Thursday 15 October 2015

Napoleon's Exorbitant Expense Account

Lally Brown has been a friend of the Guide for a long time and today, on the anniversary of Napoleon's exile to Saint Helena, I am thrilled to invite Lally to the salon to take a closer look at the emperor's incredible expense account!


I began researching into Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile and death on St. Helena when fate washed me onto the shores of this remote island in the South Atlantic and I found myself living in the house built in 1816 for Count and Countess Bertrand (Napoleon’s Grand Maréchal du Palais) directly opposite Napoleon’s home of Longwood House. 

Bertrand’s Cottage, Longwood, St. Helena
Bertrand’s Cottage, Longwood, St. Helena

Countess Françoise-Elisabeth (Fanny) Bertrand
Countess Françoise-Elisabeth (Fanny) Bertrand
As I wandered round the gardens and rooms of Longwood House I wondered what life had been like for this extraordinary man who had ruled France and dominated Europe and then found himself confined to this isolated island as a Prisoner of War. 
Longwood House 1816 – Napoleon’s home on St. Helena
Longwood House 1816 – Napoleon’s home on St. Helena
I decided I needed to know the truth, not hearsay or deliberate misinformation now claiming to be historical fact. ‘Every error that is repeated gains credit through its very repetition’ is an accurate saying. Sifting for the truth in history is not easy, especially where it concerns Napoleon, a supreme master in the art of creating a flattering legacy. So I began the mammoth task of researching original manuscripts in the British Library relating to Napoleon’s time in exile on St. Helena. These revealed fascinating information about Napoleon’s circumstances that surprised me, not least being the provisioning of his household. Meticulous details were kept of every item of food and drink supplied to the ‘inhabitants of Longwood’ which paints a powerful picture of their life, and it is this particular aspect of my research I want to share with you today.

James Bay, St. Helena – Napoleon arrives on HMS Northumberland 1815
James Bay, St. Helena – Napoleon arrives on HMS Northumberland 1815
When Napoleon arrived at St. Helena on 15th October 1815 he had an entourage of twenty-four people. Eleven were his personal servants including a cook, taster, footman, valet, and two stablemen for the horses. The rest comprised Counts, Generals, their wives and children. The island had received only one week’s notice of Napoleon’s arrival and at first all was confusion and chaos, but after a few weeks he was installed at Longwood House (the former summer home of the Deputy Governor) with his companions, his own doctor and twelve sailors from HMS Northumberland as extra servants. 

Mr. Balcombe was appointed ‘accredited purveyor of supplies to Longwood’ with the task of provisioning the household. It was rumoured that Mr. Balcombe had a shady past, having earlier fled the Isle of Wight as a bankrupt. His daughter Betsy was the young girl who made such an impression on Napoleon when he first arrived at St. Helena. The English Government stipulated that Napoleon’s expenses should not exceed £8000 per annum, the allowance for an Army General of the highest rank. But the costs of provisioning soared and within a few months had reached over £19000. The Governor was alarmed at this extravagance and in an attempt to rein in Napoleon’s spending he sent the Assistant Commissary General to Longwood to list all expenses. Mr. Ibbetson was thorough, even costing the food for a mule. This is his list, dated September 1816:

Forage for thirteen horses daily - £720.4.7 per annum
Transport forage for one mule conveying the same - £46.10.2 per annum
Pay of soldier in charge of mule - £27.7.6 per annum
Expense of English servants attached to establishment - £675 per annum
Expense of two overseers, six carpenters, four sawyers, five masons, three plasterers and one painter - £939.17.6 per annum.
Expenses of public transport conveying the supplies furnished by the Purveyor to Longwood:
Forage for eight mules daily - £372.1.4 per annum
Pay of two muleteers in charge of the same - £109.10.0 per annum
Rations of ditto - £68.8.9 per annum
Pay of two soldiers ditto - £27.7.6
Table stores and other necessaries for the house - £2020.5.3 per annum
Wines, claret, grave, champagne and Madeira (supplied from Government Stores sent from England) - £2445.10.0 per annum
Table expenses (supplied by Mr. Balcombe) - £11,700 per annum
Mr. Balcombe's allowance of 5% on the sum as above mentioned - to be added
Salary to surgeon O'Meara - to be added

 Mr. Barry O’Meara  Napoleon’s Doctor on St. Helena 1815-1818
Mr. Barry O’Meara Napoleon’s Doctor on St. Helena 1815-1818
The Governor himself received a ‘fixed and liberal allowance of £12000 per annum in lieu of his salary’ and was expected to meet all his expenses from this sum. He was not going to allow Napoleon ‘a prisoner of war’ to exceed the limit imposed upon himself as Governor. He did, however, successfully apply to London to raise Napoleon’s allowance from £8000 to £12000 per annum, but insisted that Longwood trim their budget to suit. 

