Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Sir Robert Wilson and Napoleon - the man who changed his mind

Sir Robert Wilson was one of the most extraordinary men of his times or any times. A tall striking looking man, very well connected, a distinguished soldier and diplomat, he was on friendly terms with the rulers of Russia, Austria and Prussia, and was present in a semi-official capacity at a number of their most important battles against Napoleon.

A man of liberal sensibilities, and a Whig in politics, Wilson was opposed to the slave trade, slavery and the impressment of sailors. (1) In 1804 he published a pamphlet critical of the public flogging that was customary in the British army in the nineteenth century and sometimes even led to the death of soldiers. His cause was supported in susequent years by leading reformers Francis Burdett, William Cobbett and Lord Cochrane. (2) Wilson's pamphlet was not appreciated by the authorities, and he was ordered to India, but he somehow got the King to intercede and he did not go.(3)

Wilson's view of Napoleon was far more satisfactory to the Tory Government, and on this he was out of step with his Foxite Whig associates. (4) In 1802 he published The History of the British expedition to Egypt which accused Napoleon of the mass execution of Turkish prisoners and of the murder of sick French soldiers. Wilson sent copies to the King of England, the Emperors of Austria and Russia, the Queen of Prussia and Nelson. It earned Wilson the nickname "Jaffa". The book was also translated into French. Napoleon was outraged and made representations to the British Government about what he regarded as a calumny. He still remembered the accusations on St. Helena. (5)

Wilson at this time regarded Napoleon as "a usurper" and a "demi-barbarian". (6) Observing him with the leaders of Prussia and Russia in 1807, Wilson described him as "grossly corpulent" and "his countenance presented no commanding talent". He had a "discontented mien" and "his face was very pale and unhealthily full." By contrast,the "Emperor of Russia was majesty itself". (7) At Tilsit he "looked as usual: hard, blank and designing: in short, like himself." (8) After talking to the King and Queen of Prussia Wilson spoke in even more derogatory terms: "the tyrannic insolence of the usurper", "his ungovernable temper", "expressing benignity in his countenance when he chose." (9)

At this time then there was no doubt where Wilson's sympathies lay, and he even sought out the exiled King of France in Sweden, and dined with him and the Duc de Berry and the Duc d'Angoulême. That arch-Loyalist Hudson Lowe clearly counted Wilson among his own. "I know Wilson well, and he has proved a strong friend of the Bourbons" Lowe told Las Cases on St Helena.(10)

But after the first resignation of Napoleon in 1814 Wilson began to change his mind. Along with many Whigs and Radicals he opposed the resumption of war in 1815, and was speaking at Brooks alongside Earl Grey, about the inevitability of Napoleon's victory when news of Waterloo arrived in London!

In the post war years he was to beome perhaps the leading Bonapartist in England and one of Napoleon's strongest supporters in the House of Commons.

Like a number of other prominent opposition figures in the hostile political climate after Waterloo, Wilson for a time lived abroad. In his case he chose Paris, where his sister, an enthusiastic supporter of Napoleon was living. (11) He campaigned with Earl Grey and Lord Holland against the execution of Marshall Ney in December 1815, and in January 1816 he became involved in the escape of the comte de Lavalette, Napoleon's Postmaster, whose wife, Emilie de Beauharnais, was the niece of the Empress Josephine. (12)

The Escape of Lavalette

Lavalette was sentenced to death in December 1815 for his role in Napoleon's return to France in 1815. On the eve of his execution he was visited in prison by his wife, his daughter and her governess. His wife who was apparently ill, was wrapped in several layers of clothes, and was permitted to visit prison in a sedan chair which was taken into the room next to her husband's. In an unlikely plot the couple then exchanged clothes and the comte left prison in the sedan chair, with his young daughter and the governess walking alongside. His escape was soon discovered, and amidst wide publicity and a thorough search by the authorities it became virtually impossible for him to get out of Paris.

Wilson and two other Britons, Michael Bruce and Captain John Hely Hutchinson then came to his aid. (13) Lavalette was dressed in an English officer's uniform, and Wilson, making use of his diplomatic and military connections, obtained a false passport for him and accompanied him out of Paris and then out of France. He wrote a letter to Earl Grey detailing his part in the scheme which much to Grey's embarrassment was intercepted. Wilson, Hutchinson and Bruce, were arrested, tried and sentenced to three months in prison in Paris.

