Napoleon Dreamed of U.S., Flirted With Teenager: Lewis Lapham

The cover jacket of "Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories" by Simon Winchester. Source: Harper Collins via Bloomberg

When the British finally defeated a resurgent Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, they were taking no chances. He was put on the HMS Northumberland and shipped 5,000 miles away to one of the most isolated spots in the world.

Disembarking on the volcanic island of St. Helena, about 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa, the scourge of Europe flirted with 13-year-old Betsy Balcombe, wrote his memoirs, gardened and bore up under the insults of his custodian, who addressed him as General Bonaparte, rather than the imperial “Napoleon.”

He also dreamed of escaping to America, but freedom was ever an illusion. On the 47-square-mile isle, with a population of about 5,000, the British had stationed 2,000 troops, put guns on every cliff top and barricaded every cove. Much as he longed to, Napoleon could not repeat his escape from Elba and died on St. Helena of stomach cancer in 1821.

Today, reachable only by boat, the island is largely unchanged, boasting a perfect miniature castle, a tiny church, a town square with a big shade tree brought from India, and rows of Regency houses with iron trelliswork and sash windows. Policemen have so little to do, they are called “the toys,” and the rare prisoner is let out each afternoon for a refreshing dip in the sea.

For Simon Winchester, author of “Atlantic,” St. Helena represents the perfect union of people and ocean. I spoke with him on the following topics:

1. Israel Born in Atlantic

2. Humans Reach the Sea

3. Phoenicians Profit

4. From Fear to Disdain

5. Unique St. Helena

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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)


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