Napoleonic Literature
Napoleon in Captivity:
The Reports of Count Balmain
Russian Commissioner on the
Island of St. Helena 1816-1820


Count Balmain's reports and letters, centering for four years around the circumstances of Napoleon's captivity, were written by one who never saw him. They are considered worthy of translation despite that fact, because they depict the extraordinary life on the "rock" of St. Helena (as the island of forty-seven square miles was generally termed) in probably as vivid and certainly as objective a manner as that of any of the innumerable company of contemporary writers.

By a treaty of August 2, 1815, the European powers, including France, were invited to send commissioners to the place to be chosen for Napoleon's detention, which the English had already decided was to be St. Helena. This convention is referred to so often throughout these reports that it may well be given in full:

  (1) Napoleon Buonaparte is considered by the Powers who have signed the Treaty of the 25th March last as their prisoner.

  (2) His custody is especially intrusted to the British Government. The choice of the place, and of the measures which can best secure the object of the present stipulation, is reserved to his Britannic Majesty.

  (3) The Imperial Courts of Austria and of Russia, and the Royal Court of Prussia, are to appoint Commissioners to proceed to and abide at the place which the Government of his Britannic Majesty shall have assigned for the residence of Napoleon Buonaparte, and who without being responsible for his custody will assure themselves of his presence.

  (4) His Most Christian Majesty is to be invited, in the name of the four above-mentioned Courts, to send in the like manner a French Commissioner to the place of detention of Napoleon Buonaparte.

Prussia, probably for reasons of economy, sent no commissioner. The other three powers availed themselves of the invitation, and sent out representatives who found it easily possible to "assure themselves of his presence" without ever laying eyes on the person of the prisoner of Europe.

Each of the three naturally sent to his government voluminous reports. The French and the Austrian were published respectively in 1894 and 1886; some of Count Balmain's reports were printed in the "Révue Bleue" in May and June, 1897, but a collected edition of them in English has never been published.

The choice of these three commissioners, or at least of two of them, is difficult to explain or to defend. None of them enjoyed anything like an outstanding reputation in his own country, and none of them would ever have been remembered by history were it not for the two, four, and five years which they spent on a tiny island in the South Atlantic. Of course this is true of many other people, for, with the possible exception of Bertrand, would the slightest shred of interest be otherwise attached to any member of the French retinue, or to the numerous English doctors who were thrown in contact with them, or the officers on duty at Longwood? Bertrand is the only one of importance who did not write one or more books, either at the time of the captivity or later; and that adds to our liking for him.

Naturally these contemporary or nearly contemporary accounts have all a highly personal thesis to maintain. Those of the French have value as source material for what actually happened at Longwood, but on most controversial subjects they are of course worthless. So also is Dr. O'Meara's account (the famous "Voice from St. Helena"), since his rôle was considerably more (or less) than that of a physician; and even the evidence left by the reputable doctors — from which class we must exclude Antommarchi - is somewhat affected by their success or failure in previously diagnosing the disease from which Napoleon died.

Sir Hudson Lowe wrote no book, which is somewhat remarkable in view of his fondness for writing letters and reports. If he had written an apology it is safe to say that it would have been exhaustive and exhausting. His correspondence, orders, etc., are preserved in no less than 147 volumes of documents, ninety of which deal with the St. Helena period. William Forsyth used these as the basis for his three-volume defense of Lowe, published in 1853 and still indispensable for those who want first-hand information. A briefer and more objective account of this strange man, probably the most maligned figure in nineteenth-century history, is to be found in R. C. Seaton's "Napoleon's Captivity in Relation to Sir Hudson Lowe" (1903).

Is it altogether strange that the book just mentioned should be almost the only one to do justice to the governor? It is outside the scope of this study to examine into the reasons for the campaign, to a large extent systematic and carefully planned, which has made the name of Hudson Lowe a synonym for arrogance and cruelty and in the very least for stupidity and tactlessness. The Napoleonic legend required it, of course, just as it also required the growing exaltation of Napoleon's character throughout these six years. Says A. L. Guérard: 1 "The tradition of his ‘martyrdom,' although disproved, lingers even to-day in popular imagination. The actual record of his petty warfare with Hudson Lowe affords no pleasant reading. If the British official cannot be absolved of unnecessary punctiliousness, the prisoner shows himself even more deficient in magnanimity. The selfish and histrionic elements in his nature appear nakedly."

