The Strange Story of Napoleon's Wallpaper - Page 4

St Helena

St Helena is, if anything, even more remote today than it was in Napoleon's time. Then, it lay on the route of the tall ships sailing around the Horn, and there could sometimes be as many as fifty ships anchored in James Bay, on the way out around the Horn, or on the way home.

But the sailing ships stopped calling a long time ago. Now almost the only visitor is a single ship that makes the two-month round trip from the UK, via Ascension and St Helena, down to Capetown, and then back again to the UK. There are five and a half thousand residents on St Helena, which is a British island, and the only way on to the island or off it is by sea. There is no airport.

Our filming trip was more adventurous than we expected, since we got stuck on Ascension Island because of problems with one of the engines of the ship. But we did eventually arrive at St Helena, after various adventures, 3 weeks after we had left the UK.

What did we find at Longwood House? Well, Longwood is quite high up near the middle of the island and is certainly very damp. As soon as you walk inside, you can smell the dampness. Now dampness was one of the important factors in Gosio's disease, since this promotes the growth of the mould. While we were filming there was a sudden tropical downpour outside. Afterwards, the warm humidity and fresh smells in the garden were wonderful. But it was clear that this was a damp atmosphere to live in. Longwood has to be redecorated every other year. We noticed that the modern wallpaper in the drawing room was already peeling off in places.

This modern wallpaper also had a pattern of stars on it, although these were blue stars, not green. But how much time did Napoleon spend in the drawing room? And had there really been arsenical wallpaper on the walls of the drawing room 175 years previously?

When Napoleon first arrived on St Helena he had had a lot of freedom, and could ride around the island, go into Georgetown, and talk to the local people more or less at will.

But then a new Governor arrived, Sir Hudson Lowe, who was really worried that Napoleon might try to escape. So he surrounded Longwood with sentries, who had orders to try and keep Napoleon in their sight at all times. Napoleon retaliated by keeping out of the sight of the guards as much as possible, in order to keep the Governor guessing. Around the house were sunken footpaths that Napoleon had ordered to be dug, so that he might walk about unobserved by the guards.

But gradually Napoleon spent more and more time indoors. There was one period of several months when the sentries failed to catch a single glimpse of him. Hudson Lowe must have been having kittens, but he didn't have the nerve to break down the door at Longwood and demand to see Napoleon for himself.

Apparently Napoleon used to keep the shutters in the drawing room closed much of the time. We saw that one of the shutters in the drawing room had two small holes in it, at different heights. Apparently these were used by Napleon to look outside, without being seen himself. The higher hole was for when he was standing up, the other was for if he chose to sit. Now spending a lot of time indoors is not really a good news if your wallpaper is poisonous.

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