St Helena Online


The ‘merchant king’ suspected of intrigue with Napoleon

Saul Solomon founded a business empire that has dominated commercial life on St Helena for more than two centuries. He was also suspected of smuggling a silk ladder to Napoleon, to help him escape from exile. Now documents relating to the sale of his properties have been found in Jamestown.

Saul Solomon. Click the pic to see the source
Saul Solomon. Click the pic to see the source

The long-lost title deeds of Saul Solomon’s properties on St Helena have added scraps of knowledge to the little that is known of “St Helena’s remarkable merchant king”, as the late historian Trevor Hearl described him.

His origins were mantled in mystery, wrote Hearl. “Where and when he was born, why and how he reached St Helena, no one yet knows.”

Tradition says he was born in London in about 1776, set sail for India in his teens, but was left on the island to recuperate from sickness – and stayed.

An internet article provides further insight, describing how Saul Solomon’s father, Nathaniel, had travelled to Holland and fallen in love with 14-year-old Phoebe de Mitz, who returned to England as his wife and bore him many children (possibly 21).

“In the early 1790s a ship bound for India dropped anchor off the Port of Jamestown on the island,” continues the internet article by an unnamed descendant of Saul Solomon’s brother, Joseph.

“A young man was carried ashore to die. The ship sailed on and the young man, Saul Solomon, remained, not to die, but to become one of the most influential men on the island.”

His business is said to have been founded in 1790 – the date shown on the company website. Young Saul set up a boarding house and general store, along with an insurance business. He also installed the island’s first printing press, and served as undertaker.

Phoebe, said to be Saul Solomon's mother. Click the pic to reveal the source
Phoebe, said to be Saul Solomon’s mother. Click the pic to reveal the source

Early success meant a need for people to help run the business, so he sent for his brothers, including Joseph. The Moss family came too, remaining prominent members of the business for many years.

And then Napoleon arrived on the island in 1815. Solomon’s readily traded with the deposed emperor’s entourage at Longwood, and profits rose.

There were frequent complaints about over-charging. The company charged 1,400 gold francs for the funeral of Napoleon’s valet.

Running up debts with suppliers in South Africa brought a rival to the island: Richard Prince arrived in Jamestown in 1813 to collect money owed, but stayed on and set up a business that competed against Solomon’s for 89 years. He left Prince’s Lodge as his legacy.

Saul Solomon also earned a reputation for “dubious loyalty” to the island government, said Hearl. “Hudson Lowe listed the Solomon brothers, with their clerk Bruce, as the chief suspects of aiding Napoleon…

“His premises… became notorious for gossip and intrigue.

“He was even said to have smuggled a silken ladder into Longwood in a chest of tea to help Napoleon clamber down a cliff into a waiting boat! Certainly Longwood’s clandestine correspondence passed through his hands – at a price.

“In 1840, as French Consul, he was among the favoured few to accompany Napoleon’s coffin aboard the Belle Poule.” According to the internet article, he received a medal for his services to the emperor.

At one time, Solomon’s issued its own copper halfpennies, which circulated alongside the East India Company coinage.

It continued to prosper as the island became a haven for American whalers and a base for the anti-slavery squadron.

Over time, family members rose to prominent roles, including on benevolent committees. “For 50 years they almost monopolised the prestigious post of Sheriff.”

The last of the family line, Homfray Welby Solomon (“King Sol”), died in 1960. The business was later nationalised – and then part-privatised.

Saul Solomon himself had died in 1852 on a visit to England. His daughter managed to get his body to the Cape, where she smuggled it aboard a ship bound for St Helena, according to a fellow passenger, Mrs Harriet Tytler.

“The burden was a terrible one for fear that if the sailors found it out, they would chuck her father overboard,” wrote Mrs Tytler. “Of course we were all under vow not to disclose the terrible fact of a corpse on board.”