It was the function of the commissioners to watch and report on the English jailers quite as much as on the French prisoners. They should have been, then, from this unique position, well fitted to draw the line between these two extreme positions. The Russian was so fitted by temperament, education, and experience; his Austrian and French colleagues were not. That the reports of Count Balmain are infinitely superior in value and interest is agreed by all those who have been able to compare the three. "Balmain's reports," says Philippe Gonnard, 2 "are very witty and interesting. [Witty, perhaps. They are certainly vivid and readable, and he took vast pains to make them so because he knew his emperor read them carefully.] Those of Stürmer are much less so. Montchenu's are at times ridiculous and at times amusing." Lord Rosebery in "The Last Phase" goes further and says of Balmain: "He is accomplished and writes well. Obliging, amiable, and unpretentious, he is beloved by all who know him. He is thus a striking contrast with M. de Montchenu." Norwood Young writes: "Balmain was a man of ability, tact, and good sense. He had also a quality which was very precious and singularly rare at St. Helena, a sense of humour. His reports were read with interest and pleasure at the Russian court." 3

The reports of all three commissioners are well worth reading on their own account, despite the fact that what they tell of Napoleon must be second-hand, chiefly for what they disclose of the character of Sir Hudson Lowe and of the French exiles. They should be honest witnesses, and perhaps the only objective witnesses, provided they lived up to the spirit of their instructions. This they all, at least in the beginning, tried to do. If they had any prejudice it would favor Lowe, since they represented governments which had constituted Napoleon the outlaw of Europe. This would be truest of the French commissioner; and yet his position was a curious one, for, royalist and reactionary as he was, he could not forget that he was a Frenchman, and whatever the feelings of an émigré were toward Napoleon the usurper, he might well prefer the company of his compatriots to that of the ungracious and surly governor.

What the presence of not only Montchenu but Stürmer and Balmain added to the responsibilities and difficulties of Lowe can be more easily surmised than described. The commissioners did not like each other, they did not like Lowe; their duty forbade them from liking the inmates of Longwood. What wonder that they spent their time, imitating in this the French exiles, with mutual recriminations, back-stairs gossip, gambling, and general idling? For the commissioners and the exiles this spying and counter-spying was at least a method of passing the weary hours. For the governor it meant untold anxiety and quarrels and inevitable loss of reputation.

The commissioners, finding their freedom curtailed and their actions sometimes suspected, were naturally inclined to reciprocate by complaining of the governor, and in minor ways were not averse to evading the rules drawn up for the conduct of all residents of the island. Lowe naturally remonstrates; they give him an increasingly bad character in their reports - at least until a year before the end; and the moral influence of the supposedly impartial agents of the powers tells heavily against the harassed governor.

The commissioners should have been withdrawn, maintain most impartial writers (notably Young), when they had achieved the object of their appearance, which was to make it clear that Napoleon was the prisoner of the powers and not of any one power, to give England moral support, to test the character of Hudson Lowe, and to ascertain that the conditions of the detention were suitable as regards the security and the comfort of the illustrious prisoner. To remain on indefinitely was merely to keep up the semblance of suspicion of the British governor and of the British government, when no such sentiment was entertained. The effect of their presence on Napoleon was of course just as unsatisfactory and lamentable, from his point of view, as it was on Lowe from his. Napoleon realized to the full the international sanction which they gave to his captivity, and while keeping up in public a brave and defiant front, in private he was tremendously depressed by their presence. There seemed now to be no hope whatever of a return to Europe except as the result of some great political upheaval in England, some unusually great piece of stupidity on the part of the Bourbons, or a change of heart in the mystical and impressionable czar.


The French commissioner, the Marquis de Montchenu, has been thoroughly described, once and for all, by Frédéric Masson in Volume II of "Autour de Sainte-Hélène," and some of Masson's characterizations merit citation in a book where their subject appears so often and generally so unfavorably. He belonged to an ancient and distinguished family, and his army service included some years in the King's Horse Guards, from which he had retired in 1785. In 1792 he emigrated, and he used to say concerning the Corsican usurper, "When this man has fallen I shall petition the king my master to make me his jailer"; and it seems to have become such an obsession with him as to drive the king and Talleyrand to granting the petition simply to rid themselves of his presence. In vain they tried to give him a ministerial post in the diplomatic service; his age, his rank, his family, his devotion to the Bourbons, all warranted the position on which he had set his heart. Accordingly Talleyrand's last official act as minister was to sign the appointment of a man who he knew would be as distasteful to Napoleon as any who could have been chosen. Montcheru's correspondence confirms this guess. His official reports were of course written in phraseology of some dignity, but on his arrival at the island he wrote a circular letter to some of his friends which reeks with pomposity and arrogance. For instance: "Bonaparte does nothing that I do not know of the instant after; so reassure yourselves, my good compatriots, you will never see him again, I shall answer for it." The marquis considered himself less the king's commissioner than the agent of the whole Royalist party, charged by them as much as by Louis XVIII with watching le petit monstre.

