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Did you know…?

Success is the most convincing talker in the world.{f}

Our most famous exile, but how much do you actually know about him?

Napoleon Bonaparte, 1812
Napoleon Bonaparte, 1812{g}
Napoleon’s arrival, 1815
Napoleon’s arrival, 1815{h}
Napoleon on St Helena (2016)
Napoleon on St Helena (2016){i}

What we all know…

Napoleon Bonaparte (15th August 1769 to 5th May 1821), also known as Emperor Napoleon I, was a military and political leader of France whose actions shaped European politics in the early 19th Century, being Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1814. After losing the Battle of Waterloo he surrendered to the British and was exiled to St Helena in 1815, arriving in October{4}. He died here in May 1821.

So much we all know (hopefully) - you can learn more below. But did you also know that…

25 Fascinating Facts


Here are 25 fascinating facts about St Helena’s most famous exile:

  1. He was born in the town of Ajaccio on the island of Corsica, one year after the island was transferred to France by the Republic of Genoa. So if he’d been born a year earlier he would have been Genoan, not French. (Maybe that would have saved the world a lot of trouble, but made St Helena a lot less famous.)

  2. It’s possible that he had Jewish origins; or Greek. Both communities were well established on Corsica at the time of his birth{5}.

  3. Napoleon shared genetic roots with current-day actor Tom Conti. According to The Observer Newspaper on 15th April 2012, Conti’s father Alfonso was an Italian immigrant, and his mother was Scottish, but of Irish ancestry. According to the DNA research his lineage is Saracen, and he descends from a family that settled in Italy around the tenth century. One branch of the family, of which Napoleon was also a member, settled in Corsica.

  4. He was initially named Napoleone di Buonaparte, but later adopted the more French-sounding Napoleon Bonaparte.

  5. He spoke with a marked Corsican accent and never learned to spell properly, being teased by other students for his accent.

  6. An examiner observed that Napoleon was good at mathematics and was fairly well acquainted with history and geography, and then suggested he should become a sailor.

  7. He considered joining the British Royal Navy (which also might have saved the world a lot of trouble, etc.) but instead trained to become an artillery officer.

  8. In 1791 he wrote to his uncle: Send me 300 francs; that sum will enable me to go to Paris. There, at least, one can cut a figure and surmount obstacles. Everything tells me I shall succeed. Will you prevent me from doing so for the want of 100 crowns?

  9. He was not short, as is often said - this is a myth. He was actually 1.7 metres tall, average height for the period. The short-man suggestion came from British propaganda during the Napoleonic Wars
    This and other myths about him are discussed on our page Myths Debunked!.. You can read an article on the Encyclopædia Britannica.

  10. Insisting on ‘equality before the law’ in civil and criminal actions, Napoleon drew up legislation to protect citizens from arbitrary arrest. He also instituted an educational system based on merit, not the privileges of birth.

  11. Unlike most European leaders of his time, Napoleon welcomed Jews, abolishing ghettos and saying I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France, because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country. It takes weakness to chase them out of the country, but it takes strength to assimilate them. However, during his exile on St Helena he is said to have remarked to General Gourgaud: The Jews are a nasty people, cowardly and cruel.{6}

  12. Also unlike most European leaders of his time, Napoleon did not approve of torture as a way to extract information, saying The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having important secrets to reveal must be abolished. It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile. The poor wretches say anything that comes into their mind and what they think the interrogator wishes to hear.

  13. Despite the above, his views on women were rather less modern, describing them in 1817 as nothing but machines for producing children.

  14. Napoleon’s teeth were darkened from his constant habit of eating liquorice; he always kept a supply in his waistcoat pocket.

  15. Napoleon’s cure for piles was to apply leeches to his bottom.

  16. He also tried his hand at being an author.

  17. At the height of his power, Napoleon owned 39 palaces; some he never once visited.

  18. On 20th September 1804 Napoleon gave orders that St Helena be captured, because of its strategic importance in the South Atlantic (the orders were lost in transmission and never attempted){7}. Ironic, therefore, that he should end up here, as a captive…

  19. It is said{8}: that Napoleon always wore a black scarf into battle, but he wore a white one for the Battle of Waterloo… and also that he was afraid of cats; but he did, apparently admire bees.

  20. On 29th May 1816 Napoleon received a letter from his mother, asking if she could come and live with him on St Helena. We assume he replied in the negative.

  21. During his time on St Helena there were several plots to liberate him, including a plan to rescue him with a primitive submarine. (Given the state of submarine technology at the time this could be described as anywhere between brave and insane.)

  22. Incredibly{9} Napoleon was allowed to own and use a gun while in captivity on St Helena! Described as a ‘fowling piece’, he apparently used it to shoot chickens for amusement, and on 20th January 1820 he used it to shoot Count Bertrand’s goat because it ate his plants.{10}

  23. People are still arguing over the cause of Napoleon’s death. At the time it was attributed to stomach cancer but it has since been argued that he died of arsenic poisoning; some say deliberate - others say from chemicals in the wallpaper released by mould growing on it.

  24. His tomb was left nameless because his representatives and the British government couldn’t agree on what should be written on it.

  25. According to island folklore, Napoleon put a curse on St Helena, and on all island endeavours, for all time{11}. However, no mention of such an uttering can be found in any of the contemporary literature so this must be ascribed as a myth.
    This and other myths about him are discussed on our page Myths Debunked!.

Napoleon’s profile

Napoleon’s signature

Bonaparte came straight from heaven…like a thunderbolt!{j}

How much of that did you know?

You can learn more about Napoleon’s residence on St Helena on our page Longwood House. Learn more about St Helena’s arguably most famous resident on the Wikipedia or on the Encyclopædia Britannica.

