Napoleon's Willow' is the name of a tree that grew on St. Helena's Island in the 19th century. Under it the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was buried. Parts of it were taken and brought all over the world and it became the key relic in a popular cult of Napoleon.
One of the places where it was planted was Akaroa, New Zealand, where French settlers arrived in 1840. Various stories have circulated in the past about the origins of a large willow tree at the front of a property once belonging to Francois Lelièvre on the Rue Balguerie, and the willow trees of the old French cemetery on L’Aube Hill. It is believed that they all derived from this willow tree that grew over the grave of Napoleon, far away in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
The island of St. Helena is where Napoleon was exiled by the British - the ‘little rock at the world’s end’ as he called it - from 15 October, 1815, until his death in May 1821. A weeping willow tree (a type of Salix babylonica), in Rupert Valley (Sempler Vale), became associated with Napoleon, because it was said that he used to sit under it during his exile. It was his special place for tranquillity and reflection, and he asked to be buried under its shade.
It was common for sailing ships to stop at St. Helena on the long voyage south, around the Cape of Good Hope. French sailors would make the arduous trip to visit Napoleon’s grave, and try to take cuttings from the willow. A guard at the tomb of Napoleon on St. Helena’s Island was stationed there to limit the desires of relic-hunters.
Any tree that grows as a result of a cutting is a kind of duplicate tree, and as a result such a tree was known as ‘Napoleon’s willow’ wherever it was planted, and sometimes dubbed Salix napoleona or Salix Bonapartea. Such trees grow all over the world as a result of the enterprise of visitors from French ships, and others who wished to take a memento of Napoleon with them. One of these was Francois Lelièvre, a blacksmith from Normandy, who was a staunch Republican. According to early reports of his testimony from informants recorded in Akaroa and Christchurch newspapers, he visited Napoleon’s grave in 1837 en route to New Zealand on a whaling ship, the Nil, which departed from Le Havre on 22 June, 1837. Francois’s son Etienne recalled that Lelièvre said he obtained slips from a sailor, and said he planted both slips in Akaroa, then later moved one to Takamatua. There may even have been three slips. In fact, different stories could all preserve bits of truth, mingled with error. Perhaps Lelièvre took two, and then obtained another or others from a sailor later. Different stories are not mutually exclusive.
What seems most likely from comparisons of numerous different versions of the family story is that Lelièvre planted the first two willow slips when he arrived at Akaroa harbour, sometime between May and August in 1838, one at the site of his whare and another in what became known as German Bay (Takamatua). When he returned with the French settlers in 1840 he was happy to find that the one he had planted in Akaroa was thriving, though the one in German Bay had died. There is good reason to believe that Lelièvre was interested in propagating Napoleon’s willows, because later on there were three growing on his property, perhaps originally four. The Nanto-Bordelaise company representative, de Belligny, who was very interested in botany, transplanted one of Lelièvre’s willows to German Bay.
The willows of the French cemetery were linked also to Napoleon’s weeping willow in the French Akaroa tradition. These could well have been derived from the willow planted first by Lelièvre. The belief that these too were derived from Napoleon’s weeping willow was important. There were other ‘non-Napoleon’ willows planted in Akaroa and its environs, for the French settlers brought willows from France among the other trees they wanted to propagate in the new colony. But not all the willows were Salix napoleona. There is no reason to think that the willows propagated along the Avon River were derived from Napoleon’s willow, though this was supposed for some time.
As the story evolved, it was sometimes suggested that the ship taking the French settlers to New Zealand, the Comte de Paris, itself must have stopped at the island of St. Helena, but that is not true. There is no early mention anywhere of the ship calling in at the island, and no mention also of any French settlers apart from Lelièvre saying they went to see the grave of Napoleon. The story of the ship stopping at St. Helena’s Island comes from a vague reference by one of the passengers to it making a call at a tropical island, but this is not named as St. Helena, and ‘tropical’ is not quite the right description for this barren, wind-swept protrusion in the ocean. It was really the island of Palma where they stopped. The story of the settlers’ visit to Napoleon’s grave may have arisen because it was known that the French settlers esteemed the willows of the cemetery as being connected with Napoleon.
The willows growing at the cemetery poignantly recalled the willow over Napoleon’s grave, and symbolised something special about the aspirations of the early French community of Akaroa. Interestingly, Napoleon’s remains did not remain long under his special willow tree on St. Helena. In May 1840 the French government passed a law enabling the return of Napoleon’s remains. In October of that year, two months after the French settlers arrived in Akaroa, Napoleon’s body left St. Helena on the ship La Belle Poule to be re-interred in Paris.
