Elba: The Past is Prologue
Napoleon's brief time on Elba was overshadowed by the possibility of his being forcibly kidnapped and removed elsewhere, with St. Helena often mentioned as a possible destination. Napoleon and his party were well aware of the press reports about this which began as early as July 1814; Napoleon himself raised them with the British Commissioner and later claimed that reports of the intention to remove him was the decisive reason for his return to France.
Shortly before Napoleon left Elba a number of British papers printed a story dated London, January 13th 1815:
There is good reason for believing that it has been finally resolved to remove the Ex-Emperor Napoleon from Elba to the island of St. Helena; a removal highly desirable as it will place him in a seclusion perfectly secure and completely removed from the sphere of every system of politics. The stoppage of buildings and other improvements which Napoleon had been making in Elba, gives strength to the above statement. (1)
All the discussions of the circumstances surrounding Napoleon's exile on St. Helena seem to ignore the background: Britain's decision not to to sign the Treaty of Fontainebleau that made Napoleon Emperor of Elba; the disquiet by the Bourbons about his close proximity to France and Italy; the failure to pay him the pension promised; the schemes of Talleyrand to get him moved from Elba. (2)
The Parliamentary Inquest
The Whigs, seeking to apportion blame for Napoleon's return to France and the prospect of another drawn out period of war which many of them opposed, raised this issue in Parliament. In April Castlereagh claimed somewhat disingenuously that the report of an intention to remove him to St. Helena or St. Lucia was completely new to him.
For him the blame for Napoleon's return lay not with the British Government, but with the French people
What a state would France and the world be in, if the only protection that France had for the exclusion of Bonaparte was the possibility of Great Britain drawing a naval cord round the island of Elba(3)
Ironically this was to be precisely the situation the world found itself in when Napoleon was eventually exiled to St. Helena.
Earl Grey, Whig leader in the House of Lords, returned to the issue in May, quoting the admission in a proclamation apparently issued by one of Louis XVIII's ministers on leaving Paris that
one of the causes precipitating this desperate attempt was, the knowledge Bonaparte had acquired that it was intended to remove him from the island of Elba.(4)
Lord Bathurst in a not too convincing speech denied that the allies had broken the Treaty of Fontainebleau, but noticeably did not deny the intention to remove him from Elba:
If Bonaparte's salary was not regularly paid, as it was to be paid by the King of France, the omission was no violation of the Treaty by the Allies, unless Bonaparte had represented the omission to them, and they had neglected to force the payment. .. Whether any design existed to remove him from Elba was another question; but certainly no demonstration of such an intention had been evinced.(5)
The Whig opposition objected to the renewal of a war undertaken on the principles of personally proscribing the present Ruler of France, to which the Government's response was simply that not to make Napoleon's removal the object of war would lead to the dissolution of the alliance.(6)
All roads point to St Helena?
There is no evidence as to what if any plans the British Government was drawing up in the early summer of 1815 as to the ultimate fate of Napoleon. With a sizeable proportion of the army still in America, and recruitment of new troops proving disappointing, the Government was unsurprisingly preoccupied with preparing for war and ensuring that the alliance held together.
On 11 June 1815 at a dinner attended by Lord Liverpool and Castlereagh, John Quincy Adams recorded their opinion that before long Napoleon would shortly take refuge in the United States. This turned out to be remarkably accurate; what is not clear is whether the British Government would have regarded that as an acceptable outcome. At that time it was probably expecting a longer drawn out military campaign in France, rather than a short, decisive campaign in Belgium.
In the fluid situation after Waterloo, Castlereagh and Wellington were in France, communications were slow, and on the spot decisions were effectively made by Lords Liverpool (Prime Minister), Bathurst (War and Colonies) and Melville (Admiralty). Informed by Fouché of Napoleon's wish to go to America, the Government issued orders to the Navy to prevent his departure by force if necessary. If they took him alive, the Government's preferred position was to hand him over to France.
