Monday, 11 October 2010

The Doctor, the Admiral and His Mistress: It is not at all necessary to be polite to the General.

Dr John Stokoe. Born Ferryhill Durham 1775. Entered navy in 1794 as Surgeon's Mate.

A distinguished record of service in a number of naval engagements including Trafalgar.

Nearing the end of his career as a ship surgeon, he agreed in 1817 to take a three year posting to St Helena. Stokoe set out for St Helena on H.M.S. Conqueror in 1817.

I thought that I should see the great man and probably have the honour of conversing with him - little did I think at that time that the honour would be so dearly purchased! (1)

He married late in life, but was predeceased by his wife and two daughters. He died of apoplexy in 1852.

Vice-Admiral Robert Plampin (1762– 1834). A member of the Suffolk squirearchy, he was born at Chadacre Hall near Bury St Edmunds. (2)

He reminds me of one of those drunken little Dutch schippers that I have seen in Holland, sitting at a table with a pipe in his mouth, a cheese and a bottle of geneva before him. - Napoleon

Admiral Plampin is a timid man, whose one wish is to live in peace and meddle with nothing. He has seen Bonaparte once, and made no impression upon him. Count Balmain

The son of a naval officer, he had joined the navy at the age of 13, and rose steadily through the ranks. He had spent time in France and was admired in the navy for his language skills. He was survived by his wife Fanny, who died in 1864.

Plampin was also on H.M.S. Conqueror, going out to replace Sir Pulteney Malcolm as commander of the naval forces stationed on St Helena. Malcolm, who had had a cordial relationship with Napoleon, had already clashed with Hudson Lowe.

The Late Arrival on H.M.S. Conqueror

After the ship left Portsmouth it stopped off the Isle of Wight to pick up a lady. A most unorthodox procedure!

As soon as the Admiral landed on St Helena he went to Plantation House leaving his "wife" on board ship. He then installed her at the Briars. She was never received by Lady Lowe and the "court" at Plantation House.

According to rumours, which were always plentiful on St Helena, the lady did not restrict her favours to those of the rank of Admiral. The upright were scandalised, and from the pulpit the Rev Boys condemned the behaviour and its condonement. There was talk that she would be sent back to England, and that the Admiral would doubtless soon follow in disgrace.

This however, did not happen. The lady remained, the Admiral served out his three year posting, the Rev Boys shut up, and Hudson Lowe had a very compliant Admiral to deal with. As he reported to Bathurst:
Admiral Plampin seems to have decided to attempt no interference whatever. If he took any steps, it would be in order to assist me. (3)

With Plampin's acquiescence Lowe set about isolating the inhabitants of Longwood, and in particular discontinuing Sir Pulteney Malcolm's practice of taking newly appointed officers to meet Napoleon.

For Stokoe this was to prove a very sad end to his career. He met Napoleon only five times, but in doing so incurred the enmity of Hudson Lowe and the obsequious Plampin, and was finally court martialled and dismissed from the Navy.

Dr Stokoe and Napoleon: "They will only believe he is ill when they find him dead on his bed"

Stokoe's first meeting with Napoleon came when he was introduced during a visit to O'Meara in the autumn of 1817. They got on well, and Napoleon even offered to assist him in winning the hand of William Balcombe's eldest daughter - which according to another St Helena rumour was his desire!

The next day Stokoe reported the visit to the Admiral, who told him that he ought to have refused to speak to Napoleon, and that it was not necessary to be "polite to the General". (4) He then issued an order forbidding any naval officer speaking to Napoleon without the Admiral's prior consent.

Aware of the problems for any doctor attending Napoleon in the climate of suspicion and fear that existed on St Helena, Stokoe turned down a request to give a second opinion on Napoleon's health in July 1818. This also appeared to meet the Admiral's disapproval. He further incurred the wrath of Hudson Lowe by refusing to sign a letter indicating that the refusal was because of his lack of confidence in Dr O'Meara.

Then there was the awkward case of the letters destined for O'Meara but sent to Stokoe in an attempt to avoid their being intercepted by Plantation House. This was William Balcombe's suggestion, and Stokoe had no foreknowledge of it, but obviously it did him no good. To be considered a friend of O'Meara, who had by the time the letters arrived been forced off the island by Hudson Lowe, was an unfortunate position for anyone to be in on St Helena. One letter from Balcombe to Stokoe was opened in the presence of the Admiral: Be so good as to hand the enclosed to our friend O'Meara. I find that he has many partisans here, and I hope the B-g-rs will soon be turned out." (5)

O'Meara's removal left Napoleon without a doctor. He was unwilling to consult Dr Verling who he saw as the tool of Hudson Lowe. So when Napoleon was taken ill in January 1819, Bertrand called for Stokoe.

Over a period of five days Stokoe saw Napoleon four times, and in the eyes of Hudson Lowe committed a number of cardinal sins: discussing non-medical matters with the occupants of Longwood House, using the term "patient" rather than "General Bonaparte" in a bulletin on Napoleon's health, communicating in writing with the occupants of Longwood by giving them the said bulletin, suggesting that Napoleon was suffering from "chronic hepatitis" and making such comments as I do not apprehend any immediate danger, although it must be presumed that in a climate where the above disease is so prevalent it will eventually shorten his life. (7) Worse, in one report he wrote, the more alarming symptom is that which was experienced on the night of the 16th, a recurrence of which may soon prove fatal, particularly if medical assistance is not at hand.

