The British German Reenactor Who Applied for the Role as The Napoleon Impersonator

Phil Hodges
Phil Hodges

You may have seen a story across all news platforms this week with regards to the island of St. Helena looking for a Napoleon impersonator.

If you didn’t then we covered it here Wanted: Napoleon Impersonator Required on Island of St Helena

The Times newspaper also covered the story but also a man – Phil Hodges – who is applying for the role. Phil is a good friend of War History Online so we caught up with him to find exactly what the role is and some background details.

Interestingly, Phil is an Englishman, who reenacts as a German but is going for the job of a French emperor – must be a strange life.

Longwood House, Saint Helena, site of Napoleon’s captivity. David Stanley CC BY 2.0
Longwood House, Saint Helena, site of Napoleon’s captivity. David Stanley CC BY 2.0

St.Helena lies in the middle of the the Atlantic Ocean somewhere between Brazil and South Africa. During his exile there after defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon wasn’t exactly enthralled with the island that was to imprison him until his death some years later.

In fact, some historians say that he became so depressed on the island that his health deteriorated rapidly thus leading to his premature death aged just 51. So what of the island now and what sort of person would want to go there?

In September of this year the St.Helena tourist board advertised for a ‘Napoleon Impersonator’. Someone to dress up as Napoleon and parade around the island to both dignitaries and tourists alike.

The said person would have to be around 5ft 7inches, be somewhat comfortable in isolation and be able to fit into the already purchased Islands Napoleonic uniform of tunic, trousers, riding boots and bi-corn hat so famously worn by the ‘little corporal’ Sounds easy enough right?

St Helena – a long way from anywhere.
St Helena – a long way from anywhere.

Well surprisingly yes! As the St.Helena Tourist board reported they were inundated with applications and had to whittle these down to just 15 before seriously going through the applications again.

Amongst the pile are a Parisian airport worker an IT Manager from Montenegro and an Argentinian fluent in both French and Italian just like the Corsican born dictator was himself.

But what made these people apply and why would anyone want to travel thousands of miles to portray…..well a dead guy?

We found out when we tracked down our old friend and living historian Phil Hodges who was living in exile in an English seaside town.

–  So we’ve officially heard that you’ve applied for and been short listed (no pun intended) for the role of Napoleon on St.Helena. Why did you apply and what does it involve?

PHIL: Indeed I have and it’s a role I’d take very seriously if I were to get it. I heard the story of the vacancy on British radio and thought it was a joke at first but when I looked into it and discovered it was for real I thought to myself what an honour that would be to play such a historical character as Napoleon.

-You’re a bit of an amateur historian and your a reenactor as well. How has this helped you in your quest for the role?

Phil Hodges
Phil Hodges

PHIL: I’ve been a living historian or reenactor for well over 15 years and I’ve studied history, particularly military history, ever since I can remember really. It’s that fascination with the past and that drive to continue to learn that made me apply for the Napoleon impersonator role on St.Helena.  I’m hoping that my knowledge and the fact I’m no stranger to wearing period costumes and being in character will put me above the others. Even if I don’t speak French?

– You don’t speak French?

PHIL: NO. Well, I can get by when in France but that’s just ordering food and asking for the loo. Oddly enough being able to speak French isn’t one of the main criteria’s. Neither is the height ‘issue’.

– Ah Yes. Napoleon. Famed for being short. I’m guessing you’ve passed that with flying colours.

PHIL:  Well here’s the thing. Napoleon was said to be 5ft 2 inches. However this was something of a misnomer. The measuring system they used was the old French one so by today’s height he would actually have been 5ft 7 inches which was the average for the day. So not the shorty that the British press made him out to be. It was simple propaganda to belittle a guy that was genuinely feared by the British. As for his weight in later years…. I’ve had an over indulgent summer so I won’t comment!

– Tell me about what the job entails.

PHIL: The role of Napoleon impersonator is basically to act as an ambassador for St.Helena by engaging dignitaries, locals and tourists at various events on the island starting this year and culminating with the 200th anniversary of Napoleons death in May 2021. It’s going to be hectic for whoever lands the role as the island is remote with a ship travelling there once a week I believe and infrequent flights. It will mean staying on the island on and off throughout the year.

– I was going to ask how far is St.Helena from say the UK or the nearest mainland.

PHIL: From London to St.Helena it’s about 8000 kilometres or just under 5000 miles so a long way from home for me. Also you can’t fly direct. You have to fly to Johannesburg and then onto Namibia before getting a flight to St.Helena. It takes well over 40 hours to get there.

– Not exactly a day trip. Clearly you’d have to be very dedicated to this and be prepared to be away from home for some time. No wonder the British sent him there to be imprisoned.

PHIL: For sure. It really is remote and your correct, I think having the right mindset for the role would also help massively. Of interest, Napoleon wasn’t the islands only prisoner over the years. The Zulu King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo (son of the great Cetshwayo) was imprisoned there after leading another Zulu army against the British in 1890. Also Piet Cronjé and over 5,000 Boers were imprisoned there in 1900 again after a failed attempt of moving away from British rule in the second Boer war. The Island has been somewhat heavily populated by prisoners over the years.

– Lets hope that’s not the case anymore. I read somewhere the Island is only 10 miles by 5 miles at the widest point with a population of around 4500. We wouldn’t want it slipping back into the sea now would we?

Thank you very much for your time Phil and we at War History Online wish you all the luck with the next stage of this campaign and maybe, if you’re lucky enough to get the role, you’d be happy to talk some more with us?

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PHIL: Thank you very much for your time and of course I’d love to talk more. I’m sure you guys can track me down pretty much anywhere in the World. I’ve tried hiding and it’s futile. WHO has operatives everywhere.