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Napoleonic Sites on St Helena


Longwood House, Briars Pavilion, the tomb

   - darkometer rating: 6 -
Three sites associated with the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte on St Helena: the place where he briefly stayed after first coming to the island, Briars Pavilion, the grand house at Longwood, where he spent most of his exile and where he eventually died, as well as his original tomb. All three sites are now owned and run by France. These, especially Longwood House, are the prime dark-tourism sites on St Helena and also the principal reason for many visitors to come here in the first place.   
More background info: Readers who are well familiar with dark-tourism.com may question why Napoleonic sites are featured here at all, given that this website normally follows the school of thought that places dark tourism within modernity (see here), i.e. from ca. 1900 onwards. But Napoleon died in 1821! True, but I think I can justify making an exception for his inclusion here.
For starters, Napoleon is the reason most people are familiar with the name St Helena in the first place. Even though the island has a rich history beyond this one exiled ex-Emperor, he's by far the most famous person associated with St Helena and almost defines it for a majority of people in the world (certainly in France). And he died here, and there's his tomb, so that death element is in it too, moreover Napoleon death masks are on display and you can even buy Napoleon-death-mask-shaped bars of soap as a souvenir (no kidding!). And anyway, his legacy still reaches into the present day.
Longwood House has hence become the absolute No. 1 visitor attraction on the island (next to Jacob's Ladder and maybe Plantation House – see under Jamestown and St Helena). And if I cover Napoleon's grand sarcophagus at Les Invalides in Paris, then why not his original (not quite so) final resting place.
OK, with that out of the way, let's look at the historical context. Briefly. So many volumes have been written about Napoleon that you can fill whole libraries with them. Given the contentious nature of the inclusion of Napoleon here to begin with, this is not the place to delve deep; the most important basics will have to suffice. Here we go:
After Napoleon had brought war and destruction to large parts of Europe, his fortunes turned away from him in Russia in 1812 and in 1814 he was defeated by an allied army at the battle of Leipzig (a huge pompous monument there commemorates that). Eventually Napoleon had to abdicate as Emperor and was captured and sent into exile on the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy.
However, after barely 10 months he managed to escape from Elba and returned to France to immediately begin another campaign of mobilization and war. Yet he was defeated again, most notably at the crucial battle of Waterloo in June/July 1815, and shortly after was captured again and taken to Britain.
This time around the victors didn't want to take any more chances and decided to exile this bellicose repeat offender somewhere so far away and so remote that the likelihood of yet another escape were maximally minimized. The already quite well fortified South Atlantic outpost of St Helena was deemed the best choice.
And so the double-deposed ex-Emperor and his entourage arrived at St Helena in December 1815. The arrival of this internationally (in)famous man had been greatly anticipated by the local population, so Napoleon was first kept aboard the ship only to be brought ashore under the cover of night … yet it could not be kept a secret. Practically everybody in Jamestown turned out trying to catch a glimpse of the famous (involuntary) visitor.
Before Napoleon could be moved into the house that was being prepared for him, he spent his first two months on St Helena staying at a pavilion at Briars, at the invitation of the wealthy English family of East India Company employee William Balcombe. Apparently these were the happiest months of Napoleon's time on the island, and he is said to even have befriended Balcombe's teenage daughter.
Yet all this was short-lived and in early 1816 he was moved to Longwood House. Here the increasingly ailing Bonaparte complained about the bleak plain the house looked out onto and the rough and windy weather and the often cold and damp house. He whiled away his time going for walks and dictating his memoirs.
By early 1821 his health had begun to seriously deteriorate and on 5 May he passed away. A death mask was created the next day, and an autopsy performed. It concluded that the cause of death had been stomach cancer.
Yet there have been persistent rumours that there may have been alternative explanations, including deliberate murder though arsenic poisoning (but by whom?), or possibly that he died from accidental poisoning through the lead content in Longwood House's wallpaper. These rumours have been comprehensively debunked (and the audio guide at Longwood House goes to particular lengths detailing this), yet conspiracy theories die hard, harder even than an ex-Emperor. But I won't go further into this here.
