Sweet for Napoleon

“Napoleon’s exile on St Helena made both the remote island and his favourite sweet wine famous, as an exhibition in the wine’s more familiar place of origin – Cape Town – and the island’s historic sites reveal.”

At the opening of the Wine of Exile exhibition, which runs until 21 June at Groot Constantia wine estate, local and foreign dignitaries stood in front of the estate’s famous Cloete Cellar to emphasise the connections between South Africa and the island of St Helena. The connections are numerous, given that Cape Town has shipped food and supplies to the remote British Overseas Territory ever since the two were bases of the Dutch and British East India Companies respectively.

The focus of the exhibition, however, is on the link created by Napoleon Bonaparte, who consoled himself with sweet Constantia wine during his 5½-year exile on the island.

Banished to the South Atlantic by the British in 1815, Napoleon’s favourite French wines did not travel well through the equator, so his captors replaced the Chambertin with Cape Town’s celebrated amber nectar, known variously as Grand Constance, Vin de Constance and Constantia Wyn.

Standing beneath the Cloete Cellar’s Anton Anreith pediment, French Ambassador Christophe Farnaud suggested, with tongue in diplomatic cheek, that ‘perhaps the wine of exile was also the wine of death’.

According to a (widely discredited) historical conspiracy theory, the British poisoned the imperious French Emperor, who was proving troublesome even on a far-flung island 2000km west of Namibia. The muscat wine enjoyed by Napoleon on a daily – and exclusive – basis would have been the most obvious place to administer the arsenic…

Stories of Napoleon

This is just one of the stories about Napoleon’s years on St Helena, which ended with his death from gastric cancer in 1821, when his final request was a glass of Grand Constance. The exhibition in the Iziko Wine Museum housed in the Cloete Cellar – from where Grand Constance once made its way to 18th – and 19th-century notables ranging from Napoleon and Frederick the Great to Jane Austen and Baudelaire – gives a glimpse of that lonely island exile. Marking the 250th anniversary of Napoleon’s birth this August, the small exhibition features artefacts such as the great man’s wine cooler, his field glass and goatskin case emblazoned with his insignia, and his Regency decanter and glasses, all used on St Helena.

What traces remain on St Helena itself of its famous French alumnus? There are three sites run by the French government in the island’s hilly hinterland, the most significant being Longwood House, where Napoleon spent most of his exile and sipped his last Grand Constance.

Longwood house

Leave at least a few hours to follow the audio-guide through the five interlinked rooms of this grand single-storey 18th-century residence, surrounded by the tropical garden that was Napoleon’s pride and joy. Its haughty occupant was unimpressed by the house itself, despite British efforts to make it comfortable with Regency wallpaper and furniture, requisitioned from prominent island residences and delivered in consignment from London. He used a field bed in preference to the large four-poster bed, its legs sawn off to fit it into his bedroom, and remarked:

‘Have you ever seen a sorrier apology for a bed? A rat trap that only English taste could beget.’

Discomfort & distractions

In fact, Napoleon’s derision was not entirely unfounded, especially for someone accustomed to the Tuileries Palace. The official British line was that Longwood, previously the governor’s summer residence, would be the most comfortable option with its elevated position escaping the heat of the coast.

They had actually chosen it for the exposed location, which made it easy to guard the wily general, while the surrounding plains were ideal for the British troops to set up camp. Some 30 people would have squeezed into the wind-battered property, where the servants slept in attic cells lit by skylights, the gloomy dining room doubled as a chapel, and the fog and damp got so bad that Napoleon could tear strips from the hangings in his study.

Nonetheless, Napoleon found some pleasures, including the lead bathtub where he spent hours reading, writing, eating and talking to his officers. The most impressive part of Longwood is the green billiards room, where Napoleon spent his days dictating his campaign memoirs and studies of Julius Caesar, Frederick the Great and the art of war. He would wander the room, rolling billiard balls across the baize, consulting the atlas, spinning his terrestrial and celestial globes and peering through the shutters with a spyglass, having had peepholes cut in the wooden slats.

Refreshments included Constantia wine diluted with water, and local coffee, which Napoleon proclaimed ‘the only good thing about St Helena’. Introduced from Yemen by the British East India Company, these
Arabica coffee beans are today among the world’s most expensive.

