HISTORY OF THE “EMPEROR’S SAINT HELENA EAU DE COLOGNE”
By Maître André Damien, Member of the “Institut de France
The time that the Emperor spent at Saint Helena – six years – is of key importance. First, it is the longest period of time he ever spent in one place The roving Emperor, a ceaseless traveller, accustomed to exciting victories from Paris to Vienna and Moscow, is suddenly forced to lead a sedentary and cloistered life in Longwood House which his English captors had assigned him, supervised by a fussy and narrow-minded Governor Hudson LOWE.
This was a painful period, but crucial for the Imperial legend, because it was there that this legend really came together, conceived as a calvary, imposed by the jailers and courageously accepted by the emperor who said one day to MONTHOLON: “if I die on the cross and were my son to live, he will arrive”. And again: "If Jesus Christ had not died on the cross, he would not be God", thus showing that the suffering he endured on St. Helena was likely to make him a martyr or at least a demi-god.
His entourage shared his thoughts. BERTRAND, the Grand Marshal, at NAPOLEON’s bidding, wrote to Hudson LOWE: “Do your Ministers not know that the spectacle of a great man faced with adversity is the most sublime of spectacles? Do they not know that NAPOLEON on St. Helena, surrounded by persecutions of every kind, which he faces solely with serenity, is greater, holier, more venerable than the highest throne of the world where he was so long the judge of Kings?”
Jacques BAINVILLE understood this aspect of imperial history when he wrote: “A perfect work of art, Napoleon’s life is crowned by suffering and martyrdom. It is on a par with the greatest heroes, the rock of Prometheus, the pyre of Hercules or that of Joan of Arc. The Napoleonic religion evokes the cross on Calvary.”
And interestingly, this Eau de Cologne, made in Saint Helena to a recipe recovered by the Emperor’s entourage, participates in this legend as it reflects the scarcity that at times prevailed on that “island prison” where the Emperor was held captive.
At Longwood House where the Emperor would live out the last years of his prodigious existence, he wished to show to the English that he was always, and despite them, the Emperor. So he instituted a severe ceremonial regime and strict etiquette, the highest figure of this sham court being Grand Marshal BERTRAND. MONTHOLON was elevated to the rank of Major-Domo and Master of Ceremonies. GOURGAUD was his Aide-de-Camp and his Grand Esquire. The servants, still in their imperial livery corresponding to their functions, were MARCHAND, the First Valet-de-Chambre and ALI, the Mameluke.
To maintain the balance of this court, it was important that the Emperor kept up the same routines that he followed at the TUILERIES or on campaign. He therefore remained regally generous, offering memorable Christmas gifts to his small band; presents from the treasures that MARCHAND and ALI had spirited to Saint Helena.
They drank the same drinks they had drunk in France, which astonished the English and Hudson LOWE who, pettily, tried to reduce the French colony’s budget from 20,000 pounds to 8,000 pounds. The Emperor’s answer was a scathing refusal. Better yet, he called the Governor’s bluff by having some of his silverware sold in JAMESTOWN, adding that when the time came that he could afford to eat, he would go to Deadwood Camp and sit in the officers’ mess where the English officers would be obligated to receive the great soldier that he still was.
Restrictions were severe and the Emperor eventually ran out of the EAU DE COLOGNE that he had used in France and at the beginning of his stay at Saint Helena and which he used for intensive body massage after the overlong and overhot baths (so said his doctors) that he liked.
What could he do? There was no EAU DE COLOGNE on SAINT HELENA, an island with a small and poor population. It could not be purchased in Europe: it would take too long to get to the island! So the Emperor put his companion’s memories to work, consulting dictionaries in his library, to create an artisanal EAU DE COLOGNE, the eventual formula for which would later be found among ALI’s papers.
The Emperor’s Second Valet-de-Chambre, ALI’s real name was Louis Étienne SAINT-DENIS. He was born in VERSAILLES into a family of servants attached to the Chateau of VERSAILLES, and received such a good education that he became a notary’s clerk in Paris.
Thanks to his father, an equestrian Ringmaster who knew CAULAINCOURT, he entered service at the Emperor's house in 1806 and graduated to indoor services such as second Mameluke. At that point someone nicknamed him ALI, a name that eventually stuck, as it had been the name of one of the Mamelukes of the Guard. From the “Hundred Days " to SAINT HELENA, he didn’t leave the Emperor’s side, proved himself untiring, devoted, discreet, intelligent and, along with MARCHAND, the First Valet-de-Chambre, become his friend. They were the two servants who eased his captivity while doing everything they possibly could for their Master. As scribe, librarian, Valet-de-Chambre, nurse and the Emperor's quartermaster responsible for inventories, storage and security of goods, he was one of the key figures of this sham court.
When he returned from SAINT HELENA, he settled in SENS where he became a member of the comfortable gentry. He wrote his memoirs displaying an astonishing memory. According to one of the Emperor's companions, PONS DE L'HÉRAULT, he was the one who checked the authenticity of everyone’s else’s memoirs, his own memory being so amazing and accurate.
His memoirs were published by one of his descendants, Professor MICHAUT, who taught at the SORBONNE. The manuscript of his memoirs. a series of manuscripts and other writings by ALI ended up in the VERSAILLES Auction House under the hammer of Maître BLACHE, a shrewd auctioneer, who managed to assembly all of ALI’s memoirs.
Some of them were acquired by the Library of VERSAILLES, essentially the text of the memoirs. The rest, which includes bibliographies of the writings on SAINT HELENA and later writings, the analysis of all published memoirs in 1820, was acquired by an unknown collector who has never been heard of again. In the part that I have had the luck to possess, mainly ALI’s personal memories, his marriage contract, drawings of Saint Helena thanks to his wife or close companions of the Emperor, along with detailed and critical analyses of the memoirs of all the companions of SAINT HELENA, is the recipe for EAU DE COLOGNE which allowed the Emperor to have it made, to overcome the temporary scarcity of this product of he was particularly fond.
This is the recipe that in 1991 I passed to Didier SIMOND, President of the VERSAILLES Chamber of Commerce and Osmothèque, its founder and perfumer Jean KERLEO managing to achieve the same product as the Emperor knew in SAINT HELENA with a quality and deep freshness to satisfy all lovers of this scent. The Emperor had good taste. ALI knew how to find the right recipe to satisfy his Master’s desires.