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To Befriend an Emperor: Betsy Balcombe’s Memoirs of Napoleon on St. Helena

Abell, Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe.  To Befriend an Emperor: Betsy Balcombe’s Memoirs of Napoleon on St. Helena. Welwyn Garden City, UK: Ravenhall, 2005. 189 pages. ISBN# 1905043031. Hardcover. £16.99/$30.44


To Befriend an Emperor Cover

When Charles de Gaulle resigned as head of the French government in January 1946, he compared his retirement to a Marly hunting lodge to Napoleon’s exile to Longwood on St. Helena. Napoleon’s spectacular fall and his captivity played a role in subsequent views of his place in history, both positive and negative.  Though de Gaulle was ultimately more successful in returning from his self-imposed exile, Napoleon used his exile to reinvent and strengthen his legend.

If any spot in the world deserves the moniker “the middle of nowhere” it is the island of St. Helena.  A windswept and isolated rock first discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, St. Helena is ten miles by six, seven hundred miles from the nearest landfall, 1,700 miles west of Cape Town, 1,800 miles east of Brazil (even today it takes five days to get to the island by supply ship). The remote island, this “huge dark-colored ark” on the ocean, as Betsy put it, is perhaps the perfect prison.  In fact, the British had further resource to use the island as a prison, imprisoning the Zulu King Dinizulu there in 1890 and kept Boer prisoners on the island in 1900-1902.

Mrs. Abell (Betsy’s married name) first published her account of Napoleon in serialized form in the New Century Magazine in 1843 and then in a book in 1844.  The book was a great success and was republished in 1845 and 1853 and a French edition was published in 1898. It is likely that Mrs. Abell consulted the standard works on Napoleon’s captivity— Barry O’Meara, Las Cases, Dr. Warden —to “refresh” her memory of events— but her colorful and vivid accounts of her mischievous pranks casts Napoleon in an interesting light.  One commentator has praised Mr. Abell’s “impartiality” in compiling her recollections and her little volume promises, as Betsy wrote, to “confine myself as far as possible, to what concerns Napoleon personally.”

Thirteen-year-old Betsy Balcombe was the younger daughter of William Balcombe, Superintendent of Public Sales for the East India Company.  The Balcombes resided at the Briars, a picturesquely situated cottage at little over a mile from Jamestown.  Napoleon was housed in a pavilion near the house while his permanent residence at Longwood was being rehabilitated.  Upon first hearing of Napoleon’s exile on their island in October 1815, the inhabitants were amazed, not yet having heard of his return from Elba and the events of the Hundred Days.  Betsy herself, no longer imaging that Napoleon was the boogey-man of childish legend, was nonetheless still terrified at the thought of the “ogre,” the man who had “the most atrocious crimes imputed to him,” living on the island.  Betsy admits that her opinion of Napoleon, like that of her fellow countrymen, were largely based on the sensational reports of the newspapers of the day and on the opinions of French émigrés—his bitterest enemies—residing in Britain. Despite their fears Betsy and the rest of the inhabitants turned out to see Napoleon’s landing on the island.  And when the forty-six-year-old former Emperor first visited the Briars, Betsy lost her fear and became instead something of a Bonapartist. Many years later Napoleon III was to reward Betsy with 500 hectares of land with vineyards in Algeria in memory of her comfort to his uncle. Betsy died in 1871 at the age of sixty-nine.

Betsy saw a Napoleon that most of his enemies and friends in his former life had not known.  Napoleon, perhaps because he was missing out on the opportunity to see his own son grow up, or maybe because he had missed out on something during his own childhood, always seemed to enjoy joining in on the Balcombe children’s antics, taking as well as giving, even when “Mademoiselle Betsee” threatened him with his own sword. Gourgaud wrote that “The children call His Majesty ‘Monsieur,’ and behave most shockingly… But he did not seem to mind.”  Betsy puts the case simply that for “the exile of Longwood,” as she names him, it was the monotony of his circumstances that led him to take such a keen interest in trivialities.