Hutchinson, Wilson and Bruce

On St Helena one of Napoleon's associates could not believe that this was the same Wilson who had written the account of the Egyptian campaign. According to Las Cases Napoleon was not at all surprised:

You know but little of men and the passions that actuate them. What leads you to suppose that Sir Robert Wilson is not a man of enthusiasm and violent passions who wrote what he then believed to be true? And while we were enemies we contended with each other; but in our present adversity he knows better: he may have been abused, and deceived, and may be sorry for it; and he is perhaps as sincere in wishing us well, as he formerly was in seeking to injure us. (14)

The Radical Years

After his return from France Wilson represented Southwark in the House of Commons as a Whig. Although a friend of the moderate Whig leader Earl Grey, he moved closer to the Radicals. He was suspected of being involved in a plot with Lord Cochrane to rescue Napoleon from St Helena. He helped Santini draft his pamphlet "An Appeal to the English Nation", and he later met O'Meara and Gourgaud. O'Meara attended a dinner to celebrate the first year of Wilson's time in Parliament, and a band played La Marseillaise! (15) Wilson's sailor son who had been on the Northumberland when it transported Napoleon to St Helena in 1815, returned on the "Conqueror" in 1817 with Admiral Plampin. Apparently Napoleon was prepared to meet him but the young Wilson failed to get permission but did meet Mme. Bertrand.(16)

Wilson also became identified with the cause of domestic reform. He was very critical of the action of the authorities over the Peterloo massacre and the treatment of the radical leader Henry Hunt. In 1821 he lost his military commission because of his too public support for the cause of George IV's estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick.

In March 1821 Wilson addressed the House of Commons about the detention of Napoleon, to the amusement apparently of some members of the House:

Gentlemen may laugh, but I express the sentiment of every just, humane, and generous man in Europe. In the detention of that illustrious Man, I can see nothing but dishonour - the violation of national faith - and the stain of national character. He threw himself upon the protection of England - his appeal to English generosity was met by placing him on a rock, where he has been subject to cruel insult. Separated from his family, even from his infant child, he has been deprived of every domestic enjoyment. It is ...well documented that Napoleon might have escaped, but he preferred throwing himself upon the generosity of Great Britain. He has had bitter cause to regret that fateful confidence; years of suffering and humiliation have passed over him .." (17)

1. Ian Samuel, AN ASTONISHING FELLOW, The Life of General Sir Robert Wilson K.M.T., M.P. Great Britain, 1985. pp 54-59 He had Murat in his sights in Moscow, but couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. They later met in Italy and seemed to have a high regard for each other. Murat apparently regarded Wilson as one of the greatest cavalry leaders of all time. Emilio O'Campo, The Emperor's Last Campaign , University of Alabama Press, 2009 p 10.
2. Flogging remained an important part of military discipline until well into the second half of the C20. Marx and Engels ascribed its endurance because it was "the instrument by which the aristocratic character of the British army is preserved".
3.Samuel p. 48
4. Samuel p. 118
5. Samuel p 43-47.
6. Life of General Sir Robert Wilson, Vol II, London 1862 p. 285.
7. Life Vol II pp 294-302.
8. Life vol II pp 307
9. Life vol II p. 317
10. Life vol II pp 372-373.Emanuel comte de Las Cases, The Life, Exile, and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon Vol I p. 194.
11. Wilson's sister had met Napoleon in 1802 at the Tuileries. She had fallen unconscious after being hit, and Napoleon himself came to check on her condition and express his sorrow. Ocambo p 49.
12. Wilson was a member of the little known Association Fraternelle Europeene, designed to help victims of political persecution, as were Bruce, Lord Kinnaird, (Radical Jack) John Lambton and other Britons living in Paris. Its members believed that Waterloo had dealt a fateful blow to the cause of freedom. Ocampo pp 24-25
13. Bruce was the first approached, and he brought Wilson and Hutchinson into the plot. All three were reform minded Whigs. One Loyalist C19 history of the events said that Bruce's views "chimed in with the most violent of the opposition party in England and .. in common with a good many of his countrymen residing in the same place, had made himself conspicuous by violent censures of the proceedings of the allies and the Bourbon government, and by an exceedingly warm sympathy for the Bonapartists whom they now represented as unfortunate champions for liberty!" The Pictorial History During the Reign of George the Third by G.L. Craig and Charles MacFarlane (1844), Book III p. 654. Bruce was an associate of Byron and John Cam Hobhouse, and like them had seen Waterloo as a defeat for liberty. See The Peter Cochran Files.
14. Las CasesVol I p 194 Apparently Napoleon's party were well aware of the presence of Wilson's son on the Northumberland, and as the sailors warmed to Napoleon and ceased to see him as an ogre, so the young Wilson was taunted for his father's portrayal of Napoleon. Las Cases pp 192-193. In his defense in the Paris trial Wilson being asked about his accusations against Napoleon in Egypt replied "I said that which I believed to be truth". I wonder whether Las Cases read this before writing his account? A Full Report of the Trial of Sir Robert Thomas Wilson, Michael Bruce Esq. and Capt. John Hely Hutchinson, 22nd April 1816 London 1816 p. 36.
15. Ocambo pp 123, 267, 316.
16. Ocampo p. 159. Curiously Wilson wrote to Earl Gray apprising him of his son's trip some timer earlier, "I presume you have no commissions to execute in that part of the world as yet, but I hope and believe before three months that you will." Ocambo p. 103
17. Morning Chronicle, March 30, 1821

