Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon in London — Admiral Cockburn

 London's Big Ben seen from the National Gallery

The more you learn about Napoleon Bonaparte the more likely you are to find connections to him. As I mentioned in my last blog post, “Finding Napoleon” was particularly easy during my recent trip to London.  Still, here’s a London connection among Napoleon Bonaparte, the burning of the American capital during the War of 1812, and my sixth grade school that surprised me. 

This charming family portrait hangs in London’s National Gallery. The museum’s identification card lists the artist as Sir Joshua Reynolds and the subject as “Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons, 1773.” When I read the children’s names, I realized that the darling cherub peeking over his mother’s shoulder was none other than the future Admiral Sir George Cockburn who, at age 43, escorted Napoleon Bonaparte to his exile on St Helena Island. 

Sir Joshua Reynolds' Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons, 1773 in London's National GalleryAccording to many reports from the time, Napoleon and his head jailer did not always see eye-to-eye. First, Admiral Cockburn immediately implemented the British policy of denying Napoleon his imperial title. Henceforth, he insisted, the former emperor was to be addressed as “General.” More than that, in a effort to delegitimize his right to lead the French, the British used the Corsican spelling of his name so “Bonaparte” reverted to the Italian-sounding “Buonaparte.” Napoleon himself refused to play the role as prisoner. He reasoned, if he were a prisoner of war, well then, those wars were over and, by international accord, all prisoners were to be released. Moreover, by European tradition, deposed sovereigns were granted dignified asylum. Why should he be treated any differently?

Needless to say, the British and their allies didn’t buy those arguments. Admiral Cockburn delivered Napoleon to St Helena on October 16, 1815. He stayed on the island long enough to turn over custody of Europe’s most famous prisoner to the island’s new governor, Sir Hudson Lowe.

The connection to the burning of my country’s capital? A year before escorting Napoleon to St Helena, Admiral Cockburn had been second-in-command of the British naval forces in the War of 1812. For two years, he had waged war against American ships and ports in the Chesapeake Bay.

Admiral Sir George Cockburn by John James Hall, Royal Museum GreenwichOn August 24, 1814, following orders that included “laying waste to towns,” he led the torching of Washington. The White House, the Library of Congress, and the Capitol were all but destroyed. You can see the city burning in this portrait of Cockburn by John James Hall, now in the Royal Museum in Greenwich, England.

And my sixth grade school? I was living in France and gaining my first knowledge of Napoleon. As a US Navy dependent, I attended a small school named after the American naval hero, Commodore Joshua Barney.

In the summer of 1814, Commodore Barney had led a US Navy flotilla in the Chesapeake Bay, causing Admiral Cockburn a great deal of trouble.

Unfortunately for Commodore Barney, Napoleon Bonaparte’s future jail warden had the last word: Barney had to scuttle his fleet to avoid its capture. He and his troops joined in the defense of Washington under the personal leadership of President Madison. Ultimately, all fled in what was deemed at the time to be the American military’s greatest humiliation. It took the September Battle of Baltimore—which is memorialized in “The Star Spangled Banner”—to turn the tide against Cockburn’s navy.

The Man

Finding Napoleon in London

Bert & Margaret kayaking on the Thames Sept 2014 

Part 1: Napoleon Bonaparte at Wellington’s House

When I traveled to London earlier this month, it wasn’t difficult to find traces of Napoleon Bonaparte. After all, he was arguably the British Empire’s greatest foe until the World Wars of the twentieth century. What I found is that, at least in some quarters, Napoleon was admired during his lifetime and continues to be of interest today. 

Apsley House, LondonBefore leaving on this trip, I queried my colleagues at the Napoleonic Historical Society for recommendations with a Napoleonic twist. I’ve been to London several times, yet a historic site I’d never visited topped their list: Apsley House museum, the Duke of Wellington’s home. Located at Hyde Park Corner, its address is nicknamed “No. 1 London” due to its prominent location. Arthur Wellesley, who defeated Napoleon’s forces in Spain and handed him his ultimate defeat at Waterloo, bought the house in 1817 from his older brother. He then enlarged it to befit his status as the Duke of Wellington, England’s greatest hero.