The two island newspapers praised his memory fulsomely. “We have many living witnessed to his kindness to the distressed and suffering,” wrote the St Helena Herald, welcoming the news that he was to be buried on the island.

An executor’s sale took place “under the trees” in Jamestown in 1854, at which “a rare selection of most desirable dwelling places” were auctioned, including The Briars and The Pavilion, once home to Napoleon. Six properties in Jamestown’s Main Street could no longer be identified, wrote Trevor Hearl.

Saul Solomon’s modest gravestone was among those rescued when the burial ground in Jamestown was cleared, to become a children’s playground. The inscription revealed nothing of Solomon’s life, beyond the date of his death at 76.

  • Saul Solomon’s nephew, also called Saul, left St Helena as a young man and became the founder of the Cape Argus, one of South Africa’s major newspapers. His memorial is in St James’s Church, “though St Helenians do not yet claim him as a distinguished compatriot,” wrote Trevor Hearl.

Lost Solomon’s deeds found after 150 years
The Solomon Family: St Helena

Not for sale: the shirt worn by ailing Bonaparte on St Helena

A French court has stopped the auction of the shirt that was worn by Napoleon just before he fell into his final coma on St Helena, reports The Guardian.

The sweat-stained garment was one of a number of souvenirs taken back to France by Achille Thomas Archambault, a former horse-breaker who became a member of the fallen emperor’s domestic staff at Longwood.

The items, including a small walking stick and a lock of the emperor’s hair, were due to go under the hammer at Fontainebleau on Sunday, 23 March 2014.

But the servant’s descendants obtained an injunction preventing the sale shortly before it was to take place, fearing the objects would leave France. The newspaper also quotes the auction house, Osenat, saying that various people claim ownership rights, including a government minister.

Read the full story here.

Bienvenue sur Facebook pour lÎle de Sainte Hélène

Click the pic to "like" St Helena's French Facebook page
Click the pic to “like” St Helena’s French Facebook page

Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, the conservateur of the Napoleonic properties on St Helena, has launched a French-language Facebook page for the island.

With French visitors predicted to make up a strong component of visitors to St Helena once its airport opens, it seems likely the page will attract a strong following and help to raise the island’s profile.

The island must be one of the oldest of Facebook’s millions of users, judging by the snippet of data given at the bottom of the page. In place of a birth date, Michel has given the date of the island’s discovery (no date being available for its emergence above sea level):

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 15.43.41

In French, as the site’s name points out, South Atlantic becomes Atlantique Sud – an enticing name for a new brand of island-produced soap, perhaps?

Boney’s death mask fetches £170,000 – despite doubts

Click the pic to read John Tyrrell's full blog post
Click the pic to read John Tyrrell’s full blog post

A “death mask” made from a cast of Napoleon’s face at Longwood has been sold at auction for three times its expected price – despite doubts raised by a writer on St Helena history.

Bonhams of London sold it for £169,250 on Wednesday (19 June 2013). Its estimated sale price was only £40-£60,000.

Before the sale, historian John Tyrrell had questioned the story of how the island’s senior chaplain, the Rev Boys, had come to be given the mask when people closer to the exiled emperor had not. It was not clear whether he had even met Napoleon, he said.

SEE ALSO: Doubts voiced as Napoleon death mask is auctioned

LINK: Napoleon’s death mask fetches £170,000 at auction

Writer says Michel deserves top honour for Napoleon role

Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, and Napoleon at a Legion d'Honneur presentation. Click the pic to see the painting in full
Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, and Napoleon at a Legion d’Honneur presentation. Click the pic to see the painting in full

Film star Clint Eastwood has one, and so has the singer Bob Dylan; and now a writer on Napoleon says Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, custodian of the emperor’s homes on St Helena, deserves to receive France’s highest honour.


Andrew Roberts makes the tongue-in-cheek nomination in an article for Britain’s Spectator magazine, after visiting the island to research a biography.