Contrary to common belief{12}{13} Napoleon neither surrendered nor was captured at the Battle of Waterloo. He returned to France after the battle but discovered that the people were no longer behind him. He abdicated on 22nd June 1815 and left Paris. As the battle-victorious Coalition troops advanced across France he fled to Rochefort and considered an escape to the United States, but instead sought asylum from the British aboard HMS Bellerophon on 15th July 1815.

Napoleon on St Helena

Oh, Boney’s away from his wars and his fightings, He is gone to a land where naught can delight him. And there he may sit down and tell the scenes he’s seen, oh, While alone he does mourn on the Isle of Saint Helena.

How far is St. Helena from the field of Waterloo? A near way - a clear way - the ship will take you soon. A pleasant place for gentlemen with little left to do.{l}

Below: ArrivalAt The BriarsAt Longwood HouseEntertainmentGovernor LoweAnd also…Napoleon’s last expeditionNapoleon codes

A potted history of Napoleon on St Helena:

  • Sunday 15th October 1815: HMS Northumberland anchored at 12 noon{14}

  • Tuesday 17th October 1815: Napoleon landed at 7:30pm at the Upper Steps and spent the night at Mr Porteous’ house in Jamestown

  • Wednesday 18th October 1815: Napoleon left Jamestown at 6:30am to visit Longwood and on the return journey decided to stay at the Briars Pavilion and not return to Town

  • Sunday 10th December 1815: Napoleon moved to Longwood House

  • Saturday 5th May 1821: Napoleon died at Longwood House at 5:49pm

  • Wednesday 9th May 1821: Funeral in Sane Valley at 3 pm

  • Sunday 4th October 1840: Napoleon’s remains taken aboard La Belle-Poule and carried back to France

Napoleon onboard HMS Northumberland
Napoleon onboard HMS Northumberland

Sketch of HMS Northumberland
Sketch of HMS Northumberland{m}


Napoleon was brought to the island in October 1815{4}. His first comment, on sighting St Helena from the sea, was it will not be a pleasant abode. Large crowds turned out to watch him land and he later remarked that he found it objectionable to be stared at comme un bête feroçe.

At The Briars

In his first two months here he lived in the Briars Pavilion, just up the valley from Jamestown, where he formed a deep friendship with owners the Balcombe family, and in particular their daughter, Betsy.

While he was living at The Briars Pavilion (October - December 1815) Napoleon made a friend; and a surprising one at that. He became friendly with an enslaved gardener called Toby. Read all about it here.

It appears Napoleon took a little while to adjust to his new circumstances. In ‘A History of the Island of St Helena, 2nd Edition’, by T. H. Brooke, Esq., published in 1824{15} we read that:

Upon an island of 28 miles in circumference, which did not feed a population of hardly four thousand souls, and four hundred leagues distant from the nearest continent, it could not be expected that, upon so short a notice for the reception of its new visitants, they could obtain the kind of accommodation to which they had been accustomed; and, in a place where fresh beef was so precious as to have occasioned restrictions upon its consumption, it may well be conceived that sensations of no ordinary nature were excited at a demand from the maître-d’hotel of the Ex-Emperor, a few days after his arrival, for four bullocks, in order to make a dish of brains: of this demand, however, Bonaparte himself knew nothing, until Admiral Sir George Cockburn{16} explained the objections to its being complied with, and the refusal is understood to have been received with perfect good humour.

At Longwood House

Napoleon moved to Longwood House on 10th December 1815. Clearly his food supplies improved:

Fifty bottles of wine, four ducks, and a roasting pig: the feast of food and drink provided to French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte during his exile on Saint Helena was revealed Wednesday in a document auctioned in Britain. The list details the inhabitants of Napoleon’s household on the island, Longwood, including loyal aide General Henri Gatien Bertrand and his family, and numerous staff including ‘32 Chinese’. Each day, the entourage were delivered 23 kilos of beef and veal, 23 kilos of mutton or pork, 31 kilos of bread, 42 eggs and 15 bottles of milk, two turkeys, two geese, 12 pigeons and nine fowl, in addition to the pig and ducks. And to accompany the vast quantities of wine, also on the list were malt liquor, rum and cognac. Signed by Denzil Ibbetson, a British officer and artist who served on St Helena, the inventory is dated October 13th, 1820.{n}

Incidentally, Napoleon’s favourite dishes during his captivity were eggs, roast chickens, grilled chops, breaded lamb, cold mutton, and beans or lentils as salad.

The Emperor was closely guarded, despite the apparent inaccessibility of St Helena. It was a requirement of Governor Lowe that every visitor to Longwood House should be issued with a pass, signed by himself. One day while out riding, Napoleon escaped from his escort and headed off in the direction of Powell’s Valley, causing Governor Lowe to realise that the valley was unguarded and might have provided an avenue for a rescue attempt. It was promptly fortified.

The Times published articles insinuating the British government was trying to hasten his death, and he often complained of the living conditions in letters to Governor Hudson Lowe. (Although Governor Lowe was partly responsible for the ending of slavery on St Helena, his treatment of Napoleon is regarded by historians as poor, imposing inter alia a rule that no gifts could be delivered to Napoleon if they mentioned his imperial status.)


Napoleon gardening

Napoleon had only a few distractions to occupy his time. He did some gardening, possibly inspired by his friendship with Toby during his time at The Briars Pavilion (or, some say, on the advice of his doctors - he was getting fat).

It is a curious fact that the most enthusiastic gardener St Helena ever had was the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte{o}

Count Balmain, Russian Commissioner, wrote on 20th January 1820:

I saw General Bonaparte this morning. He was amusing himself in one of his private flower gardens. His morning dress at present consists of a white gown, and straw hat with a very wide brim. In the afternoon he appears out in a cocked hat, green coat, and white breeches and stockings. He walks a good part of the afternoon in Longwood garden, accompanied by either Counts Montholon or Bertrand, and often pays a visit to the Bertrands in the evenings. Yesterday afternoon he walked around in the new garden and buildings.

