Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Emperor's Last Campaign - A Review

The Emperor's Last Campaign: A Napoleonic Empire in America - Emilio Ocampo

This is a fascinating and important book which provides a totally new perspective on Napoleon's captivity on St Helena. Based on a tremendous amount of research, notably in diplomatic archives, the author puts Napoleon's captivity on St Helena within an international context. Here it is not a footnote on a history written by the victors of Waterloo, but the symbolic centre of a liberal struggle against hereditary monarchy, reaction and oppression in Europe and the Americas.

From it one appreciates again that none of the great powers trusted each other, not least the Bourbon monarchy, restored to France by British and Prussian arms, yet fearful that the ancient enemy, Perfidious Albion, seemingly unperturbed at harebrained plots to free Napoleon, might connive at his escape to further its imperialist ambitions in Latin America.

The only thing they all had in common was fear of revolution, and a determination that the trouble maker in chief, as they saw him, should remain on his island in the South Atlantic. Thus Metternich, the Austrian chancellor and arranger of Napoleon's marriage to Marie Louise, which had given Napoleon the heir whose very existence gave the Bourbons sleepless nights, blamed Napoleon for the discontent of the lower orders in Europe: by fleeing Elba and setting himself at the head of a constitutional monarchy in 1815 he had betrayed his previous work and "set free the Revolution which he came to France to subdue."(1)

The book provides a mine of information from which the author attempts, perhaps not totally satisfactorily, to weave together a number of intersecting narratives:

the conflict in England between Loyalists and the Tory Government on the one hand and radicals, reformers, and some Whigs on the other, over reform at home and the fate of Napoleon;

the interaction of Bonapartist soldiers, refugees, adventurers and filibusters assembled largely in the United States with the independence struggles in Latin America;

the rather desperate speculations of Napoleon on St Helena as recounted by those around him; the thoughts and views of the Austrian, French and Russian commissioners who never saw Napoleon but kept themselves and their Governments very well informed; the suspicion and fear of the hapless Sir Hudson Lowe, whose career would be finished if Napoleon escaped, but as it turned out was finished even though he didn't.

Perhaps most interesting from the perspective of this blog is the light it throws on Napoleon's sympathisers and supporters in England. The author has done research in a number of private archives in the UK, and here one can read about the activities of General Sir Robert Wilson and his Bonapartist sister Fanny Wallis in France and England, and Wilson's planned but ultimately aborted adventures in the Americas.

Here along with the George IV's estranged wife, Queen Caroline, and his brother, the Duke of Sussex, appears a future Whig Prime Minister, Earl Grey, trying to hold the disparate Whig factions together, cautioning Sir Robert Wilson about the company he was keeping and particularly against involvement with the mad schemes of Lord Cochrane, but himself apparently privately sympathetic to the plight of the fallen Emperor.

"My son - the sailor - sails for St Helena next week on the Conqueror", Wilson wrote to Grey in December 1816,"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." (2)

Little wonder perhaps that Napoleon, isolated on St Helena and fed scraps like this, lived in hope and expectation that the Government would change and the Whigs, or even Queen Caroline, would come to his rescue.

The book is of course full of shadowy schemes to help Napoleon escape by submarine, balloon, steam-powered ship, oak barrels or more conventional means. There is not the slightest bit of evidence that Napoleon entertained serious interest in any of them.

The author is to be commended for having brought together so much fascinating material, although at times the evidence could have been treated more critically. As an example anyone reading it not too carefully might perhaps come away with the idea that Napoleon, Queen Caroline and Napoleon II were all poisoned. Doubtless there were, and maybe are, people who believed that all three were victims of a conspiracy, and certainly there were good reasons why those in power wanted all three of them dead, but the nature of the evidence, or maybe the lack of it, needs careful treatment.

Likewise there are a few "maybe" comments which at times undermine the overall quality of the work e.g. "Maybe she knew something we don't know" , re Napoleon's mother's belief that Napoleon had already left St Helena and therefore couldn't have died, or "Maybe he had heard the bad news about Brayer", an attempt to link Napolon's reported change of mood to events in the Americas.