“Napoleon’s house at Longwood in the Deadwood Plain is kept up superbly,” he writes, “despite the fact that, as the curator and French honorary consul Michel Dancoisne-Martineau points out, just as in Napoleon’s day it’s enveloped in cloud for 330 days of the year, with all the problems of damp that that implies.

Click the pic to see the full article
Click the pic to see the full article

“Monsieur Martineau deserves the Legion d’Honneur for the years of love and attention he has dedicated to Longwood, which now looks exactly the same as it did on 5 May 1821, the day of Napoleon’s death.”

The Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur was established by Napoleon Bonaparte himself on 19 May 1802, with five degrees, from Chevalier (Knight) to Grand Croix (Grand Cross).

The order’s motto is Honneur et Patrie (“Honour and Fatherland”).


Michel was toasted at a party in November 2012 to celebrate 25 years as custodian of the Napoleonic properties on St Helena.

The tourism department on the island may not be so taken with another line in Andrew Roberts’s article, referring to Longwood suffering “the same infestations of rats, cockroaches, midges, termites and mosquitoes that plagued the emperor.”

He writes: “The diving and hiking are said to be great, but I wasn’t sold on the plans to turn the island into one of the world’s greatest bamboo exporters. And before any of the 30,000 tourists turn up, they are going to have to extend the total of hotel bedrooms available (presently standing at an impressive 18).

Michel and tourism chief Mike cut cakes in 2012
Michel and tourism chief Mike cut cakes in 2012

He continues: “Saints have rather a schizoid attitude towards Napoleon; he is the only reason most people have heard of their island, yet it equates it in the public imagination with remoteness, exile and death.

“Many of the population are descended from slaves, and they complain that their ancestors weren’t consulted about him being sent there by the colonialist government in London.

“If they had been consulted though, I bet they’d have voted to take Napoleon, and enjoy their 15 minutes of world fame.

“They certainly wouldn’t otherwise have been able to sell little bars of soap in the shape of Napoleon’s head, such as the one that [the Times journalist] Michael Binyon kindly gave me (perhaps as a hint?).”

Click here to read the full article – with a cartoon of Napoleon lying on a map of St Helena

LINK: Legion d’Honneur

Napoleon rides down Main Street: St Helena’s Day 2013
Michel celebrates 25 years as French Consul



How Napoleon could have escaped exile by submarine: Smuggler ‘was offered £40,000’ to rescue emperor from St Helena

  • Tom Johnson claimed he was offered £40,000 in 1820 to rescue Napoleon
  • Emperor exiled by British to heavily-guarded St Helena after Waterloo loss
  • Escape plan involved mechanical chair and Napoleon putting on disguise
  • But Johnson’s craft was ‘intercepted on Thames’ and Napoleon died in 1821

He was one on the most closely guarded prisoners of all time, with a strong Royal Navy squadron of 11 ships patrolling the South Atlantic island where he was kept 1,200 miles from the nearest land.

Plots to rescue the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte included those using yachts, steamboats and even balloons, but the most extraordinary of all of them was said to have involved a submarine.

Tom Johnson, who was born in 1772 and had worked as a smuggler since the age of 12, claimed he was offered £40,000 in 1820 to rescue Napoleon from exile on St Helena, it was reported on Friday.

Contributed by Guy Gatien

Slavery expert is to rescue island’s ancient archives

Ancient bound volumes fills the shelves Inside the archives - with a young female student looking out from behind a pillar
The archives record St Helena’s history – but without protection, they could become history themselves

Unique St Helena records dating back more than 300 years are to be rescued from possible “catastrophic loss”.

Many of the ancient documents in the archives at The Castle in Jamestown are already in very poor condition because of a lack of temperature controls, according to St Helena Government.

Some have been attacked by insects – probably the island’s notorious white ants.

With no digital copes of ancient documents, researchers and even casual visitors handle irreplaceable originals, running the risk of damaging them.

