Two hundred years ago, on 15 October, 1815, St Helena Island was thrust into the limelight with the reluctant arrival of the world’s top celebrity at the time, the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. After his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon surrendered to the British. Mindful of his previous escape from Elba, the British decided to exile him here on the extremely isolated St Helena in the South Atlantic. The island had just a few days heads-up of his arrival.
Big News On St Helena
It was the age of sail; news travelled slowly. The telephone or even radio was still to be invented. A month before on 15 September, news arrived on island of the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo. The island celebrated in style, a Royal Salute was fired and a festival held that granted extra wine allowances. So momentous the event, prisoners were even ordered to be released.
Imagine the surprise when a few weeks later on 11 October, the Icarus arrived dropping the bombshell that Napoleon was in transit to be imprisoned here on the island.
Four days later on 15 October, HMS Northumberland dropped anchor in James Bay with the infamous Napoleon onboard. Excitement ensued and crowds piled into Jamestown, hoping to catch a glimpse of ‘Boney.’
The Napoleon St Helena History: The Exile Begins
It wasn’t until two days later on the 17th that Napoleon was brought ashore and in an attempt to avoid the crowds, at the late hour of 6pm. The ploy failed, however; soldiers had to force a path through the throng of spectators lining the 500 metre stretch from the landing steps up to Porteous House, in Jamestown, where Napoleon was to spend his first night on the island.
Thus St Helena’s role in Napoleon’s story began; the incarceration and eventual demise of one of the world’s greatest men and St Helena’s biggest claim to fame which placed us ‘on the map.’ This legacy stands true even today, 200 years on.
Wait…The Story Could Have Been Even More Dramatic
Napoleon and The New Orleans Plot
During our time in New Orleans we met historian, James McWilliams. He not only impressed us by knowing of St Helena, he also had a story about Napoleon’s exile. “The legend goes,” he began, pleased to have met St Helenians, “being a French city we were very strong admirers of Napoleon. In fact when the Louisiana Purchase happened in 1803 we were really upset about the fact that Napoleon got us back from Spain and immediately sold the territory to the Americans. The only thing that pacified everybody was they figured he was going to conquer Europe and we’d be French again soon enough.
Obviously that’s not the way it worked out. Around 1820 the mayor of New Orleans gets this idea and renovates a three storey building as apartments for the emperor. He contacts the British requesting Napoleon be transferred from St Helena to there. Of course the offer was refused. The mayor instead hired a pirate named Dominique Youx, a former military subject of Napoleon to sail over to St Helena and break him out by force. The only thing that stopped that happening was the death of Napoleon on 5th May 1821. News reached New Orleans a week before the plan was to be put into action.”