Regency Bicentennial:   Bonaparte Aboard the Bellerophon — Part Two

Last week, we left Napoleon Bonaparte and Captain Maitland on board the Bellerophon, anchored off Torbay in Plymouth Sound. While boatloads of people were ferried out to the vicinity of the ship to get a glimpse of the former French Emperor, the ministers of the British government were busy trying to find a legal means by which they could put away "The Great Disturber of the Peace" for good. In the end, they were able to accomplish their goal, with a combination of special legal rulings and the cagey tactics of those who held Bonaparte in custody.

Bonaparte’s last days on the Bellerophon . . .

Comte de las Cases knew something of English law and customs. When it was clear that neither Bonaparte nor any of his party would be allowed to leave the ship, Las Cases found a way to contact Lady Clavering, a friend who was then living in London. Through her agency, they were able to engage the services of Sir Samuel Romilly. A member of Parliament, a noted liberal lawyer and reformer, Romilly was of Huguenot descent, and spoke fluent French. Another liberal attorney, Capel Lofft, read of the governments plans for Bonaparte. He was violently opposed to what he considered the illegal actions planned by the government, to imprison the former Emperor without due process of law. He wrote more than one letter to the editors of the London papers, stating that it was his opinion that the former Emperor of France could not be considered a prisoner of war, and therefore, could not legally be exiled or imprisoned without a fair trial.

But it was not the liberal legal establishment that most worried Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, and the Cabinet. It was the wrath of the Liberal Whig aristocracy, led by the Duke of Sussex and Lord Holland, with the able assistance of John Cam Hobhouse. Like his friend, Lord Byron, Hobhouse was a great admirer of Bonaparte and felt he should be welcomed in England as the great liberator of Europe. The Whigs strongly lobbied both Liverpool and the Cabinet on behalf of Bonaparte, but the Tories were in firm control of the government and they were determined that the former Emperor would never have the chance to disturb the peace of Europe again. Financially, the Napoleonic Wars had been extremely costly for Britain, which had bankrolled most of her allies in the fight against France. The conservative Tories were determined to stop the massive drain on the treasury, and putting Bonaparte away seemed to them the most expedient and permanent means to that end. The Whig lobby fell on deaf ears.

Lord Liverpool sought the opinion of the highest legal authority in Britain, Lord Eldon, the Lord Chancellor. Eldon called on the assistance of his brother, William Scott, judge of the High Court of the Admiralty, an expert in international law and a professor of ancient history. Eldon also consulted with Lord Ellenborough, the Lord Chief Justice; as well as the Attorney-General, the Solicitor-General and the Master of the Rolls. These legal experts were all well aware that the government expected them to find some legal grounds by which Bonaparte could be permanently exiled from Europe. After much research and deliberation with his colleagues, Lord Eldon prepared a memorandum which concluded that a state of war had existed between Britain and Bonaparte after his escape from Elba, so he could legally be held as a prisoner of war. Furthermore, he was no longer a citizen of France, since he had abdicated the French throne when he became sovereign of the island of Elba, nor was he a British subject. Therefore, he had no right to the protection of the laws of either country. In the final paragraph, Eldon stated that the safety of the world required Bonaparte’s detention as the only way to prevent future trouble on the part of an adventurer who had shown that he did not feel bound by any treaty. Thus, the government had the legal ruling it needed to exile Bonaparte far away from England and the Continent.

Even before they had the legal ruling in hand, the government had sought a location which was remote enough and secure enough to ensure that Bonaparte would never again disturb the peace of Europe. They settled on the island of St. Helena, which is situated in the South Atlantic, off the west coast of Africa. The island was owned by the East India Company and was one of their most important supply ports. Under strong government pressure, the East India Company relinquished control, but not ownership, of the island to the British government, for the duration of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the document transferring control of the island to the government, the East India Company stated that " . . . we have not thought ourselves at liberty to decline a compliance with the proposal thus made to us in so remarkable a case, although it involved some consequences which we cannot contemplate without pain."