One ought perhaps also point out that the title of the book is misleading: there is no evidence that Napoleon played any part in planning the various campaigns that his supporters waged alongside other adventurers in the Americas, and there was certainly no centralised campaign coordinated by him, by his brother Joseph in Philadelphia, or indeed anyone else.

These though are minor criticisms. The author is to be commended for having laboured so hard, for having brought together so much material and for getting us to look at this period in a rather different way.


1. Emilio Ocampo, The Emperor's Last Campaign, A Napoleonic Empire in America(University of Alabama Press, 2009 p. 359)
2.Ocampo p. 103 Admiral Plampin and his lady were also on board the Conqueror.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Exminster Devon, May 1822: Betsy Balcombe's Wedding

Exminster Parish Church Register, May 28th 1822.
(For a better image click on the above).

Edward Abell Esquire, Bachelor of the Parish of St Gregory London and Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe spinster of this Parish, married by Licence, with consent of parents, by H J Burlton, witnessed by Jane Balcombe, Thos Tyrwhitt, Francis Stanfler, RN, Jane Sophia Turner, Henry Brown.

The marriage was also reported in Trewman's Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser on May 30th 1821.

Interestingly the marriage was not witnessed by Betsy's parents, who presumably were absent, although Betsy was recorded as a resident of Exminster and presumably they lived there too.

The most interesting name on the list of witnesses is that of Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt (1762-1833), son of an Essex clergyman, educated at Eton and Oxford, with a distinguished career as private secretary to the Prince Regent, Member of Parliament and then Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod from 1812 until 1832. A local Devon landowner, Sir Thomas was the creator of Prince's Town, named in honour of the Prince Regent, where Sir Thomas founded the now famous Dartmoor prison originally used to house French and American prisoners of war.

Sir Thomas was also the inspiration behind the proposal to create a railway between Plymouth and Dartmoor in 1819. When the prospectus was published in 1819 William Balcombe was listed among the 61 subscribers.

The presence of Sir Thomas at Betsy's wedding and his connection with the Prince Regent inevitably raises again the old rumour that William Balcombe was the Regent's natural son. The most likely story however, is that he and his brother were sons of a naval officer lost at sea and, as was the practice in those days, were assisted in their education by the King's Bounty. (1) That at least is what his descendant Dame Mabel Brookes believed.

The bridegroom although recorded as being from London had in fact been educated in Exeter, and his family lived in Alphington in Devon. He served for a time in the Madras Army, and resigned around 1816. His elder brother Francis Tillet Abell became mayor of Colchester in Essex, the county from which Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt originated.

Edward and Lucia Abell had a daughter, soon separated but apparently never divorced, for at her death in 1871 Betsy was styled as the widow of Edward Abell.

(1) It appears that William Balcombe was born at Rottingdean in Kent in 1777 to Stephen Balcombe and his wife Mary (nee Vandyke). A younger brother also called Stephen was born in 1880.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

New Longwood House

The new house built for Napoleon at Longwood - a mid nineteenth century view.

Longwood House was always intended to be a temporary residence, and on 17th May 1816 Sir Hudson Lowe told Napoleon that the materials necessary for building a new house had arrived. Napoleon, uwilling to accept his permanent imprisonment on the island, would not discuss it with him.

Sir Hudson Lowe prevaricated as to where it would be built, but eventually, in 1818, began construction on a site next door to Bertrand's cottage. It was pretty well completed by the end of 1820.

The house was pre-fabricated by John Bullock in London. Construction was under the command of Major Emmet. Among those working on the project were Mr Paine, a painter and paper hanger sent out from London, and Mr Darling, who served as undertaker at Napoleon's funeral and also assisted at the exhumation.

Napoleon watched the house being built, and once secretly visited it, but he always maintained that he would never live there. Shortly before his death he strongly objected to the iron railings that were placed around it, which to him had the appearance of a prison. These were removed and later used to fence off his grave.

In the last hours of Napoleon's illness Lowe and his assistant Major Gideon Gorrequer waited there for news.

No trace of the house now remains. It was demolished in 1947 and agricultural buildings now stand on the site.

Longwood House itself came very near to a similar fate around the same time.

For another image see previous blog on sites associated with the captivity of Napoleon.