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington by Francisco de GoyaNapoleon and the Bonapartes can be found throughout the museum. Wellington’s extensive art collection includes portraits of Napoleon and of Josephine, and a huge panorama of Waterloo with Napoleon in the foreground. The Sèvres dessert service that Napoleon gave Josephine on their divorce (and which she refused to accept) and a sword of Napoleon’s are displayed in a room off the entrance foyer. Upstairs, one grand salon features priceless Spanish paintings recovered from Joseph Bonaparte’s lost baggage carts as he fled his throne in Spain with Wellington’s troops hot on his heels. Amusingly, there is a portrait of Napoleon’s scandal-prone sister Pauline in a salon that is designated the “Military Valhalla” or “Hall of Heroes,” because the paintings in there (except hers) are all of generals. I think she would have liked that.

But most striking is the 12-foot-tall nude statue of Napoleon as Mars.

Napoleon as Mars by Antonio Canova, at Apsley House, LondonIn 1806, Antonio Canova, then considered one of the greatest living artists, sculpted it from a single block of marble (except the raised arm). The head is magnificent, but I think most of us today have the same reaction to it that Napoleon Bonaparte himself had. He deemed it “too athletic” and banished it to a hidden corner of the Louvre where the public would never see it. After Waterloo, the British government bought it from the French and presented it to Wellington.

It’s difficult for me to imagine a modern victor surrounding himself with portraits of his vanquished foe.  Yet, in his time, Napoleon’s genius was widely admired by military men on all sides of the conflicts.  On hearing of Napoleon’s death in St Helena, the Duke of Wellington reportedly said, “Now I can safely say I am the most successful general alive.”

No photography is allowed in the Apsley House so some of the photos in this blog were sourced on the Internet. But not, of course, the one of my husband and me kayaking on the Thames. That one is here to show that I don’t spend all my time looking for Napoleon.

The Man

Napoleon Bonaparte’s School Days

As schools begin their fall sessions, Napoleon Bonaparte’s educational experience comes to mind.

Napoleon the new boy at school, by Realier DumasBRIENNE, by Realier-Dumas.At nine years old, little Nabulio Buonaparte traveled a thousand kilometers from Ajaccio, Corsica, the only home he’d known, to a military school in Brienne, France. Along the way, he spent four months in Autun, France, long enough for the Italian-speaking child to learn French. Four years passed before Napoleon had one brief visit from his parents. He turned seventeen before he returned home to Corsica.

I know it’s not wise to superimpose our cultural norms on the past, but can you image doing that to your child or to any young person today? Have children changed that much?

In addition to being foreign, young Napoleon was poor. He attended the school on a scholarship the French King provided, a circumstance the wealthier students mocked. Legend tells us that he made few friends at school, but ultimately became a leader there. Indeed, it was at Brienne that he directed the first of his many battles: a snowball fight among the students. 

Napoleon commands snowball fight at Brienne by Horace Vernet

Saint Helena The Man

A Childhood in 19th Century St Helena

If you are reading this blog, you probably know that Napoleon Bonaparte spent his last six years in exile on St Helena Island in the remote south Atlantic Ocean. I visited  the island in 2011 and I’m always interested in learning more about its fascinating connection to Napoleon.

I owe this blog post to one of my readers, Roger Knights. Roger’s been researching his ancestors who were members of the Moss family on St Helena. They married into the Solomon family, prominent merchants whose name still graces the largest retail business in Jamestown, St Helena. You can see one of their establishments in the background of my photo of the St Helena Day parade in 2011.

St Helena Day with Solomon's store in background

Roger’s great aunt saved this clipping of a Melbourne newspaper article, which he believes his ancestor, Walter Frederick Moss, wrote around 1940.  In it, Moss reminisces about his childhood on St Helena during the 1860s. I love the part where he describes how his elderly nursemaid, who in her youth had been in Napoleon’s household, professed a strong dislike for the Great Man.

(Readers, please forgive the old-fashioned views of the ethnic groups that peopled St Helena. Authentic documents from the past often leave us modern readers uncomfortable with our history.)

 

Article in Melbourne journal circa 1940

 

Part 2 - Article in Melbourne journal circa 1940

 

Thank you, Roger, for providing this material. 

Miscellany Saint Helena The Man

Finding Napoleon Bonaparte in Iceland?

