2021 Letter from St Helena Three
Letter from St Helena Three
At Last, to Longwood
I know, I said two letters but I felt the need to do Boney justice. On the morning of our Longwood House visit we both had to do Tarzan and Jane leaps to the shore from the ferry boat clasping the knotted ropes as the water not only surged between boat and harbour landing it raced along pushing the two apart; there was no best time to make the leap. But we made it and went off to gather our bounty of food that had been brought fresh from the fertile uplands that morning. The minibus driver was perfectly happy for us to cart it on to his van.
Not so happy was Boney on the morning of the 10th December 1815, his small cart loaded with personal effects and a few goods from his previous more privileged times; fine Sevres porcelain, a small library of books and maps, some folding military camp beds and bed linen of the best French quality and of course, his bathtub and I am completely with him there. With his entourage of twenty; officers, secretary and servants they made their way from the Pavilion at the Briars, where he had spent a few pleasant months, to the house on the fog-capped hill.
We were politely asked to wander in the gardens for a few minutes until the hour before midday when the door would be opened into the, newly built for Boney, billiard room, effectively the reception room, the one facing the lawn and painted green outside.
The garden has been lovingly restored to how it was in Boney’s time when he wandered along sunken grassy paths. He had them all lowered so the locals outside the walls would not be able to see him. Being a caged lion was enough, he didn’t want to be a spectacle as such. Having British soldiers around constantly annoyed him as he felt overlooked with no real peace to enjoy.
High Knoll Fort was in one direction atop the distant hill, you see in the photo with the flag on the left, but it was the view from his veranda with its green painted trellis that provided his best entertainment. He could watch the activities of the various British Battalions that were camped there, on the Deadwood Plains over the years and always had the best relations with the soldiers. As they came and went many of the soldiers were of the mind, they would like to take Boney home with them and set him up in a pretty English Country Cottage, he would have liked that too.
Even more fun were the bi-annual horse races held on the Deadwood Plain that was once a 1500-acre endemic gumwood forest before all the trees were cut down for firewood. The races were watched by most of the island’s inhabitants and gave rise to many horsey stories. One Archille Archambault got himself into a state of inebriation and proceeded to gallop down the track in support of the two Longwood horses, Dolly and Regent. He was whipped soundly by a steward who was unaware he was employed by Boney!
At last, we were allowed in to the sacred sanctum of the great man. Big disappointment came when we were told by the staff that no photography was allowed and they then watched us like hawks, as we stopped at each numbered exhibit to listen to the account through our headphones. These mini talks were excellent, full with information and given in a light way by various speakers. They totalled around two hours of learning of which I did around 1 hour 40 minutes.
Being a man to make the most of his time Boney set to writing up the histories of past military campaigns under various leaderships using his books, maps and the conveniently large surface of the billiard table in the first room one enters. His billiard table, two side tables and two big globes, one celestial and the other terrestrial have recently been restored and the globes were beautiful.
The next room, another oblong, was his plain bedroom with its small canopied bed, still there and depicted in the museum picture photo, as his death bed. The other rooms are directly linked from here with no external passage, so it seems he lived in a corridor, which must have felt uncomfortable.
The only room that felt feng shui was the library, square in shape and well lit. The dining room was very dark, nice for evening entertainment I guess but like a mausoleum the rest of the time. He deserved better.
After a testing six years and an attack of painful hiccups he died in the evening on the 5th May 1821 and was taken into the billiard room and laid on a table for the autopsy the next afternoon. His father died of stomach cancer and so did Boney, maybe it was hereditary and or lifestyle related. Understandably his consumption of French Brandy was not modest. He did have traces of arsenic in his hair but then so did many of the French population and it is very unlikely it was intentionally administered through poisoning. A real possibility was the presence of arsenic to create the blue colouring in wall paper, commonly used in France at the time and probably in his system before he arrived on the island.