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Telling off Sir Hudson Lowe

How the governor’s impoliteness was chastised by his superiors

[Date 2nd May 1821]

Hudson Lowe has long been seen as a controversial figure in Napoleonic history for his alleged ill treatment of the emperor, but one aspect of his image that is seldom disputed is his position of authority. As Governor of St. Helena at the time of Napoleon’s incarceration, he is often seen as the foremost figure on the island, and yet in a letter from his superiors we see this authority begin to dissolve. In a letter chastising Lowe for ‘rudeness’ in his previous correspondence, his superiors begin by noting that “it has been impossible for us to pass unnoticed the Tone and Stile [sic] in which you have been betrayed not only in the Letters coming immediately from yourself but occasionally also in the Despatches from the Governor and Council.”

It is difficult not to see the similarities between the critique of Lowe’s “Tone and Stile [sic]” and a naughty schoolboy being told warned to “watch your tone”. The lengthy letter continues in this slightly patronising manner, with its contempt for Lowe at times very thinly veiled. This is never clearer than in the undeniably passive aggressive “You appear to entertain an [incorrect]Idea”. By the end of the letter, the emissaries arrive at their main point - authority. They inform Lowe that they “cannot suffer Ourselves to be thus dictated to as to the manner in which we may chuse to seek for Information relative to our affairs at St. Helena,” and end by reminding him that although he might be Governor of St. Helena, he is by no means at the top of the pecking order. He is warned that “the Tone and Temper in which you have indulged in discussing them are as unsuitable to the relative situation in which you stand towards the Court”. The angry letter is then signed off rather incongruously by “Your loving Friends”, who identify themselves as: “T. Reid, Jas. Pattison, Joseph Cotton, Edw. Parry, John Morris, J. Thornhill, John Inglis, R. C. Plowden, G. Raikes, John Loch, Wm. Showy, J. Daniell, Wm. Stanley Clarke. London, the 2nd May 1821.”

At the sight of such a list of critics, it is difficult not to feel a little sorry for Lowe here, who is singled out and isolated on St. Helena, but the letter also reveals the context of the power structures on St. Helena and shows Governor at perhaps a moment of weakness - the most senior figure on St. Helena, perhaps, but by no means at the top of the chain of command.

In September 2020, Napoleon200 ran an internship programme alongside the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). The Interns worked to produce research reports and blogs for use in bicentenary events.


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