August 22, 2008 cameron

The Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast #43 – Sir Hudson Lowe

The story of Napoleon’s years on St Helena is dominated by one man, whose name is infamous in Napoleonic history – Sir Hudson Lowe, Napoleon’s “jailer”.

Hudson Lowe

The Duke of Wellington later said that he was “a very bad choice; he was a man wanting in education and judgement. He was a stupid man, he knew nothing at all of the world, and like all men who knew nothing of the world, he was suspicious and jealous”.

On today’s show we discuss the arrival of Lowe to St Helena and Napoleon’s forced move to new premises, Longwood.
Longwood today. Photo by G.Wilson (see the Travelling Historian site for more great photos of Longwood.)

We also talk a bit about Corsica and Paris! Keep an eye out for the DVD pack which I’ll hopefully have ready in a few weeks.


Comments (37)

  1. Adam

    glad that there’s finally another show, and it’s as awesome as ever. the St Helena period is how i initially started in the napoleonic story and I have a couple of questions for David.

    As Cameron alluded to in the show, when Lowe and Napoleon meet, there is some sort of “ego competition”- David, i’m wondering what you think of the accuracy of my thinking of this as them both recognising that there is only going to be one big dog, and they each believe themself to be the big dog, Napoleon with his enormous reputation, and Lowe because he is in charge. was it so much of a battle of egos and each trying to show that they were the proverbial big dog or Napoleon not really accepting that it was over. Also about Hudson Lowe’s reputation, there’s a great quote about Lowe from O’Meara’s ‘Napoleon in Exile or A Voice from St Helena’- “I know the name of every English general who has distinguished himself and I never heard of you except as a clerk to Blucher or as a commandant of brigands’- had he actually distinguished himself or was he one of the many generals who bought their way to higher command?

    Napoleon also said “ministers never acknowledge themselves to be in error” (a very apt political observation, as accurate today as it was when he uttered it) the minister for colonial affairs (Bathurst, i think it was) was technically Lowe’s superior, and thus the instructions came from him. Obviously it wouldn’t have been appropriate to send someone like Wellington is Lowe’s stead- Wellington was, I would argue, irreplaceable as far as the British were concerned, he seemed without a doubt to be their best General as well as being irreplaceable from the PR point of view, but Lowe seemed to be expendable (if something happened, of course, ministers would never accept the blame, they would shoulder it off to someone like Lowe.) I’m not suggesting that they chose Lowe simply because he was expendable, but would it likely have factored into the decision?

    Also there is the presence of one other person who seems somewhat interesting. We all know Marshal Poniatowski, the Polish Prince/General/Marshal of the Empire, who died in the Battle of Liepzig in 1813. Some young lad by the name of Poniatowski made his way to St Helena and spent a short while there before going/being sent back to Europe. Was he the son of the Marshal?

    There seems to be some hyperbole in Napoleon’s comments on Lowe, as reported by O’Meara, “I would rather have a tooth drawn than have an interview with him” (remember, teeth may well be drawn without anaesthetic”- this may be true, and it may be hyperbole. we all know that Napoleon loved the King of Rome to bits. O’Meara also records Napoleon as saying “Even if my son came [to St Helena] and it were required that he had to be presented by Lowe, I would not see him” does Napoleon actually mean it, or do you think he would go weak at the knees as it were if the King of Rome somehow made his way there?

    On the general subject of Napoleon at St Helena, I’m wondering if either Cameron, David or anyone else out there has seen the film “Monsieur N” a Franco-British film from 2002, with Richard E Grant as Hudson Lowe and Philippe Torreton as Napoleon. Frankly, I love it. Just as Albert Dieudonné is Napoleon at the start of his career, Torreton is Napoleon at St Helena. It offers a really good, and seemingly accurate portrayal of Napoleon’s life on St Helena, even if the events are more fictional. One that i implore you to talk about when you two do the episode on Napoleonic cinema Cameron alluded to way back.

  2. Trevor Hardcastle


    Having heard that much about Charles Maurice de TALLEYRAND, I realised that he is a fascinating character because of the outstanding survival skills. Do you have any plans to give more details about the great politician in this or any other shows?


