WILLIAM BALCOMBE and NAPOLEON BONAPARTE

"St Helena Story", Dame Mabel Brookes, pub. Heinemann, 1960, page 5.

A certain mystery had been woven around William Balcombe, and the townsfolk made the most of it. Today one knows only hearsay; then there was speculation as to his antecedents and gossip played with the possibility of a royal father. It made an item of interest in the little community, which became rather proud of it. Born in England, he and his brother were educated by the King’s Bounty - their father, captain of a frigate, having reputedly been lost at sea with his ship. Rumour circulated at the time that these two boys were natural sons of one of the Georges. They spent much time at Carlton House during their young life, and probably the speculation arose from this and the circumstances of their education, which, however, was usual procedure in those days: the sons of officers lost at sea while in the service of their country were often assisted in their schooling by such means.

William’s elder brother, a soldier, remained equerry to the Regent for many years and eventually retired as Inspector-General of Yeomanry about 1847. William’s lot as a sailor held more in it of drama. Hot-tempered and impulsive, he fell foul of a superior officer by refusing to transmit his order for a flogging which he considered unjust, and, but for the Regent’s intervention, he would have been summarily cashiered. He was allowed to resign his commission, however, and in due course a post was found for him abroad as Naval Agent and Purveyor for the East India Company in St Helena. Although it made him a virtual exile, the post held promise for anyone who knew and understood sailors and ships. William had fought in the Battle of the Nile and was content to live away from England. His wife sailed for the island with no misgiving, but, to judge from their recorded comments, her family considered she had been little better than transported to Botany Bay. One letter, a folded document, written before the days of envelopes and criss-crossed in careful lines of script, bewails the fact that she was lost to her own people for ever.

It is not easy to recapture her quality. She had been widowed once, probably by war, and was appraised as puritanical by her contemporaries, but by Napoleon was considered almost the living image of Josephine. The family hold memories of her good looks and good housekeeping, when she finally reached Sydney and settled in the Colonial Treasurer’s house, while William Balcome was beginning to arrange the new office to which he had been appointed.

"A St. Helena Who’s Who", Arnold Chaplin, MD, pub. Arthur L. Humphries, 1919, pages 52/54:

Balcombe, William (1779-1829). Superintendent of Public Sales under the East India Company, and Purveyor to Longwood.

William Balcombe was a member of a family settled at Swallowfield, Reading, and came to St Helena in 1807. In addition to his official position with the East India Company, he was a merchant in partnership with William Fowler and Joseph Cole, the principal business of the firm being that of purveyors to the various ships touching at Jamestown. The two eldest children were born before the Balcombes came to St Helena, but a son was born on the island and was named Alexander Beatson, after the governor of that time. On October 18th, 1815, Napoleon took up his residence in a small pavilion in the garden of Balcombe’s house, "The Briars", and here he remained until his removal to Longwood on December 10th. Napoleon at once showed an interest in Balcombe’s younger daughter Betsy, and his fondness for this child is one of the most pleasing episodes in the history of the captivity. Balcombe owed the appointment of his firm as purveyors to Longwood to the intimacy which existed between Napoleon and his family, and on account of these friendly relations the Balcombes frequently visited the Emperor at Longwood, and on several occasions they had the honour of being included in the company at dinner.

The close business alliance, however, between Balcombe and the residents at Longwood soon aroused the suspicion of Sir Hudson, and it became evident to the purveyor that it would not be safe to remain in St Helena much longer. He, therefore, left the island with his family in the "Winchelsea" on March 18th, 1818, and soon after his departure Lowe received proof of his suspicion that Balcome had been acting as an intermediary in the transmission of clandestine correspondence to Europe, and in negotiating bills drawn by Napoleon. It was, therefore, impossible for Balcome to return to St Helena, although he frequently petitioned Lord Bathurst to be allowed to do so, and he remained in England living chiefly at Chudleigh, in Devonshire, in great straits, until 1823, when, after having been approached by Lowe, he filed an affidavit in his favour, in the case of Lowe v. O’Meara. This affidavit probably induced Lowe to withdraw the objections he had steadily made to Balcombe’s advancement. Indeed, in the "Lowe Papers", vol. 20,233, is a letter from Balcome, dated 1823, in which he expresses the hope that Sir Hudson will now overlook any differences that may have existed.

Very soon after this Balcome was appointed by the British Government to the important post of Colonial Treasurer of New South Wales, and he left England with his family to take up his duties, which he performed with great ability until his death in 1829. It should not be forgotten that Lord Bathurst appointed Balcome to this post, and this action may be regarded as sufficient evidence that his Lordship did not take a very serious view of his supposed irregularities in St. Helena.

