Napoleon died on the 5th May, 1821, and there are plenty of conspiracy theories as to the method of the demise. Some blame the arsenic used to make the wallpaper in his rooms. Others wonder whether he was poisoned by one of the staff. Or maybe it was the bad weather. Or was his spirit just broken. Officially it was recorded as stomach cancer, which could certainly have accounted for his death at the age of only 51. Whatever the situation, a tomb was created in the forest and he was buried with minimal ceremony. On my return to Jamestown, I stopped off on the road and went to take a look at the tomb. The spot is in a valley, called Sane Valley, and is well marked by one of the ubiquitous white fingerposts in both English and French. I descended a stony path through the pine forests till I reached a grassy clearing. In the centre, the tomb is railed off, and an arrangement of flowers and endemic plants of St Helena for a picturesque little garden. Of all the Napoleon sites, this is the most pleasant.
The tomb itself is empty. In 1840, France negotiated a return of Napoleon’s body to Paris and he was given a hero’s welcome and state funeral. While on a much smaller scale, I did find the reverence given to Napoleon on St Helena a bit duplicitous. As I’ve said, he was public enemy number one, St Helena was his prison, he was a reviled figure in the British Isles. In many circles in France he was also seen as a villain, both in domestic policies and international bungling that killed thousands of his soldiers. But undoubtedly he is a figure of both historical and international importance, almost to a state of legend. And for St Helena he is a rare and valuable portal for the world to know about the island. All the tourists who had travelled on the RMS were making it a priority to visit the sites. And many people make pilgrimages to see the place where he died. But there still is that uneasiness within me that this was a prisoner, someone brought down, and yet he is revered in this way.
I think he also distracts from the island’s natural features and other history; the sailing ships, the other exiles, the submarine cabling and of course the lovely people. But, I suppose, if it gets the punters in and the island noticed, it was worth preserving.