He was regarded by the English as a buffoon. With his absurd boasting, his strange gallantry (this "gentleman" of sixty sent a love-letter to Lady Lowe), his airs and graces, he was a caricature of the ancien régime. The English sailors called him "old munchenough" from his hearty appetite. Modern slang would call him a sponge, and his habit of accepting but not sending any invitations to dinners or soirées earned him the name of "Marquis de Montez-chez-nous." He was, of course, too anxious to make an impression to care much about the method of doing it, and in this connection the following letter from his secretary, Captain de Gors, to the prime minister, throws some light on both the French and the Russian commissioner: "I am sorry to say this about M. de Montchenu, but it is my duty to state that all the assertions he has made about his two colleagues are not very well founded and are too great a reflection of his personality. He should have shown himself more just and impartial toward Count Balmain, the only one who really has at heart the common interests of our duty, to which, through excess of zeal, he has sacrificed his rest and his health. M. de Montchenu should not have forgotten that it is to the Count that our mission owes anything interesting that it may have provided; he has never been able to make up his mind to pay, like the latter, a simple visit to the inhabitants of Longwood."

What were his relations with Lowe? The governor characterizes the Frenchman much more wittily than one would suspect; moreover in very much the sort of language which has been used in speaking of himself. "The French Marquis, who has been an émigré for thirty years," he wrote to Sir Henry Bunbury, "says that it was the people of intelligence [esprit] who caused the Revolution. Evidently he didn't take any part in it." Nevertheless Lowe's relations with Montchenu were more satisfactory than with the other two, because the former spoke no English and was without political or diplomatic training, while his colleagues were both men of large practical experience, men of the world, a good deal of which they had seen, and masters of several languages - in short, men capable of getting their own information and sufficiently imbued with the dignity of their mission and the greatness of the sovereigns whom they represented not to tolerate the position of inferiority in which the governor had made up his mind to place them. Montchenu acquired from Lowe nearly all that he knew: consequently Montchenu's reports present rather a contrast to the others in his estimate of the governor. He was the only commissioner who stayed until the end of the captivity; and while that fact has its historical value, it also adds something to our estimate of his character to know that he refused to leave while the usurper was alive. He took a prominent part at the funeral.

The diplomatic experience of the Austrian commissioner included some years in the legation at Constantinople, from which training it may perhaps be supposed that he had acquired some knowledge of intrigue and finesse which might stand him in good stead in the St. Helena atmosphere. His diplomatic training seemed to warrant him in supposing that he had an unusually important rôle, and Metternich had to remind him that his quality as commissioner gave him no diplomatic standing. In 1815 he had married the very young daughter of a minor official in the French Ministry of War, who had used his spare time in teaching various elementary subjects to young Las Cases. One can see how this curious fact will give rise to various gossip after Stürmer is ordered to St. Helena. When the couple arrived there, Las Cases tried, of course, to renew the acquaintance and to give it a political turn by establishing secret relations with the Austrian commissioner which would enable him to communicate with Europe. The baroness, however, did not lend herself to the attempt, and this intrigue, for once, ended before it began. It did not add to Lowe's happiness to know that Stürmer's wife was French and a great admirer of Napoleon.

Stürmer was, in general, unreasonably hostile to the governor, and the difficulty of their relations, when
reported to Vienna, and emphasized by his attempt to
deceive Lowe in the Welle affair, brought about his
recall in July, 1818. No successor was appointed, the presence of commissioners being now admitted to be a mistake.

Alexandre Antonovich, Comte de Balmain, was descended from a Scotch family, the Ramsays of Balmain, which had left Scotland in 1685 and emigrated to Russia. His father had occupied the high post of governor-general of the Kursk Government. In 1801, aged twenty but already a captain, Balmain was dismissed from his cavalry regiment for having struck a policeman in a street row, but, restored to imperial favor a few days afterward when Alexander so suddenly came to the throne, he elected for the diplomatic service. There is where, no doubt, he belonged, for he was clever, somewhat unscrupulous, ambitious, fond of society, which soon became fond of him. During his missions at Naples, Vienna, and London, he did very little work, but already, in his fourth decade, he felt physically tired out from the occupations of a homeless, idle, diplomatic career, and morally from his elegant, easy-going skepticism. It was rather becoming to him, and he seems to have increased the pose; for one thing, he knew that it pleased women.

In 1813 he reëntered the army and saw active service culminating at Waterloo. As a reward he was offered the post of commissioner to St. Helena. Says Aldanov: 4 "Count de Balmain had known most of the celebrated people of Europe, and in his collection there was only wanting the most celebrated man of them all. Alexandre Antonovich enjoyed in anticipation the pleasure he would have from his intimate conversations with that genius and also the stories he would afterwards be able to relate. He reckoned that in two or three years he would be able to return to Europe surrounded by an aureole as the chosen friend of the Emperor."