Sunday, 19 August 2018

This Dark Business

John Tarttelin, the author of The Real Napoleon, The Untold Story, has drawn my attention to a new book by Tim Clayton which describes the secret attempts of the British Government to remove Napoleon from power by whatever means necessary, including of course assassination.

The publisher's synopsis is worth quoting:

We have been taught to think of Napoleon as the aggressor - a man with an unquenchable thirst for war and glory - but what if this story masked the real truth: that the British refusal to make peace either with revolutionary France or with the man who claimed to personify the revolution was the reason this Great War continued for more than twenty years? At this pivotal moment when it consolidated its place as number one world power Britain was uncompromising. To secure the continuing rule of Church and King, the British invented an evil enemy, the perpetrator of any number of dark deeds; and having blackened Napoleon's name, with the help of networks of French royalist spies and hitmen, they also tried to assassinate him.

None of this comes as a surprise to me, nor would it have surprised the many contemporary opposition figures who refused to accept the Loyalist caricature of Napoleon as the "Corsican Ogre".

John Tarttellin's own book, which was published over 5 years ago but which I only found out about recently, takes a similar view. I picked up the following from its online description:

He was not short, he was often generous and he seldom forgot a friend, particularly those from his early days before he was famous. France was attacked in 1802, 1805, 1806, 1807, 1809 and 1814 - yet it is always Napoleon who is blamed for the so-called Napoleonic Wars, a misnomer if ever there was one.
That is as concise a rebuttal of the conventional UK view of Napoleon as I have seen. Andrew Roberts's Napoleon the Great does a similar job, but in far more words!


Sunday, 25 February 2018

Teutonic Hall - an update

Teutonic Hall, formerly Mason's Stock House

The country houses of St Helena are a very important part of the island's heritage. One of those that has been recognised to be in great danger for a number of years is Teutonic Hall, known during Napoleon's captivity as Mason's Stock House.

It was here that Lieutenant George Horsley Wood and his fellow officers used to pray for the Emperor Napoleon, to the disquiet of the Governor Sir Hudson Lowe.

The house was later bought by Georg Wilhem Janisch, a native of Hamburg, whom Hudson Lowe had brought to the island as a secretary. Janish stayed on, married a local girl, and his son became the one and only Saint Helena born Governor. At some point the house acquired the name Teutonic Hall.

I have recently been contacted by a member of the Janisch family with the good news that the house has been saved. It has been acquired by the Thorpe family, and restoration work is taking place under the direction of Henry Thorpe.

Apparently the house is very unstable at the moment, and at one point is being supported by scaffolding. Hopefully it will not collapse! My understanding is that it will probably be turned into a guest house.

What a lovely location for visitors to the island, within easy reach of Longwood, and particularly attractive for those who wish to explore the area around Fishers Valley in which Napoleon used to ride. I should also add that restoration is further advanced at Rock Rose, which also has some connection with the captivity of Napoleon.

My thanks to Henry Thorpe for permission to use these photographs.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Napoleon and British Song 1797-1822 - by Oskar Cox Jensen

Napoleon and British Song 1797-1822

This is an important and fascinating book which is packed with new insights into popular culture during the wars against France after 1797.

Early in the book Jensen makes a striking claim that is worth reproducing

The historical reality is that across the British Isles, both during and especially after the Napoleonic Wars, the eponymous Bonaparte was better loved and respected by the general populace than Wellington, Pitt or the Prince Regent

Castlereagh and Sidmouth might have been added to this pantheon of anti-heroes, and some might wonder at the inclusion of Wellington. His creation as a national rather than a partisan hero was in fact some decades away. In the years after Waterloo he was rarely represented in song as "purely good", and he remained a target of many of the populace through the Reform bill period and even into the times of the Chartists. The New Hunting song in praise of Fergus O'Connor singled out Wellington for attack but praised "brave Bonaparte ", "a man of sense". Napoleon was seen as representing social mobility, whereas Wellington was seen as the ungrateful persecutor of his own soldiers.

