Information about his situation came not only from returning visitors from Longwood House on St Helena but also via correspondence between Napoleon’s liberal supporters in Britain and sympathisers on St Helena. These individuals became a major concern for Governor Sir Hudson Lowe.
In addition, and as a consequence of the running dispute between Lowe and Napoleon, the Governor dismissed a number of these individuals from the island charging them with subversion. One of these was a Naval doctor named Barry O’Meara, an Irishman with good connections in London, who had sailed with Napoleon on the Northumberland. When O’Meara arrived back in London he wrote a book about his time on St Helena which included a major attack on Sir Hudson Lowe’s regime. O’ Meara’s account caused a sensation and the Opposition used it to attack the Government for its harsh treatment of Napoleon. This was the start of a campaign to vilify Sir Hudson Lowe whose reputation was not only traduced throughout his governorship and the remainder of his life but has also followed him to this day.
Napoleon’s relationship with Sir Hudson Lowe could not have got off to a worse start.
Lowe arrived on the island in June 1816 bearing the full authority of the British Government in London to order all matters of Napoleon’s imprisonment. He immediately made his first attempt to introduce himself formally to Napoleon – taking Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who he would be replacing as governor with him – and his ADC Major Gorrequor who he had brought with him in the Northumberland.
He was met by the Count de Montholon who stated that Napoleon could not receive him as he was indisposed. This was a gross insult to the Governor himself and all that he represented. Montholon said that it was too early in the morning and that Lowe and his party should come back later and only after making an appointment with Bertrand. Lowe was naturally furious at the insult and walked up and down in the garden outside, even trying to peer in through the windows in an effort to catch sight of Napoleon.
The next day, Lowe tried again and was more successful but his first visit was not without incident.
Either intentionally of by mistake, as Lowe’s party entered the billiard room which was where they would be received, Sir George was excluded from the meeting by Napoleon’s valet and door-keeper leaving the Governor to face Napoleon alone. Quite apart from Cockburn’s fury at being kept away, the two men took an instant dislike to each other which was to taint their relationship from that day onwards.
Napoleon, confidant, successful and full of guile. Lowe, anxious, prissy and small-minded. The relationship was never going to work.
Two weeks later the two men met again. This time Lowe insisted that he was accompanied by his senior staff and had sent a demand in advance that Napoleon himself and all the members of his household should sign an affidavit starting that they had come down to St Helena willingly and that they would give their word that they would not attempt to escape. Napoleon was furious and refused to sign.
Twice Lowe had been obliged to rearrange the meeting as it was not convenient to Napoleon and when they did meet, Napoleon met Lowe in his bedroom and wearing his dressing gown. He said that he was not feeling well. After the meeting, as Lowe licked his wounds and considered his next move, Napoleon put it about that Lowe was an ‘ignoble et sinistre figure’. Battle had commenced.
Troubles continue between Napoleon and Lowe
Lowe hit back and advised Napoleon that his instructions from London required him or his representative to have sight if Napoleon at least twice each day and that a British officer would be stationed permanently at Longwood to carry out this function.
This led to endless trouble as Napoleon liked to play hide and seek with whoever was on duty both on the premises, in the garden and beyond in the grounds when Napoleon went riding.
Many distinguished visitors wished to meet Napoleon and shortly after his arrival Lowe arranged for a dinner party to which he would be invited. The dinner invitation was sent out addressed to ‘General Bonaparte and not in Napoleon’s chosen name of the ‘Emperor Napoleon’. Napoleon was outraged by the insult and Lowe infuriated that Napoleon did not bother to reply and did not turn up on the night.
A long and acerbic correspondence followed between Lowe and Napoleon and his household.
The campaign covered many issues about Napoleon’s captivity and treatment that included questions of expenditure, security, visitors, the behaviour of members of the household, correspondence on and off the island and the reliability of the doctors attending on Napoleon.
Lowe’s censorship of correspondence caused the most trouble. Napoleon was outraged that he was not able to communicate in private and Lowe was infuriated by the half-truths and downright lies that came out of Longwood on a continual basis.
Final blows between Napoleon and Lowe
This came to a head at the third and last meeting between the two men. Lowe had complained at the expenses again and pointed the finger of blame at Bertrand and Montholon. Napoleon lost his temper. ‘You are a general but behave like a warden. You never commanded any men but Corsican deserters. You vex us hourly with your little ways. You do not know how to conduct yourself towards men of honour, your soul is too low. Why do you not treat us as prisoners of war? You treat us like Botany Bay convicts.’
At this point Napoleon lost his temper either as a tactic or because he had been driven mad by his circumstances.
‘I am an emperor in my own circle and will be so long as I live. Europe will be the judge of my treatment and the shame of it will fall upon the English. If you were ordered, would you assassinate me, would you do so?’
Lowe replied ‘No, I would not. My countrymen do not assassinate.’
Napoleon said ‘Why do you not tie me hand and foot? You are not a general, you are only a clerk. It was disgraceful of Lord Bathhurst to send a man like you to guard me. You are no Englishmen.’
For the next four and half years, all further disputes were conducted by correspondence and the two men never met again. The next time Sir Hudson Lowe saw Napoleon he was lying dead in his coffin.