Napoleon responded angrily, threatening to dispose of his ‘plate’ privately to defray expenses over and above the £12000 limit. ‘What is the use of plate when you have nothing to eat off it?’  He ranted. He instructed poor Countess Bertrand to sell her phaeton to raise funds. The almost impossible task of trying to reduce the Longwood household expenses fell to Count Montholon, one of the Generals in Napoleon’s retinue. Count Montholon was ‘certain we cannot by any means come within the proposed sum of £12000’ maintaining ‘the greatest economy has already been established in the household to curtail expenses’. However, he wrote to Mr. Balcombe and agreed to reduce the ‘table expenses’ by restricting the supply of beef to 60 lbs per day, ‘and if a piece of salt meat be supplied daily, then 50 lbs would suffice’, but he insisted fish must be had daily ‘with a whole sheep and nine fowls’. He also made a daily saving of 3 bottles Claret, 2 Madeira, 2 beer, 6 lbs bread, and suggested they have a pig each fortnight to fatten on the refuse of the kitchen. 

It is interesting to see Count Montholon’s ‘list of wines to be brought up for daily consumption’:
9 bottles Claret, 
1 bottle Madeira, 
1 bottle Vin de Grave, 
1 bottle Champagne, 
1 bottle Constantia, 
6 bottles Teneriffe 
and finally 20 bottles of Cape wine for the servants

No wonder Countess Bertrand complained her cook was always drunk and ‘often too intoxicated to prepare our meal’. And the stablemen and postilions were ‘so frequently drunk it is positively unsafe for l’Empereur to go out in his carriage.’

But the bickering over budget continued and the quality of the produce supplied was a constant source of irritation to the Longwood household. Count Montholon grumbled that the beef sent up was inedible, the hams and cheeses rotten, and ‘the sheep are like lanterns and the fowls are like crows’. And for several days ‘we had neither champagne nor Vin de Grave and l’Empereur frequently asks for both’. Napoleon complained the wine brought up from town was giving him colic. He had experienced ‘several divers pains and commotions in his intestinal regime’ and was convinced the wine had been adulterated with lead. So convinced, he sent his doctor Mr. O’Meara into Jamestown in search of a lead testing kit. The results of the test were negative by the way!

A coop was built beside the stables at Longwood for chickens. But the rats ate 140 of them in three weeks ‘seizing them while asleep and sucking their brains out.’ Awful image!

By June 1817 the Governor had the Longwood expenses much more under his control and he provided Count Montholon with the following ‘daily victual allowance’ list: 

Meat, beef and mutton - 82 lb (since the departure of Count Las Cases and Piontkowski the meat has been reduced to 72 lb daily and 5 fowls daily.)
Bread - 66 lb
Butter - 5 lb
Lard - 2 lb 
Salad Oil - 3½ pints
Sugar candy - 4 lb
Coffee - 2 lb
Tea green - half pound, tea black - half pound
Eggs - 30
Common sugar - 5 lb
Vinegar - 1 quart
Cheese - 1 lb
Flour - 5 lb
Salt Meat - 6 lb
Fire Wood - 3 lots
Porter or Ale - 3 bottles
Wax candles - 8 lb
Vegetables - in value 20 shillings
Fruit - in value 10 shillings
Confectionery - in value 8 shillings
Per Fortnight:
Ducks - 8 no. 
Turkeys - 2 no.
Geese - 2 no. 
Loaf Sugar, Loaves - 2 no.
Fine Rice - ½ bag, 
Hams (not to exceed 14 lbs each) - 2 no.
Coals - 45 bushels
Fish - in value 80 shillings
Milk - in value 98 shillings
Fresh Butter, Salt, Mustard, Pepper, Caper, Lamp Oil and Pease per fortnight must not exceed £7.

I have difficulty imagining a daily allowance of 72 lbs of meat, especially when they were also provided with chickens, ducks, hams and fish. But the Longwood household considered this insufficient, they wanted to increase the daily allowance of beef, veal and mutton to 100 lbs, although Napoleon’s doctor, concerned for his health, was trying to persuade him to eat less red meat and more ‘green’ vegetables, particularly watercress ‘of which he is most fond’. They also wanted to raise the daily allowance of flour to 70 lbs, green tea to 7 lbs, black tea to 14 lbs, eggs to 36, rice to 5 lbs and wished to double the quantity of cheese.  Count Montholon frequently complained that the daily wine allowance was inadequate. The Governor supplied them with the following ‘Wine Statement’, actual quantities supplied for the Quarter 1st January to 31st March 1817, which seems to a moderate drinker like myself somewhat excessive for a three month period:

816 bottles Claret, 
24 bottles Port, 
120 bottles Vin de Grave, 
36 bottles Champagne, 
1620 bottles Cape, 
540 bottles Teneriffe, 
90 bottles Madeira, 
90 bottles Constantia.

