So it was the minutiae of the city that intrigued me, but, as tourism often demands, I had to see the big sights of the island too. There was no escaping St Helena’s elephant in the room. On my first visit, the National Trust arranged a day where I could visit the locations connected to Napoleon. If there is one thing everyone knows about St Helena, it is that Napoleon was imprisoned here. They know that even if they cannot identify St Helena on the map, or have any idea of what St Helena looks like or how its history continued before and after the years Napoleon was on island. Maybe the perception is of a harsh cruel environment with Napoleon banging rocks in a quarry like Nelson Mandela. The truth is somewhat different but it was probably the period of most inward investment into the island so that it was a fortress able to hold the public enemy number 1 of the British people in 1815. And sure the first sight of St Helena for Napoleon must have been forbidding – the huge cliffs and cloudy uplands would scare the bravest. The British invested a lot in building up the defences of the island in this period, less with the idea that Napoleon would want to escape, but that others might try to rescue him. A small number of weak points existed in the natural fortress obtained from the local topography. Where river valleys came down to the sea, walls were put across and sentry points set up. Various signalling locations were established around the island and forts were set up. Much of this was put in place before Napoleon arrived to protect this vital watering point for the British Commerce to southern Africa and Asia. But as that had begun to decline, St Helena had become less important. Holding prisoners like Napoleon was a way to bolster up the defences and attract money to the island.
Napoleon himself was kept in two locations. Given that there were no telecommunications in these days, the Governor of St Helena only got the message that Napoleon was being placed in his care by a fast ship just a few days ahead of the boat carrying Bonaparte himself. It was decided to renovate a house on the far side of the island but it would not be ready when the prisoner arrived. So while his permanent accommodation was being made ready, he was housed in a small lodge on the Briars land just behind Jamestown. I drove up the back streets of Jamestown and was greeted by Michel, the French Consul and his little dog.
One of the peculiarities of this little island is it is not under one sovereignty but two. While the UK government control most of the island through their Overseas Territory of St Helena and its Dependencies, three pieces of land connected to Napoleon are counted as French Territory – the so called French Domains of St Helena. The Briars is the smallest of these, not much more than a small garden raised above the road and a little pavilion – like a summer house, where Napoleon opted to live when under the residence of the Balcombe family who owned the main house.