Napoleon’s permitted limits
Napoleon’s permitted limits

Sadly, despite his efforts it seems the garden failed. According to reports, the fish in the pond he had dug died, as did the birds in the aviary he had constructed. Only one of the oak trees he transplanted survived him. The only other survivors were of a more structural nature - the sunken paths, allowing him to walk without being watched, and a 2.7m-high turf wall with a similar purpose.

Reading and dictation of his memoirs occupied more of his time, and he played cards.

He also engaged in horseback riding, but found the close guard maintained by his captors annoying. A perimeter was designated, within which he could ride unaccompanied. The area is shown on the map (right). It looks extensive but it must be remembered that much of the enclosed area comprised steep valleys and other inhospitable terrain, severely restricting his practicable range.

He undertook a few trips during his stay, including to Sandy Bay on 3rd January 1816 and to Mount Pleasant in October 1820.

‘Napoleon at St Helena’

Apparently Napoleon spent a lot of his time here playing cards and there is a specific game he liked to play: ‘Napoleon at St Helena’, a variation of Solitaire but harder to win:


  1. Two decks are used (104 cards).

  2. Deal ten Tableau piles of four cards each, all face up and all visible.

  3. Leave space for eight Foundation piles above the Tableau piles.

  4. The object of the game is to move all the cards to the Foundations.

  5. You may only move the top card from any Tableau. You may place any one card in an empty Tableau space.

  6. The Tableaus are built down by suit.

  7. The Foundations are built up by suit, from Ace to King.

  8. You may take one card at a time from the stock and play to the Tableau, the Foundations, or to the Waste.

  9. You may use the top card from the Waste.

  10. You may only go through the stock once.

For variations see the Wikipedia page.

‘Napoleon on St Helena’
‘Napoleon on St Helena’{3}{c}

Governor Lowe

Governor Lowe, described by Napoleon thus: He is our absolute master, was not only suspicious of Napoleon himself, he also suspected (in some cases, with grounds{17}) the British Personnel who attended the Emperor, as this report confirms:

There has been no occurrence here of any interest to our friends at home, for some time; all has been as vapid and monotonous as the harbour duty on a home station, only, with far greater privations. But, at length, a buzz has been created - Mr. Stokoe, the surgeon of the Flagship, whom Bonaparte accepted as his medical attendant, after the return home of Mr O’Meara has incurred the displeasure of the governor, and he returns to England in the HMS Trincomalee{18}.

The facts are, I understand - When Mr. Stokoe consented to succeed Mr. O’Meara, and before he had made any visit to Bonaparte, he made it the ‘sine qua non’ of his accepting the situation, with Sir Hudson Lowe, that he should not be required to detail any familiar conversations into which he may be drawn, or any circumstances which he might overhear, at Longwood; but pledging himself, as a British officer, that, if anything should come to his knowledge in which his allegiance to his king and country would be compromised by his secrecy, he would then instantly give information to the governor. This was passed on until a few days since, when Bonaparte was suddenly seized with serious illness, in the middle of the night. Mr. Stokoe, as soon as the necessary forms were gone through, visited him, and found that he had had a slight apoplectic fit. After a few hours he appeared free from the attack, but it had left a considerable degree of indisposition.

Mr Stokoe made official reports of the circumstances to Sir Hudson Lowe and the Admiral (Plampin), and gave copies of them to Bonaparte. Whether it was this latter circumstance, or whether Mr. Stokoe had represented Bonaparte as being in a worse state of health than suited the predisposed notions of Sir Hudson, is not known; but he was instantly forbid to go to Longwood - was threatened to be tried by a court-martial, - or as an act of mitigation of his offence, he was told he might invalid home.

Of course, he preferred the latter, as the least incommodious to him, and he sails tomorrow in the HMS Trincomalee{18}. The reports were drawn up, of course, with conscientious accuracy, and were such as the case demanded.- I understand Bonaparte is really in serious state of health. His dwelling is sealed against all visitors.{p}

Read the full story here.

For his part Napoleon played a similar game, as this writer reports:

A most ridiculous scene takes place daily at Longwood. Every morning Capt. Nichols, the orderly officer, knocks at the door of Bonaparte’s house and demands to see him in the name of the Governor. Either Bertrand or Montholon replies that he will not receive him, and the orderly officer marches off without demanding anything further.

And also…

Napoleon did not like the taste of the water at Longwood, so every day he sent a servant to the spring at Sane Valley (where he was later buried) to collect water for his drinking. But that was not the biggest water problem he created… Towards the end of his time on St Helena, with growing stomach distress, he was persuaded by his doctor to take salt water baths. Obviously a trip to the sea to dip into the sea was out of the question, so salt water had to be collected from Ruperts and shipped up the valley to Deadwood and thence to Longwood House by ox cart. The first attempt was, apparently, disastrous - the salt in the water dissolved the tar used to seal the barrels producing a sort-of tar soup which, on the advice of his doctor, Napoleon refused to touch. Thereafter the water had to be carried in unsealed barrels, meaning that around 20% of the collected volume leaked out along the way. A very messy business!

Napoleon’s impact on St Helena is described in Archibald Arnott’s ‘A St Helena who’s who, or a directory of the island during the captivity of Napoleon’ from 1919:

Before the arrival of Napoleon, St Helena was a restful island owned by The East India Company, and used almost entirely as a ‘half-way’ stopping-place between England and India, where ships could obtain stores and water. The Company expected little or no profit from their occupation of the Island, and consequently the officials quartered there led an undisturbed if somewhat monotonous existence. The Governorship of St Helena was generally a reward for important services rendered in India, and the other offices in the administration were sometimes filled by those whose health had become impaired by prolonged residence in the East. When, however, the captivity began, a vast change came over the quiet scene. The population of St Helena received at once an influx of about 1,500 Europeans, and the fact that the Island was the prison home of the great Napoleon rendered it perhaps the most talked-of place outside Europe.

