Regency Bicentennial:   Bonaparte Aboard the Bellerophon — Part One

Rather ironically, Napoleon Bonaparte spent his last day and night in France on Friday, 14 July 1815, the twenty-sixth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris. Known in France as Fête nationale (French National Day) or simply as Quatorze juillet (The Fourteenth of July), it is usually celebrated with fireworks and parades, similar to the 4th of July, or Independence Day in the United States. Though Napoleon did not participate in any celebrations on that day, it was to be the last day of liberty he would ever enjoy. The following day, he stepped aboard HMS Bellerophon and quite literally into the custody of Britain. He would remain in their custody for the rest of his life.

Bonaparte on the Bellerophon . . .

As was explained in last week’s article, after much dithering following his flight from the battlefield of Waterloo, Napoleon found himself in Rochefort, a port on the west coast of France. Even at Rochefort, more than one plan was put forward to ensure his escape from France and the clutches of either his former ministers or the Allied powers. Almost certainly, the least dignified was a plan to hide him in a large barrel which was then to be put aboard a Danish cargo vessel that was anchored off Rochefort when Napoleon arrived. Another, with a high chance of success, was to spirit him away under cover of night to another port nearby, which was not so closely watched by British ships. The ship available was smaller, and would require Napoleon to leave behind several of his retinue, but he would almost certainly have been able to get to the United States, and freedom, if he had followed that plan. But he did not. Instead, he continued to delay making any decision, until, essentially, the decision was made for him.

As was noted last week, on 13 July 1815, Bonaparte wrote a letter to the Prince Regent requesting asylum in England. In 1809, when his brother, Lucien, attempted to escape the imprisonment Napoleon had forced on him in Italy, because Lucien refused to give up his American wife, Lucien had been captured by the British and taken to England. There, he had been allowed to settle into a comfortable country house with his family. Though under the watch of a single commissioner appointed by the government, Lucien had been allowed a great deal of freedom. In 1814, when his brother abdicated the throne of France, Lucien was allowed to leave England and return to France. Primarily because of how his brother had been treated in England, Napoleon assumed he would be treated in much the same way. Though his brother, Joseph, wanted him to flee to America, and Napoleon briefly entertained the notion, he continued to drag his feet in implementing such a plan until mid-July, because he did not want to be so far away from Europe. Thus, he chose to request asylum in England and it seems he actually expected to have his request granted.

In early 1815, Captain Frederick Maitland had been in Cork, Ireland, planning a voyage to America as military support for a fleet of merchant and transport ships. In late March, news reached Britain of Napoleon’s escape from Elba. In April, Maitland’s orders were cancelled and he was recalled to Plymouth. There, he was given command of HMS Bellerophon, and in late May, he set sail for the Bay of Biscay, under the orders of Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Hotham. Admiral Hotham, aboard his flagship, the HMS Superb, had taken up his station in Quiberon Bay and Maitland covered the ports further south. Initially, their orders were simply to blockade all French ports, in preparation for the coming war. But in late June, news came of the Allied victory at Waterloo. Maitland had actually learned the news a few days ahead of the Admiralty, from a captured French vessel. Acting on his own intuition, Maitland sailed the Bellerophon to the area just off the Basque Roads, to blockade the port of Rochefort, even before Napoleon arrived in the town.

On 7 July 1815, orders from the Admiralty, by way of Admiral Hotham, reached Maitland while he was sailing off the Basque Roads. In these orders, they were directed to apprehend Bonaparte if the opportunity presented itself. Under no circumstances, was he to be allowed to leave any French port for the United States, which the British government believed was his destination. Both Hotham and Maitland actually had more current information than did the British government or the Admiralty, since there were a few royalists in the ports which they blockaded who were happy to provide them with any information they had regarding Bonaparte’s whereabouts. It was through this network of informers that Maitland received intelligence that Napoleon and his party had arrived in Rochefort.

When he met with Napoleon’s emissaries on 10 July, Maitland informed them on more than one occasion that he could not make commitments for his government. He did assure them that Napoleon would not be handed over to the French, which was their most pressing concern. However, the captain was very non-committal about whether or not Bonaparte would receive asylum in Britain. That was due in part to the fact that he did not have the authority to give such assurances and partly because he hoped he would be the one to capture Napoleon, preferably without force or violence. Believing his letter to the Regent was en route to the Prince, Napoleon assumed that the Bellerophon would simply provide him and his staff safe passage to England, where he could treat with government officials for the terms of his asylum. Maitland was almost certainly aware of Napoleon’s assumptions, but chose not to share his own views as to Bonaparte’s likely reception in England. He had his orders and was determined to carry them out.

