Betsy Balcombe and Napoleon
Jonathan North introduces the story of the warm reception Bonaparte received from one St Helena resident, a story that will soon be the subject of a feature film.
Napoleon disembarked from HMS Northumberland on the evening of October 17th, 1815, and set foot on St Helena. Pushing through crowds of curious onlookers on the 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, had arrived in his island prison, his world reduced to an Atlantic rock. It was the low point in the remarkable life of a 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 (‘like a wild beast’ in his own words) in James Town.
The Balcombes’ 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 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.