July 13, 2003


Like his contemporaries, a considerable portion of the life of Hudson Lowe (1763-1844) was captive to the French Revolution and its aftermath. A military man (Lowe's father was an army surgeon; Lowe himself began his service as an ensign at the age of 12), Lowe saw some 22 years of uninterrupted service beginning in 1793.

When Napoleon -- then merely General Bonaparte -- invaded Egypt, Lowe followed with a band of Corsican raiders which he led with distinction against Bonaparte's troops. Lowe fought in Italy, Germany, Greece, Spain (where Wellington first distinguished himself) and France, where he maintained order in Marseilles after the city was taken by Coalition troops and was awarded the thanks of the city fathers for preventing looting and other depradations. In all, Lowe fought in 31 battles, and was commended for never missing a day of service, a trait he did not share with the man who gives us reason to remember Lowe's name, and to be grateful to him. As general, Napoleon Bonaparte deserted his Egyptian army; as Emporer, he fled pell mell from Russia and from Waterloo, thrice deserting his post.

Napoleon Bonaparte did more to determine the fate of Europe and, more humbly, of Lowe, than any other European. His campaigns, in Egypt, Switzerland, Italy, the various petty German states, Austria, Spain and Russia were in some ways a fitting end to the Revolutionary excess of the Terror. A pathetic example: Hegel, the philosopher, waved his hat at the emporer's troops in Berlin even as they looted his apartment. Napoleon was the man of today, and Europe was spellbound. There is little doubt that he drove history; there is little doubt he did so out of the basest of motives. After the Russian debacle, he stormed to Metternich, the Austrian statesman, that he would rather sacrifice a million men rather than accept terms far more generous than he deserved.

In 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba, raised an army of hundreds of thousands, and went down to defeat at Waterloo, that close-run thing in Wellington's words. Something like 100,000 men died to satisfy Napoleon's vanity, on top of the five or six million who had died in his previous wars. The Congress of Vienna branded Bonaparte "an enemy and disturber of the tranquility of the world" who had "rendered himself liable to public vengeance." Public vengeance proved to be exile to St. Helena, an island enjoying a temperate climate in a tropical zone that was a way station for ships engaged in the lucrative trade with the East Indies. Hudson Lowe sought the job as governor of the island, and as Napoleon's jailer. Whereas Napoleon's whims had once determined the fate of millions, including Lowe, now the humble soldier would rule the tyrant.

On the island, Napoleon began what has been described as his final campaign -- the great act of revisionist history to justify himself, to cast himself, as Emerson would later write, as the "self-made man," the man who smashed Europe's feudal system, and liberated mankind from the chains of tradition. On St. Helena, Napoleon waged another war, against the scrupulous official who enforced the terms of Bonaparte's imprisonment, decreed by an act of a legally elected Parliament, to prevent him from ever again becoming an "enemy and disturber of the tranquility of the world."

The battle of St. Helena was an uneven affair. On the one hand, there was Lowe -- a man who knew several languages, who had commanded Corsicans, Spaniards, Russians and Germans, who had been soldier and diplomat, who rose from a lowly station in life to earn a title, and on the other side was Napoleon and his entourage of sycophants. In 1817, Lowe, acting according to the dictates of his conscience, freed the slaves of St. Helena (a full 16 years before the British Empire did the same). Bonaparte amused himself by shooting farm animals. Napoleon made a great show of putting some of his silverware on sale, the better to advertise Lowe's supposed inhumane treatment of him (in fact, Napoleon lacked nothing, but nevertheless Lowe had lobbied the British government to make the deposed tyrant's annual stipend the equal of his own). Lowe was forced to arrest and expel some members of his charge's court who broke the rules; invariably the returned to Europe telling tales of the cruelty of Napoleon's gaoler. After Napoleon's death, a member of his St. Helena court explained the slandering of Lowe: "It was our policy--but what did you expect?"

Indeed, what would one expect? The emporer and his jailer met six times; during the last two, the former hurled abuse at the latter, who, for the most part, maintained a dignified silence. In the final meeting, Napoleon thundered, "You are a Lieutenant-General, and should not perform your duty like a sentinel!" By this, Napoleon meant that Lowe should grant Napoleon and his entourage permission to write private letters, letters that may well have had the purpose of arranging a rescue for Napoleon, a return to France, and perhaps another 100,000 dead to satisfy the ego of a tyrant. Lowe replied that the was merely doing his duty, "which I esteem above glory."

In the person of Hudson Lowe, glory and duty are synonymous.

Posted by Ideofact at July 13, 2003 11:29 PM

I have never read so much rubbish in all my life. The author of this nonsense must be some Victorian dinosaur, for only such an archaic creature would dream to compare the most gifted statesman of all times with a beastly jailer whose behaviour nowadays would turn against him all human rights societies throughout the world.

Posted by: paulo schmidt at September 20, 2003 06:00 PM