THE STORY 200 YEARS ON | Sharon Henry
(Article taken from the e-magazine, Breeze)
St Helena struck it lucky being the chosen one to take custody of the notorious Napoleon Bonaparte 200 years ago.
The island’s absolute isolation and towering coastal cliffs provided a natural fortress to thwart any romantic hopes of rescue or escape. Napoleon lived out his last six years, 1815-1821, as a prisoner at Longwood House in the district of Longwood.
Two centuries on, stepping into Longwood House, there’s a sensation of being teleported back to the day he died. That’s because with careful and precise detail the emperor’s residence has been restored (minus the mould and vermin) to represent that final moment of 5 May 1821, including a mantle clock stopped at time of death.
A 20 Year Project
“St Helena and Napoleon will always be remembered because that is the place he died,” says Michel Dancoisne-Martineau as we settle onto ornate antique chairs. Michel is the French Consul and custodian of Longwood House since 1987. Recognising the need to preserve this specific period and the opportunity to create a museum of “international standard,” Michel has worked a 20 year project to completely renovate the property.
“I started with the gardens,” he tells me. “I sent away items that were not significant, like clothes belonging to the emperor as a child. I then tried to get everything that belonged to the house at the time when Napoleon died.”
The Money Kept Coming
An ambitious project of this nature requires significant funding. An appeal was made through Paris based charity, Fondation Napoleon which attracted the support of 1,700 donors and raised 1.5m Euro. The response surpassed the original target of 700K that was to be matched “pound for pound” by the French Government.
To create rooms reminiscent of the event, bespoke items were sourced overseas; churro wool carpets, copper chandeliers and hand blocked wallpaper. “The 19th century wall paper technique had to be done in France,” says Michel. Thirty one pieces of furniture were also exported for specialist restoration and will be exhibited at Les Invalides from April to June 2016. Included is a large billiard table on which Napoleon laid maps (so the story goes), to plot and engage in fantasy battles. The furniture will be returned to the island in 2017.
Thank You Governor David Smallman
The original Longwood House, vacated after Napoleon’s death had fallen into disrepair, even converted to a flour mill. In 1857 the French bought the property and immediately resurrected it as an ambassador’s residence.
Before now the island has not capitalised on the Napoleon connection. “On St Helena the first person to pronounce the word, ‘tourism’ was Governor David Smallman, in the late ‘90’s,” says Michel pushing back his spectacles. “Even creating a Tourist Office. Before that it was not a consideration, we [the French] were here just to be foreign representatives.”
Thankfully things have moved on with the construction of an airport to be completed in 2016, and the anticipated boost for a budding tourism industry. “It is an amazing concept,” marvels Michel, “and we definitely want to be ready for the airport.”
A Lot Of People Ready To Come To St Helena
For the moment, access remains limited by sea via the RMS St Helena with visits every three weeks. Michel has reserved 24 berths onboard for guests wishing to commemorate the bicentenary of Napoleon’s arrival on 15 October 1815. “We made an appeal to gauge interest,” he tells me with a glint in his eye, “and within a week received 5,000 requests!” An indication of potential visitor numbers post airport.
So what spurs this global interest? “There is a Napoleonic mania. It will go even bigger because the further you get away from the issues, then only the adventure remains, and the myth is exceeding the reality. Everyone is creating their own Napoleon image.”
A case in point, a hat worn by the diminutive emperor during the Battle of Marengo in 1800 fetched £1.5m at an auction in November 2014, bought by a South Korean. “The South Koreans perceive it as a hat for leaders,” says Michel of the story. “It is to be displayed at a company headquarters as a symbol for leaders.”
The Longwood House experience should not disappoint those making the pilgrimage to St Helena. “I try not to impose any vision onto others,” says Michel. “I stick to the historical facts, that’s it.”
The General’s Quarters adjacent to the main house at Longwood, that once accommodated Napoleon’s attentive entourage is the last to undergo a full revamp. This section officially opens 15 October 2015, the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s arrival.
Unlike the museum aspect of Longwood House, a different purpose is intended for the General’s Quarters. It has two separate bedroom suites and a large hall, capable of holding 150 people. This facility will be available to hire for hosting events such as conferences, weddings and parties. “It will be a venue for uniqueness and feeling special; and will help the house to survive,” says Michel of the anticipated income.
Michel’s passion for the project is quite obvious, “You need drive and discipline,” he says taking a quick glance around the dining room in the General’s Quarters, “although I would not have done it without the local community who made it feasible.”
Painting A Picture
I ask of what he is most proud, “It is very vain!” he laughs. “It is the fact that there are many applicants who now want my job!” Michel has recently renewed a three year contract. Prior to his appointment in ‘87 the post had stood open for five years. “I have a lot of competitors now and that for me is good, because I normalised a job nobody wanted to touch. That is my pride.”
That said, Michel is planning an early retirement once the project is done, to concentrate on his love of painting.
It’s clear, the incredible interest in Napoleon is alive and well. His appeal is global, with few who possess a more prominent profile in the history books. By association, and from the dedication of Michel, St Helena can now take advantage of her small, but significant place in that same book.