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Betsy Balcombe and Napoleon

Napoleon Disembarked from HMS Nothumberland on the evening of October 17th, 1815, and set foot on St.Helena. Pushing through crowds of curious onlookers on stone quay of James Town, he spent the night at the guesthouse of Mr Porteous. He had gambled and lost all at Waterloo and now, that miserable Monday, he arrived in his island prison, his world reduced to an Atlantic rock. It was the low point in the remarkable life of remarkable man.
The following morning he rode out to view his new home - Longwood - but it was not ready and, instead, he accepted William Balcombe's offer to stay at his bungalow, the Briars, not wishing to be gawped at in James Town.
The Balkombe's youngest daughter, Elizabeth, or Betsy, was in her early teens and found, as most teens would, St. Helena insufferably dull. But the arrival in her house of the world's most famous prisoner, and most unusual lodger, turned her her life upside down. News of Napoleon's arrival had filled her with mortal dread as she had been raised on undiluted propaganda of the Bonaparte-the-baby-eating-ogre variety. Now here he was, knocking on her door, sharing her table, criticizing her clothes.
The first meeting between Betsy and the new tenant went remarkably well, the French-speaking teenager plucking up courage to answer Napoleon's abrupt questions (Napoleon: "Who burned Moscow?" Betsy: "I believe sir, the Russians burnt it to get rid of the French.") After such an exchange, it was inevitable that the two became firm friends, thereby beginning one of the strangest and yet most carefree periods in Napoleon's exile.
Betsy herself was unrelenting in her quest for Napoleon's company, plaing whist with him, forcing him to play blindman's buff and, according to one of Napoleon's diminished suite committing "a thousand acts of folly". He too was active in this period, riding, conversing, walking and dictating accounts of his battles. He also busied himself provoking his guards and transmitting letters back home about intolerable restrictions being imposed on him by the English in the vain hope that he would be recalled to Europe.

For Betsy this, the emperor's last political struggle, went largely unnoticed, busy, as she was, with her new found acquaintance. She teased him mercilessly, showing him caricatures of a cowardly, diminutive Corsican, quizzing him on the massacre of Ottoman prisoners of war, pinching his sword. He met her offensive resolutely, turning on her by lambasting English music, ("their music is vile - the worst in the world"), mocking English drinking habits or being almost paternal (by criticizing her homework).
We learn all this from Betsy's own recolections, a frank account, of what happened on St.Helena in the first three years of Napoleon's stay and, although sympathetic to Napoleon, we can be grateful for so detailed a picture of a man transformed from master of Europe to bored country squire. We are given a complete physical description of Napoleon (short, fascinating smile, nice hands), his strengths (horse-riding, conversation, wide-ranging knowledge) and weaknesses (couldn't sing, moody, cheated at cards). But we also get unguarded comments on time past. There is regret, nostalgia for Josephine ("the most gracious women in all France"), longing to see his son and anger. We also learn as much from what is unsaid - no remorse and hardly a mention of his second wife, Marie Louise (understandably, as she was then enjoying herself in Italy with a one-eyed Austrian general).
Napoleon moved out from the Briars in December 1815. The Balcombes were regular visitors to his new quarters until 1818 when the family quit the island. Things had changed for the worse in April 1816 with the arrival of Sir Hudson Lowe (an undiplomatic appoitment, he had commanded Corsican renegades in British service). The new governor imposed closer surveillance on the emperor and petty disagreements fed a bitter, unforgiving dispute.
Napoleon fumed and raged, Hudson Lowe showed resolute indifference. In many respects, Betsy had seen the exiled Napoleon at his best.
And that is how she shows him - at his most accessible, most undistracted, most charming, She took tremendous liberties with the imperial exile, and he, in deference to their friendship, allowed her to do so and went as far as to repay her kind, Betsy saw another dimension to the mighty man of war. He was, after all, a very human ogre.

History Today - volume 55 (07) July 2005

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