A jaundiced look at the traditional account of Napoleon’s final years on St. Helena.
The usual history of this period begins with the Emperor’s abdication (his second) after Waterloo. A month later, he presented himself to the captain of a British frigate blockading Rochfort, hoping for a comfortable retirement in England. Instead, the government transported him and his retinue to an isolated island in the South Atlantic. Placed in charge was Major-General Sir Hudson Lowe, a mean-spirited officer who subjected his prisoner to six years of petty harassment and deprivation. Not only historians but historical figures from the Duke of Wellington to Charles de Gaulle have agreed Lowe was unfit for his job. English journalist Giles (The Locust Years: The Story of the Fourth French Republic, 1994, etc.) is not so sure. He points out that Napoleon was an impossibly difficult person: arrogant, demanding, constantly complaining. But he had plenty to complain about, as Lowe’s superiors had given orders that guaranteed friction. For example, he was forbidden to address the prisoner as “Emperor.” Letters, gifts, and even book dedications containing this title were confiscated. A more sophisticated governor would have interpreted his duties more liberally, but Lowe was excessively conscientious. Napoleon took an instant dislike to him, refusing to see him during the final four years. A torrent of complaints from Napoleon and his suite poured into Britain (France, under the restored Bourbons, was uninterested), producing much debate in newspapers and parliament. Lowe’s superiors, however, remained supportive. Always admired by a minority of the English, Napoleon grew even more popular after his death. Biographies quickly appeared, all portraying the governor as Napoleon’s tormenter. Lowe’s career stagnated, and he died a bitter man.
The Emperor’s exile contained fewer fireworks than the years when he shook up the world, but no period in his life was dull. This is a lively, readable account, and its revisionist view rings true.