Napoleon’s last expedition

As remarked above, Napoleon did not spend all of his time at Longwood House. He rode around the nearby countryside, and made a few house calls to people he thought sympathetic. The last of these took place on 4th October 1820, when he went for breakfast at Mount Pleasant, home of Sir William Webber Doveton.

They sipped champagne on the lawn, and Napoleon and his companions, Count Bertrand and Count Montholon, invited Sir William and his family to share the meal they had brought with them. Sir William reported it all to Governor Hudson Lowe: the food and drink they had consumed; Napoleon’s jokes about Sir William’s alcohol intake (which did not go down too well); and Napoleon’s physical appearance - described by Sir William as fat as a Chinese pig.

Whether due to ill health or too much Champagne, Napoleon apparently struggled to ride back on his horse, and was glad to be offered a carriage at Hutts Gate. It is also recorded that, throughout the visit, both Napoleon and Sir William, but unlike their respective family and companions, kept their hats on!

This visit was remarkable as Napoleon very rarely paid visits or took any meal with strangers, and it was the last time he ventured beyond the grounds of Longwood House.

This was not, it seems, Napoleon’s first visit to Sir William. According the Governor Lowe’s records for 3rd January 1816:

As we were on the point of sitting down to dinner [at Plantation House], we were, to our great surprise, informed that the Emperor, in company with the Admiral, had just passed very near the gate of Plantation House; and one of the guests (Mr. Doveton of Sandy Bay) observed that Napoleon had, in the morning, honoured him with a visit, and spent three quarters of an hour at his house.

(More on John Tyrrell’s blog.)

The Napoleon codes

In 2001 a ‘Code Book’ came to light, illustrating how Napoleon’s guards communicated his activities to the Governor in The Castle. In the system, devised for Governor Hudson Lowe, messages were sent with code-numbers, using flags, possibly relayed via High Knoll Fort. An illustration of the flag-system used at Longwood House appears below and also on our page Other Military Sites.

Code book
Code book{q}

The system had imperfections. In Governor Lowe’s papers we read a note from Major Gideon Gorrequer, Lowe’s ADC, saying:

A signal having been made to the Orderly Officer at Longwood this morning through the Deadwood Post at 10¼ o’c. to come to Plantation House, which was not received at Longwood until 11 o’c., the Governor desires that the cause of the delay may be inquired into and reported through me. You will be pleased to give directions that in future the moment a signal is made to the Orderly Officer at Longwood, a man is to run with it instantly from the Deadwood Telegraph to his rooms at Longwood House.

‘General Bonaparte’ was code 767. If he went missing his number would be hoisted up with a dark blue flag signifying ‘missing’, repeated at all the signal stations around the Island until cancelled. It is not known if this code was ever used. Other codes mark more routine events, e.g. General Bonaparte is out, but within the cordon of sentries.

One code was definitely used. On 4th May 1821 Lt. W Crokat signalled 767/2 to the Governor - Napoleon is unwell. The rest, as they say,…

Napoleon’s Death

Death plaque

In February 1821, Napoleon’s health began to deteriorate rapidly, and on 3rd May two physicians attended on him but could only recommend palliatives.

He died two days later, on 5th May 1821 at 17:49h, his last words being, La France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine (France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine). He was 51 years old.

It is sometimes claimed that his death was accompanied by a violent hurricane which swept over the island but like so much that is claimed about Napoleon, this is not true; the Annual Register for 5th May 1821 records that it was a beautiful day, bright with sunshine.
This and other myths about him are discussed on our page Myths Debunked!..

Although Governor Lowe is reputed to have harassed Napoleon during his exile, according to Dr. Walter Henry in his 1843 book ‘Events of a military life’ the evening of Napoleon’s death Lowe said He was England’s greatest enemy, and mine too, but I forgive him everything. On the death of a great man like him, we should only feel deep concern and regret.

It is worthy of note that news of Napoleon’s death did not reach London until two months later, 4th July 1821, when the ship Heron arrived carrying the news.

In his will Napoleon asked to be buried on the banks of the Seine, but the British Governor, Hudson Lowe, said he should be buried on St Helena, in the Valley of the Willows (a.k.a. Sane Valley), and this is where Napoleon’s Tomb is located.

Napoleon’s coffin

Napoleon’s coffin was not by any means of normal construction - it had four layers. As can be seen from the diagram (right), the outer layer was mahogany{19}; inside that was a lead coffin; inside that was another mahogany coffin, and inside that was a tin coffin lined with white satin and stuffed with cotton (with a pillow to match). It could fairly be said that Napoleon would have been more comfortable sleeping in death and he had frequently been (for example, on campaign) sleeping while alive.

A story is told that when the news of Napoleon’s death reached Plymouth in 1821, a captain there rode day and night to bring the news to King George IV. Crying Sire, your greatest enemy is dead, George, thinking of his unwanted Queen, exclaimed, Is she, by God? I didn’t even know she was ill.

During his time on St Helena the island was strongly garrisoned by regular British regimental troops and by the local St Helena Regiment, with naval shipping circling the island. Many defensive forts and batteries were built.

