Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Plymouth Remembers Napoleon's 1815 Visit

"Napoleon on HMS Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound" by Jules Girardet (1)

"It was known that he always appeared on deck towards five o'clock. A short time before this hour, all the boats collected along-side of each other; there were thousands, and so closely connected, that the water could no longer be seen between them; they looked more like a multitude assembled in a public square than anything else." (2)

I find, to my surprise that it is almost seven years since I wrote about Napoleon on the Bellerophon and the reaction of the crowds who turned out to try and catch a glimpse of him in Torquay and Plymouth. This bicentenary year I have largely ignored these events, instead focusing on the background to the Government decision to exile Napoleon to St. Helena.

The City of Plymouth is currently mounting an exhibition Napoleon in Plymouth Sound, 1815, the centre piece is the romantic Girardet painting of the crowds that surrounded the "Bellerophon". A member of the Bonaparte family has even been to see the exhibition. In its description of the exhibition the Museum says Napoleon was a folk-hero to the lower classes of all nations, even those he fought against. An interesting judgement, which even I find rather sweeping.

Apparently the City intends to build some kind of memorial commemorating its Napoleonic association. The structure will incorporate a stone that came originally from Longwood House on St. Helena, and will bear a plaque relating the circumstances of Napoleon's arrival.(3) The idea of the French Consul, designed to be a celebration of two centuries of Anglo-French amity, the proposal has raised the ire of a few patriotic Englishmen who have complained that there is no memorial of Nelson in the city. I am cynical enough to imagine that Plymouth is happy to cash in on its Napoleonic association!
1. Jules Girardet(1856 to 1938), a French historical painter, produced a number of pictures of Napoleon, often showing him in a domestic setting. The picture of him on the Bellerophon is in the possession of the Plymouth City Council. It was of course painted long after the events it depicts.
2. Memorial de Sainte Helene - Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena by the Count de las Cases, Volume 1 page 29
3. The Plymouth Herald is wrong to claim that Napoleon was held in Plymouth Hoe whilst his fate was decided: the Government had decided to send him to St Helena before the Bellerophon had even arrived in Torquay. It was the implementation of the policy, and the readying of the Northumberland , which had just returned from a long voyage, which took the time.

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