When Maitland was advised by the emissaries that Napoleon and his party would be ready to travel to England the following day, his crew suddenly found themselves very busy. The ship was to be cleaned from top to bottom and accommodation was to be prepared for thirty-three of Bonaparte’s retinue of fifty. The other seventeen would travel to England aboard the Myrmidion. Maitland also sent news of his expectation of Bonaparte’s arrival directly to Admiral Keith in Plymouth, rather than to Admiral Hotham in Quiberon Bay. It appears he was very eager to be the man who captured Napoleon.

On the morning of Saturday, 15 July 1815, Napoleon and the bulk of his party boarded the French brig, Épervier, which was anchored just off the Ile d’ Aix. Though General Beker, who had been appointed by the French government to protect Bonaparte, went on board the brig, when he asked Napoleon if he wanted his escort out the Bellerophon, Napoleon refused. Napoleon explained that it would appear that Beker was handing him over to the British, when in actual fact he was going aboard of his own free will. He thanked Beker for his service to him and dismissed him. Beker left the ship and return to Paris. Once all was in readiness, the Épervier sailed down the Basque Roads, under a white flag of truce, and made for the Bellerophon. These must have been very tense moments for Captain Maitland, because even before the Épervier cleared the roadstead, a lookout had caught site of Admiral Hotham’s flagship, Superb, bearing down on them. The Épervier was battling both an unfavorable wind and tide, while the Superb was sailing before a favorable wind. If Hotham arrived before the Bellerophon was able to rendezvous with the Épervier, it was likely that Napoleon would prefer to go on board the larger ship of an admiral.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, for Maitland, the Épervier arrived while the Superb was still several leagues away. Napoleon and his retinue had all come aboard by the time the Superb came alongside the Bellerophon.The ship’s colors were not hoisted when Napoleon came aboard, because it was before the hour for doing so. However, a general’s guard of marines was ordered out onto the quarter-deck, which Maitland paced as he waited for Bonaparte to be transferred by barge from the Épervier to the Bellerophon. When Napoleon stepped on board, he said to Captain Maitland, "I am come to throw myself on the protection of your Prince and laws." Unable to respond in the affirmative and wishing to keep the situation at least civil, Captain Maitland greeted him with a bow, and offer to show him over the ship. Napoleon agreed and was delighted with the cabin he was shown which had been allocated to him. When he saw the portrait of a young lady on the wall, he asked Maitland who she was. Since the cabin was Maitland’s own, he replied that the lady was his wife. Napoleon said, "Ah! elle est très jeune et très jolie." (Ah! she is both young and pretty.) He went on to ask Maitland whether he had any children, about his family and where he lived when he was not at sea. He became especially interested when he learned that Maitland was a Scotsman, and peppered him with questions about Scotland.

The next few days aboard the Bellerophon passed in much the same way. Napoleon was treated as guest, as were those of his retinue. Bonaparte seemed quite cheerful and spent a great deal of time walking about the ship and conversing with her crew. He had many questions about British military and navy matters, as well as life in Britain, and most on board were happy to have the attention of the great man. For his part, Napoleon was especially impressed by the smart uniforms and fine bearing of the crew members. He confided to Maitland that he now understood why the British Navy had always bested the French at sea. The Captain had given orders that his own cook was to make his oven available to Napoleon’s chef and his staff so that meals for the General could be prepared in the proper French fashion. The other French passengers aboard were all very pleased by Maitland’s courtesy and good manners towards them. They all had high hopes of how they and the former Emperor would be treated when they arrived in England.

Once the Superb was within range of the boats, Maitland rowed over to see Admiral Hotham, advising him that Napoleon was on board. He said, "I trust I have done right, and that the government will approve of my conduct, as I considered it of much importance to prevent Bonaparte’s escape to America, and to get possession of his person." Hotham replied, "Getting hold of him on any terms would have been the greatest consequence, but as you have entered into no conditions whatever, there cannot be a doubt that you will obtain the approbation of His Majesty’s Government. …" Hotham then asked Maitland if he wanted to keep Bonaparte aboard the Bellerophon. Though he replied that he would, unless Bonaparte wished to transfer to the Superb. Maitland would later come to regret that decision.

When Maitland returned to the Bellerophon, he advised Napoleon that the Admiral would visit him that afternoon. In keeping with imperial protocol, Napoleon sent Bertrand, his Grand Marshal, to make the first call on the Admiral, aboard the Superb, in advance of his arrival on the Bellerophon. The Admiral stayed to dinner, a meal cooked by the French chef and served on Napoleon’s imperial silver, which had arrived with him. Bonaparte took his seat at the head of the table, seating Hotham on his right as his honored guest, Lady Bertrand on his left, with Maitland and the other ship’s officers further down the table. Though both Hotham and Maitland had orders direct from the Admiralty to secure Bonaparte’s person, they allowed him to play the part of a royal personage. Later, when Maitland was chided for not being honest with Bonaparte from the beginning, he said, " . . . under the circumstances, I considered it would have been both ungracious and uncalled for in me to have disputed."