  3. austin

    Hi guys great show. (This refers to the biography podcast since i cant seem to post there). i was wondering if mabye you could do a show about Scipio Africanas, the Roman General who defeated Hannibal. Im not much of an expert on early roman history but i do believe that he was a very important figure. I know you might want to do Hannibal first but mabye afterwards. thanks. By the way, any news on a julius ceaser podcast?

  4. Hi, Congratulations on your program, I’m glad to know that I’m not the only Napoleon Geek in the world. I was listening this episode and I came to know about the Napoleonic Mexican Institute. I’m Mexican, therefore it’s quite interesting to learn that such Institute exists, since is almost unknown the relationship between Mexico and Napoleon, however is very important since Napoleon invaded Spain and this crisis helped to consolidate the Mexican Independence and mostly for all the colonies in America under Spaniard grasp.
    Congratulations again and I’m looking forward to listen the next episode.
    Best regards

  5. Peter Horne

    This reply is not for episode #43 (haven’t heard it yet), but rather an enthusiastic “Way to Go” gentlemen for the entire series. Bumped into the cast while surfing things Napoleonic and have had it on my player ever since. It’s only been a few days and I’m on episode 10 – just getting to the major military matters.

    Each episode you ask for feedback so I thought I’d pen my appreciation for all of this fascinating historical detail. You sometimes apologize for going overtime, but I say – if your voices can stand the strain – keep it coming. Even when you stray off topic, the conversation is worth listening to. Nothing wrong with a 3 hour show. As you said, we listener’s can pause for distractions (like wives, kids, work, etc.) if we have to.

    I have already downloaded your Biography Show podcasts for later enjoyment. As far as I am concerned, this is THE best way for us dabblers to hear more about historical figures and events. Thank you very much.

  6. David

    Having just discovered this podcast using a google search on napoleon, I must say that this is not only one of the best history podcast I’ve come across so far, but literally one of the best podcast. Napoleonic history is one my favorite historical period and I’m looking forward or should I say backward listening to all 43 episodes.
    (sorry for my bad english ::.)

  7. Cameron

    Adam – I haven’t seen Monsieur N yet! I’ve been wanting to see it since it came out! I should try to buy a copy somewhere. I’ve heard it’s pretty good.

    Trevor – as we’re nearly at the end (sob!) of the linear story, we do intend doing shows on several of the important characters. I’m sure Talleyrand will get a look in. Scoundrel that he was!

    Austin – great ideas, definitely!

    Arturo – Olah! Glad you discovered us! Always good to meet a new Napoleon geek!

    Peter – thanks for the kind comments but don’t tempt us into doing a 3 hour show! Beware of what you wish for, as my mother told me once (I didn’t listen!).

    David – thanks for joining us and for the kind comments about the show! Nothing wrong with your English sir!

  8. Interesting stuff as always. Thanks guys.

    With respect to whether Napoleon should have been treated as a legitimate Head of State, there is the issue of the plebiscite held under his auspices in 1815. The turnout was only about 20% which suggests that Napoleon’s popular support was tiny. With no democratic legitimacy why should he be treated as anything other than a usurper?

  9. Cameron

    ROFL, oh Colin you crack me up. Tell me… what “democratic legitimacy” did the Kings of England, Prussia, Austria and Russia have exactly that gave them such high authority?

  10. But the kings of those countries didn’t hold a plebiscite to justify their positions. Napoleon had an amazing career but there is no hiding the fact that by the end of it he wasn’t just loathed throughout the rest of Europe, even the French were sick to death of him.

    His life makes a great story but by 1815 Europe had had almost continuous war since 1789. Some countries, Spain and France itself for example, were completed devastated. It is little wonder that Napoleon was shunted off to St Helena. The further you could get him away the better was probably the consensus.

  11. Cameron

    Well there’s no denying the French were probably sick of their men dying on the battlefields of Europe but, as we’ve said on the show many times, you can hardly blame Napoleon. Have a look at the lengths he went to so sue for peace after Elba, only to be ignored by the warmongering Kings of Europe.

