The story of Napoleon's arrival and reception in England is a remarkable one, but it is one about which most people in the UK are totally ignorant.
It is a difficult story to tell. No single view can do it justice. We need at least four cameras.
Camera One focuses on Napoleon's party. They are all devoted to the Emperor, and horrified by the decision to send him to St. Helena, but each has his/her own concerns. For some it is a concern that they will not be chosen to accompany the Emperor in exile. For Generals Lallemand and Savary there is the bigger concern that they might be handed over to the Bourbons, and to almost certain execution. For the volatile Mme Bertrand, it is the horror at her husband's determination to go to St. Helena; this was to drive her to attempted suicide. (1) For the children, apparently oblivious of the strains on their parents, the trip provided endless opportunity to play military games on the deck.
Camera Two focuses on the Government and its representatives. They are concerned at the signs of popular enthusiasm for the former Emperor, and are hopeful that once in a far off and isolated place he will soon be forgotten. If Napoleon was allowed to stay in England, the prime Minister wrote to the Foreign Secretary, it would raise legal questions,
which would be particularly embarrassing .. you know enough of the feelings of the people in this country not to doubt he would become the object of curiosity immediately, and possibly of compassion in the course of a few months .. St. Helena is the place in the world best calculated for the confinement of such a person. There is a fine Citadel there in which he might reside. The situation is perfectly healthy.
And of course, they are determined to humble the upstart Emperor, as the instructions prepared for Admiral Cockburn who was to accompany Napoleon to St. Helena indicate. Cockburn himself later reports to Melville
The General has descended from Emperor on board the Bellerophon to be prisoner on board the Northumberland with wonderful flexibility of mind and I am very much mistaken if I shall have any further difficulty in performing the task your lordship has confided to me.(2)
Camera Three focuses on Napoleon's supporters in England who are busily writing to the press, somehow managing to communicate with the party on the Bellerophon, and plotting to serve writs and sub poenas to bring Napoleon ashore. They are undoubtedly encouraged by the reception Napoleon receives from the people of Torbay and Plymouth. For William Cobbett, once one of Napoleon's strongest critics and now a vocal supporter, the size and reaction of the crowds is a victory over prejudice deep-rooted; prejudice the work of twenty years of calumnies .., it is a glorious triumph for Napoleon. (3)
Camera four focuses on the large crowd which takes to the boats both in Torbay and Plymouth to catch a glimpse of England's captive; their respect and apparent sympathy for the fallen Emperor causes concern amongst Tory supporters, who are frightened of revolt by England's unrepresented masses. Lady Fitzgerald writes to Sir Charles Hastings,
Believe me, the most unwise step our government ever took was showing John Bull that Bonaparte had neither horns nor hoofs (4)
No camera of course could capture what was going on in the head of the man at the centre of this whole extraordinary spectacle. His captors, like everyone else who came into contact with him, were fascinated:
D--n the fellow, if he had obtained an interview with his Royal Highness, in half an hour they would have been the best friends in England." (5)
Captain Maitland's servant, on being asked what the ship's company thought of Napoleon:
Why, Sir, I heard several of them conversing together about him this morning; when one of them observed,"Well they may abuse that man as much as they please; but if the people of England knew him as well as we do, they would not hurt a hair of his head;' in which the others agreed. (6)
He appeared to have great command of temper; for, though no man could have had greater trials than fell to his lot during the time he remained on board the Bellerophon, he never, in my presence, or as far as I know, allowed a fretful or captious expression to escape him: even the day he received the notification from Sir Henry Bunbury, that it was determined to send him to St. Helena, he chatted and conversed with the same cheerfulness as usual.. (7)
One morning he began to talk of his wife and child, and desired Marchand to bring two or three miniature pictures to show me: he spoke of them with much feeling and affection. 'I feel,' said he,'the conduct of the allied sovereigns to be more cruel and unjustifiable toward me in that respect than in any other. Why should they deprive me of the comforts of domestic society, and take from me what must be the dearest objects of affection to every man - my child, and the mother of that child?' On his expressing himself as above, I looked him steadily in the face, to observe whether he showed any emotion: the tears were standing in his eyes, and the whole of his countenance appeared evidently under the influence of a strong feeling of grief. (8)
Nightfall on 23rd July : From the Bellerophon Dartmoor is spotted in the distance; Napoleon is informed by Captain Maitland as he is preparing for bed; he puts on a great coat and comes on deck. where he stays for some time.
Day-break 24th July: Napoleon is informed by Count Bertrand that they are off Dartmouth; he comes on deck at 4.30 and remains until they anchor off Torbay. Among the instructions that come aboard is a letter from Lord Keith:
You may say to Napoleon that I am under the greatest personal obligations to him for his attention to my nephew, who was taken and brought before him at Belle Alliance, and who must have died, if he had not ordered a surgeon to dress him immediately, and sent him to a hut.
