The tall thin figure of Jean Luc came out from the reception area and greeted me with a large hug. Our ability to talk to each other was limited. Jean Luc – although from Canada and had learnt his English at school, rarely got to practice it. For me, I was terrible at learning languages at school, and although I had worked a lot with Linguaphone CDs and tried to practice when in francophone countries, the big time gaps in between trips to French speaking countries meant I lost a lot of the syntax and rhythm. Consequently it would take several days to get back to a general conversation level and, when ordering food and drink, anything out of the usual patter would confuse me. Added to this in many countries there was a local patois, often Creole, both the accent and dialect would obfuscate any French in amongst it.
But we had to work together off and on for the next few months, so we had to make the effort. Jean Luc was supremely patient with me but I soon realise we did share a language – in a stupid sense of humour.
Christophe, as well as his own excellent technical specialism, was the lubricant for the whole team – patiently translating back and forth from French to English, and organising much of the interaction with the Haitian clients for the field work elements of the trip. When he emerged from his room that first evening, we ordered some food then Chris and Jean Luc briefed me on the situation so far. The plan for the work was coming together but there were still a series of bottlenecks to solve. And now I was here I needed to try and source all the data I needed. Fortunately, Haiti was well organized for GIS and there was a centre which housed the repository of all Haitian data. I thought that a visit there was the major thing I needed to do in my week on the ground. But I also had to visit the Department of Fisheries so they knew I was on the ground and I could fathom out if they had any useful data, and I wanted to get a feel for the fish farm and fish cage industries that did exist.
Jean Luc and Chris
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.
Endemics planted around the tomb
Edsel at the tomb
The “View” from the tomb towards Flagstaff Hill
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.