I’m on vacation in Iceland for a dozen days, but even there I’ve been on the look-out for references to Napoleon Bonaparte. I had begun to despair of finding any when I came across this sympathetic puffin. He obligingly posed in the exiled Emperor Napoleon’s iconic posture, hands clasped behind his back, staring out from St Helena’s shores in the direction of his beloved France. 

Please admit that you see the resemblance!

Puffin at Latrabjarg, Iceland

 

The Man

Big Data Shows Napoleon Bonaparte is History’s 2nd Biggest Figure

 Napoleon Bonaparte, triumphant

One hundred ninety-three years after his death, Napoleon Bonaparte still matters. According to a scientifically rigorous study, published by the Cambridge University Press, Napoleon ranks second to Jesus Christ as the most influential person in history. William Shakespeare comes in third. 

Study authors, Steven Skiena of State University of New York at Stony Brook and Charles Ward of Google, Inc., based the results primarily on Wikipedia page rankings. Who had the longest article? How often was it edited? How often visited? They then refined the analysis to take into account current celebrity versus historical “gravitas.” For more detail, you can read their book WHO’S BIGGER? To get a quick overview, watch Steven Skiena’s YouTube video below.

 

 

We can argue about the methodology and the criteria used in this study. Indeed, some might contend that it’s Napoleon’s notoriety rather than his benevolence that gained him recognition. I’d respond that Napoleon was the world’s first great meritocratic leader. But should he rank above Thomas Jefferson and George Washington? 

Who's Bigger? by Steven Skien and Charles WardLike those Founding Fathers, Napoleon came to power when old regimes were giving way to new ideas. After France’s revolution, Europe teetered on the verge of anarchy. Napoleon steadied it, pulling France back from bankruptcy, installing new laws, establishing educational systems for the masses, and reestablishing free practice of religion.

Then, driven by the conservative forces of European aristocracy, Napoleon plunged into a war-filled abyss. In the end, that upstart Corsican shed his humble origins to recast himself as the leader of a new autocratic dynasty.

Yet he preserved the best of the French revolution: the opportunity for the least of us to rise to the top of the heap. In his words, when it comes to individuals “the outcome is more important than the origin.” We tend to forget how revolutionary that idea was. It remains one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s great legacies.

 

Paris Saint Helena The Man

The 193rd Anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death

Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on remote St Helena Island on May 5, 1821. His body was laid to rest in this modest site in the island’s Valley of Geraniums. The British government, fearing his influence even from the grave, kept the location carefully guarded.

MAR at Les Invalides sarcophagusIn 1840, Queen Victoria allowed the French to return their hero to his adopted homeland. The French king, Louis Philippe I, dispatched his son, the Prince of Joinville, along with two of Napoleon’s generals, to bring the Emperor home. With great ceremony and according to Napoleon’s own wishes, his body was laid to rest near the banks of the Seine.

During my visits, I’ve been surprised how Napoleon’s charisma envelopes both of the gravesites. They are solemn, sacred places.

Paris The Man

What’s with Napoleon putting his hand in his coat?

Napoleon Statue, Musée de l'Armée, Paris

If you want to mimic Napoleon Bonaparte, just stand straight and hide one hand in your jacket. It’s an immediately recognizable pose and unique to Napoleon, right?

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - hand in jacketLike so many Napoleonic myths, there’s more here than meets the eye.

In fact, the one-hand-concealed stance can be traced back to the days of Roman togas and even to Greek statues dating from 350 B.C.E. More than a hundred years before Napoleon’s rise to power, it had returned to fashion and was considered a refined pose for a gentleman’s portrait.

I’ve included here a portrait of young Mozart in 1764 and one of George Washington in 1776, both painted years before Napoleon’s fame made the pose iconic to him.

George Washington in 1776 - hand in jacketIf you search the internet, you can find similar portraits of Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, Simon Bolivar, the Marquis de Lafayette, Hosni Mubarak, and many others, all with one hand slipped inside their jackets.

According to Napoleon-Series.org, “in 1738 Francois Nivelon published A Book Of Genteel Behavior describing the ‘hand-in-waistcoat’ posture as signifying ‘manly boldness tempered with modesty.’ ”

I agree that “manly boldness” describes Napoleon Bonaparte, but “tempered with modesty”?