The book supports the view that despite its place in the western and especially the British imagination, because of the scale of the casualties Waterloo received muted celebration in 1815 amongst all classes. Napoleon's escape from Elba, his proclamations of peace and his association with liberal politics had tempered radical doubts about him and reinforced a negative view of the battle. Despite the triumphalist Loyalist propaganda, Waterloo was often represented as a tragedy, a slaughter, and even a crime.

The endurance of British songs about Napoleon has been well known for some time, and Jensen confirms that not a single song collected from either a broadside or an oral source after 1815 speaks ill of Napoleon. This suggests the ultimate failure of all the Loyalist propaganda in demonising Napoleon in the popular imagination, and a failure in inculcating a sense of identity with the state and against the French.

In this respect Jensen is clearly at odds with the work of Linda Colley and others who have portrayed the wars as uniting the British people against the Corsican Ogre and Catholic France. Jensen reminds us of the reality of the relationship of the mass of the people to the British state: the press gang, enclosure, transportation and Pitt's "terror".

The book also stresses the importance of localism, which has been a neglected aspect of our national story. Britain in 1815 as for many decades later, consisted of a myriad of highly localised cultures. In conservative areas in Ireland, Napoleon was "the latest incarnation of the saviour across the water", in many areas there was great hostility to the militia, in some areas, especially the North East, the press gang was a major source of disaffection, in other areas Luddism was strong, in some areas there was an identification with smugglers, in Newcastle and perhaps elsewhere there was an anti authoritarian, pre-enlightenment popular song culture into which songs about Napoleon were readily incorporated, and everywhere there was little enthusiasm for volunteering for the wars.

The book analyses the changing dialectic between Loyalist propaganda and oppositional songs, and suggests that propaganda helped to build Napoleon up as a fabulous, folkloric figure. The Napoleon of the "black legend" though was never assimilated into popular culture, and his exile and separation from his wife and child made him a figure with which people could readily sympathise and identify. In the nineteenth century attention was focussed not on Josephine but on Marie Louise. So Napoleon on St. Helena became the victim of the British state, a flawed but attractive figure.

My only very minor quibble with the book concerns its opening sentence - "It is no coincidence that they named the Wars after him". This might give the impression that people at the time used the term, "Napoleonic Wars", but in fact that term did not come into use until the middle of the nineteenth century, and was certainly not a product of popular culture. The author redeems himself in the final sentence of the book, describing them as, "the Wars that took his name."

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Forthcoming Talk: Napoleon and the British opposition, 1815-1821

Opening theme for my planned talk

In 2015 I gave a talk in London to the Friends of St Helena on Napoleon and the British Opposition. I am now preparing for a talk in Stockport, and intend to incorporate some of the local material that has appeared on recent blogs.

After my London talk I sent a summary for publication on the FOSH website, which I have reproduced below.

Britain during the period that Napoleon was exiled on St. Helena was a divided and repressive country. It was a period of dissent and disorder: machine breaking, mass movements, public meetings and petitions against taxes, against corruption, against placemen and against a standing army.

The Foxite Whigs, the opposition in Parliament, often critical of the wars against both France and the United States, never subscribed to the Tory caricature of Napoleon. Whilst not uncritical of him, they recognized that he had created order out of the anarchy of the Revolution, had safeguarded property rights, and furthermore had instituted a number of reforms they would have welcomed in England. They admired his sponsorship of the arts and sciences, the Code Napoléon, considered far superior to the repressive legal system in England, and the religious freedom he had brought to France.

Many great names voted against the resumption of war in the House of Lords in 1815, including the Prince Regent’s brother, the Duke of Sussex, a future Whig Prime Minister, Earl Grey, and Marquis Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s brother. Opposition in the House of Commons was led by Lord John Russell, another future Prime Minister, younger son of the Duke of Bedford, who was among a number of Whigs who had travelled to Elba to meet Napoleon in 1814.