By January 1820 the Longwood household finally seemed to be satisfied with the quality and quantity of provisioning. Mr. Ibbetson had taken over from Mr. Balcombe who had left to make a new life in Australia. The hams and cheeses were shipped over from Mr. Bartooalle in the Hay Market, London, and the wines imported from Messrs. Gladstones, also in London.  The wine allowance had been raised to please Count Montholon and Longwood now received, daily:
10 bottles Claret
1 bottle Champagne
3 bottles Grave or Sauterne
1 ½ Madeira
½ Constance du Cap
Additionally each month 12 bottles Brandy, 6 bottles Rum, and 6 bottles of Malaga.
For the servants, daily, 7 Teneriffe, 31 Cape Ordinary, 3 Beer, 3 Cider

Dissatisfaction over the cost and quality of provisioning the large household at Longwood was only one small grievance on Napoleon’s rather long list of complaints against the English (and Sir Hudson Lowe in particular) but I found it very revealing. Personally we had no problems provisioning ourselves on St. Helena. For two years we grew our own vegetables and fruit very successfully at Longwood, and the quality of fresh meat and fish available on island was always exceptional, but perhaps times have changed, or maybe I’m not quite as ‘fastidious’ and hard to please as those previous Longwood tenants!

I thought it might be of interest to you if I finish with details of Napoleon’s breakfast picnic of 4th October 1820, seven months before his death. He rode out to Sandy Bay at seven in the morning, accompanied by Counts Bertrand and Montholon and three servants. The picnic, brought from Longwood House, was laid out on the lawns of Sir William Doveton’s home at Mount Pleasant and Sir William and his daughter Mrs. Greentree were invited to join Napoleon for breakfast. Mrs. Greentree brought out fresh butter, jelly, eggs and watercress and some homemade ‘Orange Shrub’ water to add to the picnic table. This is what Napoleon brought to the table:

Cold pie
Potted Meat
Cold Turkey
Curried Fowl
And a very fine Salad
Champagne (of which Napoleon poured himself a tumbler)

Interesting to note that Sir William and Mrs Greentree ‘ate very little, being unaccustomed to meat for breakfast and finding the coffee too acid for their taste’.  In my humble opinion St. Helena coffee is the best in the world. Napoleon was very fond of it too, and he begged ‘for a spoonful’ when he was dying, but his doctors refused, giving him wine with water instead ‘which made him a little tipsy!’

Amazon link to The Countess, Napoleon and St. Helena:
Amazon link to The Volcano, Montserrat and Me:

Written content of this post copyright © Lally Brown, 2015.


Unknown said...

Wow! I'm not sure what is more shocking the amount of food or the amount of spirits !

Debra Brown said...

Not so sure Napoleon was deserving of all this sumptuous feasting considering the fates of even his own starving soldiers in Russia much less the Russian peasants and Moscovites he displaced (to name just one of his efforts). But then, maybe I listened to MM Bennetts too much about this rather than considering Napoleon's point of view? Ahem.

Lally said...

When I read the original handwritten MSS concerning the cost of provisioning Napoleon on St. Helena, I have to admit I was stunned - I still have trouble getting my head round it!
There must have been a great deal of waste, no wonder there were so many rats at Longwood (as big as cats apparently!).

Unknown said...

I've just been reading the biography on Lady Holland who was a great supporter of Napoleon and managed to send out supplies to him!!!! - against Government wishes!

Lally said...

Lady Holland was amazingly supportive of the 'little French family' on St. Helena. She sent toys and gifts for the children, books for Napoleon's Library and seeds of the Everlasting Daisy 'to remind him of home' - it now runs wild (but beautiful !) in the Longwood area.

Anonymous said...

Upon reading this, my first thought was for his poor old horse. One thing I have noticed the French do love a good meal, but at the same time they have little consideration for their subjects.

Vallypee said...

I’ve read Lally’s remarkable book, and this aspect of Napoleon’s life astonished me then and still does. The sheer quantities are mind-boggling. A fascinating post and a fascinating book! Thank you, Lally and Madame :)