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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte was due to be auctioned by Bonhams in London on 19 June 2013 with an expected price of £40,000 to £60,000 – but historian John Tyrrell has questioned its authenticity.
The Bonhams online catalogue said it was cast for the Rev Richard Boys, senior chaplain on St Helena at the time of Napoleon’s death in 1821. It said he wrote a note of authentification.
It added: “It is, we believe, the most significant example of Napoleon’s death mask remaining in private hands, and indubitably one of only a tiny handful with a provanance linking it directly to St Helena.”
But John Tyrrell, in his online journal Reflections on a Journey to St Helena, recalls a controversy over death masks of the emperor involving island medic Dr Burton, and the disappearance of part of the original cast of Napoleon’s face.
He writes: “It seems strange that no word about the masks’ existence came out at the time, amidst so much controversy… over the disappearance of the front part of Burton’s original mould.
“Surely the Rev Boys would have heard about the court case in London and would have provided any evidence in his possession to see that justice was done?”
He also notes that the chaplain had two copies of the death mask.
“It is also strange that both masks appear to have been made of plaster superior to any known to be available on St Helena at the time,” he says.
“Finally I wonder how [he] managed to secure two masks, a little greedy for a man of the cloth, when others with stronger claims got none?”
He goes on to challenge a claim that the chaplain – who lived at Kent’s Cottage – became close to the French community at Longwood because he shared its hostility to Governor Hudson Lowe.
In fact, he says, an historical account suggests Boys had contact with Longwood only once – and may not have met Napoleon even then.
Read John’s full post here. The Bonhams catalogue is here.
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.
“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).
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
When he’s at work, Andy Crowe is a housing executive with a strong social conscience – but on his days off, he is The Scourge of all Europe.
No one told him that going into exile on St Helena would see him leading a double life as a deposed emperor.
It began when he was asked to play the island’s most famous former resident, Napoleon, for a visiting BBC crew making a programme about the great man (meaning Bonaparte, not Andy).
And on St Helena’s Day 2013, he found himself doing the Boney Boogie on the back of the New Horizons float in the procession – a mobile replica of Napoleon’s final home.
He also took part in the day’s Ladder Challenge, climbing the 699 steps out of Jamestown in full costume.
Andy tells St Helena Online: “I was delighted to be asked to play the role of Napoleon, but the really hard work was done by Nicky [Stevens] and the New Horizons team in coming up with the idea of recreating Longwood House on a lorry.
“The costumes worn by the guards were also brilliant. All I had to do was sit and look glum for a couple of hours – though I did break it up every now and then with the Napoleonic Boogie.
“And being asked by the BBC to take part in Andrew Roberts’ forthcoming series was perhaps the most surreal moment of my life.
“I was the sort of person who feigned illness to avoid taking part in school plays.”
Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, custodian of the island’s Napoleonic properties, said he was surprised and proud when New Horizons proposed recreating Longwood House on wheels.
The work was sponsored by Johnny Isaac and carried out by Charlie George. Sadly, the model will not survive to be used again.
Matt Joshua of Enterprise St Helena reported on Facebook:
Sad, but the awesome float is to be dismantled… I asked, as wanted to do a display with the front. But at least the materials are being recycled!
So could Andy now have a second job, doubling as Napoleon? He was quite taken with the idea:
‘It really surprised me that there were so few Napoleonic costumes on the island,” he said.
“I will only be wearing it for special occasions – more often and people will question my mental health.
“But the idea of Napoleon welcoming and posing with Cruise passengers is a great one. I’ve therefore offered it to New Horizons and Shape [the disability charity] so that volunteers can pose with passengers in exchange for a £5 donation to their good causes.”
The message from the St Helena page on Facebook captured the exuberant spirit of St Helena’s Day 2013. “Whoever you are and what ever you’re doing,” it said, “St Helena loves you. Happy St Helena’s Day everyone!”
The words were supposedly those of the island itself, possibly ghost-written by Johnny Clingham, far from home in the UK.
And then “St Helena” added “I don’t feel a day over 511!”
Once again, Saints marked the anniversary of their island’s discovery in 1502 by staging a celebration out of all proportion to the size of its population.
One of the star turns was a recreation of Longwood House, home of the deposed Napoleon – played with imperial grandeur by housing executive Andy Crowe, seated on a procession float with a lawn of real grass.
The day began, as ever, with the formal commemorations, with the police force joining the parade in front of the court house for the first time since New Horizons youth centre took on responsibility for the big day.
Acting governor Owen O’Sullivan watched from the entrance to The Castle, carrying his daughter on his hip, as the drummers of the Scouts band led a strong contingent of Cubs, Guides, Brownies and Rainbows.
There was a speech of welcome by Miss St Helena, and the Bishop led prayers.
Every one of the runners who slogged up Sidepath and down through Jamestown deserved a medal – and they all got one, handed out as they staggered into the Mule Yard. There were plenty of them, too.
Then it was on to the novelty sports – a recent addition to the celebrations – with sack races, egg-and-spoon, wheelbarrow antics, hoop-rolling with old tyres, and the spectacle of groups of three people trying to waddle along the seafront with their feet tied to wooden “skis”.
We’re not told who donated their underwear for competitors to put on over their clothing in the ever-popular dressing-up race. Some of it was sexy, and some of it was not. And some of the chaps seemed more adept than others at donning ladies’ scanties.