Once the Bellerophon anchored in Torbay roads, Napoleon repeatedly demanded to see Admiral Lord Keith, whom he had learned was Admiral Hotham’s superior. Keith avoided the meeting as long as he could, since he had no clear direction from the government on how he was to proceed. Finally, after receiving a letter from Lord Melville, which provided him clear instructions on how to treat with the former Emperor, Keith was rowed out to the Bellerophon on 28 July 1815. It was an uncomfortable meeting, for by this time, Bonaparte was aware the British were contemplating his exile on the island of St. Helena, thousands of miles to the south, in a hot tropical climate. Bonaparte abhorred both the heat and the idea of such a remote location. He repeatedly said to Keith, "I am no more, and can disturb nobody. Can I not live in England?" Keith explained that he did not have the authority to respond to such a request and eventually the conversation turned to other topics such as Egypt, Toulon, the East Indies. Keith also took the opportunity to thank the General for the care he had taken with Keith’s nephew at Waterloo. Captain Elphinstone had been wounded and then captured by French soldiers. Napoleon had ordered that he receive medical attention when he saw the young man’s injuries. Young Elphinstone recovered from his wounds and eventually returned home to his family.

Admiral Keith paid a visit to Napoleon again, on Monday, 31 July 1815. He came on board the Bellerophon at about ten o’clock in the morning, accompanied by Major-General Sir Henry Bunbury, Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. They carried a letter from Lord Melville which would inform Bonaparte of his fate, exile for life on the island of St. Helena. When the letter was handed to Bonaparte he inquired if it was in French. He was told it was in English, so he asked Keith to translate it and read it aloud. Keith made such a bad job of it that Napoleon took the letter away from him and handed it to Bunbury, whose command of French he found much better. It was then that he learned that the British government did intend to send him into permanent exile on St. Helena. Napoleon protested strenuously, assuring them that he had come to England voluntarily, that he could not be considered a prisoner of war. He was seeking asylum and simply wished to live out the remainder of his life quietly, in the country. More than once he told them that exile to St. Helena would be his death warrant, that he could not survive the heat and isolation of that remote place. He said he was certain he would die there within three months. Eventually, Keith and Bunbury made their bows and left the cabin, though they lingered aboard, speaking with Captain Maitland. During that time, Napoleon sent word that he would like another moment with Admiral Keith. When he entered the cabin, Keith found what he described as a broken man. Napoleon asked his advice as to whether there was any tribunal to which he could apply to appeal the decision. Keith said he was not a lawyer, but he believed there was no authority to which Bonaparte might appeal. Then, he suggested that St. Helena was preferable to being handed over to the Russians. "Russia! God preserve me!" Napoleon exclaimed, as Keith once again left the cabin.

But Bonaparte was not yet ready to accede to the fate which had been determined for him by the British government. The next day, he began dictating to Bertrand a letter of protest which he intended to be delivered directly to the Prince Regent. In the letter, Napoleon reiterated that since he had come to England voluntarily, he was a guest in the country and could in no way be considered a prisoner of war. Captain Maitland said he would see the letter was sent to Lord Keith, the Port Admiral, who would be able to send it on to London, but he could not guarantee it would be read by the Prince, or that Bonaparte would receive any response. Bonaparte also protested angrily that the English had no right to style him only as "General." He felt he should be addressed as First Consul, at the very least, if he was not to be addressed as Emperor. Over the course of the next few days, a deeply depressed Napoleon seriously considered suicide, an act for which he had provided himself the means. However, his advisors strongly and repeatedly urged him not to take such an utterly final step.

Bonaparte’s protest was written in French. It is provided below, in its entirety, in English translation:

I hereby solemnly protest, in the face of Heaven and of men, against the violence done me, and against the violation of my most sacred rights, in forcibly disposing of my person and my liberty. I came voluntarily on board of the Bellerophon; I am not a prisoner, I am the guest of England. I came on board even at the instigation of the Captain, who told me he had orders from the Government to receive me and my suite, and conduct me to England, if agreeable to me. I presented myself with good faith to put myself under the protection of the English laws. As soon as I was on board the Bellerophon, I was under shelter of the British people.

If the Government, in giving orders to the Captain of the Bellerophon to receive me as well as my suite, only intended to lay a snare for me, it has forfeited its honour and disgraced its flag.

If this act be consummated, the English will in vain boast to Europe of their integrity, their laws, and their liberty. British good faith will be lost in the hospitality of the Bellerophon.

I appeal to History; it will say that an enemy, who for twenty years waged war against the English people, came voluntarily, in his misfortunes, to seek an asylum under their laws. What more brilliant proof could he give of his esteem and his confidence? But what return did England make for so much magnanimity? They feigned to stretch forth a friendly hand to that enemy; and when he delivered himself up in good faith, they sacrificed him.

Signed, Napoleon.

On board the Bellerophon,
4th August 1815.