On 12th August 1857 Louis Napoleon III instituted a bronze medal to be known as the St Helena Medal for the survivors of Napoleon I’s Grande Armée, which was defeated in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. The medal is oval and bears on the obverse the head of Napoleon with a laurel wreath and the inscription ‘Napoleon I Empereur’. On the reverse side a wreath with the words ‘a ses compagnons de Gloire sa dernier pensee. St Helène 5 Mai 1821’ and below ‘Compagnes de 1792 a 1815’. The ribbon is green with 5 thin red stripes and then red edges. Also shown is a contemporary coin.

Events on 5th May

Events for your choice of dates on our page Chronology.

War is becoming an anachronism[᠁]. Victories will be won, one of these days, without cannon, and without bayonets.{r}


To mark the 150th anniversary of his death in 1971, commemorative Postage Stamps were issued:

150th anniversary of Napoleon’s death 150th anniversary of Napoleon’s death

Similarly, to mark the 200th anniversary of his death in 2021, commemorative Postage Stamps were also issued:

To learn more about the events held to mark the Bicentenary of Napoleon’s time on St Helena, please see our page Napoleonic Bicentenary.

Other Stories

Below: Napoleon the author‘Rescue’ PlotsNapoleon and the rats‘Intriguing Women’Never give up…?

Napoleon the author

Napoleon, the author

A single manuscript page from a love story written by Napoleon Bonaparte sold at auction in France yesterday for the equivalent of £17,000.

It was the first page of the final draft of Napoleon’s 1795 short novel Clisson and Eugenie - the story was not published in his lifetime.

The page up for sale was long believed to be part of a text that Napoleon wrote about a historical figure named Clissot, but then Peter Hicks, a historian at the Fondation Napoléon, realised it was actually the beginning of his novel. The long-standing confusion was caused in part by Napoleon’s sloppy handwriting, Mr Hicks said.{s}

‘Rescue’ Plots

During Napoleon’s time on St Helena there were several plots to liberate him, mostly quite outlandish due to the almost impregnable nature of St Helena as a prison. As Governor Beatson reported:

The extraordinary formation of the island itself, being encompassed on all sides by stupendous and almost perpendicular cliffs, rising to the height of from six to more than twelve hundred feet, and through which formidable barrier there are but few inlets to the interior.

The only accessible landing-places are James Town, Ruperts Bay and Lemon Valley on the north and Sandy Bay on the South. All these points are well fortified…and with furnaces for heating shot. And as cannon are also placed upon the cliffs in their vicinity, far above the reach of ships, no ships could possibly stand the fire of the defences which protect the anchorage and the whole of the Northern coast. And in regard to the Southern landing place, Sandy Bay, it is equally secure against a naval attack.

There are several small paths from the interior leading down the precipices to the sea, which are frequented by fishermen, but they are so very difficult of access that persons unaccustomed to such frightful roads would find it extremely difficult, if not impracticable, and particularly in the night, to ascend them, and they might very easily be defended by rolling stones from the heights.

Telegraphs are placed upon the most commanding heights and are so connected with one another, and so spread all over the island, that no vessel can approach without being descried at the distance of sixty miles. Nothing can pass in any part or even in sight of the island without being instantly known to the Governor.

And yet plans were still made.

There was the boat that will drift to the back of the Island in the shape of an old cask but so constructed that by pulling at both ends to be sea worthy and both boat and sails which will be found inside will be painted to correspond with the colour of the sea. Apparently Napoleon was expected to slide down a cliff on a rope to get to this vessel, the ultimate destination being the United States.

Then came an 1820 proposal from a naval captain whose vessel was returning from the Indies. He had arranged everything so as to be able to receive the Emperor in a boat at a point of the coast previously designated and convey him to his vessel without running the slightest risk of being stopped. He asked no reward for himself, but demanded a million Francs for the person whose concurrence was necessary, in order that the Emperor might safely pass from Longwood to the coast. This million was not to be payable until the Emperor had landed in America. Another condition was that the Emperor should only be accompanied by two persons.

A submarine of the period that was probably the inspiration for Johnson’s plans
A submarine of the period that was probably the inspiration for Johnson’s plans

But by far the most outlandish was…

The secret plot to rescue Napoleon…by submarine!

Tom Johnson was one of those extraordinary characters that history throws up in times of crisis. Born in 1772 to Irish parents, he made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves and was earning his own living as a smuggler by the age of 12. At least twice, he made remarkable escapes from prison. When the Napoleonic Wars broke out, his well-deserved reputation for extreme daring saw him hired, despite his by then extensive criminal record, to pilot a pair of covert British naval expeditions.

But Johnson also has a stranger claim to fame, one that has gone unmentioned in all but the most obscure of histories. In 1820, he claimed, he was offered the sum of £40,000 to rescue the emperor Napoleon from bleak exile on the island of St Helena. This escape was to be effected in an incredible way: down a sheer cliff, using a boatswain’s chair, to a pair of primitive submarines waiting off shore. And Johnson had to design the submarines himself, since his plot was hatched decades before the invention of the first practical underwater craft.

To read the full story go to allkindsofhistory.wordpress.com/‌2013/‌03/‌09/‌a-secret-plot-to-rescue-napoleon-by-submarine or download a PDF file copy.

More plots here.

One ‘rescue attempt’ that wasn’t(!) is reported thus:

In May 1819 while visiting St Helena the Commander of HMS Eurydice was ordered by the Adjutant-General Sir Thomas Reade to conduct a sham naval battle to impress Lady Lowe. Dutifully he launched a brilliant discharge of rockets and blue lights which preceded a vigorous cannonade. Another ship answered and the whole display was kept up with much spirit on both sides. The ‘battle’ was enthusiastically received by Lady Lowe and her companions, but no one had bothered to inform Admiral Plampin who was the commander of the British colony and responsible for the incarceration of the former emperor Napoleon. Alarmed that the Yankees were about to abduct Bonaparte from his captivity the good admiral sent his secretary and a signalman galloping down the steep path from his residence to determine what was going on. Meanwhile, most of the local population had rushed to their alarm posts, many remaining there until daybreak. Admiral Plampin subsequently issued an order banning night cannonading without his specific command.{t}

Napoleon and the rats

Many cartoons were published around the time of Napoleon’s imprisonment on St Helena. We think the island’s residents would have been far from happy about their depiction in these. Judge for yourself from these examples:

Admittedly rats are a serious problem on St Helena.