"The Napoleonic Collection" (booklet), pub. National Trust of Australia (Victoria) 1989, page 3:

The Balcombes lived on St Helena until March 1818 when they returned to England. William Balcombe was apparently recalled to London on suspicion of treason for assisting Napoleon's cause whilst acting as the Purveyor to 'Longwood'. This may have involved the secret dispatch of letters to Europe for the Emperor. A charge was never brought against Balcombe and in 1823, through the influence of his brother Rober, Equerry to the Prince Regent, he was appointed Colonial Treasurer in New South Wales. The family arrived in Sydney the following year. William Balcombe died in Sydney in 1829, and most of his family remained in Australia thereafter.

"The Diaries and Letters of G.T.W.B. Boyes, vol. 1, 1820-1832, ed. Peter Chapman, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Introduction, page 18: His letters for the period include a vivid evocation of colonial life and a gallery of characters: ... William Balcomb, Colonial Treasurer and Bonaparte’s ex-host at St Helena, destined to leave his family in penury, but who outmaneuvered Boyes in a contest for a commodious house; ...

page 187. Letter no. 5, Sydney, 6th May 1824. Mr. Balcombe /the St Helena man/ who is sent out here as Colonial Treasurer, has not been acting like an English Gentleman. He has taken the only eligible house for an Officer over my head - after I had come to regular terms with the Proprietor - and what is more extraordinary the Governor, who between ourselves is a great fool, has lent his name to the proceeding. I felt that I was acting merely in Lithgow’s absence, or perhaps Mr. Balcomb might have found a house of less dimensions quite large enough for his own accommodation. It certainly was not an affair for me to take up as a private Individual and therefore I content myself with telling His Excellency officially my opinion of the transaction.1

1 In his disappointment at failing to secure this ‘eligible’ residence, Boyes is less than fair. In his application for the house, dated as late as 23 April, he is quite clear that he ‘closed with Mr. Coxe [the proprietor] as far as my limited power would permit, taking care to stipulate of course that the approbation of A.C.G. Lithgow would be held necessary to make binding my part of the contract.’ It is clear that the ‘regular terms’ were decidedly provisional ...

Appendix 11, ‘Austral-Asiaticus’s Letter to ‘The Morning Chronicle’, page 620

To the editor of the "Morning Chronicle"

Sydney, New South Wales, March 19, 1825.

Sir ... And to what purpose have the anticipated savings (the actual saving has been none) been applied by His Majesty’s Ministers; ... For example: the former Colonial Treasurer, then denominated Treasurer of the Police Fund, whose integrity in that office was unimpeached, and unimpeachable, and who received for the performance of its duties one hundred pounds sterling per annum, has been displaced, to make way for a Mr. BALCOMBE, of St. Helena notoriety, with a salary of 1200L. per annum - an allowance of 150L for a Clerk and 150L for a house! Illustrious specimen of financial economy!! ...

page 229, Letter no. 13, Sydney 8th May 1825

I have told you already that I was very much offended with Balcomb in his mode of treating for a house - from that time I refused all intercourse with him - until last 23rd April when we all ... dined together - the Sheriff had requested me to take the bottom of the table - but I was not in very good spirits that day and declined. Balcomb overheard what passed and thinking it a fair opportunity for stopping a breach - offered his services and took the seat. I got as far off as I could. As soon as the soup was removed I heard him roaring out in the midst of sixty people at least: "Boyes, Boyes, will you allow me the pleasure of drinking wine with you?" He drank his bumper and I pledged him. So there was an end of our difference. I met him at Government House the other day where we were assembled to be introduced to the new Archdeacon /Scott/ and we shook hands.

page 354, Letter no. 44, Hobart Town , 4th August 1830

I have worn a shirt of your making and stockings and gloves of your sending - and an old chariot of Balcombe’s /long since dead, the man56 I mean and not the vehicle/ in which I have had many a ride at Sydney, carried me to the Barracks and brought me back.

56 William Balcombe (1779-1829), Colonial Treasurer of New South Wales, and Boyes’s old adversary of 1824, had died prematurely after an attack of dysentery, aged only 50, on 20 March 1829, leaving his wife and daughter in a ‘state of utter destitution’ ...

 

"The Emperor’s Last Island" by Julia Blackburn, orig. published in Great Britain by Martin Secker & Warburg Limited, London, 1991. Also published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

p. 48 - 51 (Speaking of Napoleon’s arrival at Longwood) ... Napoleon saw far below them a low white building set in a very green garden, and he watched it as it grew closer. The family who lived there were at the same time standing on the lawn of their garden studying the slow progress of the five horsemen.

Following the windings of the road they now gleamed in the sun’s rays and were thrown into brilliant relief by the dark background behind, and then disappearing we gazed earnestly until from some turn in the road they flashed again upon us. Sometimes we saw a single white plume, or the glitter of a weapon in the sun. To my already excited fancy, it suggested the idea of an enormous serpent with burnished scales, occasionally showing himself as he crawled to our little abode. (Mrs. Abell, p. 17).

