When Napoleon was exiled to the Atlantic island of St Helena in 1815, the man who had once ruled huge swathes of Europe had to fill his time somehow. He rode his horse around the parts of the island he was allowed to visit, and he noticed a pretty young farmer’s daughter called Mary Anne Robinson. He named her “the Nymph” and she became well known at Longwood, the former emperor’s residence. There was even a suggestion that her parents should keep a close eye on Mary Anne because the undoubtedly charming Bonaparte was a little too interested. Then on 26 July 1817, Mary Anne visited Napoleon with her new husband – she was now Mrs Edwards – to bid him a fond farewell. Three days later, Mary Anne Edwards sailed for England and left her native island forever.
As she stood on the deck and watched St Helena receding over the horizon, knowing she would never see the island again, she closed a chapter of her family’s story. She was the last surviving descendent of John and Margaret Cotgrave who could remember a time when Cotgraves had been prominent among the citizens of that lump of rock in the middle of the Atlantic.
St Helena is one of the remotest inhabited places in the world, which is why Napoleon had been sent there after his final defeat at Waterloo. The chances of his escaping were close to zero – it was impossible for him to communicate freely with the rest of the world and the only way on or off the island was via relatively infrequent landings of sailing vessels, which could be regulated and controlled by St Helena’s civil and military authorities.
Perhaps that is why John and Margaret Cotgrave chose to settle there in the 1670s but if so, their decision is difficult to comprehend. There were rumours that Margaret had given birth to an illegitimate child before the couple had left for the isolation of the mid Atlantic. But even if it were true – and it was very hotly denied – that would hardly justify going to such lengths to distance themselves from their former lives. Nor were they trying to escape poverty when they made the 5,000 mile journey – in fact, they seem to have been reasonably comfortable financially. Perhaps it was a desire for a simpler life that motivated John and Margaret to move to St Helena, because England in the 1670s could be a disturbing place, with constant worries about the country’s political and religious future.
The worries on St Helena were of a different, more fundamental nature. On such a remote island, food supplies needed to be carefully husbanded. Every year, the authorities took a careful census both of what lands each islander controlled and what livestock they had. The survey of animals detailed how many head of cattle and sheep each farmer had, how many were available for slaughter, how many would provide food for the East India Company’s ships, how many could be sold to other vessels to inject cash into the economy and how many were left for future stock. In this way, the colony’s finite supplies of edible vegetation and animal protein could be profitably cultivated. A trivial piece of wasteland where the Cotgraves later kept “a few sheep” was considered a valuable commodity – in a subsistence economy, sheep sold for as much as £1 a head. When shipping had to be curtailed during wartime, fishing boats were sometimes exempt, because their produce was so valuable. Any potential new supply of food would be welcome, and when in 1727, a flock of an unknown species of bird landed on the island, the Governor and Council hoped they would colonise and multiply, so they ordered that nobody could harm them or, if they bred, their nests or eggs.
Unnecessary losses of food could not be tolerated and punishment for any abuse of the system could be severe. When one of Thomas Cotgrave’s slaves stole two pigs in 1759, he was sentenced to be flogged on four different occasions, to receive 200 lashes on each, and to be branded on the cheek. Even the theft of two of Ruth Cotgrave’s chickens resulted in a detailed trial, and despite the fact that the perpetrator had replaced the birds, he was still sentenced to be “whip’d at a cart’s tail”.
When the Cotgraves’ farm dwindled, John and Thomas Cotgrave were determined to recover their grandfather’s position as a leading farmer in the island community. In 1726, John Cotgrave took a lease on a plot of land that was just one acre in area, but it was a start. In 1732, Thomas secured a lease on three acres. He owned some slaves (a major feature of life on St Helena) and he got married. Both brothers were still employed as soldiers but they were starting to acquire small amounts of land. John died soon afterwards, and it was left to Thomas Cotgrave alone to rebuild the family fortunes. In 1742, he controlled just four acres of leased land, but by 1745, he had more than 36 acres and by the following year, his holdings had almost doubled again, to 66 acres. By the end of the decade, he had bought the freehold on some land, and by the late 1750s, he had amassed a total of 125 acres of leased and purchased land; this would turn out to be the family’s high water mark on the island.
Thomas Cotgrave had once again become middle class. His name appears among the buyers and sellers of land, the bidders at auctions and the witnesses of wills. In 1748, he took up minor public office when he was elected as Overseer of the East Division and in 1755, he was chosen as churchwarden. He was the executor of neighbour’s wills and the appraiser of their inventories. He sold cattle, timber and fruit to the authorities to feed the Governor’s household. His herd of cattle reached dozens and he owned at least five slaves. When he died in 1760, his moveable estate was valued at over £1,273.
His daughters married some of the island’s more prominent farmers and his son James carried on his father’s lifestyle. James Cotgrave was a juror at the island’s courts, a significant landowner, churchwarden and overseer. He wrote reports for the Governor and Council about the island’s physical infrastructure, and his name appears on Council business about price regulation, the employment of the schoolmaster, remuneration for the surgeon, trespassing sheep and the use of waste ground. At one point he owned as many as 12 slaves. He was even one of the “principal inhabitants” elected to serve as sheriff, the highest post that a local farmer could hold. He had fulfilled by the 1780s the dreams of his great grandparents a century earlier when they had settled on the island.
What he did not do was to perpetuate the family line. Although John and Margaret Cotgrave had produced at least nine children, five of them boys, there had never been more than one adult, married Cotgrave on St Helena at any one time. Many of the island’s families were related to the Cotgraves in the female line, but James Cotgrave and his wife Susanna were the only people who remained to bear the family name.
James Cotgrave died in early 1792 at the age of 59. Susanna outlived him by eight years and although she could not carry out the exclusively male duties of churchwarden or sheriff, she continued farming. Her lands were much reduced from the 125 acres that her father-in-law had once owned, but she still farmed more than 40 acres, owned six slaves, kept sheep and cattle, and operated a fishing vessel. Napoleon’s “Nymph”, Mary Anne Robinson, was a toddler at the time, and perhaps her father took her to see her old aunt Susanna Cotgrave in her last years.
But as a new century dawned, a chapter in St Helena’s history came to an end. On 1 April 1800, “Mrs Cotgrave, a native” was buried in the island’s churchyard. As Mary Anne waved goodbye to St Helena on 29 July 1817, she was doing so not just for herself but on behalf of the whole Cotgrave family.
Chaplin, A. (2014) A St Helena Who’s Who: A complete guide to the people on St Helena during Napoleon’s captivity, Fonthill.
Gosse, P. (1938) St Helena, Cassell.
Janisch, H.D (1885) Extracts from the St Helena Records
British Library: IOR/G32/ St Helena Consultations
British Library: IOR/N/6/1 Register of baptisms, marriages and burials
Island of St Helena Archives, Jamestown: Will Register 1682-1745
O’Meara, B. E. (1817) Letters from the Cape of Good Hope in reply to Mr Warden, Ridgeway.
Warden, W. (1816) Letters written on board His Majesty’s ship the Northumberland and at St Helena.