While France commemorates the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death, this Wednesday, franceinfo paints a portrait of a man who chose to live in Saint-Hélène, a small island lost in the Atlantic where the Emperor died in exile.
Others would have given up on putting their suitcases on this desolate territory. Michel Dancoisne-Martineau chose to settle in Sainte-Hélène, a small rock located in the South Atlantic, 2,000 kilometers from Namibia, the closest coast. It was on this pebble five times smaller than the Territoire-de-Belfort that Napoleon was sent by the British after his last defeat at Waterloo. And it was there that he died on May 5, 1821, after more than five years of exile. For more than 30 years, a Frenchman, honorary consul of France and director of the national estates of Saint Helena, has been responsible for ensuring that Napoleon’s memory is respected and that the premises are properly maintained, while on Wednesday May 5 we commemorate the bicentenary of the emperor’s death.
The island of Saint Helena has only 4,500 inhabitants and this British territory is located in the middle of the South Atlantic. “At the time, we could only come to Saint Helena by boat. There were 15 days at sea from England,” Michel Dancoisne-Martineau tells Franceinfo with a smile, remembering his arrival. this isolation that I liked a lot and especially the life in a closed community. “
When he landed on the island in 1985, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau planned to stay in post for only three years. Finally, 36 years later, it is still there. On his arrival, he was not familiar with Napoleon but he quickly caught up with his delay, thanks to the dozens of books he found on the spot. “I started to go through all the archival documents. It allows me to answer all the questions I am asked,” he explains.
Before the health crisis put a stop to tourism, 5,000 to 6,000 visitors each year set foot on Saint Helena. On the program: the unmissable visit to Longwood House, Napoleon’s last residence, which is 500 meters above sea level. It is a modest home, despite appearances. “She throws it away, this house, but it is purely an illusion. This house was not made to serve as accommodation for a general”, notes Michel Dancoisne-Martineau.
Napoleon’s apartments consisted of seven rooms with a billiard room, a living room, a dining room and a bathroom. “There is always the copper bathtub in which Napoleon spent whole hours every day”, adds Michel Dancoisne-Martineau. According to the consul, the most beautiful room remains the library. “Napoleon discovers here the information of the rest of the world. It is there that are opened the cases of books and magazines which Napoleon will receive during all these years of exile.”
For 36 years, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau has watched over the house. He is at the same time curator, gardener, maintenance man. He vowed not to leave the premises until he had completed the work and allowed Longwood to regain its configuration of May 5, 1821, when Napoleon took his last breath there.