Napoleon's body was buried in Sane Valley, then known as Valley of the Willows, apparently in a spot he'd chosen for the purpose himself before his demise (after his original wish – to be buried by the Seine in France – was not granted by the British). He was buried in a Matrioshka-doll-like coffin-in-a-coffin-in-a-coffin-in-a-coffin – yes, that's right: four coffins, of different materials, the outer one made of mahogany. The grave was left unmarked, as no consensus could be reached as what it should say on the stone slab atop the grave (basically, the French wanted it to state his imperial title, but the governor refused). And so he was left to rest anonymously, as it were.
Yet it turned out not to be his final resting place after all. As relations between France and Britain had become less hostile in the decades after Napoleon, the French were eventually allowed to dig him back up and take him “home”. So in October 1840 a delegation arrived in Sane Valley, opened the grave and the four coffins to identify Napoleon – and apparently he was still in good shape, hardly decomposed.
And so the former Emperor sailed home and in December 1840 was given a state funeral ceremony in Paris. Eventually his remains were laid to rest (this time indeed more permanently) in a gigantic sarcophagus taking centre stage inside a grand dome at Les Invalides.
Longwood House meanwhile was sold on and subsequently used as a farm building. And so it came that his former bedroom and bathroom were used as stables and the room where he passed away was occupied by farming machinery.
When Napoleon III (nephew of the first one, and also self-declared monarch of France, from 1852) heard of the state of the place his uncle had been exiled to and where he had breathed his last, he started negotiations with the British to acquire the place. In 1854 the estate – alongside the plot of land with Napoleon's empty ex-grave – were sold to France, for a sum that in today's money would equal some 1.9 million Pounds Sterling.
A good century later, in 1959, Briars Pavilion, too, was given to the French. And so in all three places the French Tricolore flag flies, and there is a representative of the French Foreign Ministry resident on St Helena (technically as a branch of the French Consulate in Cape Town), who's in charge of the three properties.
Both Longwood House and Briars Pavilion have been restored to look more or less exactly as they did when Napoleon occupied them, including some original furnishings (as well as replicas). Thus Longwood House is a proper museum these days (the only other one on the island being the Museum of St Helena in Jamestown). Briars Pavilion, in contrast, is just a single-room add-on, really.
As 2015 to 2021 marks the bicentenary of Napoleon's exile on St Helena, a lot of special events have been and will be organized during this period at these Napoleonic sites, including re-enactments of his arrival at Longwood as well as ceremonies at the (ex-)tomb.
What there is to see: Let's begin with the main and largest of the three sites, and the one that has been turned into a veritable museum: Longwood House.
As you arrive at the gate for visitors, it becomes quite clear that this is a French place: the white sign outside says “Longwood House – Maison de Napoleon”. However, the practical info, opening times and admission price, are given in English only. Inside, all signage is bilingual.
From the gate you have to make your way through the western half of the extensive gardens to get to the main entrance at the wing pointing north in the direction of Deadwood Plain.
Behind the door is a small desk where the friendly museum wardens on duty will take your admission fee and admonish you that photography inside the house is forbidden (but see below).
They also hand out audio guides for a small extra fee. We had been advised by other visitors beforehand that in this case we really should use the audio guide because otherwise the museum would remain rather mute. So even though I'm not a great fan of such devices we heeded the advice and my wife and I shared one audio guide between us.
The audio is well narrated, and extremely full of detail. In fact, as we found out two hours later, its running time actually exceeds the two-hour opening time of the museum! But the friendly ladies at the entrance said we could simply come back the next day and finish the tour then without having to pay again (we just had to keep our tickets and present them on our return … not that that was necessary in the end, as they remembered us anyway). If you don't want to do this, then you will have to skip a few of the sections of the audio guide. These follow various specific locations inside the house that are marked with numbers (which you then enter into the machine to start the associated audio track ... in the usual fashion).
The narration is perhaps a bit excessively elaborate at times, and several things are repeated in separate chapters. So I guess with a bit of trimming down of redundancies, the running time could be reduced to align it within the opening times. But anyway. Here's a short, very selective summary of what you get to see:
The first room is dominated by a large billiards table. There's a fireplace, some period furniture and pictures on the wall. One interesting little detail that would be easy to miss if it wasn't pointed out are the two small holes in the venetian blinds on the windows either side of the room. Apparently the paranoid Bonaparte had these cut so that he could furtively peek through to see whoever was approaching the house without having to open the blinds.
