Napoleon's Rosebud - a novel of romantic intrigue by Humphry Knipe

Napoleon's Rosebud - a novel of romantic intrigue by Humphry Knipe

For the last 20 years I've lived on a horse ranch in Malibu Canyon with my wildly famous wife, glamour photographer Suze Randall who is a leading figure in the local horse community. Born and brought up in South Africa,I co-authored the 1970’s international bestseller The Dominant Man which explores the human “pecking order” and has been translated into four languages. I am also the author of The Nero Prediction which won the Ippy award for “Best Historical Novel."

Napoleon’s Rosebud was inspired by a real-life family affair. My grandfather emigrated from the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena to what is now South Africa in the late 1880’s. He was penniless economic refugee who ended up working for the South African Railways in the humble position of stationmaster of a whistle stop in the Great Karoo Desert. His only treasure was an explosive family secret.

As Grandfather lay dying in 1953 he summoned my father, and my father alone, to his bedside and told him the Knipes had not always been an insignificant family. Once upon a time, back in Saint Helena, a Knipe had been touched by greatness.

Perhaps Grandfather went into detail. But my father, a very Victorian school principle, didn’t pass them on to me. This was not information suitable for the ears of a 12-year-old.

Quite recently, like many people getting along in years, I became curious about my ancestors, particularly that "touch of greatness" claim relayed to me by my father. That it probably involved Napoleon was fairly obvious - a large print of the defeated emperor sailing in exile on the Bellerophon had pride of place in my grandfather's sitting room. So I researched the Saint Helena branch of the family online and soon struck gold - or pay dirt if you prefer. I discovered a 486 page genealogy titled The Knipe Family of Saint Helena Island by Glennis Snell who is also of Knipe descent and who has been invaluable to me in ongoing research.

In her book, surely one of the most comprehensive of any Southern African family, Glennis devotes two pages to the Rosebud legend. She quotes a contemporary Who’s Who of the island that says that a Miss Knipe nicknamed  ‘Le Bouton De Rose’ by the French, was much admired by Napoleon and his followers. Glennis quotes a visitor to the island in 1929 who says she saw a plaster cast hand of the beautiful Miss Knipe “whom the islanders described as the most beautiful woman who ever passed through Cason’s Gate” - a familiar landmark. The visitor wrote that she saw a portrait of Rosebud in her wedding gown “showing her beautiful hands.”

Questions about the true identity of  “Rosebud” were finally put to rest in 2011 when the French historian Albert Benhamou discovered this reference to her in the memoirs of one of Napoleon’s entourage during the exile: “The daughter of the house introduced us to one of her friends, Miss Kneips, the prettiest person we could see: tall, blonde, handsome waist, fair complexion. Her freshness, her beauty made us call her Rosebud and we never called her anything else. Her mother was the widow of an officer of the East India Company and lived there from some modest pension.”  (Countess Albine de Montholon’s Souvenirs de Sainte-Helene.) This gem not only gives us a vivid description of Rosebud but also makes it clear that she was the daughter of Richard Knipe, a retired soldier, (my great-great-great-grandfather) not his brother Samuel, a farmer who (confusingly) also had a daughter named Charlotte.

What raw material for a novel! A beautiful 19-year-old born and brought up on the remotest island in the world, nothing more than the tip of a volcano half way between South America and South Africa, who catches the eye of the most dangerous man on the planet whose mind is swarming with schemes to make his escape to America and conquer a new empire. How did she feel about being courted by someone who still insisted on being called emperor, a magnetic 46-year-old egomaniac who was used to manipulation and coercion in his restless urge to achieve absolute power? Wouldn't she be smitten by him?

The "touch of greatness" my grandfather referred to was Napoleon's.