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Michel Dancoisne-Martineau: The man who keeps Napoleon's memory alive on St Helena
Honorary French Consul in Saint Helena, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, poses on March 12, 2015 next to the flag pole in the garden of Napoleon's last residence, known as Longwood House, in Jamestown on the British island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to St. Helena in 1815 and lived there until his death six years later. AFP PHOTO / JEAN LIOU.

By: Jean Liou

JAMESTOWN (AFP).- Michel Dancoisne-Martineau knows that the story of Napoleon's life in exile is timeless -- and irresistible.

The Frenchman is tasked with preserving the property where Napoleon Bonaparte lived after being exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena in 1815 and remained until his death six years later.

"I have a product and I am trying to sell it," he said.

One of the few Frenchmen on the British island of just 4,200 people, Dancoisne-Martineau manages a 16.5 hectare (40 acre) plot of French territory.

"I want this to last after me," said the smiling 49-year-old as his dog Papillon (Butterfly) lay at the foot of the bed where France's greatest military hero died.

Dancoisne-Martineau, who took up his job in 1987, has spearheaded an ambitious project to renovate Longwood House, the home of the former emperor. 

The upgrade could not come at a better time. 

Next year, St Helena plans to start weekly flight service from Johannesburg -- which has only been accessible by a five-day boat journey -- in what many islanders hope will result in a significant boost to the tourism sector.

Dancoisne-Martineau intends to be ready.

"Hopefully, we will privatise the management of the building," he said. "There will be a shop and ticketed entry."

The property includes Napoleon's house in Longwood and "Geranium Valley" -- the peaceful site where the ex-emperor wanted to be buried if his remains weren't sent back to his beloved homeland. 

Dancoisne-Martineau started by renovating "the generals' rooms" that housed Napoleon's companions in exile.

Razed in 1860 and shoddily rebuilt in 1933, the cost to repair the building totalled more than 1.4 million euros ($1.5 million).

The French government committed to footing half of the bill, and he had to find the other half. 

Despite the hefty price tag, the upgrade wasn't difficult to finance.

A labour of love 
"An international campaign was conducted with the Napoleon Foundation to raise funds and it has since garnered 1.5 million euros," said the curator, with a smile. 

With the leftover money, Dancoisne-Martineau has started improving the wing of the house occupied by the ex-emperor before he died age 52, plagued by boredom and haunted by spite.

When Napoleon lived there under guard "there was standing water under the floor, water running down the walls, rats were everywhere and there was a permanent musty smell," said Dancoisne-Martineau.

He choose to present the house the way it was the day Napoleon died -- minus the rats and dampness.

"But I didn't let the walls crumble," he added.

The refurbished apartments, with guest rooms and seminar facilities, will be inaugurated on October 15 to mark the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's arrival on the island.

After the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon surrendered to the English, hoping for lenient treatment. He must have never imagined they would banish him to a no-man's land so far from Europe.

Yet, the distance has not stopped people from visiting.

"People do come for Napoleon," said Mark Capes, the island's governor.

"For St Helena, the Napoleon legacy is very important, because he is part of what makes St Helena, he is part of our history.

"We celebrate it, and it is part of our marketing."

As part of the restoration project, Dancoisne-Martineau has sent 32 pieces of furniture to France.

Next year, Les Invalides, a French military complex that houses Napoleon's grave in Paris, will display them for an exhibition marking the bicentenary of his exile, along with some luxury items that the former French emperor had taken with him.

For Dancoisne-Martineau, a wave of sightseers would be the best way to end his custodianship of Napoleon's final years before he steps down, maybe as early as next year.

"I'll resume painting, I abandoned it 15 years ago," he said.

In the meantime, he has started repairing the roof of a house in Briars Pavilion, above the capital Jamestown, where Napoleon stayed for two months after his arrival in 1815, before moving to Longwood. 

That repair isn't in the official renovation budget. But for Dancoisne-Martineau, preserving Napoleon's memory has become a labour of love: he's paying for the roof repairs out of his own pocket.

© 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse

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