The house was known as 'The Briars' and it was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Balcombe and their four children. Mr. Balcombe had worked for the East India Company as the purveyor of goods on the island and he was a genial man with a large belly and a fondness for wine and conversation; his wife was said to look very much like the Empress Josephine. He had two sons who were then four and five years old, and two daughters, Betsy and Jane, who were thirteen and fifteen. The whole family had been part of the crown of spectators in Jamestown on the previous day and now as they watched Napoleon for a second time they saw him and his companions pause for a moment and then make their way ... to the house.

The unexpected guests were welcomed by the Balcombes and offered seats in the garden and refreshments. The thirteen year old Betsy was the only member of the family who could speak French fluently and since Napoleon had hardly any words of English she took on the role of intermediary. Napoleon looked intently at the house and the garden and the people and then he asked if he might be able to live here until Longwood had been made ready for him. Mr. Balcombe did not hesitate in saying that he could and messengers were at once sent to Jamestown to arrange .... Many years later Betsy Balcombe wrote a book in which she tried to describe her impressions of this guest who came to live in her family home. It is clear from what she says that, unlike most people who met Napoleon, she was not frightened of him, and although she was curious about his past life she was not particularly impressed by it. She admired his medals and decorations as if they were the plumage of same rare bird. She watched the way his eyes seemed to change color from blue to grey to brown. She felt his hair, which was as soft as the hair of a young child, and she wondered why his teeth were so dark until she realized that it came from eating so much licorice. She took his hands in her own to examine them....

Napoleon questions Betsy about her studies, her life here on the island, and most particularly about her knowledge of geography. What is the capital of France?

Paris.

Of Italy?

Rome.

Of Russia?

Petersburg now, Moscow formerly.

On my saying this he turned abruptly around, and fixing his piercing gaze full on my face, demanded sternly, Who was it who burnt it to the ground?

He repeated the question, and I stammered, I do not know. Yes, yes, he replied violently. You know very well. It was I who did it. I burnt it to the ground!

On seeing him laugh I gained a little courage and said, I believe, sir, the Russians burnt it, to get rid of the French. He again laughed and seemed pleased to find that I knew anything about the matter. (Mrs. Abell, p. 24)

Chapter 6 of Blackburn’s book is devoted to the time Napoleon spent living in the Pavilion in the Balcombe’s garden. Beginning on page 60 is a rather detailed description of the relationship between Betsy and Napoleon. A part of that is my own tiny association between my ancestry and Napoleon: Betsy tells Napoleon that a certain Miss Legg is coming to the house and is very much afraid of that ogre of a military man called Bonaparte, so he goes to meet this girl with his hair ruffled up on end, his head lolling on one side and his face contorted, and when he is close to her he lets out a savage howl. The girl is terrified, and runs away...... (the Legg family being my ancestry.)

p. 67 (the author is discussing a visit with a self-proclaimed Napoleonic expert.) One last question, and that was about the diary that was kept by Betsy Balcombe during Napoleon’s first three years of exile. He assured me that such a diary did not exist, and even if it did but had somehow escaped his knowledge, there was no point in my consulting it, since there was nothing that a fourteen year old girl could possibly contribute to our understanding of the final stage in the life of the Emperor. He felt that the book she had written many years later, as Mrs. Abell, "Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon during the first three years of his captivity," was an extremely suspect work, and much of it was the product of the fantasy of a sad, middle aged woman who was short of cash and wanted the status of being in the public eye. He did, however, have a first edition of this book if I would care to see it. It was a very fine copy in perfect condition, signed by the author with hand-coloured engravings and stiff thick leather binding.

p. 70 After this wide circle of thought let me return to Betsy Balcombe’s account of the Napoleon she knew. The diary does exist and it has apparently made its way into a collection of papers and documents that lie in the archive department of an art gallery in Melbourne, Australia. It is not a narrative by any means, just a few brief jottings that leap over months and ignore a great deal of what is happening in the outside world. (she adds some description of specific topics covered.) But using this diary and Betsy’s own book, as well as a few other scattered references, it is possible to reconstruct some of the things that happened during the first seven weeks of Napoleon’s imprisonment.

p. 135 In September 1817 Gourgaud goes to Plantation House weeping like a child and he begs Lowe to give him permission to leave St. Helena. He says, "I see His Majesty only a quarter of an hour a day, and then just to watch a game of chess, put the pieces away, or snuff out the candles.’ (Gourgaud, in Aubrey, p. 338). ...he leaves the island in a thick tangle of blame and recrimination ... On the same boat that takes Gourgaud are the Balcombe family, under a cloud of suspicion because Mr. Balcombe is thought to have tried to smuggle letters out of Longwood.

There are a number of other fleeting references to the Balcombe name in the book.

Sources cited by Blackburn:

ABELL, Mrs. L. E.: Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, London, John Murray, 1944.

AUBREY, Octave. St. Helena, trans. Arthur Livingston, London, Gollancz, 1937.

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