As the author I have to give it 5 stars! However, I am encouraged by the fact that of the 230 copies already sold, not one has shown up for sale second hand so some people must agree with me!
History can be awfully boring or totally engrossing. For the author, and I am sure many others, the interest lies not in the broad sweep of events but in how great changes impact on the lives of ordinary people.
George Brooks Bennett and his father James were relatively junior army officers, George in the Commissariat and James in the Honorable East India Company. Together, their lives more than spanned the 19th century and although they saw no great military actions, they did witness an extraordinary range of historical events.
Readers of history more than often have their own ‘periods’ or ‘places’ or ‘people’ or particular ‘events’ that attract them. The strength of this book lies in its diversity - readers who are fascinated by the minutiae of Napoleonic history, the life of soldier in the East India soldier, or the social history of early nineteenth century England will all find something new. So will those who want to know more about the history of St Helena or social and military life at the Cape in the late nineteenth century. Lovers of biography will be enthralled by the small boy who having seen Napoleon’s funeral, travels alone from St Helena to boarding school in Hampshire; of his life in London, and his journeys - initially back to St Helena and then onto to South Africa and the Eastern Cape; of his interests in botany that brought him into contact with the Hookers of Kew Garden fame and of the magnificent garden he created on the slopes of Table Mountain. There is even a mystery to solve – the intriguing story of Napoleon’s coffin :
James Bennett was a member of the East India Company garrison on St Helena when Napoleon was exiled to the island in 1815. When the ex-emperor died, it was reported that he had expressed a wish to be buried in a mahogany coffin. However, the only mahogany on the island was a table owned by Captain Bennett. Thus it was that this obscure officer became known as the man who donated his table to manufacture the coffin of one of the greatest generals the world has ever known. This story is still being perpetuated by modern histories of the exile but like all stories it has grown in the telling. In the first chapter of ‘Napoleon’s Last Witness’, the author delves into the twists and turns of the story and uncovers how the story originated and the probable truth behind it.
This 248 page book is based on a large collection of unpublished family letters and documents underpinned with a considerable amount of research into the background of the events described. Although not a professional historian, the author has been fortunate in having one of the country’s leading experts on St Helena history as a mentor and guide. The result is a book which should appeal to a wide audience as well as being of considerable interest to professional historians as a source book. The appendices alone contain unique information on the financial aspects of life in St Helena during the most critical period of its history – the change of sovereignty from the East India Company to the Crown in 1835.