Even before Keith and Bunbury delivered Melville’s letter to Bonaparte, the Whigs were attempting to find a way to prevent the government from sending Napoleon into exile. Capel Lofft had high hopes of getting Bonaparte onto British soil by getting a writ of Habeas Corpus issued for his appearance in an English court. The government ministers assumed that even if Lofft found a judge willing to issue such a writ, it could not be legally served, since it was their position that Bonaparte had not been officially "received" aboard the Bellerophon. Rather, they contended that he had been captured, as a prisoner of war, and thus, any writ of Habeas Corpus was irrelevant. While Lofft was trying to cajole any judge he could find into issuing him a writ, the Whig aristocracy had set another plan in train.

Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the Commander-in-Chief of the North American station, and not a man noted for honorable behavior, had recently filed a suit against an attorney and assistant judge, Anthony Mackenrot, for libel. Mackenrot had accused Cochrane of behaving with cowardice in 1806. According to Mackenrot, Cochrane failed to protect a fleet of merchant ships at Tortola when they were menaced by a French squadron, though the British squadron, including Cochrane’s 74-gun flag ship, was within striking distance of the French flotilla. Cochrane argued that the French ships were in a poor state of repair and therefore posed no threat to the merchant ships. The case was before the courts in late July and August of 1815, and Mackenrot, whether on his own, or at the behest of some powerful Whigs, determined that he would issue a subpoena for Napoleon Bonaparte to testify as to the state of that French fleet. A subpoena was a much more frightening legal instrument in the eyes of the government, since it would be binding on anyone, even a prisoner of war. If it were served, Bonaparte would have to be landed and brought into court. Once he was on British soil, it would be very much harder to use the legal ruling handed down by Lord Eldon to send Bonaparte into exile. Though many legal experts, mostly among the Tories, found this whole business to be in very bad taste, the Whigs believed it had a good chance of success.

Early in August, Lofft got his writ of Habeas Corpus, and Mackenrot got his subpoena. The government was soon made aware of that turn of events. They were also aware that, based on the interpretation of the law, since Bonaparte was currently in the custody of the British Navy, the writ or the subpoena need not be served on Bonaparte himself. Either Captain Maitland or his superior, Admiral Keith, were technically Napoleon’s custodians. Therefore, either legal instrument could be served on one of them. There would be some question with regard to the legality of the writ. But if it was the subpoena that was served, they would be legally bound to produce Bonaparte in court, since there was no legal recourse to a subpoena, regardless of the status of the recipient. The government’s only hope was the sea and the wit and determination of the officers of the British Navy.

By early August, Admiral Keith had removed from his home in Plymouth and gone aboard his flagship, the HMS Tonnant, in order to supervise the process of sending Bonaparte into exile. He wanted to be directly involved in that milestone in history, and was happy to cut out his sometime-rival, Rear-Admiral Sir Benjamin Hallowell, whom he thoroughly disliked. Unfortunately for Keith, he was not aboard the Tonnant when he received word from Melville that the writ and the subpoena had been issued and that attorneys were already on their way to Plymouth to serve those documents. An attorney, believed to be Mackenrot himself, with the subpoena in hand, presented himself at Keith’s home in Plymouth while Keith was in residence. The servants denied the man entry, while Lord Keith slipped out the back door. Keith found himself pursued for sometime that day by the same man. Mackenrot went so far as to chase him down the pier as Keith made for the boat that would row him back to the Tonnant, though Keith did manage to elude his pursuer.

The government and the Navy would have been delighted to send Bonaparte into exile immediately after they got Lord Eldon’s ruling, but there was an insurmountable delay. The Bellerophon was deemed too old and in too bad a state of repair to make the long and difficult voyage to the tip of Africa. Therefore, HMS Northumberland was chosen to make the journey. However, the Northumberland was also in need of significant repairs after having just made the long trip back to Britain from the East Indies. It would be several days before she was ready to take Bonaparte and his retinue on board for the trying and strenuous voyage to St. Helena. The Navy would have to keep Bonaparte isolated until the Northumberland was ready to sail.

Once he escaped the persistent Mackenrot and was back on board the Tonnant, Admiral Keith immediately sent word to Captain Maitland that all boats were to be kept off and no stranger was to be allowed to board, for any reason. He also ordered that the Bellerophon should be made ready to sail as soon as possible and immediately stand out of Plymouth Sound. Both the wind and the current were against the Bellerophon and she had to be towed by a pair of shallops toward the Channel. While the ship was being towed, it was pursued by a small boat in which stood a man dressed in black who was gesticulating wildly and waving a roll of documents. It is believed this may have been Capel Lofft, attempting to serve his writ of Habeas Corpus. But even as his small boat closed on the ship, the Bellerophon‘s sails finally caught a breeze and stood out into the open Channel. The Bellerophon rendezvoused with the Tonnant, the Eurotas, the Express and the Nimble in the Channel, where the small flotilla cruised slowly off the Devon coast, awaiting the arrival of the Northumberland. There would be no further opportunities to serve papers on Napoleon Bonaparte or his custodians.