Excavations, St Helena slave graveyard
Dr Andy Pearson led excavations of St Helena’s slave burial ground

Andy Pearson, the archaeologist who led the excavation of the island’s slave burial ground in 2008, will arrive in September 2012 to start the rescue work on behalf of the British Library.

He will make digital copies of some of the oldest and most precious documents, going back to the Goodwins Abstracts of 1673-1707.

He will train Saints to carry on the protection work, and prepare the ground for a major funding bid.

Dr Pearson, of Bristol University, had trouble finding some documents when he was researching the history of the depot for liberated slaves in Rupert’s Valley.

The British Library has funded the first stage of the work on the internationally-significant records. They include local records of the East India Company, which ran the island from 1659.

A St Helena Government statement said:

“The archives document the history, people and daily life of the Island from the late 17th Century through to modern times.

“They provide an irreplaceable historical record for the island’s archaeological heritage, as well as vital shipping records. Many of the surviving documents have international significance and are absolutely unique to the Island.

“But housed as it is, on the ground floor of an historic building with no temperature control, the archive is at risk from deterioration due to humidity, and even from insect infestation.

“The condition of the records is very variable, from good to very poor, and there are no microfilm or digital copies of any materials.  This means that all current research is carried out on original documents.  The ultimate longer term aim is to provide modern and dedicated storage for these records.”

This pilot project will cover materials up to 1914, including colonial history, the exile of Napoleon and Chief Dinizulu, the island’s use as a Boer War prison camp, and the establishment of the Atlantic telegraph.

Dr Pearson will draw up a priority list of papers to be digitised during his six-week visit, from 12 September 2012.

Painting of Napoleon's body leaving St Helena: soldiers line the wharf, a barge at the landing
Napoleon’s body leaves St Helena: his death certificate is in the archives

Documents will be rated according to historic value, their condition, how much they are used and whether copies exist elsewhere – for instance, in London.

Training for local staff will include handling and display of documents, cataloguing and backing up data, which would be vital to any future research grant.

The archives relate St Helena’s pivotal role in the growth of the British Empire, as a staging post for ships sailing between Europe and the East.

Vice Admiralty Court records – which have not all been documented – also describe its role in the suppression of the slave trade after it was declared illegal in Europe. Captured slave-running ships were brought to the island. It is thought 5,000 liberated Africans who succumbed to the horrors of the trade are buried on the island.

East India Company records up to 1834 include correspondence with England, internal memos, land grants and legal proceedings.

The archive also contains Napoleon’s death certificate.

Boer War prisoners
AUDIO SLIDESHOW: ‘My intense grief for St Helena slaves’
Napoleon anniversary: ‘Let’s invite the Queen’
Honour for St Helena’s Zulu prisoner

Napoleon’s Longwood letter has experts debating

Alabaster bust of Napoleon at The Briars
Napoleon bust at The Briars on St Helena

A letter written by Napoleon at Longwood – in English – has set commentators off on a debate about whether he was any good at his captors’ language.

The letter is tipped to fetch in the region of £65,000 at an auction in the French town of Fontainebleau on Sunday.

America’s CNN quotes auction house expert Jean-Christophe Chataigner saying the emperor learned English without his captors’ knowledge as a form of revenge.

“I think that French people who learn English today make lots more mistakes than Napoleon at the time, so it’s a letter which is relatively well-written.”

But the BBC quotes lines from the letter, written to his secret tutor:

“It is two o’clock after midnight, I have enow [enough] sleep, I go then finish the night into to cause with you,” he wrote to the Comte de las Cases.

The BBC’s Paris correspondent Hugh Schofield said Napoleon’s pronunciation was “even worse” that his writing:

“The comte said it was like a completely new language, which only he, the teacher, could understand. Still, you have to admire the panache.”