    As for the plebiscite, at least Napoleon was trying for democracy. I say again, when did the kings of Europe get voted in by their people exactly?

  12. Monarchy isn’t a great system of government and I personally would always go for a republic. But a military dictatorship established by a coup d’etat, which is what Napoleon had, is worse. That was why he tried to pass himself off as an emperor. I don’t think it was simply a constitutional manoeuvre to outflank the Bourbons. He didn’t just have a coronation he also created a new class of aristocrats.

    There is no way you can twist it. Great man as he was, Napoleon owed his power to coercion. He was not remotely a progressive.

  13. Adam

    Hear hear Cameron. why was George III on the throne of England? go back to William the Conqueror, and why was he there? because he killed (well, not personally, but his army) King Harold in the Battle of Hastings and essentially bribed the nobles he hadn’t killed into supporting him.

    and a question: all the other kings of europe had, as part of their title “by the grace of god” (hah, by the grace of my killing the guy here before me) Napoleon didn’t ever use that as part of his title, did he? I don’t think that he did.

  14. Well in fact George III only had the throne because the British parliament had strict rules about what kind of monarch was acceptable. Only a hundred years before James II had been got rid of and replaced by a more acceptable alternative. Britain wasn’t a fully functional modern liberal democracy but it was the closest you would get to it at the time.

    Napoleon had come to power in a coup and maintained his position by running a military dictatorship and a police state. He had no moral superiority to the feudal despots and was well behind progressive democracies like Britain and Holland.

  15. Hi, gang,

    I find it amusing that when Napoleon tries an admittedly imperfect effort to demonstrate the people’s support for him that he is criticized because the turnout in the last election wasn’t very high! How about the others that he had? Anyway, of course his popularity wasn’t as high in 1815 as it had been, and of course people were tired of war, and there is no doubt that many French were not completely elated that he had returned. Still, the allies, especially the French under Louis XVIII, had violated the treaty that sent him to Elba, so blame them, not him! Had he won Waterloo, his popularity would have soared, as it would have had the Allies been willing to make peace with him rather than demanding more war.

    And Britain a progressive democracy? In 1815? Oh, please!

    Adam, your comments on Lowe are interesting. I’m not sure about the ‘big dog’ theory, but there was certainly a clash of personalities. While I give Lowe full credit for wanting to get off on the right foot, the fact remains that he was simply not the right man for the job. Regardless of orders from on high, someone in that delicate position really needed to know how to be flexible, and Lowe was anything but that!

    There is no relationship between the Poniatowski who was a marshal and the Poniatowski on St Helena. You can read all about him in:

    Watson, George Leo De St. M. A Polish Exile with Napoleon: Embodying the Letters of Captain Piontkowski to General Sir Robert Wilson and Many Documents from the Lowe Papers, the Colonial Office Records, the Wilson Manuscripts, the Capel Lofft Correspondence, and the French and Genevese Archives Hitherto Unpublished. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1912.

    Nice to be back, and keep the comments and the ideas coming!!


  16. Kyle


    First off, I recently downloaded and became a listener at the beginning of this summer and have caught up since then to episode #43. My thanks and regards to such educated and selfless individuals for sharing both of your opinions and expertise on Napoleon. Being a college student (majoring in history and education) I know that a college class on Napoleon could cost a lot more than I’m paying for this… which is nothing. For all of these things I appreciate.

    As usual I would like to say that the run time for the episodes are perfect. I listen to them at work and it helps the time go by faster and is more enjoyable. I would also like to know if there is anything new about the Caesar podcast?

    My question that pertains to your show becomes relevant in either episode 34, 35, or 36. Both of you reached an agreement or made the assumption that Napoleon was the FIRST person, and one of the few, in history for an entire country to declare war on an individual. Granted, the entire country of Great Britain wouldn’t take their entire army to battle just Napoleon single handedly (not that he couldn’t wipe them out himself… no pun intended to the English). My question, or perhaps insight could be wrong but I leave it to you scholarly men to decide.