Napoleon and his party anxiously begin to inspect the newspapers, which seem to suggest that Napoleon will not be allowed to land, and that the likely destination is St. Helena. They hope that the newspapers are wrong.
Soon General Gourgaud arrives, he has not been allowed to land and personally deliver Napoleon's letter to the Prince Regent.
The Bellerophon is soon surrounded by boats. Napoleon comes on deck, and shows himself to the waiting crowds.
25th July: Even larger crowds. Napoleon spends over an hour on deck. He takes off his hat and bows to the women in the boats.
26th July: Captain Maitland is ordered to proceed to Plymouth. This is not a good sign. Napoleon makes no comment, but stays on deck most of the day. As they approach Plymouth he quizzes the Captain about the Breakwater that had been erected; it is he says a great national achievement. He fears that the similar work he has had done at Cherbourg and elsewhere will now be neglected.
Napoleon asks to see Lord Keith; but the latter is unwilling to see him until he has received instructions.
Captain Mailtand is instructed to prevent all communication with the shore, and to take measures to prevent Napoleon's escape.
Napoleon tells Maitland that he is anxious to see Lord Keith, even as a private person, until the British Government has determined in what light I am to be considered. He also complains about two frigates being placed close to the Bellerophon - as if I were not perfectly secure on a British line-of-battle ship - and the firing of muskets to keep boats at a distance: it disturbs and distresses me, and I shall be obliged to you to prevent it, if it lies in your power. Captain Maitland immediately orders the captains of the frigates to stop firing.
27th July. Maitland receives letter from Admiralty, dated July 25th: Napoleon Bonaparte is to be considered and addressed as a General Officer.
Large numbers of boats again surround the Bellerophon . Napoleon expresses admiration of the beauty of the English ladies, including Captain Maitland's wife who comes close enough to converse, but is not allowed to board the ship.
28th July. Lord Keith comes on board and speaks with Napoleon. Lord Keith expresses ignorance of the Government's intentions.
29th July. It rains incessantly. No boats: the Frenchmen were deprived of their usual amusement of admiring the ladies, and being admired in return.
30th July. Maitland says that over 1000 boats are gathered round the Bellerophon - each with an average load of 8 people.
31st July. Sir Henry Bunbury accompanies Lord Keith on board. Before they arrive Maitland informs Napoleon of one of the British Government's worst kept secrets ever: that Napoleon is to be sent to St. Helena. Madame Betrand tries to get Lord Keith to prevent her husband from going with Napoleon.
Napoleon complains to Captain Maitland:
To be placed on an island within the tropics, at an immense distance from any land, cut off from all communication with the world, and everything that I hold dear in it! ... I would prefer being delivered up to the Bourbons. Among other insults, but that is a mere bagatelle, a very secondary consideration, - they style me General! they can have no right to call me General; they may as well call me Archbishop, for I was head of the church, as well as the army. If they do not acknowledge me as Emperor, they ought as First Consul; they have sent Ambassadors to me as such; and your King, in his letters, styled me brother. Had they confined me in the Tower of London, or one of the fortresses in England, (though not what I had hoped from the generosity of the English people,) I should not have so much cause of complaint; but to banish me to an island within the Tropics! They might as well have signed my death-warrant at once, as it is impossible a man of my habit of body can live long in such a climate.
Napoleon writes another letter to the Prince Regent.
Napoleon appears on deck - to the suprise of Captain Maitland who has assumed he is too angry and upset to show himself to the crowd.
Madame Bertrand attempts to throw herself over board: on being forcibly prevented by Montholon and others whom he summoned for help, she becomes hysterical and abuses the English nation and Government in French and English.
Maitland is informed by Lallemand, Montholon and Gourgaud that the Emperor will not go to St. Helena: he will sooner put himself to death.
1st August. Lord Keith tells Maitland to inform the three Generals that the laws of England will regard them as murderers if they take Napoleon's life.
2nd August. Napoleon does not appear on deck. He refuseds to nominate people to accompany him to St. Helena. Privately Napoleon complains to Maitland about the cruelty of sending him to St. Helena. He also asks many questions about the island. At dinner he says little and appears unwell.
3rd August. Napoleon remains in his cabin. He is said to be unwell.
4th August. Lord Keith is pursued all day by a lawyer attempting to serve a sub poena.
Bellerophon is ordered to put to sea to avoid a writ of habeas corpus being served. Napoleon demands to know why the ship is being made ready for sea. He is informed that they are going to meet the Northumberland, and that he will be moved to the Northumberland at sea. Napoleon asks to see Lord Keith, who declined to visit. Bertrand informs Maitland, "L'Empereur n'ira pas à St. Hélène." [The Emperor will not go to St. Helena]
The ship leaves at 9.00 p.m., avoiding a boat approaching carrying the a lawyer bearing the writ summoning Napoleon to appear as a witness at the Court of King's Bench.
