I’ve been lucky enough to visit three islands associated with Napoleon Bonaparte – the island of his birth, Corsica – and the two islands of his exile, Elba and St Helena. Corsica and Elba are in the Mediterranean, between France and Italy, and I sailed to them in 2022. St Helena is a very remote island in the South Atlantic which I visited about thirty years ago to install a large satellite earth station antenna.
Corsica is over a hundred miles long, French, but with a distinctive culture. When Napoleone Buonaparte, scion of a prominent island family was sent to France as a boy, he hardly spoke French, and even as Emperor Napoleon his French was strongly accented. In his youth Napoleon was a Corsican patriot, and wrote a book about the Island's history. When this book was unfavourably reviewed by Pasquale Paoli, a member of another leading Corsican family and leader of the short lived Corsican Republic, the subsequent falling out contributed to Napoleon seeking his destiny in France. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened if Napoleon had been able to stay on Corsica, but I expect that he would have left the island anyway to find a larger canvas on which to paint.
Corsica, which features heavily in my new novel, Cape Corse, is a wonderful place, mountainous and spectacularly beautiful, but it is not very fertile, and to me seems somewhat forbidding. For many years it was a Genoese possession, as evidenced by the round stone towers on every headland, which the Genoese built to protect the island from the Moorish corsairs. The Corsican language is similar to Italian, and a plaque on the enormous citadel of Calvi claims that perhaps the most famous Genoese of all, Christopher Columbus, was actually born on the island.
We went to Corsica in 2022 in our sailing boat, Kim, crossing from Bormes les Mimosas in southern France. The approach to Calvi as the day broke was an unforgettable experience, the citadel visible from miles offshore against the backdrop of the high mountains of the interior.
As in most of the Mediterranean, there is a lack of protected anchorages, and we had some interesting experiences with heavy squalls rolling down the mountains.
The Corsicans rid themselves of the Genoese in 1755, and a short lived republic led by Pasquale Paoli ruled until it was ended by the French. The Corsican Republic was, I think, the first country to try a system based on a written constitution reliant on Enlightenment principles, with widely based suffrage. We visited Paoli’s capital, Corti, a city so evocative of history that it is hard to believe that it really exists.
We had a splendid sail in Kim between Bastia on Corsica and the island of Elba, despite the busy shipping lane in the Corsican Channel, which is heavily used by the large and fast ferries which run betwinceen the Italian and French mainlands and islands. We spent a few days in an anchorage just off the shore in the Golfo de Campo in the south of Elba, sheltered, we thought, from the north westerly winds which were blowing at the time. This was a misconception, as the wind blew violently down the steep hillside above our anchorage. We were very close to the shore, so there were no waves, but it was slightly unnerving. Elba, like its larger neighbour, has changed hands many times, important because of its iron deposits. We did not venture far from the anchorage on Elba, but the island is beautiful, and the water exceptionally clear.
Napoleon arrived in Elba in May 1814 aboard HMS Undaunted, following his disastrous Russian campaign. He stayed seven months, before escaping and commencing the famous Hundred Days, which culminated in the Battle of Waterloo. Corsica is very visible from Elba, and I wonder if Napoleon sometimes looked at Corsica and wished he had never left.
After Waterloo, Napoleon surrendered to Captain Maitland of HMS Bellerophon, the famous Billy Ruffian, which was lurking in the Basque Roads off Rochefort in western France.
Napoleon had intended to flee to the United States, but the presence of the Royal Navy guarding the exits from the Basque Roads made this impossible, and he surrendered to Captain Maitland, thinking that he would be allowed to settle in England. This episode in Napoleon’s life is recorded in this verse from the popular song “Boney was a Warrior”:
Boney was a warrior,
Way hay yah
A warrior a terrier,
Boney went a crus-i-ing,
Way hay yah
Aboard the Billy Ruffian,
Napoleon was impressed by the Bellerophon and the Royal Navy in general, telling Maitland (who had been with Sidney Smith at Acre) at dinner that “If it had not been for you English, I should have been Emperor of the East; but wherever there is water to float a ship, we are sure to find you in our way." It wasn’t Billy Ruffian which took Boney to his last island, St Helena, but HMS Northumberland, which was in better condition. Napoleon, bitterly disappointed at being exiled to St Helena, was transferred at sea off Berry Head, just ahead of a writ of habeas corpus.
I went to St Helena in the early 1990s, to install a 10 metre antenna for Cable and Wireless, to provide the first television service on the island. St Helena now has an airport, but at the time the only passenger service to the island was by RMS St Helena, the last Royal Mail Ship in the British merchant fleet. The trip on the St Helena from Cape Town was remarkable, with passengers including titled aristocrats and a crocodile keeper, who would not have seemed out of place in an Agatha Christie novel. There was no harbour at St Helena and the landing, with quite a swell running, and my four month old son on my back, was quite exciting. The Duke of Wellington, who visited St Helena on his way back from India, nearly drowned when his boat overturned when he landed.
Cable and Wireless’ earth station was at The Briars, high above Jamestown. In the early nineteenth century, The Briars was owned by the Balcombes, and when he first arrived on the island, Napoleon lived at the Pavilion there. Wellington having stayed in the same house during his visit, wrote a letter after Waterloo asking whether Napoleon was enjoying his time at Mrs Balcombe’s, as Wellington was happy in Napoleon’s former apartments in the Elysee Palace.
St Helena was a rather special place. Before I installed the Weston antenna and TV transmitter, St Helena had no television. Entertainment was essentially as it had been for centuries, with frequent dances with live music. I don’t know if this is still the case, but it was a privilege to see it, even if I had a hand in bringing about its end.
After I had finished the antenna, and overcome teething problems with the TV transmitter, I had a week or so of free time before the ship arrived to take me off the island. I walked extensively over the hilly terrain, using a guide book written by someone who I think had never actually been to the island.
I had a nearly fatal experience when I was on a very precipitous path (most of St Helena is precipitous) and was attacked by fairy terns, which despite their cuddly name, are very aggressive, nearly sending me over the cliff edge. On another occasion I followed a path shown in my guide book, but which had no physical presence, and took me down a slope so steep that I slid most of the way, collecting a huge number of cactus spines in my back.
The British government, with good reason, was terrified that Napoleon would escape, and had warships and troops permanently stationed there to prevent this occurring. The island’s governor, Hudson Lowe, treated him harshly, probably concerned that he might use his fabulous charisma to win people over to his cause. Perhaps Lowe had his reasons for disliking Napoleon, as he had been commander of the Corsican Rangers, a regiment in the British Army largely composed of Corsican enemies of the Emperor.
The contrast between Napoleon's (now empty) tomb on St Helena and the one at the Invalides in Paris is stark, and although his last years were unhappy, I find it hard to feel much sympathy for him. I think Napoleon's career is a warning against sudden political change, which creates a space for able and ruthless people to rise. Instead of Louis, you get Robespierre and Napoleon, and the Tsar is replaced by Lenin and Stalin.