‘Intriguing Women’

We found the following and were fascinated by the final paragraph:

So tell us more about these ‘Intriguing Women’…

Never give up…?

In 2010 Denzil Ibbetson’s diary was discovered in New Zealand (where his son emigrated in 1864). By some readings it records that in 1815, even while aboard the HMS Northumberland heading for exile, Napoleon was still imagining himself invading and conquering Britain with an army of 200,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, saying he believed the people of Britain would welcome him. The Daily Mirror UK ‘newspaper’ thought this story worth printing (labelled ’HISTORY’), as did ABC News Australia and CBS in America. John Tyrrell, however, disputes this interpretation, believing the defeated former-Emperor was merely re-living his past plans, not setting out new ones (see his posting johntyrrell.blogspot.com/‌2010/‌06/‌napoleon-plotted-invading-england-after.html). So: nice headline but probably just another Napoleon myth.

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Below: SourcesNapoleon Film, 2023Websites: Napoleon on Saint HelenaArticle: I have enow sleep, I go then finish the night into to cause with youArticle: Napoleon’s PenisArticle: Napoleon’s Bee


You may also be interested by the Kindle™ book The Countess, Napoleon and St Helena: In Exile With The Emperor 1815 to 1821.

See also the Tourist Information Office brochure on Napoleon on St Helena.
et aussi en Français.

Napoleon Film, 2023

Ridley Scott’s 2023 film Napoleon depicts the rise and fall of the former Emperor of France. Now we all thought Napoleon ended his days here, on St Helena, but apparently not. The film seems to have a different story.


2h 23m into the film, having lost the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon is informed that he will not be allowed to remain in England and will be exiled. But if you listen to the clip (right) you will realise that he is being sent to a place that, as far as we know, doesn’t exist. Where is this St Helena (pronounced like the girl’s name)? Well apparently it’s a small island - more of a rock really - 1,000 miles from the coast of Africa. None of these describes the real St Helena, and Africa has a lot of coastline to be 1,000 miles from, so it could be anywhere. Maybe it’s the new name for Ste Helena la Nouvelle, our (mythical) sister island?

The theory that the St Helena in the film is a purely fictional place is borne out by the shots of the island, both when approaching by sea - what is shown is not how the real St Helena is seen when approaching by sea either from the North or the South - and also the on-island shots that follow. There’s a garden scene (at 2h 25m) which is presumably supposed to be the garden of Longwood House, where land can be clearly seen across the bay. Perhaps this is the Africa that’s 1,000 miles away? The garden seems curiously full of jungle-like plants, and is where Napoleon - seemingly healthy and standing alone - falls to his death - not in bed, after a long illness and surrounded by just about everybody of note on the island, as was really the case.

Incidentally, when sentence is pronounced, Napoleon is told that he will be guarded by Governor Lowe, which is odd because at the time of Napoleon’s arrival here the island was under the command of Governor Wilks, Lowe not arriving until 6 months later.

Not at all our island, but then the movie was made in Hollywood…

‘Napoleon on St Helena’ created by AI
‘Napoleon on St Helena’ created by AI

For other notes on the historical accuracy of the film overall see the Wikipedia.

This information also appears on our Do they mean us? page.

NB: the St Helena parts of the TV Miniseries Napoleon (2002) were filmed on St Helena, despite the logistic difficulties involved (the only way on or off the island in 2002 was the RMS St Helena (1990-2018)). Also of interest might be the image ‘Napoleon on St Helena’ created by AI (right).

Websites: Napoleon on Saint Helena (two sites)


There is lots more about Napoleon and his time on St Helena on these two sites, both of which happen to have the same name:

Please Note there are many, many sites about Napoleon. These are just two we have chosen to mention. If you think there is one we should include please contact us.

Article: I have enow sleep, I go then finish the night into to cause with you

By Suzannah Hills, Daily Mail, 6th June 2012{20}

Rare letter written in English by the French Emperor Napoleon reveals his struggle to master the language

A rare letter written by the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte while in exile after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo has revealed his struggle to master the English language.

It is one of only three letters written by the emperor in March 1816 while he was held by English captors on the island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean.

In broken English, he wrote: Count Las Case. It is two o’clock after midnight, I have enow sleep, I go then finish the night into to cause with you.

Keen student: Napoleon, depicted in a portrait painting (left), and the TV programme Clash of the Generals (right), attempted to learn English while in exile following the Battle of WaterlooKeen student: Napoleon, depicted in a portrait painting (left), and the TV programme Clash of the Generals (right), attempted to learn English while in exile following the Battle of Waterloo
Keen student: Napoleon, depicted in a portrait painting (left), and the TV programme Clash of the Generals (right), attempted to learn English while in exile following the Battle of Waterloo

The emperor is attempting to convey that he has had enough sleep and wishes to chat - but instead muddles the word with the French phrase causer, which has the same meaning.

The letter has gone on show in Paris and is expected to sell for €80,000 when it goes up for sale this weekend{21}.

Napoleon was determined to learn the language of his captors and underwent daily lessons with his aide, Emmanuel, the Comte de las Cases, so he could understand what was being said around him.

The emperor was an enthusiastic student and often wrote to his teacher in English when he couldn’t sleep to practice.

But this letter shows the emperor was a long way off mastering the language - and it is said his spoken English was even worse.

