The Emperor's Last Island

by Julia Blackburn. Pantheon,$22.00.Although the author professes never to have had “any special interest” in Napoleon, she has evidently studied his records and relics extensively. She is not a professional historian and makes no claim to be one. These characteristics have enabled her to produce an unusual, highly idiosyncratic account of Bonaparte’s activities on St. Helena, of the comicopera events following his death, and of the dismal history and currently stagnant condition of the island itself. St. Helena was, when discovered by the Portuguese, a paradise of vegetation and birdlife which flourished until the place fell into the hands of the British East India Company. The island is now close to treeless, badly eroded, and heavily regulated by London bureaucrats interested primarily in the advancement of their own careers. The islanders suffer from taxation without representation, but are too few to make a protest. By interweaving her own observations and acid opinions with historical facts, Ms. Blackburn has enabled an essentially sad tale of the deaths of a man and an island to be both interesting and engagingly unpredictable.