If we take him we shall keep him on board ship till the opinion of the Allies has been taken. The most easy course would be to deliver him up to the King of France, but then we must be quite certain that he would be tried and have no chance of escape. We should have a right to consider him as a French prisoner, and as such to give him up to the French Government. (7)
Clearly there were serious doubts about the ability of the Bourbons, who only a few months earlier had fled Paris without offering any resistance, to bring Napoleon to trial as a rebel. Before news of Napoleon's surrender had reached Paris or London, Liverpool wrote to Castlereagh on July 15th, that the best solution was for Britain to confine him, wherever it chose, and the Cabinet were of the view that
"the best place of custody would be at a distance from Europe, and that the Cape of Good Hope or St Helena would be the most proper stations for that purpose." (8)
There is no record of any mention of St. Helena during negotiations with Captain Maitland on the Bellerophon. The possibility of Napoleon staying in Britain was raised, by Maitland, and initially rejected by Las Cases and Savary. Savary cited the weather and the closeness to France as good reasons why that would not be appropriate: Napoleon would be suspected of involvement in every intrigue on France and the English "have been induced to look upon him as a monster, without one of the virtues of a human being." (9)
Clearly though Napoleon had his doubts and in the letter appointing Gourgaud as his emissary indicated that he did not wish to go to any colony. (10) His remarks to General Beker who had been instructed to accompany him from Paris on behalf of the Provisional Government were indicative of his apprehension:
"Don't accompany me on board, I don't know what the English intend doing with me; and should they not respond to my confidence, it might be said that you have sold me to England." (11)
Admiral Hotham though, meeting Napoleon soon after his surrender, found him " confident in the generosity and magnanimity of the Prince Regent and the English nation." though " extremely anxious to learn how I thought he would be disposed of "(12)"
By the time the Bellerophon arrived in Torbay with Napoleon on board the Government had pretty well settled on St. Helena as the place for Napoleon's confinement. There are no written records of how the decision was made, but Sir John Barrow, the long serving and highly respected Second Secretary at the Admiralty, is usually credited with recommending this to the Cabinet. Barrow had been to St Helena, and conveniently there was a Foreign Office "Memorandum on St. Helena" confirming the suitability of the island for a state prisoner. (13) Its contents appear to betray the hand of former St Helena Governor Alexander Beatson.
The legal situation was discussed by the Courier newspaper, usually regarded as the mouthpiece of the Administration. It pointed out that since Napoleon had surrendered rather than been captured, they could not hand him over.
the law of nations prescribes that "as soon as your enemy has laid down his arms and surrendered his person, you have no longer any right over his life." He must have surrendered himself under the conviction that he should receive an asylum, which conviction was confirmed by the act of receiving him. .. It seems therefore that we cannot give him up - that we shall afford him an asylum - that his life will be spared - but that we shall have him in such safe custody, that he shall not be able to disturb again the repose or the security of the world.(14)
Whether Britain was entitled to keep Napoleon as prisoner after the war had ended was a very nice legal question about which the Lord Chancellor had private doubts
it may be a simple way of considering the case to say, you made war against Buonaparte only; you have conquered him, and made him a prisoner of war; as he is such, and was the only person against whom you made war, you have no occasion to make with him any treaty of peace. You have your only enemy in your power, and you may, without more, keep him in it all his life long. But this is better for Parliament to. (15)
In Britain an Act of Parliament can settle almost anything!
The last word belongs to the victor of Waterloo, who in January 1821, as Napoleon neared his end on St. Helena, delivered the following verdict in a letter to Princess Lieven, wife of the Russian Ambassador and mistress of Metternich :
We made a tremendous mistake in getting rid of Napoleon. He is the man we ought to have had. As long as the Bourbons hold four thrones there will be no peace in Europe. None of that family is any good. (16)
Wellington and Earl Grey both became Prime Ministers, the former outliving all his distinguished contemporaries and becoming a national hero whose funeral was attended by Napoleon's natural son, Grey gave his name to a famous blend of tea and his administration at last achieved the first of the great Reform Bills, which Lord Bathurst vehemently opposed.
The Bourbons were finally toppled in 1830
1. Caledonian Mercury , Monday 16th January 1815.
2. Austrian spies at the Congress of Vienna discovered a plot in which the French Consul at Leghorn was to kidnap Napoleon. Sir Charles Webster, The Congress of Vienna 1814-1815 (London 1950) p 92.
3. Morning Post 21st April 1815
4. May 25th 1815, Dublin Evening Post, 30 May 1815
5. May 25th 1815, Dublin Evening Post, 30 May 1815
6. Bathurst, quoted in Dublin Evening Post, 30 May 1815
7. Lord Liverpool to Castlereagh, July 7th 1815. Thornton p. 57
8. Thornton p. 59
9. Thornton pp 23-4
10. Gilbert Martineau, Napoleon Surrenders (Newton Abbot 1973) p. 121.
11. Thornton p. 36
12. Admiral Hotham, July 15th 1815 to a British Envoy in Paris, quoted in Robert Harvey, The War of Wars - The Epic Struggle between Britain and France 1793-1815 (London 2006) p p 755. 13. Thornton pp 63-4.
14. Thornton pp 60-61
15. Neville Thompson, Earl Bathurst and the British Empire 1762-1834) (Leo Cooper 1999) p. 103
16. Quoted in Harold Nicolson,The Congress of Vienna: A Study in Allied Unity 1812-22 (London 1946) p. 296