Broken English: In the rare letter, Napoleon reveals his difficulty in mastering the language
Broken English: In the rare letter, Napoleon reveals his difficulty in mastering the language

The emperor continues: He shall land above seven day, a ship from Europe that we shall give account from anything who this shall have been even to day of first January thousand eight hundred sixteen. You shall have for this ocurens a letter from Lady Las Case that shall you learn what himself could carry well if she had conceive the your occurens. But I tire myself and you shall have of the ado at conceive my.

Collectable: The rare letter by Napoleon, played here by Vladislav Strzhelchik in the 1969 film War and Peace, is expected to fetch up to £65,000 at auction
Collectable: The rare letter by Napoleon, played here by Vladislav Strzhelchik in the 1969 film War and Peace, is expected to fetch up to £65,000 at auction

Article: Napoleon’s Penis

You may have heard it said that Napoleon’s penis was removed from his body during the autopsy. You may even have read stories about it (e.g. here or maybe here) being auctioned and sold for thousands of dollars. Frankly we find the whole idea ridiculous and find the following article summarises our thinking on the subject rather well. Sadly we have no idea who wrote this version and where or when it was published - if you know or especially if you are the author please contact us so we can give credit where it’s due.{20}

Unlike John Dillinger’s penis, whose post-mortem pilgrimage appears to be pure legend, Napoleon’s penis (or an object reputed to be Napoleon’s penis) has in fact circulated among collectors for some decades and is currently in…well, I was about to say in the hands of an American urologist, but perhaps in the possession of would be a better way to put it. The owner claims it’s authentic, and I guess an urologist ought to know. However, given the frequency with which the death of a famous male is followed by claims that (a) he didn’t really die or (b) someone has his penis, we’re entitled to some doubt.

Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on the southern Atlantic island of Saint Helena on May 5, 1821. The following day an autopsy was conducted by the emperor’s doctor, Francesco Antommarchi, in the company of 17 witnesses, including seven English doctors and two of Napoleon’s aides, a priest named Vignali and a manservant, Ali. Antommarchi removed Napoleon’s heart (the deceased had requested that it be given to his estranged wife, the empress Marie-Louise, though it was never delivered) and stomach (the medical authorities present agreed that cancer thereof was the cause of death, although this verdict has long been disputed). But the good doctor did not, if one may trust contemporary accounts, remove the penis. Some speculate that it might’ve been lopped off accidentally during the proceedings - the penis was described at the time as small, and hey, shit happens. However, in a 1913 lecture, Sir Arthur Keith, conservator of the Hunterian Collection at the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons (certain Napoleonic organs were supposedly in the museum’s possession), ventured what seems to me the indisputable opinion that, given the number of witnesses, the brevity of the autopsy (less than two hours), and the fact that the guy was, come on, Napoleon, the loss of the penis would not easily have escaped notice.

A detailed account by an eyewitness, Thomas Reade, states that the body was closed up, dressed, and remained attended while lying in state - although Napoleon biographer Robert Asprey concedes that both Antommarchi and Vignali might’ve been alone with the imperial corpse at some point. Vignali, who had administered the last rites and conducted the funeral, was bequeathed 100,000 francs and for his trouble was also given (or at any rate came into the possession of) some of Napoleon’s knives and forks, a silver cup, and other personal effects - some of them really personal, it seems. In a memoir published in 1852 in the Revue des Mondes, Ali the manservant claimed that he and Vignali had removed bits of Napoleon’s body during the autopsy. It’s unclear whether Ali specified the penis as one of the abstracted organs, but everyone now assumes that’s what he meant.

In 1916 Vignali’s descendants sold his collection of Napoleonic artefacts to a British rare book firm, which in 1924 sold the lot for about $2,000 to a Philadelphia bibliophile, A.S.W. Rosenbach. Among the relics was the mummified tendon taken from Napoleon’s body during the post-mortem. A few years later Rosenbach displayed the putative penis, tastefully couched in blue morocco and velvet, at the Museum of French Art in New York. According to a contemporary news report, In a glass case [spectators] saw something looking like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or shrivelled eel. The organ has also been described as a shrivelled sea horse, a small shrivelled finger, and one inch long and resembling a grape.

The Vignali collection changed hands a few more times - I get all this from Charles Hamilton’s Auction Madness (1981) - and eventually was put on the block at Christie’s in London. It didn’t sell, leading a scandal-mongering British tabloid to trumpet, NOT TONIGHT, JOSEPHINE! Eight years later, in 1977, the penis was put up for sale again at a Paris auction house, this time offered separately from the rest of the collection. John K. Lattimer, professor emeritus and former chairman of urology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, bought it for $3,000, acknowledged having it in 1987, and, as far as I can discover, still does.

Is the penis Napoleon’s? Is it even a penis? Who knows? Given the march of science one presumes it’d be easy to establish the item’s provenance conclusively, but understandably no one seems to be in any hurry to do so. After you’ve paid three grand for a dead man’s penis, who wants to be told it’s a grape?

Article: Napoleon’s Bee

Napoleon’s Bee

After much consideration, Napoleon chose the bee as the emblem to represent his status as Emperor. It is a motif rich in meanings. Due to its industrious habits the bee had come to symbolise hard work, diligence, industriousness and orderliness. Because it was also the producer of honey, the bee also symbolised sweetness and benevolence.

The bee had long been a symbol of the Christian Church and had been adopted by some saints (St Ambrose, for example, who likened the Church to a beehive) and was used in the seventeenth century by one of the leading Papal Dynasties in Rome, the Barberini family. For Christians those attributes of industriousness, diligence and good order were combined with the beneficence of the bees’ production of honey which symbolized both religious eloquence and the virtue and sweetness of God’s grace.

