Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Emperor Invades England

by Diane Scott Lewis

In the summer of 1815, Plymouth, England received startling news. A ship had entered the sound with the notorious Corsican Ogre on board. England had fought different coalition wars with General Bonaparte (the government refused to accept him as in emperor) on and off since 1796, and defeated him at Waterloo on June 18, 1815.

In the aftermath of Waterloo, the 74-gun, third rate ship, HMS Bellerophon, was assigned to blockade the French Atlantic port of Rochefort. The ship had served during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. In July, finding escape to America barred by the blockading Bellerophon, Napoleon came aboard "the ship that had dogged his steps for twenty years" to finally surrender to the British.

Napoleon had thought he would be granted asylum in England, but the British government knew it would never work. He’d still be too close to France, and many in the French military were still loyal to their defeated emperor. Rebellion in France was feared. Britain had to protect the fledgling government of the unpopular Louis XVIII.

On July 26th the Bellerophon entered Plymouth Sound. A multitude of small boats, full of curious people, quickly surrounded the ship. The boats grew so thick that hardly any space of water could be seen between them. Women in bright hats, along with men and children, called out "Bonaparte."

Napoleon accommodated them by showing himself at the ship’s rail and tipping his hat to the ladies. Here he was in the flesh, the man who had menaced the continent for nearly two decades. Napoleon was heard to remark about the English ladies, "what pretty women you have here."

The British officials dreaded the sympathy their relentless enemy was garnering among the common people, and ordered the boats pushed away from the vessel. Skiffs from the ship, with armed sailors, rudely shoved back the spectators, causing some of the smaller boats to capsize, injuring the people inside, and at least one person drowned.

George Keith Elphinstone, 1st Viscount Keith, was at Plymouth when Napoleon arrived. The decisions of the British government were expressed through him to the fallen Emperor. Lord Keith refused to be led into disputes, and confined himself to declaring steadily that he had his orders to obey. He was not much impressed by the appearance of his illustrious charge and thought that the airs of Napoleon and his suite were ridiculous. He also grumbled that if the Prince Regent spent a half hour with Napoleon, they would be the best of friends.

The Duke of Sussex, the sixth son of George III—the king debilitated by madness since 1810—spoke in Napoleon’s favor. Allow him to remain. But the British government was adamant: Bonaparte, and everyone in his entourage, would not be allowed on England’s soil.

On July 31st, Lord Keith informed Napoleon that he would be exiled to the far, South Atlantic island of St. Helena. Under duress, Napoleon was transferred to the HMS Northumberland for the ten week voyage. He would die on the island six years later. Plymouth returned to the routine of a harbor town.

It was Bellerophon's last seagoing service. She was paid off and converted to a prison ship later in 1815, and renamed Captivity.

 Sources: Wikipedia; In Napoleon’s Shadow, by Louis-Joseph Marchand, and my own research.

In my novel Elysium, I explore Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena, with an "Alternate History" twist at the end.

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  1. Following his catastrophic losses at Waterloo and the French rage over said losses, the plan was for Napoleon to escape in a barrel, which was to be smuggled out to a ship bound for the fledgling US--which still, at this date, harboured sympathies for this French war criminal.

    However, Napoleon declined the offer and his elder brother, the former King of Spain, aka Pepe Butaro or Joe the Fat, took up the offer--though one understands the barrel was a bit of a tight fit for him. (He settled in Maryland as it happened--living off his pillaged wealth...)

    But war criminals is what these two were.

    Upon Napoleon's escape from Elba in the spring of 1814, the dignitaries and heads of state still gathered at the Congress of Vienna issued this statement: "The Powers declare that Napoleon Bonaparte has placed himself outside all human relations and that, as the enemy and disturber of the peace of the world, he has delivered himself up to public justice." They equally declared that Bonaparte had forfeited "his sole lawful right to exist."

    These statements, made 200 years ago, were the equivalent to the United Nations declaring Joseph Kony or Pol Pot to be an international war criminal.

    Just prior to his abdication in early April 1814, Napoleon had written privately to Viscount Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, suggesting that he'd like to come and live in England and be a farmer there and wouldn't that be a fine plan. (The letter still exists in the F.O. records.) Castlereagh did not dignify it with an response. Although, subsequently, on St. Helena, Napoleon said that it had been Castlereagh who had initially suggested this charming plan in a letter to him--this, however, was just another of his myriad fabrications.

  2. A war criminal? I shall have to discover if his behaviour was much different from the standards of his day. I always understood the hatred of Napoleon came from the top because they had most to fear from a revolution in England.

    Anyway, I am intrigued by what path history might have taken had Napoleon made it to the USA and not merely settled in comfortable retirement.

  3. I am always intrigued by stories with alternative time lines so I'll have to check yours out.

    I was aware of the parade like atmosphere in Plymouth, but I didn't realize people were hurt in the melee.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. I agree that Napoleon didn't act any worse than the British, Russians, and so forth. But history is written (or rewritten) by the victors.

  5. Isnt that the ship that was nicknamed Billy Ruffian - or something similar?
    Excellent post, really enjoyed it.
    Grace x

  6. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but Bonaparte left a legacy of war crimes and atrocities across Europe and in Egypt which can easily hold their own against those of the great war criminals of the 20th century, as French historian Claude Ribbe details.

    See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1038453/The-French-Fuhrer-Genocidal-Napoleon-barbaric-Hitler-historian-claims.html

    Though, Napoleon's destruction and abandonment of the Grande Armee of half a million men in Russia 200 years ago today alone qualifies him as one of the most destructive military leaders ever to be given charge of an army.

    However, that's only the tip of the iceberg and it's only French propaganda of the period that says otherwise. And if you think you can trust the French accounts of the period, try this one on for size: When they finally admitted to the Battle of Trafalgar in April 1806, they announced it as a French victory over the British...

    1. Point taken.
      Perhaps Napoleon was to the French Revolution what Stalin was to the Russian Revolution

  7. Wow, that's an amazing peek into Napoleon's life. I've never read or heard anything about this interlude before.


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