In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, between South America and Africa, lies the island of St. Helena.
Sitting 1,200 miles west of Windhoek, in Namibia, it’s one of the most remote places in the world: a 46 square mile island of dazzling cliff walks, breath-catching drives, and swirling flax plants rippling in the ocean-whipped wind.
With a population of under 5,000, sometimes it feels like there are more dolphins in the ocean around the island than Saints, as the islanders are called.
Yet despite its remoteness, St. Helena is known all over the world for its most famous visitor, who died there 200 years ago.
Napoleon Bonaparte – the first emperor of France, and conqueror of much of Europe – died at his home, Longwood House, on May 5, 1821.
Not that it was his home by choice. Napoleon had been exiled to St. Helena after he was defeated by the British at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Having escaped his previous exile from Elba, off the coast of Italy, the French emperor was a flight risk to his fellow European rulers who wanted rid of him. Enter St. Helena – a British colony 5,000 miles and a 10-week boat ride away from Europe.
Napoleon spent more than five years on the island, arriving in October 1815. It’s where he created his myth, dictated his memoirs and battled chronic pain from old battlefield injuries – and, possibly, fatal stomach cancer.
And, two centuries later, his myth still survives on the island, carefully tended to by one man: Michel Dancoisne-Martineau.
The 55-year-old from Picardy, France, first came here at the age of 18 and has rarely left the island since.
He’s adapted to a way of life very different from most. He leaves the island once a year; if he orders something from Europe, it takes longer to arrive in 2021 than Napoleon took to get there in 1815.
And if you assume he’s doing it in homage to Napoleon, think again.
A different kind of legacy
Purchased from the British by Napoleon III, the first emperor’s nephew, the Napoleonic sites on St. Helena lie in stark contrast to their counterparts in Paris.
Instead of the Tuileries Gardens of the French capital, St. Helena has the gardens of Longwood House, his longterm home, which provide an ocean of color on this stark island.
Instead of the Malmaison chateau, St. Helena has the Briars, the sunny little cottage where he started his exile.
And instead of the extravagance of his tomb at Les Invalides, St. Helena is home to Napoleon’s original burial site. The emperor was buried on a lush hillside here, until France reclaimed his body 19 years after his death. Today, just a slab of stone remains, surrounded by black painted railings.
An airport at the end of the Earth
Michel Dancoisne-Martineau looks after them all. As the director of the French Domains on St. Helena, and honorary French consul, his job is to conserve these three little Gallic pockets on an island which is still a British Overseas Territory.
That conservation has also meant serious renovation. When he arrived, the previous curator had left things to the mercy of the elements.
“The old presentation was much more towards how it was at the beginning of Napoleon’s stay – he let the trees grow very close to the house to make it look even darker than it was,” says Dancoisne-Martineau. “That was a choice, but it wasn’t subjective. I proposed that we try to get the house how it was when Napoleon died on 5 May 1821 – both the house and his garden.”
So over the years, he’s redone the woodwork and paint inside the house, and has reinstated the gardens that Napoleon delighted in outside. “You can see the birdcage, the Chinese pavilion, the ponds, grotto and sunken paths – it’s a pleasure on its own,” he says. Indeed, the garden bursting with color – which Napoleon planned himself, once he realized he wouldn’t be getting off the island – has turned one of St. Helena’s bleakest spots into one of its prettiest.
The myth of the martyr
Not everyone is thrilled by Dancoisne-Martineau’s efforts to doll up the sites however. For starters, a large part of the Napoleonic myth rests on the idea that the emperor lived in appalling conditions on the island.
“Napoleon used the miserable, dirty conditions at Longwood, and the bad weather, for his own benefit, to create himself a martyr,” says Dancoisne-Martineau, adding that the emperor intentionally aimed for Christ-like connotations in his memoirs, which he dictated while on the island.
In fact, the truth wasn’t that far off. Longwood – the house assigned to Napoleon – was “the worst place on the island,” says Dancoisne-Martineau. At 500 meters above sea level, it was constantly wreathed in clouds and buffeted by trade winds. (Not that that was why the English assigned him the house – they put him there because, on a high plateau accessed via a switchback ridge, it was almost impossible to escape from.)
His exile had been arranged in such haste that nothing was ready for him when he arrived – even the governance of the island had to be transferred from the East India Company to the British crown. For the first two days, Napoleon was confined to the boat which had brought him to St. Helena, docked in the harbor.
And after two happy months at The Briars, a pretty cottage sitting above the island’s only major settlement, Jamestown, Longwood came as a shock.
“Slowly but surely he realized the terrible conditions, both of the weather and the house, which was falling to pieces,” says Dancoisne-Martineau.
“The wooden floors were rotten, the roof was leaking, there was water running through the walls, rats crawling through the planks, there was a smell of stagnant water under their feet – it was an awful place.”
Not only that, but the yearlong construction works building an accommodation block for his entourage next door created “noise pollution” on this most remote of islands.
And although the British promised to build him a new house, it was completed the week after he died.
Today, though, Longwood is a thoroughly gorgeous spot. Too gorgeous, in fact, for those who leave comments in the guestbook complaining that it’s just too nice.
“Some are disappointed that it isn’t dilapidated, as it’d fit with the legend of the very bad house – they’d rather see it ruined than well kept,” he says.
“But my job is to present you with the house of a man who died yesterday. I don’t have anything to prove.”