Napoleon once told Gourgaud shortly after his arrival on St. Helena that it would be pleasant to fall asleep and not wake up for a year or two. As one of Napoleon’s companions complained, “Everything breathes a mortal boredom here.” Las Cases writes of Napoleon’s “lassitude.” Napoleon had to fill up each and every seemingly endless day, so that if he wasn’t diverting himself in childish games with the Balcombe children, he’d be devising petty revenges on his tormentor, the governor, Sir Hudson Lowe (Napoleon called him “a cheap Italian debt collector”).  As Betsy observed, Napoleon “in the absence of everything more worthy of supplying food to his mighty intellect, did not disdain to interest himself in the merest trifles.”

During his first exile on Elba Napoleon had placed the motto “Napoléon ubicumque felix” (Napoleon is happy everywhere).  Napoleon’s stay on St. Helena was going to test that motto. In 1804 Napoleon had said, “Death is nothing. But to live defeated and without glory, is to die every day.”   On St. Helena, Napoleon’s optimism was going to be sorely tested. Like Prometheus, he was going to have to be harder than his rock and more patient than his vulture. Betsy saw Napoleon through his “best” years (if we can call them such) on St. Helena (strangely, these years may have been among Betsy’s happiest, considering the tragedies of her later life, which may have colored her recollections).  According to Betsy, both Napoleon’s health and attitude declined after he left the Briars for Longwood. “He certainly appeared very contented during that time” he resided at the Briars, Betsy observed.

Napoleon may have welcomed the change of scenery afforded by themove to Longwood, but the change wasn’t necessarily for the better.  The Emperor’s bedroom at Longwood, in Betsy’s eyes, “was small and cheerless,” the house “very bleak.”  The view from the house “dreary,” “dismal” and “sterile.” Originally built as a cattle barn and storage shed, Longwood was converted in 1812 to a summer residence by the lieutenant governor, by laying floor boards over the dirt and dried cow dung and installing drop ceilings. The house was rebuilt and expanded to accommodate Napoleon and his party by British naval carpenters under the supervision of Adm. Cockburn, but rats still infested the house (a large rat even jumping out of Napoleon’s hat when he was about to put it on). Even today, the French government which owns the site, is unable to get rid of the smell of damp from the house and Napoleon felt the location was conducive to rheumatism.

The Emperor’s memorialist Las Cases wrote, “We are possessed of moral arms only: and in order to make the most advantageous use of these it was necessary to reduce into a system our demeanour, our words, our sentiments, even our privations, in order that we might thereby excite a lively interest in a large portion of the population of Europe, and that the Opposition in England might not fail to attack the ministry on the violence of their conduct towards us.”  When the British Government tried to limit the cost of Napoleon’s household to £8,000 annually, Governor Lowe pressed to have it amount raised by half.  Despite this Napoleon, in his ongoing battle with the governor, made much of pledging his own silver for his upkeep, saying, “What use is plate when you have nothing to eat off it?” Barry O’Meara points out that Napoleon’s plan was “a wish to excite odium against the Governor by saying that he has been obliged to sell his plate in order to provide against starvation.”

Opposition writers in Britain called Napoleon’s exile a “dreadful experiment” that would some day perhaps be turned against those Restoration powers “who are now exulting in Napoleon’s humiliations and sufferings.”  Commentators were reduced to making obscure classical references, Aristides of Athens and Regulus of Carthage, to find precedent for the former emperor’s exile. The view of the Restoration powers can perhaps be best summed up by the High Tory Quarterly Review (Jan. 1817), “…personally despised or hated as [Napoleon] may be, he is not on that account innoxious.  He is the representative of the Revolution—the lineal descendant and heir off all the Neckers and Rolands, the Marats and Robespierres, the Tom Paynes and Anarcharsis Cloots, the Talliens and Barrères, the Henriots and the Hoches.  All that survives of Jacobinism in Europe looks up to him as ‘its child and champion.’ The turbulent and disaffected of all nations,—never in any times an inconsiderable number, but after such convulsions as Europe has lately suffered, a very dangerous party,—all turn towards him—he is ‘The cynosure of jaundiced eyes.’ And however all the various classes and shades of turbulence may differ amongst themselves, and however soon their differences might burst out into mutual violence, yet—foe a season, and to overturn their common enemies, good order, legitimacy and religion—they would cordially and unanimously unite under the tri-coloured banner of Buonaparte…”

Ministerial writers and governmental representatives supported the strict treatment of the ex-Emperor despite its great cost (in 1816 the cost of the military, naval and civil establishments to guard and manage the island was estimated to be £92,000 annually).  Admiral Cockburn, in response to La Cases referring to the “Emperor” said that he had “no such cognizance of any Emperor, being actually upon this Island, or of any Person possessing such dignity having (as stated by you) come hither with me in the Northumberland [the naval vessel that had transported Napoleon to St. Helena].”  The Quarterly Review suggested that “the ill humour of one man is the security of millions… When Buonaparte complains of the treatment he receives, we are satisfied that it is only because he finds his means and opportunities of doing mischief essentially restricted.  We wonder, indeed, that he should be so far deceived by the flattery of his followers or his own vanity as to imagine that his complaints would find any sympathy in this part of the world.”

