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Coffee: A Dark History by Antony Wild

Coffee: A Dark History by Antony Wild

Author:Antony Wild [Wild, Antony]
Language: eng
Format: epub
Published: 0101-01-01T00:00:00+00:00


Napoleon’s Sèvres coffee service, with pictures of Egypt by Vivant Denon. It was much commented upon by English visitors to Longwood, his house on St Helena.

Napoleon had evidently drunk coffee since early adulthood: when he was courting his first wife, Joséphine, in 1795, she used to serve him coffee that had been grown on her family’s estates in Martinique. Her family, the Taschers, had had plantations there since the seventeenth century, initially growing sugar but taking up coffee cultivation when it was introduced to the island by Gabriel de Clieu. They had 150 slaves, evidently well treated, but the plantations produced no income for Joséphine as the island was, when she met Napoleon, in the hands of the British. Perhaps it was Joséphine’s influence that had led to his reinstituting the French slave trade in 1802. He had certainly been under pressure, from the slaving interests at Nantes, Bordeaux, and Marseilles and had seen from the example of the rebellion on Saint-Domingue how economically damaging the loss of a colony could be.

In the case of St Helena, however, it was maintaining the colony that now came at a heavy cost. Although St Helena was still in the possession of the East India Company, during Napoleon’s exile its government was taken over by the Crown, which also paid for the vastly increased expenditure necessary to keep the island in a constant state of high alert. The estimable Governor Wilks was pensioned off and replaced temporarily in turn by Admirals Cockburn and Malcolm, until the Crown’s chosen successor, Sir Hudson Lowe, arrived in April 1816. A taciturn, unimaginative man, the Exile was a formidable challenge to which he could only fail to rise: Montholon, one of Napoleon’s so-called Four Evangelists (the others were Bertrand, Gourgaud, and Las Cases) who accompanied him into exile, wrote: ‘An angel from heaven would not have pleased us as Governor of St Helena.’ Whatever his other merits, Lowe was no angel, and as his relationship with Napoleon quickly soured, he became obsessed with the safekeeping of his charge inside what was jokingly called ‘Hudson Fort.’ He would wake in the middle of the night and feverishly scribble down new ideas to increase the security there. He had a bitter, bored, and ruthless opponent: Napoleon himself said in December 1818: ‘Whatever they say, I can make or unmake the reputation of the Governor . . . all I choose to say of him, of his bad behaviour, of his ideas of poisoning me, will be believed.’

Their first meeting appears to have been friendly enough, however. Lowe had been commander of the Corsican Rangers, knew Egypt, and had fought in some battles opposite the Emperor, who noted: ‘We probably fired guns at each other. With me that always makes for a happy relationship.’ Napoleon was always keen to measure what he called a man’s ‘draught,’ and in Lowe’s case the initial result seemed favourable enough: ‘This new Governor says very little, but he seems polite,’ he is



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