Lords voting against war in 1815, including Lord Byron. Lord Holland and the Duke of Bedford were still on their way home from Italy

On the day that news of the victory arrived in London, Earl Grey was telling all who would listen that the world needed the genius of Napoleon. The unexpected victory, so pumped up by Government propagandists that even Wellington became a little embarrassed, totally wrong footed the Whigs. Lord Byron said that there was nothing to do but to follow the example of Samuel Whitbread, one of Napoleon’s greatest admirers in Parliament who for whatever reason committed suicide on 6th July.

Throughout the period of the captivity only the most “reform minded” Whigs were prepared to become associated publicly with Napoleon’s cause. Holland House in London, the home of Charles James Fox’s nephew, Lord Holland, became Napoleon’s centre of support. Lady Holland sent Napoleon some 1000 books donated by Whig families. The Everlasting, Xerochrysum bracteatum , an Australian plant that now grows across St Helena, is the permanent legacy of Lady Holland, who sent the original seeds to Longwood.

In Holland House garden a Canova bust of Napoleon was installed, inscribed at its base:

The hero is not dead, but breathes the air
In lands beyond the deep:
Some island sea-begirded, where
Harsh men the prisoner keep.

Whilst most of the Whigs were quiescent, the Radicals became more vocal in Napoleon’s support. As supporters of the French Revolution, they had found Napoleon’s imperial crown and marriage to an Austrian princess hard to swallow. However, in the post-Waterloo world many came to see Napoleon and to some extent his son, confined by his grandfather the Austrian Emperor, as the symbols of an international liberty that had begun with the French Revolution and was now under threat.

The Radicals developed a narrative about Waterloo diametrically opposed to that pushed by Tory propagandists. The following extracts from the press give an insight into their discourse:

The Rights of Kings triumphed over the Rights of the People at Waterloo. 

Had the country a reformed House of Commons, a war of 
such injustice had never been commenced.

The fall of Napoleon .. was effected by immense German armies, subsidized by us.

That perjury and fraud to which England lent herself, 
in enslaving the Nations of Europe ..

That war sent the brave and generous Napoleon into 
captivity; that war restored the Bourbons in France, 
Spain and Naples; 
it restored the Pope and the Inquisition, all of which Bonaparte had put down.

You see the scaffolds in France streaming with the 
blood of people who cry out for Napoleon’s return .. 
religious liberty was, under Napoleon, made as perfect as in America

So far from it being true that the whole nation 
approved of this measure [exile of Napoleon], 
the fact is that a very great part of the 
sound and enlightened  part of the nation decidedly disapproved of it;

Napoleon towers like the Andes above them all. He 
stands a beacon and a sign unto the Nations; 
and although his thunders sleep, 
perhaps for ever, there is not a-King, or Kingling – a base legitimate – or a plundering Minister, 
that does not tremble at the very name of NAPOLEON.
At the close of poll in the Westminster Election in 1818 the cries of “Napoleon – Napoleon” were heard. On July 22nd 1819 a reform meeting at Smithfield, attended by 40,000-50,000 passed the following resolution:
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.

Soon followed the mass meeting in Manchester, almost immediately known as the Peterloo Massacre, an ironic reference to the “killing fields of Waterloo.”

When news of Napoleon’s death arrived, placards appeared in London inviting people to go into mourning. The Radical leader Henry Hunt whose attempted arrest led to the Peterloo Massacre, described Napoleon as “the most illustrious and eminent man of the present age, both as a profound statesman and a brave and matchless general.” Whilst aware of Napoleon’s failings,

“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.”

Lord Holland considered Napoleon’s death “a legal or political murder, a species of crime which tho’ not uncommon in our age is one of the most blackest dye most odious nature.” Appropriately for a Whig, he drew up a balance sheet:

pro: freedom of worship, financial probity in public life, magnificence of public works, openness to office based on merit alone.

con: “enormous evil” of conscription, persecution of critics and curtailment of personal liberties.

Both Whigs and Radicals had views of Napoleon that differed totally from that of the “Corsican Ogre” created by Government propagandists. Evidence of Whig admiration for Napoleon is to be found in the collections that remain in some of the large stately homes, particularly Chatsworth and Blenheim; the folk memories of the lower orders, reflected in this song

They sent him to St Helena! Oh! Aye, oh!  
They sent him to St. Helena,
John France Wa! (Francois)
Boney was ill-treated! Oh! Aye, Oh! 
Boney was ill-treated,
John France Wa!
Oh Boney's heart was broken! Oh! Aye, Oh!  
Boney's heart was broken
John France Wa!
But Boney was an Emperor! Oh! Aye, Oh! 
But Boney was an Emperor!
John France Wa!
have largely disappeared.