There is another reminder of the Cape connection in the gift shop on the way out, where a bottle of Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance is priced at £65. Klein Constantia was the first estate to revive the wine in 1986, following the Muscat de Frontignan grape’s decimation by the 19th -century phylloxera aphid plague, and it is now made in Constantia by Buitenverwachting (which calls it 1769) and Constantia Uitsig (Red Muscat d‘Alexandrie) as well as Klein and Groot Constantia.

Emperor’s empty tomb

Not far down St Helena’s winding lanes, Napoleon used to enjoy strolling to Sane Valley, where his tomb is now located. It’s a peaceful glade, perfect for toasting the man with a sweet glass of muscat, but his tomb is both uninscribed and empty. The stone remained blank due to a disagreement over the wording: the French preferred the imperial title of Napoleon, but the British, who had referred to him as General rather than Emperor throughout his exile, insisted that Bonaparte be added.

Napoleon had requested that ‘my mortal remains may repose on the banks of the Seine’ and his wish was finally granted in 1840, when his body was exhumed and transported to Paris on a frigate painted a sombre black. Contained in four tin, mahogany and lead coffins, his remains were found to be in good condition, adding grist to the arsenic theory – the poison is also a preservative. To this day, the Moment de Memoire ceremony is held annually at the tomb on 5 May, the anniversary of Napoleon’s death.

StHelena

Briars & beyond

The third French-owned site on St Helena is the Briars Pavilion, perched above the rocky canyon containing the island’s capital, Jamestown. Napoleon spent his first two months ‘on island’, to use one of the many local expressions, in this 19th -century pavilion, which has been restored to its appearance in 1815 with the help of period furniture and his servants’ memoirs.

Napoleon slept on a field bed in the only room, his two secretaries in the attic and the servants on hammock mattresses behind the door – all of which must have proved interesting during Napoleon’s frequent bouts of insomnia.

St Helena

The pavilion’s other claim to fame is that the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, coincidentally stayed here en route home from India in 1805. Indeed, as ‘Saints’ (St Helenians) like to point out, a local sailor saved Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Wellington, from drowning here – leading to the British victory at Waterloo, followed swiftly by Napoleon’s banishment to these shores.

Wellington himself gloated about his vanquished foe’s confinement at the Briars: ‘You may tell Bony that I find his apartments at the Elysée-Bourbon [palace] very convenient and that I hope he likes mine’.

As well as these historic sites on St Helena, there is an ongoing flow of patriotic French tourists, who like to imitate their hero by gazing out to sea wearing a two-cornered bicorn hat. You can also see the distinctive hat on the Napoleon mannequin gazing disapprovingly down on Jamestown’s main street from the balcony of the 18th-century Consulate Hotel.

This playful remembrance of the island’s place in Napoleon’s biography is set to continue, along with the Gallic pilgrims, with the bicentenary of his death in 2021. Events are already commemorating the reluctant visitor’s stay here, including the re-enactment in 2015 of his arrival, an exhibition covering Sir Hudson Lowe, the island governor during Napoleon’s sojourn, and a festival of music from the Napoleonic era, featuring a performance at Longwood on 5 May. The St Helena Distillery, the world’s remotest distillery, is ageing two barrels of brandy – another of the Emperor’s favourites – to release commemorative bottles in 2021.

StHelena

Napoleon’s half-decade on island, recalling his past glories with the help of sweet Constantia wine, established a shared history between the British island, France and South Africa – one that continued, more poignantly for South Africans, with the exile of 6000 Boers and Zulu king Dinizulu to St Helena in the 1890s.

The South Africans must have empathised with Napoleon’s dramatic utterance, ‘I die a martyr, killed by the English oligarchy and its hired assassin’, with its ambiguous final allusion to Governor Hudson Lowe, or perhaps arsenic plotters, but certainly not to the Emperor’s beloved Grand Constance.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:

Airlink flies weekly to St Helena from Johannesburg OR Tambo.

James Bainbridge

James is a travel writer and editor based in Cape Town, with a portfolio including the likes of Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, the UK Guardian, Conde Nast Traveller and BBC Travel. He has researched and written dozens of Lonely Planet guidebooks, including several editions of the guides to South Africa, Turkey and Morocco as senior author. He also offers travel writing day courses throughout South Africa. You can find James on Instagram and Twitter.