    One of my greatest hero’s and war generals of all time is Hannibal Barca. During the second Punic War, Hannibal moved his forces past the Pyrenees mountains of Spain and sacked a Roman village. Rome then sent ambassadors to Carthage with two options. Either hand over Hannibal to the Romans or face another war. As we all know war broke out among the two empires and Hannibal defeated in the end. However, in almost every account, including the primary sources, the Second Punic War is often times referred to as “Hannibal’s War.” In fact, the expression “Hannibal is at the gates!” was an expression made during the this war signifying fear.

    There are also other points but I do not wish to take up too much of YOUR time haha. But with the given points, would you say that Hannibal, and not Napoleon, was a first for a country to declare war on a single person? Again I only ask your opinion and do not mean to criticize… I find the best was for me to learn is to ask and to listen.

    Thanks again for this podcast!
    -Faithful listener Kyle.

  17. Kyle,

    That is a very interesting point and thanks for pointing it out. Still, the war was declared against Carthage, not Hannibal, so I’ll stick by my comments on the podcast. But as I always tell my students, there is no such thing as a bad question.

    Where are you going to college?


  18. Remember that in 1815 Britain was only 15 years away from the Great Reform Act. It was a long time before France got to that stage. It is very easy to argue that Napoleon held up democratic progress in Britain. It might just about be possible to argue that Napoleon wasn’t an out and out warmonger – but he was hardly averse to war. By contrast William Pitt was almost pathetically unwilling to get into the war with France. Pitt had started out as a very progressive figure but his reforms were derailed by the continual grind of having to fight France. Without someone as bellicose as Bonaparte on the other side of the Channel it is possible that Britain might have become more democratic more quickly.

  19. Bellicose as Bonaparte? Has a nice ring but not much reality. How about if GB had not broken the Peace of Amiens? That might have helped the march to democracy in both countries. And fair enough, both sides could have done better, but in the final analysis it was King George’s government that has the greatest responsibility. I’ll certainly admit that the constant wars didn’t help the cause of democracy in France or GB, but if you blame Napoleon for those wars, well, you haven’t been swayed by a word I’ve said or written.


  20. Greg McP

    It sounds like the Ideals of Napoleon had quite a strong affect on the politics of Great Britain. He helped plant the seed of the idea that you really don’t need a King to rule a country. Someone posted a note in one of these blogs about how upset Beethoven was at Napoleon declaring himself an Emperor. I think that shows that all around Europe, intelligent people were attracted to the ideas that he initially epitomized, but eventually betrayed to a degree.

    He was a spark for change. An imperfect one.
    And I think I am on David’s side, in that it would have been an amazing wonderful thing if GB and France could have been allies and a force for positive change in Europe. I guess it was just a bit too early for GB to take that step. The old world still had too much power.

  21. @Greg – Well I think that Great Britain had made a pretty significant step in the direction of not needing a king to rule the country when we cut Charles the First’s head off.

    @David – I have been influenced by your views quite a lot. I am nowhere near as anti-Napoleon as I was before I listened to the podcasts. The town I grew up in on the south coast of England still has two pretty major Napoleonic war defense sites. He really is still a bogeyman and a national enemy.

  22. Hi, Colin,

    Glad to hear I’ve had some influence! 🙂 Where did you grow up? I’ve been to the UK many times and love it, and have been on the Victory, Apsley House, etc. Yes, eliminating Charles I was a step forward, but getting Cromwell was no treat, and you ended up with a monarchy again. The Glorious Revolution was a better step forward and the Magna Carta yet another one. But progress was uneven, as it is most places, and it is wrong to suggest that GP was more progressive than Napoleonic France.

    Thanks for your support, Greg. As I said in Napoleon’s Road to Glory, what a pity that the two most progressive major countries in Europe were always at war. But it is clear who was to blame for that!



  23. I am from Eastbourne David. There is a line of defensive towers along the coast with the largest one right on the beach in Eastbourne.

    will give you the idea.

    From some hills you can see the whole line on a clear day. And at night you can see the lights of France across the Channel.

    Its often assumed, and it is probably true, that had Napoleon got across the Channel he would have been successful. But it is clear even today that the British were planning serious resistance.