Miscellany The Man

Finding Napoleon in Washington, DC

 

National Mall - Smithsonian Castle

On this, the three-year anniversary of this website, I decided to do a post about Finding Napoleon in my own hometown.

Napoleon Banner on the National Mall in DCThankfully, last weekend, we had a break in the nasty winter weather. I headed downtown to “our nation’s front lawn,” the National Mall, to catch a few sightings of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Of course, the National Gallery of Art has Jacques Louis David’s full-length portrait of Emperor Napoleon which I featured in a post on October 12, 2012. This weekend the Gallery had promotional banners flying from lampposts in the National Sculpture Garden. Sure enough, there was the extract of Napoleon’s face from that magnificent painting. 

The next Napoleon sighting was at one of the most popular spots in the Smithsonian complex: the gem exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Most people go there to see the Hope Diamond. That famous blue diamond once belonged to French kings, but the revolutionary government forced Louis XVI to turn over the crown jewels. In 1792, the diamond disappeared, only to resurface in England twenty years later. Napoleon never had the chance to own it.

Empress Marie-Louise's crown 2 Marie-Louise w crown

However, the crown of Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, is displayed in the same room as the Hope Diamond. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, Marie Louise fled home to Austria, taking the crown with her. Eventually, it ended up in the possession of Marjorie Merriweather Post, who donated it to the Smithsonian. The museum information says that in the mid 20th century, the crown’s emeralds were replaced with the less precious turquoise. Interestingly, this painting shows the Empress Marie Louise wearing a similar crown but set with rubies.

Napoleon's Napkin from ElbaOn a last poignant note, a linen napkin, bearing Napoleon’s imperial “N”, is on display in the Smithsonian’s castle building. The exiled Napoleon used it on Elba. He gave the napkin to a visiting American, William Blake, on February 26, 1815. That same day Napoleon escaped from Elba to begin his short-lived triumphant return to France. 

Like so many items that touched Napoleon Bonaparte’s hands, the napkin became a coveted keepsake.

 

Miscellany The Man

Family Legends about Napoleon

 

Emperor Maximilian I of MexicoThe most frequent communication I get from readers of this blog goes something like this: 

“I grew up being told that my great-great-great-(grandfather/uncle, etc) was a (close friend/servant/doctor/personal guard) of Napoleon. Have you come across our family name in your research?”

I’m always happy to respond. Sometimes I can point the questioner to a website where they might get help. Occasionally, particularly if the ancestor in question hailed from St Helena, I might put their information in a blog post.

But how much scrutiny can most family legends take? In this holiday season, filled with Santa Clauses, elves, and flying reindeer, it’s appropriate to tell the legend from my own family that comes closest to touching on Napoleon—in this case, Napoleon III, the first emperor’s nephew who ruled France from 1852 – 1870.

One of Napoleon III’s more dubious exploits—and he had several—was the installation of Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of Mexico. Needless to say, many locals weren’t thrilled. A rebellion ensued and the French forces were routed.

Shirt Emperor Maximilian wore at his ExecutionIn 1864, my grandmother’s grandfather, Ferdinand Heinrich Englebert Osthaus, had followed Maximilian to the New World, expecting to make his fortune as “a gentleman farmer.” From here, I’ll quote the document my father left me:

“After the army of Juarez captured Mexico City in 1867, Maximilian and his followers took refuge in Querétaro north of Mexico City. Querétaro, too, was captured and Maximilian tried by court martial and executed in June of that year. Family tradition has it that Maximilian was “shot in Grosspapa’s shirt,” because his clothing was in such disrepair after being in prison that Osthaus lent him a shirt, which he was wearing when he was executed.”

It turns out there was a photographer, François Aubert, who took photos of Maximilian’s body and his effects. In this photo,  Aubert memorialized the very shirt my ancestor claimed as his own. Since the photograph was famous in its time, I do wonder if it prompted my great-great grandfather to claim a little of its gory glory after he fled Mexico to join his brother in Wisconsin.

As a child, this family myth fascinated me. Now it makes me realize how much I wish there had been photography (Video! Audio!) in the Age of Napoleon I. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a candid shot of the Great Man? Think of all we could learn that can’t be discerned from the staged portraits of his day.

 

Copyright © 2011, 2012 Margaret Rodenberg