Napoleon’s Final Prison, the World’s First Gitmo, Is About to Change Forever
Reachable only after five days of sailing, beautiful St. Helena was the perfect place to exile Bonaparte. Now one of the globe’s final outposts is getting an airport.
Sometime in June an airplane will land on an island where no airplane has landed before. In fact, the island is so remote that it’s way beyond any of the world’s regular air routes. Although it has been inhabited for more than 500 years, until now its only link to the nearest continent has been by sea, involving a trip of at least five days.
This event can be viewed as one of the last connections remaining to be made in the all-encompassing age of total connection. As the islanders join the 21st century they will, at the same time, be leaving a constraint on the speed of travel that most people lost first in the 19th century with the coming of the steam engine. They might well be losing a lot more— that state of independence peculiar to remoteness where the human attachment to the earth has not been dislocated by the ability to leave the earth with the surge of jet speed.
The result of this connection could be something like a terrestrial version of the classic sci-fi “contact” plotline, where the species from one planet encounter those from another and attempt a wary engagement, as waves of visitors descend.
But have you ever felt that the getaway often lands you in the same place as all the people you were trying to get away from? There are few places left where you really might shake them all off, where you might feel that you have almost left the planet.
Like, for example, the island in question, St. Helena.
It sits out in the middle of the south Atlantic, the tiny tip of an underwater range of volcanic mountains, a single exposed nipple of rock and tropical forest. St. Helena measures roughly 12 miles by 6, in area only 77 square miles, with one seaport called Jamestown wedged into a narrow valley. It’s the permanent home of just 4,250 people.
The world would have barely noted the existence of St. Helena, but for one man. Early in the 19th century it became the world’s first Gitmo, the ideal place to incarcerate a very dangerous personage, namely one Napoleon Bonaparte.
In April 1814, after his defeat in Russia and other fiascos, the French people tired of Napoleon and he was forced to abdicate. He was given what amounted to a “soft” exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, allowed to keep the title of emperor, granted a comfortable income, and to retain a personal guard of 400 men.
But Elba was far too small (86 square miles) to contain Napoleon’s contagious charisma and ambition. A year later he was back in France and raising an army.
The whole of Europe trembled at the prospect of French power being projected once again in the person of the man who had attempted to impose his rule from the English Channel to the Urals, from the Iberian peninsula to Egypt. But Napoleon’s comeback did not last long. In June 1815 he was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo by the British (with a last-minute assist from the Prussians).
Again, he abdicated and, again, the problem became what to do with him. (It says something about Napoleon’s stature that even after causing such mayhem there was no appetite for subjecting him to a show trial and a symbolic execution.)
Napoleon’s own idea was to go the one place where felt he would be welcomed and celebrated as a progressive force and a legend—America.
Just imagine! A century and a half too soon for the book tours, the chat shows—but not too soon for a personality cult...and, who knows, running for office? A year earlier the Brits, during their futile invasion launched in 1812, had burned down the White House. Napoleon could have appealed to President Madison that they shared a common enemy, perfidious Albion. Napoleon was a novel combination of warrior and social reformer. He was a fan of Tom Paine: He had distributed copies of The Rights of Man to the tribal chiefs in Egypt when he occupied the country, to instruct them on the principles of democracy. He might even have been in good enough standing to become governor of the Louisiana Purchase, the great swathe of the heartland that Jefferson had bought from France in 1803.
The Brits saw the danger. The Royal Navy blockaded the port of La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast where Napoleon was planning his flight. He was promised a sympathetic hearing in England and persuaded to board an aging British warship, HMS Bellerophon, which took him to a port on the southern coast of England.
There is a classic piece of late Victorian pictorial art that shows Napoleon on the deck of the Bellerophon standing apart from a small group of British naval officers and staring despondently out to sea. The British sailors are not posed as truculent captors but as awe-stricken inferiors, as though Napoleon is rendered untouchable by his sheer force of presence.
