2017-09-21 / Opinions

Book Review

Napoleon’s Last Island
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Betsy Balcombe and her family come to the island of St. Helena in 1815 when her father is given the post of representative of the East India Company. His assignment is to receive and send provisions for the ships coming and going to Cape Town. That task becomes much more challenging when the defeated (again) Napoleon Bonaparte comes to the island as a prisoner and exile.

Thomas Keneally is an Australian writer who has published over fifty books, including Schindler’s Ark, the basis for the film Schindler’s List. He has won the Booker prize and been short-listed for it several times. When visiting a museum, he was intrigued by the story of the Balcombes who ended up in Australia after their island experience. He says, “There is something ruthlessly enchanting about Napoleon. We are told that he was a tyrant, but we do not listen.” Memorabilia in that museum belonged originally to the family who “hosted” Napoleon on St. Helena and were then exiled themselves from that island home. Napoleon’s Last Island is the fictionalized story of their relationship.

Betsy Balcombe, who tells the story from the perspective of adulthood, came to St. Helena with her sister and parents when she was three years old. She had become a defiant, witty, and challenging teen by the time that Napoleon joined them. By then, she had spent some miserable time at a boarding school in England, sent with her sister Jane to learn proper manners and some academic lessons. She did not profit from those lessons.

The people of the Island knew Napoleon only by reputation, but many came to admire his charm and courage. He was a prisoner of the British following his defeat and capture after the Battle of Waterloo, and was known as the Fiend or Ogre. The Balcombe family, however, especially Betsy and her father, came to consider him a Friend and referred to him as OGF (Our Great Friend).

He was very interested in Betsy with her free spirit ways. Though they had disagreements, the very fact that he allowed her to disagree and be “fresh” endeared him to her. “He liked directness, and since I had looked at him so directly and ferociously – or at least I liked to think so – I had presented him with an obvious mark.” During the first years of his exile, the British authorities were fairly lenient, according to this account, and permitted him a degree of freedom on the island.

However, he had led armies against the British, been responsible for many deaths, and had escaped once before. A later commander on St. Helena restricted his movements much more and began to suspect the Balcombes of colluding with him. Betsy reports on the happy days, but then must deal with the unhappy times and the eventual departure from the home she loved.

It’s a gripping and intriguing tale. Napoleon’s Last Island is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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