Travel literature review: The Emperor’s Last Island

The Emperors Last Island The Emperor's Last Island by Julia Blackburn


3 star

Rating: 3 out of 5

Reviewed by Neil Manders.

Neil Manders is a sales manager at the Lonely Planet London office. Formerly based in Madrid for 16 years, he has travelled to every nook and cranny of Spain and Portugal, in addition to making approximately 30 visits to South and Central America.

The danger of attempting to cover off both history and contemporary travel in the same volume is that you can finish up with a hybrid that is neither fish nor fowl. Julia Blackburn’s The Emperor's Last Island: A Journey to St. Helena really belongs in the history camp, however the author cannot resist linking it together with a recurring thread of the travelogue of her own visit to the island, and in so doing serves up an uneven dish which ultimately struggles to satisfy the palate.

It is a pity, as there is much to enjoy in this account of Napoleon Bonaparte’s 6 years of exile and ultimate demise and death on the most isolated island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

The historical narrative is collated from a variety of sources – mostly memoirs and journals of diverse people who were sharing Napoleon’s island experience with differing motives and sympathies. It throws up some delicious nuggets of detail showing how the Emperor “managed” his exile amongst the English military sent to guard him, the islanders who found the whole menagerie thrown into their midst and the loyal volunteer staff who chose to accompany their master in his exile. Napoleon is the only one who cannot leave the island, but they are all imprisoned by the isolation in which they live.

The indignity of incarceration offers a rare opportunity to peer around the protective screen that a personality of Napoleon’s rank would normally enjoy and there are many insightful, informative and sometimes amusing anecdotes offering a window into the mind of one of history’s truly fascinating individuals. In the telling of his construction of a see-saw for exercise we see evidence of his eccentricity, his scientific rigour in calculating the optimum counterweights using lead and local children, and his humanity as demonstrated in his frequent games with the island children.

And yet, we are somehow left wishing for more authorial input to paste together the different historical accounts and less of the personal travelogue in which frankly very little of substance is offered.

My own particular interest in the scientific evidence surrounding the differing theories concerning the role of arsenic in the death of the Emperor were given relatively short shrift, a disappointment for me and surely a topic that demands deeper analysis.

The book was good as far as it goes, but could have offered so much more.

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