Told that he was to be court martialled, Stokoe applied for sick leave and said he would leave his station. Arriving in England on April 14th 1819 he was given a second medical and then ordered back to St Helena. So, soon after arrival in England he set out again, under the impression that he would resume his old post or even be Napoleon's doctor. 124 days after leaving he arrived back at St Helena and rejoined H.M.S. Conqueror. The next day he was informed that he was to be court martialled. It is hard to imagine how he must have felt.

There were 10 charges against him. The final one gives the flavour of the proceedings:
For having in the whole of his conduct in the aforesaid transactions evinced a disposition to thwart the intentions and regulations of the Rear-Admiral, and to further the views of the said French prisoners in furnishing them with false or colourable pretences for complaint, contrary to the respect he owed to his superior officers, and to his own duty as an officer in His Majesty's Royal Navy.
The result was a foregone conclusion. Nobody would conduct his defense, and no witnesses appeared for him. Having no idea that he was going to face legal action he had left all his papers in England. He had little time to prepare his case, whilst his accusers, Lowe and Plampin, had had several months to do so.

So Stokoe left the service, but was awarded a pension of £100 a year. All his attempts to clear his name subsequently failed. He did however receive the following letter in October 1842 from Sir George Cockburn,
I have always considered the errors attributed to Dr O'Meara and you to have proceeded from your having been placed in so trying and difficult a position, rather than from any real intention on your parts to oppose and counteract the orders and intentions of the Government and of your commanding officers.
which is as near as you will get to an admission from the Admiralty that he was treated harshly and unfairly.

The Bonaparte family did however, show their appreciation of the efforts of Stokoe to attend to Napoleon and their awareness of how his livelihood had been affected. Soon after returning from St Helena he was hired on a number of occasions by Joseph Napoleon to escort his young daughters on sea voyages between Europe and America.
1. With Napoleon at St Helena: Being the Memoirs of Dr. John Stokoe, Naval Surgeon. Translated from the French of Paul Frémaux by Edith S. Stokoe (London & New York MDCCCII) p. 10
2. Chadacre Hall was not far from Troston Hall, the home of that great supporter of Napoleon, Capel Lofft. Curiously they both died in Italy, Capel Lofft in voluntary exile from a society he considered repressive, Plampin on holiday in Florence.
3. Frémaux p. 59
4. The admiral's lady asked Stokoe what he thought of Napoleon. He said that his opinion had completely changed since meeting him. She said that he must be an extraordinary man because almost every stranger that met him came away with the same impression. Frémaux p. 60
5. Frémaux p. 78


albertuk said...

Stokoe paid a high price, for sure. This is because the Admiralty had to -finally- show support to Hudson Lowe and the Govt. Before Stokoe, naval officers interfered and ignored the regulations. But the discovery of the clandestine correspondance of O'Meara with the Admiralty was the last straw that caused a clash between Bathurst and Melville, that Liverpool had to determine. Then came poor old Stokoe... The Admiralty had to give him up.

John Tyrrell said...

Interesting comment as always. Many thanks. I was expecting you to find some errors! It was your book incidentally which got me interested in Stokoe.

Has anyone done any thorough research in the Admiralty records about this affair - or indeed about the captivity as a whole?


albertuk said...

I haven't checked the Admiralty records. Maybe one day... assuming they contain the minutes of the Melville/Bathurst/Liverpool discussion (doubtful).

About the Stokoe affair, there are 2 chapters about it in the Howard's book ("Napoleon's poisoned chalice"), which is quite significant considering that Stokoe's passage in Longwood was somehow rather short. But Howard mainly use printed materials as sources, not much of original records and manuscripts. In the case of Stokoe, the main source used is Fremeaux' book but can we fully rely on it? Fremeaux himself stated that it was written based upon Stokoe's notes, as, according to Fremeaux, they couldn't be published in extenso. Too bad that the doctor's original manuscript is no longer at reach today.

Stokoe's fate has been used by anti-Lowe campaigners as an example of "Plantation House methods". Not surprisingly, Forsyth and other Lowe apologists, barely cover this episode.

JMustard said...

Dr. John Stokoe is my ancestor from my father's side...i have a copy of his published journal.I see that it is available on line. A fascinating time.

John Tyrrell said...

Very interesting to hear from you. Every time I read about this I am amazed at just how badly Dr Stokoe was treated. St. Helena historiography is a bit of a battleground, and as Albert Benhamou points out above, those who have set out to try to defend Hudson Lowe don't cover Stokoe's case very fully, because his treatment was indefensible.


Allen Purvis said...

Like your previous contributor, I am descended from the same family on my father's side. For many years I have been interested in John Stokoe's relationship with Napoleon and I also have a copy of his book. It would be good to find references from other sources, which would shed more light on this unfortunate affair, and restore Stokoe's reputation. He probably deserves an entry in the DNB.

John Tyrrell said...

Great to hear from you. I don't think Stokoe's reputation is a problem in all honesty - I have never come across anyone who thinks he behaved improperly in any way. As I have said before, those with an axe to grind tend to ignore his case, because his treatment was indefensible,

best wishes