A boat carrying two women keeps close to the Bellerophon; the women wave their handkerchiefs whenever Napoleon appears at the window.
Napoleon writes another letter to the Prince Regent.
He remains in his cabin, even for meals.
5th August. Napoelon's protest is delivered to Lord Keith by Maitland.
6th August. O'Meara, the Bellerophon's doctor, tells Maitland he has been approached about accompanying Napoleon to St. Helena. The Northumberland is sighted.
Bertrand and Montolon make lists of things required by the French officers and ladies for the trip to St. Helena.
Lord Keith and Sir George Cockburn come on board - the latter, who is to escort Napoleon to St. Helena, is introduced to Napoleon. The French officers' weapons are removed. Napoleon is allowed to keep his sword.
7th August. Napoleon asks Maitland to send a written document to Bertrand informing him that Napoleon is to be removed to the Northumberland - he wants it made clear that he is being forced to go, and that he has not been consulted. Napoleon informs Maitland that he has no complaint at the way he has been treated by him, but again complains about his treatment by the British Government. I have not now to learn, however, that it is not fair to judge of the character of a people by the conduct of their Government.
Napoleon agrees that Gourgaud could accompany him in place of Planat.
Madame Bertrand again tries to persuade her husband not to go to St. Helena. Captain Maitland advised her that if your husband quits his master at such a time as the present. he will forfeit the very high character he now bears in this country.
Madame Bertrand has an altercation with Captain Maitland on hearing that the Emperor is not to have the whole of the after-cabin on board the Northumberland. They had better treat him like a dog at once, and put him down in the hold, she said.
On leaving the ship the Madame Bertrand asks to shake the Captain's hand.
Sir George Cockburn comes on board with his secretary Mr Byng to inspect Napoleon's baggage. Count Bertrand refuses to be present.
At 11.00 Lord Keith comes on board to escort Napoleon to the Northumberland. Two hours later Napoleon lets it be known he is ready. as Napoleon crossed the quarter-deck to leave the ship, the guard presented arms, and three ruffles of the drum were beat, being the salute given to a General Officer. p. 203
Napoleon thanks the captain and officers, and bows to the ship's company.
After the boat had shoved off, and got the distance of about thirty yards from the ship, he stood up, pulled his hat off, and bowed first to the Officers, and then to the men; and immediately sat down, and entered into conversation with Lord Keith, with as much apparent composure as if he had been only going from one ship to the other to pay a visit.
Lallemand and Savary go on board the Northumberland to say goodbye to the Emperor. They are in tears as they part from him.
8th August. Northumberland sets sail for St. Helena.
(1) Madame Bertrand is not the favourite of recent French historians of the captivity - her conduct on the Bellerophon and on St. Helena, and some of her comments, certainly provided ammunition for Napoleon's detractors. She was volatile no doubt, but she had had a lot to put up with; the execution of her father during the revolution, the long absences of her husband during Napoleon's wars, the exile on Elba, and now St. Helena. Captain Maitland, although he had several bruising encounters with her, was probably a fair judge: "perhaps a little warm .. a kind mother and an affectionate wife; and if she easily took offence, she as easily forgot it;" F.L. Maitland, Narrative of the Surrender of Buonaparte (London 1826) p. 226. He had no doubts about her ultimate loyalty to Napoleon: "when not influenced by the horror she entertained of being banished to St. Helena, always spoke of him [Napoleon] not only with affection, but in the language of respect and enthusiasm." (Maitland p. 232)
(2) Roger Morriss, who writes from the Government/Admiralty view point, says that instructions to Cockburn "laid more than normal stress on the personal qualities necessary for the task", and that "Cockburn was concerned to win the psychological duel for intellectual supremacy." Roger Morriss, Napoleon and St Helena, 1815-1816 The apportionment of cabins on the Northumberland was designed to put Napoleon in his place - as Mme Bertrand had immediately realised. Maitland of course had not been briefed as to how to deal with Napoleon, and had treated him as a distinguished guest, for which he received some criticism.
(3) Stuart Semmel, Napoleon and the British (Yale 2004) p. 171 See also my entry of April 20th 2008 on Capel Lofft
(4) She reported that during his stay at Plymouth the popular tide in his favour ran alarmingly high, and one evening the mob, won by his smiles, cheered him with enthusiasm She herelf found him more imposing, more extraordinary than any creature I have ever seen. .. He seems quite inaccessible to human tenderness or human distress - still he is wonderful. Dorothy Wordsworth wrote that she was sick of the adulation, the folly, the idol Curiosity which was gathered together round the ship that help the dastardly spirit that has so long been the scourge of all whom he could injure. Semmel p. 172 .
(5) Maitland p 211
(6) Maitland p.224
(7) Maitland pp 211-212
(8) Maitland p. 215