Helena also makes the island interesting and worth seeing. Even today it is rich in rare and endemic species. However, most of the original island vegetation has been almost completely destroyed in the course of settlement. Around 60 percent of the island is still bare and barren or populated with alien plant species. It is hard to believe that St. Helena was a true natural paradise until the arrival of the Portuguese. An emerald in a bronze box.

The partial destruction of the tree species can be explained with the needs of the islanders at that time. They needed wood to build their houses and to heat. What nature gave was taken. In addition, St. Helena was a relay on the strait between South Africa and Europe. The island served as a supplier of wood and provisions. Last but not least, the goats imported by the Portuguese also caused enormous damage. Because they were allowed to grow up wild, they ate everything they could find.

By mistake - or on purpose - alien plant species were introduced, such as New Zealand flax. This served the only real industry that ever existed on St. Helena: rope production. This business flourished from the beginning of the 20th century until the 1960s. In the end, however, it came to an end after the advent of synthetic materials caused demand to drop dramatically. Nevertheless, the introduced flax continued to spread on the island. Thanks to the conservation work of various organizations such as the WWF, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and other committed institutions, countermeasures have been taken again in recent years. Several endangered plants were saved.

Heavy migration

About 4000 people still live on St. Helena today. And there are fewer and fewer. Many locals seek their fortune in England, South Africa or Brazil, where they hope to find permanent work. Most of those who remain are employed in the hospital system or in administration. You can hardly find any other jobs now that there has been no industry for almost fifty years.

The coffee plantations, which can perhaps be viewed as small industries, are a small exception. Because St. Helena actually produces coffee, but only about twelve tons a year. It is said that it is the best and most expensive coffee in the world. The coffee plant is said to have been introduced as early as 1732, from the village of Mocha in Yemen. But the same applies here: If Napoleon had not spent his exile on St. Helena, this coffee would probably never have achieved world fame. Marshal Bertrand, one of Napoleon's loyal companions, reported that the former emperor pleaded for a cup of coffee four days before his death.

From 1839 the trading house Wm Burnie & Cie in London sold the island coffee. Because of its very high quality and special taste, it was approved by aficionados. He was also held in high esteem at the first world exhibition in London in 1851. However, this did not last long. As a result of the decline in shipping traffic between St. Helena and the African mainland, the island coffee beans gradually fell into oblivion; and the plant began to expand wildly.

David Henry, the director of what is now the Island of St. Helena Coffee Company, and his employees therefore needed several years to regenerate the wild coffee trees and to secure the land on which they had established themselves. Today there are aromas of blueberries, chocolate and spices in the taste of island coffee. Ultimately, however, this variety remains an insider tip.

Tourism is now another source of income, although the island can only be reached by sea. If you don't own your own yacht and sail around the world with it or take part in a cruise, the only way to get to St. Helena is to take the Royal Mail Ship “St. Helena ». Set up half for containers, half for passengers, it offers a cozy and comfortable crossing. Anyone who is afraid of being bored during the five-day trip is wrong. Everything is done to make the stay on board as entertaining as possible. There is also plenty of time to relax, read and get to know the locals and get closer to the island by talking to them.

As we shall see, these encounters are extremely significant. Once on St. Helena you will come across faces familiar from the ship during your stay on the island, which give you the feeling that you are a little at home here. A friendly "Hello" is usually followed by a long conversation of at least half an hour. Every local is well informed about everything that happens on the island. When you enter a pub, you are often greeted like an old friend and sometimes by name.

St. Helena prides itself on being the safest place on earth. There is no need to lock the hotel room or the car. On the contrary: if you do it, the locals look at you strangely. Still, Jamestown has a prison. Its doors remain open most of the time. Anyone who has to serve a sentence here goes to work during the day and sleeps in the cell at night. There have been three murders in the past hundred years. The perpetrators cannot escape.

A new life?

The news was officially announced on November 3, 2011: The new governor of the island, Mark Capes, was able to inform the population in the main square in Jamestown that an airport would be built by 2015. It had been talked about and dreamed of for decades. Now London has decided on the major project: over 210 million pounds have been budgeted for the construction plus a further 35 million for the operating costs of the first ten years. It is the largest investment ever made in St. Helena.

What are the consequences of the project? First of all, it creates jobs. Very many, actually. Not only in the area of ​​the new airport, but also with the rest of the infrastructure. Perhaps this new building will also encourage some emigrants to come back and settle in St. Helena. Now, for the first time, they have the chance to become part of the new development.

But not everyone is happy about these investments. Especially in circles of nature conservationists there is great concern that the airport construction will further reduce the endemic fauna and flora. Two hills in the area of ​​Prosperous Bay Plain have to be removed for the construction of the airstrip. In this area, however, there are plants and animals that cannot be found anywhere else on the island or in the world. A letter to the editor complained in the weekly magazine “The Independent” that St. Helena did not only have to keep an eye on its Napoleonic legacy. The island is also known for its unique nature, which already inspired Charles Darwin and attracted many other scientists and researchers.