You can see it from the Mule Yard, the only bar in Jamestown, Saint Helena, that happens to be open every day. It’s more prominent at low tide than high, a steering column jutting out of the water like the raised fist of a drowning swimmer. But the best way to see it is to swim out there. Kick the crabs out of your way as you descend the irregular stone steps of the dock, dive in when the swell is at its highest and use the steering column as your reference point.
It will appear long before you reach that column: the wreck of the SS Papanui is longer than you might anticipate. Sunk in James Bay in 1911 after several days on fire, it’s closer, too, within arm’s length of the surface, its stern appearing suddenly in the rays of sun that pierce the water and urging you to touch its barnacled skeleton. Follow its length on a diagonal to the shoreline and it will lead you to the steering column and the countless fish that throng it. A watery ruin, sad and lonely, with an unexpected connection to home.
Twelve months prior to the Papanui’s sinking, Melbourne authorities had warned about its lack of seaworthiness and the Australian papers took pains to say so. ‘The steamer … was ordered not to leave Melbourne, as she was in so bad a condition,’ one paper wrote. ‘The owners, however, sent the vessel to sea. Recently it was reported that her boilers were in a leaking condition in the Red Sea.’ That was in May. By September, the ship, which was registered in Melbourne, had made it to Britain and was on its way back again, travelling from London to Fremantle with 347 emigrants on board. The bunkers caught light on 5 September and it was five days before the fire was extinguished. After a brief stop on Saint Helena, nearly 1800 kilometres from the African coast and another 3200 from the South American one, they caught light again. The captain decided to return to the island.
The passengers were landed by five o’clock on the morning of 12 September. While ‘volumes of smoke’ issued from the ship, as the London Times’ Saint Helena correspondent put it, ‘dockhands worked to salvage the cargo. The Papanui is now on fire from stern to stern and is gutted,’ the correspondent wrote. ‘The ship has been abandoned and beached.’ ‘P.S.’, his article ended, in a manner at once archaic and lede-burying, ‘Destroyed by fire, towed out to sea and scuttled near Saint Helena.’ These were the days before the inverted pyramid structure of news reporting had become the norm.
The Papanui is neither the only nor the most intriguing of Australia’s connections with Saint Helena. On 17 October 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was riding back to Jamestown from the settlement of Longwood, despondent after visiting the building that was to be his home for the last six years of his life. If exile on Saint Helena had come as a surprise—he’d expected somewhere closer to home, but his captors had little interest in providing him with another Elba from which he might escape—then Longwood House had come as a slap in the face. The place had only recently been used as a stable, was infested with rats and leaked. He had liked the look of Farm House, which today operates as a bed-and-breakfast and serves an outstanding three-course dinner, but it was on the leeward side of the island and the British were afraid he might too easily be spirited away in the night. Longwood is high on the island’s central plateau—you can almost reach out and run your fingertips through the clouds—and at that time was a desolate, lonely place.
Napoleon asked to be returned to Jamestown until the building was ready. But as he descended back into the valley in which the island’s capital is located, he noticed a small house and pavilion—The Briars—and decided to look in upon the owner. This was William Balcombe, who lived on the property with his young family. It was quickly decided that Napoleon would join them while his official residence was made ready, in no small part because Balcombe’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Betsy, could speak fluent French. He got along with her famously.
But Balcombe’s connection with Napoleon had its drawbacks for the family. After Bonaparte moved into Longwood House in December, Balcombe was brought on as his purveyor. Saint Helena’s governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, suspected him of providing Napoleon with clandestine correspondence from France—he was probably right—and essentially hounded Balcombe and his family back to the motherland. Rapprochement followed only after Napoleon’s death in 1821, when Lowe named Balcombe the first colonial treasurer of New South Wales. Balcombe’s eldest daughter, Jane, died on the five-month voyage out.
Balcombe died in 1829, with the Sydney Gazette remarking that ‘there are few [gentlemen], we feel assured, whose memory will be more generally respected’. His family dispersed. Betsy returned to England and went on to meet Napoleon’s son and nephew, the latter of whom would later declare him-self Napoleon III and grant Betsy land in Algiers, which she never visited. She died in London in 1871, at the age of sixty-nine, in poverty. Her daughter, Bessie, later wrote that ‘Napoleon never ceased to be the preoccupation of my mother’s life … suddenly thrown into close proximity with the most dramatic figure of the age, she was ill-prepared to withstand the resultant repercussions: glamorous, disturbing, intimate, even sinister.’
Balcombe’s sons remained in Australia. The second, Thomas, shot himself in Sydney’s Paddington in 1861. The youngest, Alexander, settled on the Mornington Peninsula, where he took over the 2400-hectare Tichingorouk run in 1846 and changed its name to The Briars. The eight-hectare homestead and garden was passed down through the family until 1976, when it was gifted to the National Trust and the Mornington Peninsula Shire. By this stage, Alexander’s granddaughter, Dame Mabel Balcombe Brookes, had developed a Napoleonic preoccupation of her own and had assembled a sizable collection of memorabilia from the family’s time on Saint Helena.
All of this is by way of explaining why Mount Martha, Victoria, is home to one of only six Napoleonic death masks in the world, not to mention samples of the emperor’s hair and willows from the place where he was originally interred, Saint Helena’s Valley of the Willows, where the island marks the anniversary of his death each year in a quaint and slightly absurd service. The collection was bequeathed to the National Gallery of Victoria upon Dame Mabel’s death in 1975. Visitors could peruse these relics until April 2014, when eleven of them were stolen.
The death mask is of particular interest. Enter the heritage-listed homestead and take a close look at Napoleon’s right ear. You’ll notice that it’s not all there. In the rather drawn-out confusion of the moment, an orderly attempted to make the first plaster cast from ground-down headstones requisitioned from the local cemetery. This didn’t work, and by the time a suitable plaster had been found, the former emperor had been dead for a couple of days. In that time the rats had gotten to him.
The Briars homestead is also home to Dame Mabel’s Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur medal, which brings the Balcombes’, and Australia’s, connection to Saint Helena full circle. In 1959 Dame Mabel purchased the original Briars on the island and presented the title to the French government, an act of Australian largesse that Saint Helenian tour guides are still quick to point out today. But ask them what they think of their most famous resident and the answer will be one of no small ambivalence. ‘Well,’ says Ivy, an impossibly short Saint who has been running the Longwood House tour for years, ‘he’s not my man. I always liked Nelson. I went for Nelson at school.’