The fate of Napoleon’s weeping willows at Akaroa is a little sad. The original trees planted by Lelièvre continued to thrive and grow enormous in the rich soil. But as Akaroa’s character changed to be much more of a British town than a French colony the significance of these waned in the hearts of most of the inhabitants.
The site of Lelièvre’s original whare had been built on land that became the property of the Nanto-Bordelaise company in 1840. In 1845 Lelièvre had bought the section on which he lived off the Company and built a small European-style house, ‘a very snug little cottage with three rooms and a loft about half a mile from the beach’ according to the description of Charlotte Godley. Four years later, in 1849, he sold it to John Watson, the Resident Magistrate, and during this time it had three willows growing. Much later, Watson leased this property to H. C. Jacobson (who arrived in 1881). In due course the willows fell.
But their memory lingered, especially of the first one that apparently stood at the front of the property. In 1954 the elderly Miss Ada Jacobson, daughter of H. C. Jacobson, wrote a letter to Mrs. W. A. Newton, who was a granddaughter of Francois Lelièvre, recalling a story she heard from him as a girl. She wrote:
‘When I was going to school one day, my father and I were standing under the willow tree [on Balguerie Street] and your grandfather rode by. He told us, when he was a boy [actually, he was 27], he was apprenticed to a whaler. I have forgotten the name of the boat, but they stopped at St. Helena and he cut a slip of willow from Napoleon’s grave and kept it in a tin. Whilst in Akaroa harbour, he had a row with some of the crew and ran away, taking the slip with him. He hid in the bush, and planted the slip in an open space.’
Most of the willow trees of the French cemetery were cut down in 1925. There were complaints about the cemetery’s neglected condition, where the old wooden crosses had disappeared, and the roses had become overgrown. The willows were felled, and a stark monument erected with inscriptions recording the still-legible names of those buried there. Now, however, there is still at least one of the original trees growing from an old stump: Napoleon’s weeping willow still survives in Akaroa, surrounded today by native vegetation.
There are many folk-art images of Napoleon's Willow, the tree on St. Helena's Island, as well as relics of the bark and the leaves that have been preserved in different collections. Some of these are shown in the panel on the right. In a number of them you get a ghostly image of Napoleon in the tree, often using a trompe l'oeil technique. This type of image was made into lithographs, and copied on to everything from plates to snuff boxes.
 John Wilson and Louise Beaumont, ‘Akaroa: Historical Overview – Report Prepared for Keri Davis-Miller, Planner, City Plan Team, Christchurch City Council, June 2009 (Unpublished; 2009), 22, Citing: Old Days of Akaroa Recalled in Plans for the New Zealand Centennial Celebrations.
 ‘Historical Willow Tree Uprooted by Storm’, Poverty Bay Herald, 36, Issue 33, 28 October, 1909, 5.
 For different versions, see Ross C. Hallett, ‘Willows in New Zealand’, unpubl. M.Sc. thesis, Waikato University (1978) 61-7. I am grateful to Jenny King for sharing this with me.
 The Lelièvre Family, Akaroa: The Story of Etienne Francois and Justine Rose Lelièvre and their Descendants 1840-1990, compiled by Valerie Lelièvre (Lelièvre Family Book Committee, 1990), 23.
 In The Press, October 11, 1864, William ‘Cabbage’ Wilson stated that the ‘three finest specimens [of willow trees] are growing at the house of Mr Watson, Akaroa’, cf. H. C. Jacobson, Tales of Banks Peninsula, 3rd ed. (Akaroa: Akaroa Mail, 1914) 118, where three slips are mentioned, and ‘The Akaroa Willow’, The Press, xxxxx.
 Jacobson, Tales of Banks Peninsula, 117.
 So M. J. B. Eteveneaux, in A. S. Buick, The French at Akaroa (Wellington: New Zealand Book Depot, 1928), 172.
 Peter Tremewan, French Akaroa: An Attempt to Colonise Southern New Zealand (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1990) 75, cf. Jacobson, Tales of Banks Peninsula, 88, who thought that the tropical island was St. Helena.
 From the letter of Charlotte Godley, visiting the house in 1851: Charlotte Godley, Letters From Early New Zealand (Plymouth: Bowering Press, 1936), 252-3.
 'The Akaroa Willow,' The Press, 4 July 1970. I am grateful to Margaret Harper of Christchurch City Libraries for finding this reference for me.