Remembering the Old Songs:

Saint Helena

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 1999)

The most popular figure in British balladry may be Robin Hood. But the most popular historical figure is not even an Englishman. It's Napoleon.

Malcolm Laws listed seven ballads still being sung about Napoleon, and even so, he left out more than he omitted. Among them is perhaps the most lyric and beautiful of them all, Saint Helena (Boney on the Isle of Saint Helena).

The internal evidence of the song seems to indicate that it began life as a broadside, probably in Ireland. (Napoleon was very popular in Ireland, simply because he was an enemy of the English.) This broadside seems to have perished, however, and the song is preserved mostly in American versions (though versions from Ireland, Newfoundland, and Sussex in England are also known).

I didn't really ever learn this song; I don't own a recording of it. I picked it up by osmosis from a variety of sources, and then tried to make it coherent because I didn't have a real source. The (magnificent if unusual) tune is probably mostly from Mary Black, but the words are more from the Frank and Anne Warner collection than anything else. The key shown here is probably a little low for comfortable singing; A is probably better. But it works out nicely on the guitar in G.

The number of historical references in this song is immense (more evidence of broadside composition). "Boney" is, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte. "Saint Helena" is the lonely island in the south Atlantic where he spent his final years (it was chosen because it was the most desolate place in the British empire).

"Louisa" is the Austrian princess Marie-Louisa, Napoleon's second wife. She bore him his only child, but it was a diplomatic rather than a love match; despite the song, she had two other children between the time of Napoleon's exile and his death.

Mount Diana (properly Diana's Peak) is the highest point on Saint Helena. The allusion to the moon in this context is obviously classical.

The "young king of Rome" is Napoleon's son. Young Napoleon (Napoleon II) did not take part in his father's overthrow, but his existence meant that the world was more afraid of Napoleon. The "prince of Gehenna" is the Devil.

The "Holy Alliance" is a league formed after Napoleon's overthrow to prevent any Bonapartist pretenders from gaining influence. It was neither holy nor successful; although Napoleon's son died young, Napoleon III later ruled France.

Saint Helena

Complete Lyrics:

Oh, Boney's away from his wars and his fightings,
He is gone to a land where naught can delight him.
And there he may sit down and tell the scenes he's seen, oh,
While alone he does mourn on the Isle of Saint Helena.

Oh, Louisa she weeps for her husband's departing.
She dreams when she sleeps and she wakes broken-hearted.
Not a friend to console her, though there's many would be with her,
And she mourns when she thinks on the Isle of Saint Helena.

Oh the rude rushing waves o'er the ocean are beating,
And the loud billows' roar on the shore's rocks are beating.
He may look to the moon o'er the great Mount Diana
And he grieves as he thinks on the Isle of Saint Helena.

No more in Saint Cloud he'll be seen in such splendor
Or go on with his wars like the great Alexander,
For the young king of Rome and the prince of Gehenna
Have caused him to die on the isle of Saint Helena.

Oh you parliaments of war and your Holy Alliance,
To a prisoner of war you may now bid defiance,
For your base intrigues and your base misdemeanors
Have caused him to die on the Isle of Saint Helena.

All you who have wealth, beware of ambition,
For a small cast of fate could soon change your condition.
Be steadfast in time, for what's to come you know not,
Or your days they may end, like his, on Saint Helena.


This song shows up under many titles (e.g. Napoleon Bonaparte, Lonely Louisa, Boney on the Isle of Saint Helena, Boney's Defeat), and so may be difficult to identify. The most important reference is that in the Warner collection (Anne Warner, Traditional American Folk Songs from the Anne & Frank Warner Collection), where this is number 143. This gives one of the fuller texts (although slightly confused), as well as information on other printings. There is also a Lonely Louisa text in the Eddy collection from Ohio, and Cecil Sharp found a badly worn-down text in the Appalachians.

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