I would judge that most visitors to St. Helena have little knowledge of the strange circumstances of Napoleon's surrender and transportation to St. Helena. This and the next post attempts to fill in some of the gaps.
I have followed closely the account given by Gilbert Martineau.
There is a new study by David Markham, The Road to St Helena: Napoleon After Waterloo, which unfortunately I have not yet read. I have however pinched part of his title; it seems very appropriate for this blog, whose focus is on St. Helena and the Captivity.
Napoleon on the Bellerophon
Napoleon at Rochefort: Costly Indecision
After his second abdication, Napoleon and his party of over 60 set off from Paris, bound for Rochefort and, they hoped, for the United States. The British Government had been alerted to this, and instructed its ships to intercept him.
This was unknown to Napoleon, who was hoping that the French Government would secure permission from the occupying powers for him to leave for the United States. In fact, his two most disloyal associates, Fouché and Talleyrand, were collaborating with the occupying powers in trying to ensure Napoleon's capture.
Napoleon's party arrived in Rochefort on July 3rd 1815, and stayed until 8th July. Ostensibly they were waiting for some wagons that had been sent by mistake to La Rochelle. Whilst there, a delegation of local citizens and soldiers met him and asked him not to leave France. He replied that if he stayed "he would merely be adding the horrors of Civil War to a foreign invasion". (1)
On 8th July Napoleon tried to embark on a small boat for the Isle of Aix, watched by a crowd at the small hamlet of Fouras. He waved Goodbye, my friends. They shouted Long Live the Emperor. The winds proved too strong for the oarsmen, so Napoleon boarded the Saale , one of the French ships being blockaded by the Royal Navy. The captain had already had the poop windows decorated with the fleur-de-lis in preparation for the restoration of the Bourbons!
The next morning Napoleon went ashore on Aix, where he was well received by the local people. In the evening he returned to the Saale and decided to approach the captain of the British ship the Bellerophon, which was blockading the Basque Roads, to see if he would allow him to leave for the United States.
Savary and Las Cases were sent to negotiate with Captain Maitland. They returned bearing the news that the Bellerophon had orders to prevent Napoleon's escape. After two further days considering his options, Napoleon decided to disembark on the Isle of Aix. The next few days were to be his last period on dry land until he set foot on St. Helena in October.
Gourgaud advised him that it was preferable to surrender to the English nation, among whom he would find admirers, rather than escape on the chasse-marée. The boat would probably be taken, and then the position would be very different, for in that case the Emperor would be thrown into the Tower of London. (2)
On 13th July his brother Joseph Bonaparte arrived. Napoleon refused to accompany him in his plan of escape to the United States, partly because it would have meant abandoning his large party to the Bourbon Government, and partly perhaps because it was not in his nature to travel incognito and risk capture as a fugitive. So finally, around midnight on July 13th, he indicated that he wished Lallemand and Las Cases to go to the Bellerophon in the morning.
Napoleon then drafted his famous letter to the Prince Regent, dated July 13th:
Your Royal Highness
Exposed to the factions which distract my country and to the enmity of the greatest powers of Europe, I have ended my political career, and I come, like Themistocles, to throw myself on the hospitality of the British people; I put myself under the protection of their laws, which I claim from Your Royal Highness as the most powerful, the most constant, and the most generous of my enemies.
The Decision to Surrender
There has been much discussion as to why Napoleon ultimately took the decision to surrender. By the time he took it, he arguably had few options, although it should be noted that his brother Joseph did manage to reach America.
Britain had a reputation for welcoming exiles from France, as had been shown in the case of the Huguenots and the French aristocrats fleeing the Revolution. Las Cases had himself had been exiled in London during the Revolution, and Napoleon's own brother Lucien had been permitted to stay in England from 1810-1814 at a time when he had become estranged from the Emperor. He too ironically had been captured whilst trying to escape to the United States.
Napoleon himself had expressed a wish to live in England after his first abdication in 1814. (3) Since then he had had the opportunity to meet a lot of English people: the Whigs who had visited him on Elba, and the sailors who had transported him there, and with whom he, the "Corsican Ogre" of British propaganda, had developed a surprisingly good relationship.
On Board the Bellerophon
At 3 O"Clock in the morning of 15th July the former Emperor left the Isle of Aix to board the Bellerophon. He declined the company of a representative of the Executive Commission:
We must think of France; I am going on board of my own free will. If you came with me, they would be sure to say that you handed me over to the English. I do not want to leave France under the weight of such an accusation.
The captain of the brig that took him to the Bellerophon told him he was making a mistake: they could have evaded the blockade. It is too late. They expect me. I am going. (4)
On climbing up to the deck of the Bellerophon Napoleon raised his hat and said I am come to throw myself on the Protection of your Prince and Laws.
He was warmly welcomed aboard, and shown to a fine cabin.
The French party were very pleased with the way in which the Emperor and they were received, and as Martineau wrily comments, the Grand Marshall... could not distinguish between hospitality and captivity, and took the Emperor's capture by the English for a diplomatic success. (5)
At breakfast the Emperor said, I must now learn to conform myself to English customs, as I shall probably pass the rest of my life in England. (6)
1. Gilbert Martineau, Napoleon Surrenders(John Murray 1971) p. 80.
2. Martineau p. 112-113.
3. A few days after his abdication, he walked in the garden of the Palace for two hours with Marshal Macdonald, and spoke of the new constitution, of what he considered its advantages and defects. He said that during the last twelve years, he had been furnished with a daily bulletin of the actions of Louis XVIII, allowed that he was an honest man, and that the opportunities which his residence in England had given him of becoming acquainted with her institutions, would be extremely useful to him; adding, that possibly he should not remain long in Elba, but visit England, and study the great and liberal establishments of that country.
General Sir Edward Paget and Lord Louvain, who were at Paris, both informed me that Lord Castlereagh, at the time also in Paris, told them that, in pursuance of this idea, Bonaparte had written to him for permission to retire to England, "it being the only country of great and liberal ideas."
British, Colonial, and Foreign Weekly Gazette
New York, Saturday, February 4, 1826 web link
4. Martineau pp 127-128
5. Martineau p. 133
6. Martineau p. 133