The instructions drawn up for his guidance (quoted in these reports) were somewhat different from those of his two colleagues, and the latitude allowed him gives the clue to the superior value of his services. His instructions did not place him at variance either with the governor or with the emperor, because he was not directed to "assure himself with his own eyes" of the latter's existence, and hence did not stultify himself or his mission when he failed ever to see Napoleon.
Moreover he had at least one very good reason for getting to know the governor better, perhaps, than any one else on the island. In 1816 Sir Hudson Lowe was forty-seven years of age. He was born, incidentally, in the year which also saw the birth of Napoleon, Wellington, Castlereagh, and Marshals Ney, Lannes, and Soult, a combination of friends and antagonists which must be unique. While an ensign in his father's regiment, stationed for some years at Gibraltar, he took occasion to learn French, Spanish, and Italian, and his knowledge of the last he perfected by further study in Italy, so that he would have been able to speak it colloquially with his captive if their relations had been more pleasant. He studied also the Corsican dialect a little later; this man of action was very fond of reading and study.

Several coincidences link him with Napoleonic history. Two years, 1794-96, he spent in Corsica with his regiment before the victories in Italy of the great Corsican forced the British to abandon the island; and he became familiar with the Corsican character. The second coincidence connects him with Elba, where his regiment was next ordered. His best known service up to 1814 was as commander of the Corsican Rangers, which he organized on the island of Minorca from Corsican emigrants who had become dissatisfied with the French régime. For several years Colonel Lowe and his corps saw active service at several points on the Mediterranean. In 1813 he was attached to Blücher, and throughout the campaign of France served him in the important capacity of what would to-day be termed chief liaison officer. As a reward he was permitted to take the news of Napoleon's abdication to England, and on his arrival was knighted and promoted major-general. In the campaign of Waterloo he was Wellington's quartermaster-general.

This summary of his career is given to show that he really had many qualifications for his post at St. Helena: his high military rank and knighthood, his success as governor of various other islands, his intimate knowledge of Corsica, his perfect use of both Italian and French, and his acquaintance with many of the foremost celebrities of the day. He was in addition known to be conscientious, determined, and absolutely impervious to political influence of any character and from any direction - qualities which were considered to outweigh the absence of those personal graces which would have made his task so much easier. Let us turn now to his family.

He had married, a few weeks before sailing for St. Helena, a widow, whose first husband had been Colonel Johnson, eldest son of Sir John Johnson of Montreal. Opinions differ a great deal about Lady Lowe. Two estimates are quoted in foot-notes to this volume which show that some of those who knew her well admired her; but others did not, and have put on record that she was difficult to get on with, not because, like her husband, she did not know how to be agreeable, but because she imagined that her position required haughtiness. The point is not important because she does not figure conspicuously in this volume. At Colonel Johnson's death in 1812 she was left with two daughters, Charlotte and Susanna, the former of whom was at the time of the family's arrival on the island about thirteen years of age. Susanna died unmarried in 1828; but the elder, in March, 1820, to the surprise of every one, including the mild surprise of the bridegroom himself, married Alexandre Antonovich de Balmain, who was then about forty-two years old. 5 The match proved not happier than most marriages which are brought about by propinquity and boredom rather than similarity of tastes. After their departure from St. Helena the count, of course, found himself back again in the world of society, to which he tried to introduce his girl-bride totally without experience and sophistication and almost without education. She seems to have sometimes exasperated and sometimes amused the court of St. Petersburg; she died in 1824.

The question which these personal details raise is, how far did Balmain's courtship hamper him in the expression of his opinions? If one can judge by a perusal of the reports of 1819 and 1820, the answer is, not at all. If one can say that there was a change of attitude toward Lowe, it was not peculiar to him; and if there was any, it was most gradual and, it will be seen, was caused entirely by extraneous factors. His reports make no mention of his marriage. His intimacy with the Lowe family, however, must have some little historical value, whether apparent here or not, in giving him opportunities open to no one else.

1.  "Reflections on the Napoleonic Legend." New York, 1924.  Return to paragraph text.

2.  "Les Origines de la Légende Napoléonienne." Paris, 1906.  Return to paragraph text.

3.  "Napoleon in Exile: St. Helena." 2 volumes. London, 1915. By far the best, as it is the most readable, of all the St. Helena literature.  Return to paragraph text.

4.  M. A. Aldanov: "Saint Helena, Little island." New York, 1924. This little book is written around Balmain, and, although he is treated somewhat fancifully, it has been able to include a number of interesting personal details, through the collaboration of Count J. A. de Balmain, the commissioner's descendant. Curiously enough, Aldanov confuses Lady Lowe's two daughters and has Balmain marry Susanna instead of Charlotte.  Return to paragraph text.

5.  According to de Gors, the marriage distressed Napoleon terribly.  Return to paragraph text.

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