Arsenic and new lace. And what are they drinking on St Helena?

Wednesday, 3 November, 2004
Jay Heale
Jay Heale returns from a visit to St Helena – and some intensive research into what ‘the Saints’ are drinking post Napoleon. As it turns out, South African wine – and Castle beer!

Let's clear away the arsenic legend first. Napoleon did die on St Helena after six years of captivity on what must be the most isolated mid-Atlantic speck there is (1920 km from Africa, 3260 km from South America). Although traces of arsenic were found in his hair, and the wallpaper was found to emit arsenic vapour, the defeated emperor most probably died of stomach cancer; a sad end on a lonely island for one of the great men of history.

Those attending him complained that he was scandalously short of rations, furniture, suitable housing. Those in charge of his captivity complained of the excessive food and drink bills each month. Napoleon's servants were each provided with a bottle of wine per day. The officers attending him had more. So what did they drink?

Most of the table wine came from the Cape but often it did not travel well. The lighter wines turned vinegary. That is why Napoleon preferred the more robust dessert wines, which could survive the sea voyage. He liked the fortified wines of Madeira and Tenerife, and above all Constantia - which he drank mixed equally with water. Originally produced on Groot Constantia, the golden sweet wine was revived on Klein Constantia as Vin de Constance.

We also have a description of a time when Napoleon rode out from his Longwood House residence to visit Sir William Doveton. Caught somewhat by surprise, Sir William offered his guest a glass of the local beverage: 'shrub', naval rum mixed with orange juice. Napoleon thought it appalling and produced champagne for all.

Nearly 200 years later the St Helenians (who call themselves the Saints) still drink South African wine. On the shelves of their Spar supermarket are Chateau Libertas, Nederburg Pinotage, Swartland Stein and cartons of Drostdy Hof. They like port too, but the main drink of the Saints is Castle! There are no locally brewed drinks, though I did find a recipe for Tungi Wine made from prickly pear.

And the new lace? Sadly, hardly any. Lacemaking used to be one of the local skills and a useful export, but it has died away together with the harvesting of flax. The few money-making activities on St Helena today are fishing, designing postage-stamps, showing tourists the (empty) grave of Napoleon and wondering just how much Constantia wine he drank.