Early the following day, while Napoleon was on board the Superb having breakfast with Admiral Hotham, Maitland learned that Fouché and his Executive Commission had sent agents to Rochefort to apprehend Bonaparte. To avoid any unpleasant military or diplomatic encounters, the Bellerophon weighed anchor as soon as Bonaparte was back on board and set sail for England. The next eight days were rather like a cruise, though some among Bonaparte’s suite were subject to sea-sickness. During the day, Napoleon spent some time in his cabin, reading and meeting with this staff, then often took a turn or two around the ship, conversing with any members of the crew he might encounter. In the evening, Maitland was a guest at his own table, though treated to fine meals prepared by Napoleon’s chef and his staff. After dinner, Napoleon liked to play a few hands of vingt-et-un, from which Maitland always begged to be excused. A frugal Scotsman, he explained to the General that he always left his money at home with his wife.

It was not until Monday, 24 July 1815, when the Bellerophon anchored off Torbay, that Bonaparte and his retinue slowly became aware that they were not arriving to a favorable welcome in England. The ship did not sail into the port and soon, General Gourgaud, who had sailed aboard the Slaney to deliver Napoleon’s letter to the Prince Regent, came on board to report he had never been allowed to leave the ship. He still carried the letter requesting asylum in his portfolio. He also carried a few newspapers which he had been able to collect from the port. All were filled with speculation as to where Bonaparte would be confined, the Tower of London, Dumbarton Castle, or the island of St. Helena. The demeanor of the captain and the crew of the Bellerophon had changed, and all became quite stern and tight-lipped in the presence of the French passengers. Captain Maitland received orders to remain anchored in Torbay roads. Under no circumstances was the Bellerophon to enter the port. No one was allowed to leave the ship, except on official business, and only certain authorized personnel were to be allowed to come aboard. That order included Captain Maitland’s wife, much to his chagrin. He had to be content with seeing her from time to time in a boat which circled his ship on afternoons with fair weather.

Young Midshipman Home was on the boat which ferried the Bellerophon‘s first lieutenant into Torbay, carrying dispatches from Captain Maitland. According to Home, while he waited for the lieutenant’s return, he was set upon by twenty young ladies who had learned Bonaparte was on the Bellerophon. He said they stuffed him with tea and cakes and tormented him with hundreds of questions about the former Emperor. The ladies wanted to know if Bonaparte was a normal man, what he looked like, if he had been covered with blood when he came aboard the Bellerophon, and then asked if they could see him. Quite bamboozled by all this feminine attention, Home replied that Napoleon was a perfectly normal man, his uniform was very smart and no more covered in blood than were the frocks of his female interrogators. So carried away was he by his defense of the General that he assured the ladies he was a most regal and well-spoken person and that the young ladies would all be certain to fall in love with him the moment they clapped eyes on him. Thus, quite unintentionally, Midshipman Home was just the first of many to sing the praises of the former French Emperor on the shores of England. The silly young ladies, not content with the information they had pried from Midshipman Home, piled into a cutter and demanded the skipper ferry them out to where the Bellerophon was anchored. The swell from the Channel was heavy and the Bellerophon was rolling in the waves. The much smaller cutter was soon swamped and the young ladies were pitched into the sea, without ever catching a glimpse of Bonaparte. Fortunately, there were a number of sailors aboard nearby ships who eagerly jumped in to pull the young ladies to safety.

The visit of the cutter full of giggling young women was not the only attempt by those on shore to see the caged lion. Many owners of small boats made a tidy sum taking sightseers out to the roads where the Bellerophon was anchored. Some of the sailors on board the ship developed a system by which they could inform those in the boats of Bonaparte’s current activities. They hung large placards over the side of the ship on which they had written such information as "in his cabin," "dining," or "about to go on deck." Napoleon seemed amused by all this attention, and often greeted the throngs with a wave or a nod, and on more than one occasion, he raised his hat to a pretty lady. One day, when he saw Captain Maitland’s wife in a boat circling the ship, he remarked to the Captain that the artist who painted her was not particularly flattering. He told the Captain that he thought she was by far more handsome than her portrait.

Here, we leave the circus-like atmosphere which prevailed along the Devon coast once it was known Bonaparte was on board the Bellerophon. Next week, a look at the legal wrangling around Bonaparte’s fate and his determined, if ultimately futile, protest against exile on St. Helena.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   Bonaparte Aboard the Bellerophon — Part One

  1. Brilliant, a post brimming with great anecdotes! …
    To imagine they hung large placards over the side of the ship … !…
    Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      This week was just the silliness of the public over Bonaparte’s arrival. Next week, the legal nonsense, some of which is truly stranger than fiction!


  2. Pingback: Regency Bicentennial:   Bonaparte Aboard the Bellerophon — Part Two | The Regency Redingote

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