Napoleon’s status in England was unclear. Technically he had surrendered and, under international law, “as soon as your enemy has laid down his arms and surrendered his person, you have no longer any right over his life.” Napoleon believed that the British would be magnanimous and allow him some form of political asylum. (John Quincy Adams had just arrived in London as Minister to the Court of St. James, and saw firsthand the debate about what to do with Napoleon.) But they had no intention of allowing him to raise any more armies. There is no surviving record of who decided his fate, but the Brits realized that to put him permanently out of action they needed another and far more remote island—somewhere far, far away from Europe where the world could forget about him.
He was transferred to another British warship and told that his destination was St. Helena.
St. Helena had been under British control since the 17th century. Napoleon arrived there in October 1815 with a small group of men who had served him for years. This was not a hellhole like France’s most notorious penitentiary, Devil’s Island in French Guiana. It had a salubrious year-round tropical climate.
The former emperor tried to adapt to a drastically reduced domain. He was allowed to go anywhere as long he was escorted by a British officer. But the colossus felt humiliated. He withdrew into a reclusive, introverted world of memories and reflection. He fell sick in 1817, lingered on and died in 1821, still only 51 years old.
Ironically, the Duke of Wellington, his nemesis at Waterloo, wrote: “We made a tremendous mistake in getting rid of Napoleon. He is the man we ought to have had. As long as the Bourbons hold four thrones there will be no peace in Europe. None of that family is any good.”
But the spirit of the greatest Frenchman could not be extinguished forever. Finally, in 1840, his remains were shipped from St. Helena to Paris and he was given a magnificent state funeral, his reinvigorated legend now enlisted to underpin France’s sense of its own glory.
St. Helena, meanwhile, was forgotten, to all intents and purposes off the map. Its only connection to the outside world were ships that kept it supplied from Cape Town in South Africa, 1,650 miles away. The population could at least cling to the comfort of the idea that they were British citizens. They were said to be among the most devoted fans of the monarchy in the empire.
But in the end that was not enough to save them from the cold heart of the Iron Lady. In 1983 they were stripped of their British citizenship by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher was responding to a wave of fear that when Britain gave up control of her colony of Hong Kong to the Chinese the homeland would be flooded by immigrants. St. Helena, like other outposts of the former empire, was included in new legislation that withdrew their automatic right to domicile in Britain. In 2002 Prime Minister Tony Blair reversed Thatcher’s draconian act and restored full citizenship to the people of St. Helena.
But the island’s remoteness continued to hobble its economy. Visitors who took the supply ship from Cape Town, a five-day voyage, found a place that resembled Britain in the 1950s, with shops that closed at 4 p.m. and few things worth buying. But its natural beauty was striking. Deforestation had stripped the lower levels of the mountains but the peaks were still thickly clad in old growth tropical rainforest as well as cabbage trees, gum trees, and ebony. There were 400 endemic bird species.
A campaign began to build an airport. One of its advocates was Lord Ashcroft, a billionaire grandee of the Tory party in Britain. He chose a very patrician way of making his case—he flew his private jet over the island and told the population, via a link to the local radio station, how frustrated he was that he couldn’t land.
The British government has ponied up more than $300 million to construct an airport. To create a long enough runway for medium-sized airliners part of a valley had to be filled in and part of a mountain had to be blown away. The airport is now nearly complete. The coming test flights will establish that the navigation aids are working safely and that the 5,100-foot runway is long enough for single-aisle airplanes. Regular service between the island and South Africa begins early next year, operated by the South African airline Comair.
The islanders will now be able to reach London in two days, via South Africa. They will also be experiencing for the first time the cultural shock that air travel generates. Some of the consequences are all too predictable There is already a golf course and there will be more. The island is a perfect platform for sport fishing—the surrounding ocean is teeming with as yet unmolested marine life. In time there will be new hotels, luxury lodges, wilderness spas, rental villas.
For a place that for more than 500 years has been as close to being off-planet as was possible while still functioning as a compact and independent society these changes will be hard to manage. But that’s the way it is. Napoleon had no tolerance for the truly remote, any more than we do. It seems that we can’t any longer tolerate the truly remote.