Lucia Elizabeth (Betsy) Balcombe was born in 1802, the second child of William Balcombe, an official of the Honourable East India Company, and his wife Jane, who were living with their family in a cottage called The Briars, on the remote Atlantic Ocean island of St. Helena. Betsy and her older sister were educated in England, but in 1814 they returned to St Helena to rejoin their parents and younger brothers. After Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, the allied powers had taken a liberal line on his exile and Napoleon was living like a monarch on the island of Elba, between the Italian coast and his own birthplace Corsica. Escape was inevitable and a small matter for a man of such resourcefulness, determination and ambition. In June of 1815 Napoleon and his army came to ruin on the muddy slopes of Waterloo in Belgium, thus putting to end to his 100 day gamble to wrench the crown from the weak Bourbon monarchy. No one was prepared to risk unleashing Napoleon on the world stage again and St Helena, containing a garrison and constantly circled by watchful warships, was as remote a prison as there was in the early 19th century. Napoleon’s residence, Longwood House, was not ready to receive him by the time of his arrival on the island in October of 1815, so he was temporarily housed in a pavilion close to The Briars. So it was that a young French speaking English girl came into contact with the man who had set Europe ablaze. She was initially terrified of him, but gradually friendship blossomed between the teenager and the 47 year old emperor. Eventually she came to call him ‘Boney’ to his face—something that would have had strong men quaking in their boots—without earning a rebuke. This remarkable story of a totally unlikely relationship will enchant everyone interested in Napoleon as a man rather than as a military leader.
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The emperor asked me one day, whether I was acquainted with Captain Wallis, who commanded the Podargus; and on my replying in the affirmative, he said, somewhat abruptly, “What does he think of me?” It so happened, that, in the case of this officer, the prejudice against Napoleon (and indeed against everything French, at that time common to all Englishmen) was sharpened, upon the whetstone of painful experience, into the acuteness of rancour and bitter hatred; perhaps the word prejudice is hardly a fit term to apply to that particular mania which then existed,—a feeling which, first instilled into our infant minds by our nurses, “grew with our growth, and strengthened with our strength,” until it fully ripened into that settled jealousy, which was but too apparent in all the transactions which took place between the individual inhabitants of the hostile countries.<br>
It was, therefore, not without the assistance of all my small stock of girlish assurance that I ventured to answer, “Oh! he has the most abominable opinion of you in the world; he says that you shut him up for ten years in the Temple; and there is no end to the barbarities that he lays to your charge. He declared to us, that, on one occasion, they removed him from one cell to another, which had been just vacated by the corpse of a man who had shot himself through the head, and that he met the body on the way. Moreover, his gaolers had not the decency to wash away the dead man’s brains, which had been scattered on the wall, but left them there for the special annoyance of the living occupant. Besides that, he accuses you of nearly starving him: to such an extent did he suffer from want of food, that he and Captain Shaw, a fellow-sufferer, once tore a live duck to pieces, and devoured it like cannibals.”<br>
The emperor observed, that it was not to be wondered at that Captain Wallis was so inveterate against him, as he was the lieutenant who, together with Wright, had been convicted of landing spies and brigands in his territories, for which they were afterwards reported to have been murdered by his (the emperor’s) orders. The conspiracy of Georges, Moreau and Pichegru, in which Captains Wright and Wallis were supposed to have been mixed up, has been so often described, and so ably discussed, that there are few who have taken an interest in the history of Napoleon, but must be well acquainted with all the circumstances connected with it. I remember being greatly interested with Wallis’s narrative of his escape from prison, as it was told to us by him. Although years have passed since I heard it, still it is as freshly graven on my memory as when first my wondering ears listened to the exciting history.<br>
After ten long years of dreary captivity, urged by that powerful stimulus which hope builds upon despair, with the assistance of a rusty knife which he had contrived to conceal from his gaoler, he succeeded in moving one of the bars from his prison windows. The first great obstacle being removed, he found he had to overcome another, not less formidable. A hundred feet beneath the aperture which his patience and skill had succeeded in making large enough for his egress, flowed the still, dark waters of the Seine. As a drowning man catches at a straw, so did he seize upon whatever was likely to break his fall; and with a rope of no greater length and thickness than he was able to make out of his linen, he lowered himself as far as it would reach. The leap was fearful, but the very walls he touched gave him a convulsive shudder, when they brought to his mind the horrors of captivity and its concomitant evils, of which starvation was not the least.<br>
The splash of his fall into the water was loud enough to rouse the sentinels; he was senseless from its stunning effects for some seconds, and when he came to himself, struck out for the opposite bank. The bullets whizzed round him in all directions, but the darkness of the night was sufficient protection, and he gained the friendly shore in safety. By the aid of an accomplice, he obtained a pedlar’s dress, in which, after numberless hair-breadth escapes, he reached the coast, and was taken on board an English frigate. He was afterwards appointed to the Podargus, and sent to cruise off St. Helena, he being, naturally enough, supposed to be the best guard to set over one, whom he hated as deeply as he did Napoleon.<br>
We always made a point of riding to Longwood every New Year’s day, to wish the emperor a happy new year, and we dined with him or Madame Bertrand, though more frequently with the former. I recollect one New Year’s day I had been anticipating a present from the emperor all the morning, and as the day wore on, my hopes began to wax faint, and I was beginning to make up my mind to have nothing new and pretty to feast my eyes upon, when Napoleon himself waddled into Madame Bertrand’s room, where my sister and I were seated, and perhaps rather enviously viewing some elegant souvenirs of which the emperor had made the countess a present that morning. In his hand were two beautiful Sévres cups, exquisitely painted, one representing himself in Egypt, in the dress of a Mussulman; upon the other was delineated an Egyptian woman drawing water. “Here, Mesdemoiselles Betsee and Jane, are two cups for you; accept them as a mark of the friendship I entertain for you both, and for your kindness to Madame Bertrand.”