The main point of interest from a dark perspective is of course the room where Napoleon died. In this they've recreated Napoleon's deathbed and on a little table next to it rests a death mask of Bonaparte. The empty deathbed does indeed look pretty much exactly like the depictions on the etchings and paintings that show the scene of the ex-Emperor's demise, with several of his entourage present.
Another room has similarly been recreated in exactly the way it was when Napoleon was lying in state in it. The walls are draped in black, and another death mask is placed on a small table.
The other rooms comprise of the dining room, Napoleon's bathroom, and so on. I won't go into details. All around hang pictures and various objects are on display in cabinets – and the audio guide describes the significance of many of these in great detail. One particular aspect that gets an enormous amount of attention is the causes of Napoleon's death, including details from the autopsy, and a long and insistent debunking of all the conspiracy theories suggesting the ex-Emperor may have been poisoned.
There are a few artefacts on display that are of particular dark interest, such as a lock of hair taken from the deceased Napoleon before his burial as well as various personal belongings and clothes, such as his characteristic frock coat and that odd sideways hat.
At the end of the tour you can either head straight back to the entrance/exit or first pay a visit to the museum shop across the inner courtyard. This is indeed well worth a look. The wares on offer here obviously have a strong focus on Napoleon but also include general St Helena souvenirs not available at the other touristy outlets in Jamestown. They even sell bottles of wine, namely the very same sort that was allegedly Bonaparte's favourite tipple here: a sweet wine from Klein Constantia, Cape Town, South Africa. But the price was so prohibitively high that I was in no way tempted to buy one, just to test what the Emperor's taste in wine was like (I'm also generally not a fan of sweet wines anyway).
My visit (or rather: two visits, as I returned the next day to finish the audio tour) was certainly the most rewarding of the three Napoleonic sites. The amount of detail provided with the audio guide was far richer than anticipated, sometimes almost overwhelming. Without the audio guide, though, there would have been very little in terms of information, and only a few of the objects on display have labels. It's thus not surprising that I saw a couple of other visitors walking through the museum, without an audio guide, in something like ten minutes.
Visiting Briars Pavilion, in contrast, is naturally a rather short affair. It's only a single room you get to see – also filled with period furniture, pictures on the walls and a few pieces of Napoleon memorabilia. Here you get a live guide by default, who tells you about the time the newly arrived ex-Emperor spent here and you learn a few anecdotes, but it's all over within something like a quarter of an hour. It's kind of a nice add-on, but whether that's worth the extra 5 quid, you have to decide for yourself. I'd say of all the three Napoleonic sites this is probably the one you could most easily skip.
However, you wouldn't want to miss out on visiting Napoleon's Tomb. There is very little commodification, just a couple of information plaques, but it's a very sombre and beautiful site – and the feeling of place authenticity is strong here. It's more a pilgrimage than a history lesson, but very much worth it.
There's a the small parking bay by the main road where you can leave your car and a sign says “Tombe de Napoleon – Napoleon's Tomb”. From here a trail leads down following exactly the route of Napoleon's funeral procession (the first one, that is – see above), which took place on 9 May 1821.
As you get near a sign directs you to an “observation point” while the continuation of the original path to the tomb itself is these days blocked off and a no-entry sign makes it quite clear you're no longer allowed to go the tomb directly (so you can't touch it!). Next to the direct approach to the tomb you can see a little sentry booth and a flag pole. At the time of my visit it was bare, no Tricolore flying here. I guess these parts are only used during official ceremonies now.
From the slightly elevated vantage point set aside for the general public, you can look down at the tomb, a blank stone slab surrounded by a metal fence set in a small green patch of grass. The setting is very pretty with tall trees of various types all around and plenty of birdsong about. It's really quite serene.
All in all: “doing Napoleon” is of course one of the key tourist activities on St Helena, the one thing that many visitors come to the island for. And it is important for the dark tourist too. Of the three sites, Longwood House is by far the most commodified and requires a good amount of time. The other two less so, but they are worthwhile add-ons too, with the pilgrimage to the tomb obviously a must-do (whether you're a Napoleon fan or not). But Briars Pavilion isn't quite so essential.
Location: At three locations, one on the edge of Jamestown, one in the north-east of St Helena, and the third is en route in between:
Google maps locators:
Longwood House: [-15.9499, -5.6831]
Napoleon's tomb: [-15.9591, -5.6983]
Tomb trailhead: [-15.9553, -5.7012]
Briars Pavilion: [-15.9434, -5.7097]
Access and costs: easy enough by car, otherwise tricky; no longer all free, but the fees at Longwood are reasonable at least.