According to legend the bee never sleeps so it had also come to imply vigilance and zeal - both attributes Napoleon was happy to own. In seeking an appropriate emblem for himself, Napoleon looked to one of his great heroes and antecedents, the Emperor Charlemagne who had adopted the cicada as an emblematic device. Napoleon mistook its outline for that of the bee and, recognising the conventional symbolism associated with the bee found it suitable for his purposes.

Numerous versions of the bee were commissioned by Napoleon - from tiny sculptural representations, usually gilded and commonly attached to items such as snuff boxes, to the embroidered motifs on his coronation robe and printed or painted images on wallpaper.


Sadly for Napoleon, Bees weren’t introduced to St Helena until 1869 - 48 years after his death.


{a} www.britishmuseum.org{b} Domaines Français de Sainte Hélène{c} Domaines Français de Sainte Hélène{d} LEFT: Attributed to John Kerr, Paymaster of the 66th Regiment, ‘Series of views in the Island of Saint Helena’, dedicated by permission to Lady Lowe, London, Colnaghi & Co. 1822 RIGHT: ‘Burial of Napoleon Bonaparte at St Helena’, attributed to James Pattison Cockburn (1779-1847){e} Government of St Helena{f} Napoleon{g} Jacques-Louis David{h} Denzil Ibbetson{i} Michel Dancoisne-Martineau{j} Joseph de Maistre{k} Old English ballad, ‘Boney on the Isle of Saint Helena’, based on the poem ‘Isle of St. Helena’ by J. Fraser, 1817{l} Rudyard Kipling{22}{m} William John Burchell{n} expatica.com, 23rd September 2015{20}{o} Napoleon’s Garden Island by Donal P McCracken (2022), {20}{p} The Portsmouth Telegraph, quoting a letter dated St Helena, 29th January 1819{20}{q} University of Stirling{r} Napoleon{23}{s} The Independent, 7th December 2007{20}{t} The Times, Saturday 14th August 1819, issue 10752, pg 2{20}{u} Ridley Scott’s 2023 film ‘Napoleon’{v} NGV (Australia), 3 October 2012{20}


{1} This is a bit of a mystery. If you look closely at the right of the image you can make out what looks like Mille F[rancs] (1,000 Francs), suggesting the coin is French. But the legend is in English: Napoleon at St Helena. Can anyone explain?{2} Google Translate™ renders the caption as Old love does not rust or visit the great man on the small rat island. If you can give us a better translation please contact us. The rats’ banners read Death to cats.{3} Actually St Helena is just a little larger.{4} To learn more about the events marking the Bicentenary of Napoleon’s arrival on St Helena check out our page Napoleonic Bicentenary for details.{5} Some of his opponents even claimed he had African ancestry, though there seems to have been no foundation for this claim. It is sad that in the early 19th Century being African was considered a bad thing…{6} Historian Benjamin Ivry writes: That must be put into context, especially any statement from Saint Helena. There Napoleon is also quoted as making the same type of comments about the Spanish. Like any person who speaks a lot and dictates a lot, many different kinds of things can be found in what he says. There is a difference between Napoleon’s private comments and public acts. To do good for a community, it is not necessary to love them. The vital thing for a national leader is to realize what is needed at the moment and pursue a policy. Whatever Napoleon’s feelings at the moment might have been, he did so.{7} The order was sent to Vice-Admiral Decrés, stating that a force of 1,200-1,500 men would be required, allowing for the British being totally unprepared for such an event. Once captured the island would become a base from which the French Navy could inflict immense damage on British merchant ships. The order, however, never reached Decrés and by October Napoleon had convinced himself that the British had become aware of the plan and strengthened St Helena’s defences, so on 8th October the plan was abandoned. There is actually no evidence that the British had learned of the plot or that St Helena’s defences had been strengthened. Had it been attempted and succeeded, our history would have been very, very different!{8} But we can’t verify it.{9} But verified by the book ‘The Countess, Napoleon and St Helena’.{10} Some have disputed this story. It can be found in Letters of Captain Engelbert Lutyens, Orderly Officer at Longwood, Saint Helena : Feb. 1820 To Nov. 1823 : Edited By Sir Lees Knowles Baronet, C.V.O., D.L., M.A., Ll.M., thus… Communications from the Orderly Officer at Longwood, 16th February, 1820: It was on Monday morning at half-past six o'clock that General Bonaparte killed a goat. The goat was driven on the lawn that leads to the stable. The General fired at it, through the green railing of his garden, twice : the first shot wounded the animal in the thigh, the second shot killed the goat. The ball passed through the neck. I understand that General Bonaparte has four fowling-pieces - two double-barrelled and two single.{11} This is usually used to explain why something was tried here, but failed. However, if you look at the island’s history you will soon realise that things not working on St Helena pre-dates Napoleon by around 200 years!{12} See other debunked myths.{13} And also the lyrics of the ABBA song ‘Waterloo’.{14} Also arriving were HMS Icarus, HMS Havannah, HMS Peruvian, HMS Zenobia, HMS Red Pole, HMS Bucephalus and HMS Ceylon. The last two ships transported the 53rd Regiment.{15} A revised and updated version of ‘A History of the Island of St Helena’, by T. H. Brooke, Esq., published in 1808.{16} Who brought Napoleon to St Helena aboard HMS Northumberland and stayed to supervise guarding the prisoner.{17} See Saul Solomon on our page Important People.{18} Which called from 24th July 1819 to 30th July, bringing bullocks and other supplies for the squadron based at St Helena. More at friendsofhmstrincomalee.org.uk.{19} There is an amusing myth about where the wood for the coffin was sourced.{20} @@RepDis@@{21} It actually sold for €325,000 (£264,000).{22} In ‘A St Helena Lullaby’.{23} Quoted in ‘Napoleon: In His Own Words’, 1916.