St Helena goes on show – in Australia – Napoleon exhibition

Rare Napoleon letter in English goes on sale – CNN
Napoleon’s halting English on show in auction letter – BBC

St Helena goes on show – in Australia

Painting of Napoleon's grave, showing willows with a bare hillside beyondA “beautiful watercolour of Napoleon’s grave in St Helena” features in a new exhibition that tells of the emperor’s fascination with Australia, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s “winter blockbuster exhibition” covers the Frencyh Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the exile to St Helena.

Articles on display also tell how 19th century travellers to Australia stopped on the island and took cuttings of willow from around Napoleon’s grave, as well as other plants.

The curators have also secured a uniform worn by Napoleon in exile on St Helena. “Even in defeat he dressed like an emperor,” says the Herald.

Escape plan put Boney in a barrel

Napoleon: revolution to empire – Sydney Morning Herald
Journal du conservateur des domaines Français de Sainte-Hélènepour vous tenir informés sur les domaines français et l’île de Sainte-Hélène – blog by Michel Dancoisne-Martineau on St Helena

Slavery role should boost World Heritage case, says expert

A cave system in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar has been put forward for World Heritage Site status, along with the UK’s famous Forth Bridge.

But a member of the original selection panel says St Helena’s own case for the accolade should be looked at again.

Dr Mike Pienkowski says new information about its role in ending the slave trade would make its case even stronger.

The island was one of 11 sites submitted to Unesco, the world cultural organisation.

Four other sites – including The Lake District and Chatham dockyard – were then put forward to a UK panel of heritage experts.

They then decided that the Forth Bridge and Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar – the last known outpost of Neanderthal Man – should be formally submitted to Unesco.

If selected, they will rank alongside wonders such as Stonehenge and the Taj Mahal – as well as Gough Island, in the South Atlantic.

St Helena remains on a “tentative” list of possible sites that could be put forward at any time in the next ten years.

It was chosen only for its natural wonders – which include 400 types of invertebrate and 45 plants found nowhere else in the world – but not for its human history.

The island’s connection with Napoleon Bonaparte and the unparalleled extent of its coastal fortifications were major parts of its cultural case.

It also played a crucial role in the establishing of the British Empire, by providing a refuelling post for ships bound for the Indies.

But the significance of the island’s role in ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade has only been realised since the tentative list was drawn up.

Dr Pienkowski has told St Helena Online that the island’s heritage case should be reviewed in the light of information uncovered by archaeologists who excavated 300 graves of slaves who were buried in Rupert’s Valley.

They died as a result of their ordeal on slave-running ships that were captured by a British squadron, set up after the abolition of slavery by the UK. Some died at sea, others in the “liberated Africans” depot in Rupert’s Valley.

It is thought 5,000 Africans were buried in the valley in the mid 19th Century.

Dr Andrew Pearson and his team also discovered long-forgotten information in the island’s archives – overlooked by other historians.

Dr Pienkowski, honorary director of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum, said: “I was one of the so-called expert panel deciding which sites should go on the tentative list for World Heritage status.

“It was proposed as cultural and natural site.

“There’s no doubt in my mind the site should be on for natural purposes. I’m not an expert in the cultural side but I was most impressed by the information given.

“I hope those with expertise in this area might consider revising the listing so it includes the cultural side as well.”

He said St Helena’s designation can be revised at any time while it is on the shortlist.

“It’s quite an elaborate procedure, but St Helena has so many friends in the natural heritage world and cultural heritage world, they ought to be able to pull in the advice to put it together.”

Recognition as a world heritage site would give a big boost to efforts to promote the island’s natural wonders and colonial history. But it would also bring extra pressure to maintain its cultural assets.

According to The Guardian newspaper, the United Nations has expressed concerns about modern development round Parliament Square and the Tower of London.

St Helena National Trust was complained that the island has no law to protect its built heritage.

AUDIO SLIDESHOW: ‘My intense grief for St Helena slaves’
‘Heritage damaged’ as Trust calls for new law

The Guardian: Forth rail bridge and Gibraltar cave in running for world heritage site status
UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum
World Heritage Sites