Details: while Briars Pavilion might at a push just about be walkable from the centre of Jamestown all the way through Upper Jamestown and along Constitution Hill (it's a bit of a climb and the hike may take 45-60 minutes), the other two sites definitely require a car.
From Jamestown take the Napoleon Street/Side Path route (not Ladder Hill!), signposted as Alarm Forest and Longwood, and at the point where Constitution Hill meets Side Path, the small access road to Briars branches off on the right. There's a fairly large car park just next to the gardens of Briars Pavilion.
Keep going along the winding main road and switchbacks heading generally south and you'll come to the trailhead to Napoleon's tomb (off the aptly named “Tomb Road”) on the left, where there is just about enough space for two or three parked cars. But there is “no vehicular access” to the tomb itself, as a sign makes clear, so you have to walk. It's a fairly easy hike, down a gentle slope, but there's a warning sign saying it can be slippery after rain. There's a gate about a hundred yards down the trail and on it are posted the official opening times: Monday to Friday 9:00h to 15:00h. So I presume that outside those times this gate will be locked. But access is free of charge (at least nobody was there to ask for money, or wanting to see my Longwood House ticket, when I was there).
Back at the main road carry on driving until you come to St Matthew's Church where you have to turn left to go past Hutt's Gate and onwards to Longwood. Eventually you come to a narrow cream-coloured gate on the western edge of Longwood (it's always open, as far as I could tell) and pass through. Some 500 yards (½ km) onwards you come to a meadow on your left where you can park. There is no car park by the actual public entrance to Longwood House.
There is a lot of conflicting information about opening times, but when I was there I found them to be a bit restricted, only from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays to Fridays (closed at weekends and on public holidays). Note also that an admission fee is now levied: £10 per person.
An additional fee is levied for the audio guide (I think it was £2, but I'm not 100% sure). Two people can share a single audio guide, if they're prepared to go at the same speed and make the same selections. That's what my wife and I did.
I've also read about the option of tours with a live guide, but there was no info about this when I was at the site.
Nominally there's a no photography policy in place inside Longwood House, but since that wasn't strictly policed I managed to sneak a couple of shots in – as others have clearly done before, going by the images on TripAdvisor and other websites that cover the place. So I don't feel too bad about this.
At Briars Pavilion, things are even more restricted. Opening times: Wednesdays and Fridays only, between 10 and 11 a.m.; admission fee: £5 (which may seem a bit steep, given it's just a single small room, but you get a free narration by a local guide with it, so it's OK). Here there was no restriction on stills photography, just no video or flash.
I had Briars Pavilion added to one of my tours with Aaron Legg (see under St Helena in general) but visited the other two sites independently when I had a hire car.
Note that it is no longer required to make pre-bookings for any of these sites with the tourist office in Jamestown (as used to be the case up to at least 2016). Now you can just turn up (at the appropriate time).
Time required: Briars Pavilion only takes about ten minutes or so, but Longwood House, if you use the audio guide, may require two visits as the two-hour opening time is hardly enough to listen to it all. Without the audio guide you'll probably be out again in less than half an hour. The short hike to the tomb and back can be done in between 30 and 40 minutes.
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under St Helena.
Napoleon wasn't the only one exiled to St Helena, so do check out the Boer POW sites as well and Munden's too!
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Longwood House as such, and especially the gardens, are not all dark. Far from it. It's a very pretty collection of antique furniture inside, and the gardens are quite magnificent too. And so are the views over the plains towards The Barn and Flagstaff Hill.
For more see also under St Helena in general.
  • 1 - Longwood House1 - Longwood House
  • 2 - with French flag2 - with French flag
  • 3 - bilingual3 - bilingual
  • 4 - Napoleon death bed4 - Napoleon death bed
  • 5 - death mask5 - death mask
  • 6 - the path to the tomb6 - the path to the tomb
  • 7 - tomb in which Napoleon was originally interred7 - tomb in which Napoleon was originally interred
  • 8 - Briars Pavilion8 - Briars Pavilion
  • 9 - inside Briars Pavilion9 - inside Briars Pavilion





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