The visiting ship RFA Black Rover provided a backdrop to the racing, sitting just offshore with bunting fluttering from bow to stern. Its crew was invited to take part in the celebrations.
The sporting theme continued into the afternoon, with one of the entries in the procession from the hospital marking St Helena’s participation in the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
The Waterwitch, the fast sloop that brought many captured slave-running ships to St Helena in the 19th century, sailed down through Upper Jamestown and Main Street. Her young crew peered out, looking suitably bewildered.
She was followed by a spectacular mobile re-creation of Napoleon’s Longwood House – with the man himself played by housing executive Andy Crowe.
He performed the same role a few weeks earlier for a BBC film crew making a film about Bonaparte.
Someone presumably thought he’d be right for the role, given that sorting out St Helena’s housing problems will require a campaign strategist of Napoleonic proportions…
A delighted Michel Dansoisne-Martineau, writing on his blog, declared the work by Charlie George, “a success”, adding: “Happy Feast of St Helena!”
The red-coated French troops that marched down the street, with plumed shako hats, were eminently more attractive than the entourage of senior officers who came into exile on St Helena with Boney in 1815.
The achievement of George and Charlie Benjamin in rescuing St Helena’s ebony plant from apparent extinction in 1980 was recalled by a banner worn by their niece, Jackie.
George spotting a few specimens of the long-lost plant growing at the foot of a steep cliff near the Asses Ears, and Charlie bravely climbed down to take cuttings – re-emerging with a flower preserved between his teeth.
The banner also paid tribute to Quentin Cronk, the Cambridge University botanist who was with them on the day – who later went on to earn an international reputation.
And so day turned to evening, with fireworks launched from the RFA Black Rover, and music by The Big Easy at the Mule Yard, by now re-named The First And Last.
When the last rocket had fizzled from the sky, lead organiser Nick Stevens was photographed smiling, and looking well-pleased.
Saints and island-watchers in the UK had been thinking of the island too.
Michael Dean, who recently completed a stint as the island’s tourism chief, sent a Facebook message to report that a St Helena’s Day dance in Wigglesworth, Bedfordshire, had been a great success.
Millie Evemy wished a happy St Helena’s Day to all her friends on Facebook – and a happy 18th birthday to her son Luke.
Ascension Heritage Society also added its congratulations, noting that “most” records agreed that 21 May 1502 was the date of St Helena’s discovery (it has been suggested that it may actually have been discovered on the other feast day of St Helena, on 18 August).
Doreen Gatien, now living in California, told readers of her Christian blog: “On this day, Saints living all over the world must feel as I do, ever, ever, ever so thankful to have been born and raised in such a paradise.”
In London, government minister Mark Simmonds sent a message to his followers on Twitter:
Delighted to see the St Helena flag flying over the Foreign Office today, marking St Helena Day.
The governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean followed suit, tweeting:
Radio listeners around the world have been regaled with the story of the low-flying aircraft that turned out not to be quite low enough when it led the St Helena Carnival procession down Main Street.
Writer Mark Stratton took advantage of the episode to open his piece on the island for the BBC World Service programme, From Our Own Correspondent.
Click the pic for an updated Carnival gallery
As a result, a cheeky heckle from the crowd has been heard around the globe – and it didn’t exactly pay a compliment to the company that’s earned plaudits for its Herculean work to fill in an entire valley to make way for the island’s new airport.
“It was carnival day in Jamestown,” the piece began. “The quaint capital’s high street of Georgian buildings and purple flowering jacarandas was thronged with St Helenians in fancy dress, blowing whistles and banging drums.
“A ripple of laughter swept through the crowd. The procession’s only motorised float was just too tall to fit under a large carnival banner strung across the street.
“But this was no ordinary float. It belonged to South African construction company Basil Read, which back in 2011 was awarded a 375 million dollar contract to build St Helena’s first-ever airport.
“Sitting astride a large scale model of an aircraft on top of this float was Basil Read’s project director, sporting an airline pilot’s cap. He clambered off the model aeroplane’s fusilage to help deconstruct the float so it could fit under the banner.
“The irony of this wasn’t lost on the revellers. ‘They can’t even design a float properly,’ yelled a middle-aged wag in a lurid pink wig. ‘How on Earth can they build our airport?'”
Basil Read’s response is keenly awaited.
Mark Stratton also had a six-page spread in “Britain’s best-selling magazine about France”, called… France.
His article begins: “Michel Dancoisne-Martineau looks nothing like Napoléon. He is taller, leaner and bespectacled”.
The article tells how Michel arrived on the island as a student and was adopted by the honorary French consul, Gilbert Martineau, who wanted to retire and asked him to take over. “I said yes as I was craving money and it was originally only for three years,” said Michel.
The writer says that after a quarter of a century, Michel still feels very French and merely a guest on St Helena.
“I wondered if his time had felt like being in exile. ‘No, never,’ said the 46-year-old from Picardy, ‘I’m comfortable being the only Frenchman on the island and it was my choice to come here.’
“Asked if there was anything he missed, Michel said: ‘Yes, confit de canard. Every time I go to Paris I do my confit de canard. Then there are veal and oysters… it’s food-related things I miss.'”
In English, confit de canard is duck’s leg. Perhaps Michel could get some in, to share with Rémi, the other resident Frenchman on St Helena…