  24. Hi, Colin. Thanks for the photos. I’m glad to see the high state of preservation. I visited Ft George in Scotland a few years ago and was really happy to see how well its been preserved as well (there was a chance that Napoleon would be sent there instead of St Helena). There is no question that the British were very concerned about a French invasion. There was quite a bit of organizing done to prepare for such an event and at one point there was a bit of a scare. I have at least one book on the topic that may be of interest: Lloyd, Peter A. The French Are Coming! The Invasion Scare 1803-5. Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1991.



  25. Greg McP

    Of course it’s obvious that the French Revolution would scare the heck out of both Royalty and Commoners alike.
    The Reign of Terror and all those heads chopped off wouldn’t exactly endear the rest of the world to the new French way of doing things .

  26. Helge

    Hi guys I’ve enjoyed your show. How sad that it’s coming to an end.
    My view of Napoleon has changed completely, I have learned a lot, and my admiration has to Napoleon has grown. … Although Denmark lost its fleet 1801 (2.nd largest in Europe?) partly because of its support to Napoleon. But it was Nelson who did it after all. The British also bombed Copenhagen in 1807. It was the first terror bombing of civilians in history. They used rockets!
    Concerning Napoleon I know about three aspects, which you haven’t discussed, or only mentioned briefly.
    1) The fact that Napoleon was so tremendously hard working. He often worked day and night constantly sending out orders. Pretty centralized though. Much like France is today, where the French president has greater authority than the American president.
    2) Napoleon and hemroids. I know it’s a delicate matter, but I’m not trying to bring disgrace upon him.
    Napoleon is said to have suffered greatly from hemroid pain during many of his battles, including the winter 1812 in Russia. Years ago my history teacher read out loud from a book, horribly describing in detail how painful this was to Napoleon. (This was to punish a classmate who made fun about hemroids. )
    Napoleon is also supposed to have used bathing to help ease the hemroid pain. He actually took a bath when he returned to Paris after the battle of Waterloo. Why was it so important to him to take this bath? Why was he so extremely passive at this time, when in stead he should have dissolved the parliament?
    Having this pain may be he even used drugs, which wasn’t that controversial in those days.
    If it’s true that he suffered from hemroids, it explains why he in many important situations didn’t act as the fabulous Napoleon we like to remember. Maybe the hemroids were his worst enemy after all.
    3) While he was on St. Helena Napoleon is said have suffered from a disease that influenced his hormone-balance. This gradually turned him into a more female like person both physically and psychically.

  27. kris

    Great podcast guys. Have you ever heard of john churchill the 1st duke of marlborough.Theres no doubt in my mind that he is as importent as napoleon yet very few people have heard of him.

  28. Cameron

    Hey Kris, thanks for the kind comments. Winston’s great great great great great great great grandfather was a pretty good general but “as important as Napoleon”? How so?

  29. @Helge – yeah, well sorry about Copenhagen. I can see how that might be a bit annoying. But I do buy lots of your Danish bacon if that is any consolation. A similar situation arose in the Second World War when the Royal Navy had to sink the French Fleet at Oran to stop it falling into the hands of the Germans. Also I think you might find that Holland had a hand in undermining Danish naval power prior to Napoleon and Nelson. Britain, Portugal, Holland and Denmark were all pretty much rivals at sea and it was not a foregone conclusion that Britain would come out on top. That it did was pretty much down to Napoleon.

    @Chris – I agree that Marlborough is both fascinating and important. If he had stuck with James II in 1688 we might have had a catholic United Kingdom including Ireland with maybe a breakaway protestant Scotland and a protestant English Republican Army carrying out terrorist attacks.

    @Cameron and Dave. Thanks yet again for a truly classic set of podcasts. A lot of us are going to have to try and rebuild our lives when the series finally ends.

