"Napoleon I esteem the most illustrious and eminent man of the present age, both as a profound statesman and a brave and matchless general. Although he never appeared to evince so sincere a desire as could be wished to promote the universal liberty of man to the extent that I contend, and have always contended for, yet, when I reflect upon the period in which his energetic mind was allowed to have its full scope of action, and when I recollect the powerful armies and fleets that he had to contend with, and the phalanx of tyrants who were at various times leagued together against him, I am disposed not to examine too nicely and with too critical an eye the means that he used to defend himself against their unceasing endeavours to destroy him, and to restore the old tyranny of the Bourbons.' - Henry Hunt, radical leader(1)
The social struggles in England after the Napoleonic wars provide an important background to the captivity of Napoleon. Whilst the fear of revolution was never far from the minds of the loyalist classes, for those who were campaigning for reform, Napoleon was like them the victim of a corrupt, unrepresentative and repressive government, and Waterloo not a great national victory but a setback for the forces of liberty at home as well as on the continent.
On July 22nd 1819 a meeting in favour of parliamentary reform presided over by Henry Hunt, and attended by 40,000-50,000 people took place at Smithfield in London. This followed a meeting in Birmingham on 12th July, at which Sir Charles Wolseley had been elected as "legislatorial attorney and representative" and had been instructed to take his seat in the House of Commons - a promise he made to the gathering but wisely did not keep!
As well as what was probably interpreted as rather a threatening resolution on parliamentary reform,
"That from and after the 1st day of January 1820, we cannot conscientiously consider ourselves as bound in equity by any future enactment which may be made by any persons styling themselves our representatives other than those who shall be fully, freely, and fairly chosen by the voices of the largest proportion of the members of the state."the Smithfield meeting also criticised the imprisonment of Napoleon:
"That this meeting unequivocally disclaims any share or participation in the disgraceful and cowardly acts of the boroughmongers, in placing the brave Napoleon a prisoner, to perish upon a desert island, shut out from human society, and torn from his only son, whilst he is exposed to the brutal insolence of a hired keeper".
The Smithfield meeting passed over peacefully, but it undoubtedly alarmed the authorities, and a similar meeting held a few weeks later in St Peters Fields Manchester, was brutally suppressed by the Manchester Yeomanry, and was henceforth to be known as the Peterloo Massacre, in ironic reference to Waterloo.
Henry Hunt who had presided over the Smithfield meeting, was along with other leaders arrested at Manchester and found guilty of intending disaffection and hatred of the king and constitution, and subsequently spent two years in gaol.
In his memoirs, written whilst in gaol, Hunt compared his plight to that of Napoleon,
I am not ashamed of being accused of endeavouring to imitate the brave and persecuted Napoleon, who is writing his memoirs during his imprisonment on the barren rock of St. Helena.
He is, like myself, a prisoner, and imprisoned by the same power; only in his case they have not even the forms of law to justify them in his detention. He is a prisoner upon a barren rock, but I have not the least hesitation in pronouncing him to have been, both in the cabinet and the field, as to talent and courage, unrivalled in the pages of modern or ancient history. Neither the reformers nor the people of England had any share in sending him to St. Helena, nor ought they in fairness to participate in the disgrace of his detention.
In my humble judgement, the greatest fault he ever committed was, in having too good an opinion of the justice of the boroughmongers, and relying upon the liberality of their agents, so far as to be betrayed into that net which now surrounds him.
1. Memoirs of Henry Hunt, Esq, Written by himself, in his majesty's jail at Ilchester, In the county of Somerset (London 1820) Volume 1 pp xvii-xviii