Bonaparte and his retinue got wind of the fact that their baggage would be searched before it was put aboard the Northumberland. Those who were going to St. Helena with Bonaparte secreted as much of their moveable wealth as possible on their persons. The party was notified that they must surrender all their arms, with the exception of General Bonaparte’s sword, which he was to be allowed to keep. The arms would be stored aboard the Northumberland and returned to their owners when it was deemed appropriate. The baggage of Bonaparte and his suite was duly searched on Sunday, 6 August 1815, and all valuable goods, including a box of four thousand gold Napoleons (80,000 francs), were taken into the custody of Sir Hudson Lowe. As administrator of St. Helena, Lowe was to safeguard these valuables and they were to be used to pay for any niceties which Bonaparte or his party might require once they arrived on the remote island. The baggage was then taken aboard the Northumberland, in advance of the arrival of Bonaparte and his retinue.

The following day, Bonaparte, and those who would join him in exile, made their farewells to those who were left behind, then went aboard the Northumberland. On Tuesday, 8 August 1815, the Northumberland, under the command of Admiral Sir George Cockburn, weighed anchor and sailed west down the English Channel. For the next few days, for the last time in his life, Napoleon Bonaparte would be in sight of the coast of Europe. It would soon be lost to sight as the Northumberland continued inexorably on her voyage south to St. Helena, where the ship would drop anchor on Sunday, 15 October 1815. Despite his prediction that he would die on St. Helena within three months, Napoleon actually survived there for nearly six years, dying on 5 May 1821, at the age of fifty-one.

In my Regency romance, Deflowering Daisy, I used the confusion around Bonaparte’s time on the Bellerophon to create a fictitious incident in which some of his supporters attempt to free him. David, the hero of the story, is able to foil the attempt and capture the conspirators, but at a terrible cost. The tragedy haunts him for nearly a year, until he meets Daisy, the heroine, who is able to help him understand the events of that day and forgive himself for the outcome. There are any number of ways in which the weeks that Napoleon Bonaparte spent on board the Bellerophon, in the custody of the British Navy, might be used to enrich a tale of romance in the Regency.

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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7 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   Bonaparte Aboard the Bellerophon — Part Two

  1. I find myself a little equivocal; he did voluntarily place himself under British protection, but it wouldn’t really do for him to be free in England. Perhaps it might have been better to have sent him to Canada, which at least has a better climate, and has a large Francophone population.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I know what you mean, he really did come aboard the Bellerophon voluntarily, and therefore, was not “captured” by the British. However, if he had not dithered so long while he was in Rochefort, it is clear he could have easily escaped the British and gone anywhere he pleased. He was almost certainly ill at the time, and probably worn out. Also I don’t think he wanted to be too far from France, and he foolishly clung to the idea of how Lucien had been treated when he had been captured by the British. He does not seem to have been able to grasp the difference in how he was viewed by the British, which was very different than their view of his brother.

      It is unlikely anyone in Liverpool’s government would have been comfortable with the idea of Bonaparte anywhere there was a chance he might escape. He had given the Allies assurances that he would be content on Elba and would not bother them again, yet he left there when it suited him, immediately returning to power in France. True, he had not been paid the annuity that Louis XVIII had promised, so he did have some excuse, but it seems he had routinely violated a number of other agreements, so his word was no longer any good with the British. I think they were desperate to contain him, and at the same time, avoid any kind of drawn-out trial which might have caused any instability within the new French government they were trying to establish. Though it may not have been strictly legal, I think they felt the best chance for long-term peace in Europe was to whisk him away as quickly and quietly as possible to the most remote place they could find.



  2. A very insightful post. Thank you very much for sharing.
    I especially enjoyed reading about the meetings and negotiations between Napoleon and Keith. Brilliant as always, you managed to point out the “comical moments” of this aspect of history.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      There was a certain comical aspect to some of the machinations of both the government and the navy. I did not mention it in the article, but at the time, Admiral Keith was sixty-eight years old. He must have been a rather spry gentlemen to be able to elude/outrun Mackenrot.


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