  30. kris

    Hi Cameron

    Its a tough sell to say Marlborough was more importent than Napoleon but I have to say that there is a case for it. Like Napoleon he was a fascinating character and the greatest general of his day. Like Napoleon he came from relatively humble beginnings to become a great leader. Unlike Napoleon his most importent act was abandon a cause rather than to create one. JamesII was a Catholic intent on bringing England back into the church. Marlborough abandoned him for the protestant William of Orange. This act changed the world profoundly. What would have happened in all the countries that Britain and the British Empire influenced in the future had the religion of the state been Catholic rather than Protestant. I believe that almost every part of the globe would be changed, from an Ireland that would remain in the UK to a Scotland that would colonise its own empire. Of course thats just speculation but you see what i mean?
    Whether this was a good or bad decision does not matter so much but it certainly was importent.
    Actually I brought up his name mainly because I was wondering why this fascinating guy was not more famous and it got me thinking. Who are the most importent people in history who we’ve never heard of?

  31. Cameron

    Kris, yeah that’s an interesting perspective. I’m not sure Australia would have been any different had England been Catholic – except perhaps Ned Kelly wouldn’t have been given such a rough time – but it’s certainly interesting. Perhaps we should cover him on the Biography Show?

  32. Cameron, I think John Churchill would be a great subject for the biography show. The 1688 chapters of Macualay’s History of England from the Reign of James II are a good source.

    I think Australia would have been either French or Dutch if England had reverted to catholicism. In my opion the French Revolution wouldn’t have happened if Louis XIV had been more successful militarily. Without a revolution you have no Napoleon. Whatever we all think of the man, it is beyond doubt that by 1815 he had left France in an appalling state and no longer the world’s major power. This gave Britain its opportunity to become the most important imperial power.

  33. ep thorn

    Having finally caught up is bittersweet… because now I’m no longer able to listen to an episode every day and have to wait weeks… the horror….

  34. Ed

    I am a long time listener and a big fan. However I’d like to encourage you to consider a Napoleon 201 podcast as the 101 seems to be coming to a natural close.

    The 201 would offer your thousands of devoted fans the next level of content on this great man and his times.

    For example, the next series could have:

    1) Cameron and David’s Soapbox – Your Top 5 Lists done David Letterman Style

    – Top 5 Accomplishments (political, social or military)
    – Top 5 Mistakes (political, social or military)
    – Top 5 Greatest Battles (deciding fate or just favorite
    – Top 5 “What If” moments (social, political, military)
    – Top 5 Most Glorious Personal Moments
    – Top 5 Most Personal Heartbreaks
    – Fly on the Wall – name place and time where you’d
    want to “see it live”. Why?

    2) The People and Their Culture

    – Deep dive into each of Napoleon’s Marshals
    – Deep dive into other key people who were major players in France and Europe
    – Discuss ordinary people with remarkable stories
    – Discuss major domestic issues and how they were handled
    – Personal Memoirs – Recommendations or Favorite excerpts

    3) The Army and its Battles

    – How was recruiting done, men trained, officers made?
    – What was Napoleon’s core beliefs for winning a battle?
    – What were the advantages and disadvantages of Calvary, Infantry, Artillery (types, purposes, cooperation)
    – How did command and control work during the fighting
    – What was the daily life of the infantry, calvary, artillery like
    – Where did all those great uniforms come from?
    – How terrible was the medical situation after battle? How were people taken care of? What happened to prisoners?
    – Why did Napoleon have so much military success early then seems it was hard to repeat?

    4) Today and the future

    – Your All-Time Favorite Books – Fiction and Non-Fiction
    – Your New Favorite Book – Fiction and Non-Fiction
    – Discussion on Collecting Napoleonic Era Artifacts?
    Worth investment or just personal satisfaction?
    Thoughts on Buying and Selling Artifacts
    Do and don’ts
    – Respond to Q&A from listeners email (would be great)
    – Special Pod-Cast with Guest speakers?
    – Ultimate Napoleon Vacation – Best places to visit
    – What is the most interesting areas of research today?
    – News on relevant WW events

    Thanks for considering!

  35. Bill Stewart

    I think Macualay’s History of England would be a very poor choice as a reference for Marlborough. Way too biased and inaccurate.

  36. R.C. Yadav

    The hateful Nation of Shopkeepers murdered the greatest military captain of the age. It deserved Hitler in that war of Blucher V/s Wellington, also known as the second world war where Wellington was nearly exterminated.

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