The author of this article (either the Admiralty official John Wilson Croker or poet Robert Southey) added that “…instead of any relaxation of the already too loose custody in which Buonaparte is held, some further restrictions should be imposed.  Does any man alive think that ordinary parole of a prisoner of war would restrain Buonaparte, or that for him there can be any tie of honour or gratitude?  He never possessed these qualities himself, and always discountenanced them in others.  The chosen of his heart were men of the most infamous character…”  One Loyalist pamphleteer who visited the island went so far as to refer to the Bertrand and Montholon children as the “little traitors.”  But as Napoleon observed hopefully, “I will only have as enemies idiots and bad men.”

“Life indeed was to be granted [the Allies’] splendid enemy.  But such a life, such an existence, as was to be aggravated by every circumstance of petty insult and grievous slight as hirelings of the most witless and tactless character could devise and perform.” (Richardson, Hubert N. B. A Dictionary of Napoleon and His Times. New York: Funk, 1921. p. 384.)  Of his jailers Richardson complains of their “inferior personalities, of the miserable and circumscribed characters of those to whom they committed his charge.” Lord Roseberry, a former prime minister, called Lowe “a narrow, ignorant, irritable man, without a vestige of tact or sympathy.”  The lugubrious Lowe refused even to pass on books sent to Napoleon simply because they had been inscribed to the “Emperor Napoleon” rather than “General Buonaparte.”  But Betsy observed, “I have often doubted whether any human being could have filled the situation of Sir Hudson Lowe, without becoming embroiled with his unhappy captive.”  Betsy’s father, despite his ill-treatment at Lowe’s hands, agreed to testify on Lowe’s behalf in his lawsuit against Barry O’Meara.

For young Betsy Napoleon was always very much a human, not the marble man of history, and she manages well in bringing out the humanness of the Emperor. Betsy and the other Balcombe children called Napoleon “Bony” and Napoleon nicknamed Betsy the “rosebud of St. Helena.” Madam Montholon called Betsy “une petite sauvage.”  Biographer Frank McLynn however sees Napoleon’s relationship with Betsy as “bizarre,” perhaps hinting at rumors unfairly bruited about at the time.  The Marquis de Montchenu, whom Napoleon called that “old imbecile,” the Royalist French Commissioner on the island, thought Betsy the “wildest little girl he had ever seen—une folle,” and spread the rumor that Napoleon was having an affair with the young Betsy.

Considering the natural interest aroused by the story of the Emperor and the gamine (including many novels, children’s books and even projected movies about the incident), readers interested in Napoleon’s stay on St. Helena will want to own a copy of this book.  Ravenhall has given us an excellent new addition of Betsy Balcombe’s charming (and sometimes surprisingly insightful) memoirs of her youthful friendship with the exiled Napoleon.  French historian Marcel Dunan called these memoirs “one of the most pleasant sources to read” about Napoleon on St. Helena.  Lord Roseberry has commented that “a strange mildew” rested on all the memoirs of St. Helena, but surely Betsy’s recollections have little of the mildewed smell about them.  Ravenhall has modernized the text, updating spelling and punctuation. The title has be changed from the nondescript and unwieldy Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon; During the First Three Years of His Captivity on the Island of St. Helena: Including the Time of His Residence at Her Father’s House, The Briars. Names left blank, in the nineteenth-century convention for protecting the identities of certain personages, have been identified where possible, and footnotes have been added.  Otherwise the text of the original has been preserved. A useful introduction fleshing out the story told by Betsy, by Napoleonic expert J. David Markham, is also included. Numerous well-selected black and white illustrations have been added to the text.

For more on Ravenhall Books, visit  Ravenhall’s U. S. distributor is David  Brown Book Company (

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg

Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2005