A recent visit to Madeira made me look up the story of Napoleon's brief stay off shore on board HMS Northumberland in August 1815. I first heard of this from a friend who writes a wine blog.
The only person allowed to go on board the Northumberland and meet Napoleon was the then British Consul, Henry Veitch. A Scotsman, born in Selkirk, who spent most of his life on Madeira, Veitch played a very important part in Madeira's somewhat complex history in the first half of the nineteenth century. A man of liberal sympathies, who was also a strong supporter of Madeiran autonomy, Veitch served as Consul from 1809 until 1834.
He was suspended from duties in 1828, at the commencement of the Portuguese Civil War, but still retained some influence and was restored by Palmerston in 1831. At least one of the guide books eerroneously says that he was dismissed for calling Napoleon "your Majesty".
Veitch's visit on board was recorded at the time by Admiral Cockburn's Secretary, John Glover
Mr. Veitch, His Majesty's consul, visited the ship, of whom Bonaparte asked numerous questions with respect to the island, its produce, the height above the level of the sea, its population, &c. Mr. Veitch dined on board, and after dinner Bonaparte walked with him and the admiral a considerable time, conversing on general topics, when he retired at once to his bedroom without joining the card-table. (1)
As the story goes Veitch gave Napoleon some fruits and other gifts, and persuaded him to take a pipe of Madeira, a barrel containing around 600 bottles.
Veitch always claimed that he was never paid for the Madeira, but he was given some gold coins by Napoleon. According to the accepted story, these were buried beneath the foundation stone of the Anglican church in Funchal, the building of which was supervised by Veitch.
Napoleon's own reaction to Madeira was recorded by another Englishman on board the Northumberland, William Warden:
On our approach to Madeira, the hazy state of the atmosphere precluded the possibility of seeing the Island, until we got close between Puerto Santo and the Deserts. The latter rocky island is almost perpendicular; and has some slight resemblance to St. Helena. This circumstance I mentioned to De las Cases, and he instantly communicated it to Napoleon, who had quitted the dinner-table sooner than usual, and joined a few of us on the poop: but the comparison of what he now saw, with his gloomy notions of the place where he was shortly to abide, produced not a single word. He gave an energetic shrug, and a kind of contemptuous smile; and that was all. The sloping front and luxuriant aspect of the island of Madeira could not but excite an unpleasant sensation, when contrasted with the idea he had entertained of the huge black rock of St. Helena. (2)
The barrel of Madeira was never opened by Napoleon, and after his death was returned to the island where it remained with Blandy’s until 1840. Most of it was used to make the famous solera of 1792, but some 200 bottles were filled solely from Napoleon’s barrel. Such bottles are now very rare, and very valuable. One of these was given to that great admirer of Napoleon, Winston Churchill, when he holidayed at Reid's Palace on Madeira in 1950.
Sir Winston insisted on pouring a glass for each guest, commenting "Do you realise that when this wine was vintaged Marie Antoinette was still alive?".
1. Napoleon's last voyages : being the diaries of Sir Thomas Ussher, (on board the "Undaunted"), and John R. Glover, secretary to Rear Admiral Cockburn (on board the "Northumberland") p 165
2. Letters written on board His Majesty's Ship the Northumberland and at St. Helena’ (1816), William Warden pp 73-4