Amid the general hullabaloo over 200th anniversary of Waterloo, I’ve found more images around the Net treating Napoleon’s short-lived sojourn in English waters, an expedition I highlighted in my novel A Note of Scandal (see also my first post with other images, Napoleon in England?). On 15 July 1815, off the coast of France, the former emperor had surrendered to Captain Maitland of HMS Bellerophon, seeking asylum in England.
The Bellerophon traveled first to Brixham and then to Plymouth, never allowing anyone on or off board, though news of their “special cargo” could not be kept quiet. Soon enough, each bay was thronged with small boats crammed with people eager to get a glimpse of the “Corsican Tyrant.”
After three weeks within sight of England but never setting foot on its shores, Napoleon was transferred to HMS Northumberland, which then sailed for Saint Helena on 10 August.
In A Note of Scandal, lady musician Olivia hires Tommy the boatman to take newspaper journalist Will out to see the Bellerophon, in Plymouth harbor. Here’s an excerpt from that scene:
Nearby was the HMS Ville de Paris, the flagship of Admiral Lord Keith. Keith had ordered the Bellerophon’s Captain Maitland not to allow anyone on board, not even the usual traders in foodstuffs and supplies. The guard ships kept the curious from coming directly alongside the ship, but did not bother the flotilla of look-seers.
The scene reminded Will of a holiday in one of the city’s parks, with the ladies and gentlemen tourists parading in their finery, while the locals were clad more wisely in seaworthy linens. Colorful parasols bobbed all along the front line of the flotilla, while the back rows contained mainly men uproariously happy with themselves and the sport. These men were not even looking for Bonaparte, simply getting drunk with the rest of the crowd.
He could pick out the food stands now. Ladies in kerchiefs and aprons would lean out to another boat, handing out the vittles and pulling in the money; then the boat would move on and another take its place.
Tommy paused, turning to Olivia.
“Do you think the left, Tommy?”
“Aye. We will take the flank.” He eyed Will. “Miss Olivia said you’ll be doing a drawing?” Will nodded. “Best to get where you can see the most at once then.”
Many of the boats they passed looked over-full to Will. His heart quailed for the men seated on the railings. Olivia saw the direction of his gaze.
“The water is on the calm side, believe it or not. They will be fine, if a bit waterlogged. Watch out!”
A bigger boat, four sails punched out like big bellies full with wind, bore down on them. Its nose within a yard of them, it pivoted smartly, spewing spray in their direction. “They won’t be the only ones,” Will said, glad he had not yet pulled out his sketch pad. Three young fops leaned over the rear railing of the sailboat, hooting.
“Whose yacht is that, Tommy?”
“The admiral’s. See the flag up top? Don’t know the company, though.”
Will did know one of the company in the next boat they passed. Stowed among a dozen men and gentlemen was Cobbett, his untamed hair even wilder in the wind. They passed so near, Cobbett could lean over and talk.
“No scoop for the Beacon, boy!” His gaze lit on Olivia, but there was no recognition in his face. Good. Will did not wish to share.
As Tommy pulled ahead of Cobbett’s overloaded boat, the older man waved a salute. Will waved back. The Times was probably here, too, and the smaller papers. But none had caricaturists on staff.
“Have you heard of any journalists here?”
“Is that who that was?”
“The Common Man?” Olivia turned to better look at Cobbett. “Then everyone must be here. I know there is at least one of the Academy artists, a man who works in oils.”
“He won’t be drawing for the press.”
“You wish to be the only paper with art?”
“It would set us apart.”
“Not to mention sell on its own. Double-duty, like the music.”
“Did you listen to the new piece? It carries a nautical theme.”
As they came within one hundred yards of the Bellerophon, they had to draw nearer the gun boat as well. The open port-holes loomed. Will did not think the cannons were loaded, but they looked deadly just the same.
Now he could just see the deck of the ship. Only a half-dozen men were visible, three in the stripes of the merchant marine. The others were in full dress naval blues, their epaulets dusky gold, their sashes bright red.
Two more finely dressed officers appeared on the deck, which set the crowds in the boats astir on the skirling water. Then the man himself appeared.
Unaccompanied, his bicorne hat drawn low on his head, Napoleon paced away from the crowd. Then, to their shouts of delight, he paced toward them.
He, too, wore his finest uniform, although little of it could be seen under the brown great-coat he wore over it. Will noted the lack of a sword. All the officers wore those impractical tall boots, shiny as on parade day.
“He was alone yesterday, as well.” Olivia shaded her eyes under her bonnet. “They say he still wears his spurs, but I can’t see it. It would harm the deck.”
The scourge of Europe turned away from his conquerors, and paced about the middle of the deck for a span.
“He remains amidships,” Olivia said. “It can’t be much exercise.”
The crowd expressed its displeasure at the loss of its view. Calls of “This way, Boney!” and “Here’s a cracker!” drew laughs if not the man himself.
“Yesterday, we serenaded him with one of the sailor’s songs.” Tommy spat again. “Today’s crowd isn’t sailors, though. Look at all the women. And those idiots.”
The sailboat that had nearly overturned them was now threatening a boat that looked to be a floating family outing.
“He’s pulling sail too hard.” Olivia stood up, arms out, as if she could push the rowboat out of harm’s way. The larger boat, listing at thirty degrees and building a wave of its own that could swamp a boat, swerved away from the rowboat, merely drenching the family. But the sailboat didn’t right itself, but tipped further toward the water. Two of the gentlemen riding the back railing slipped into the sea.
The slip righted itself, but was already three lengths away from its former passengers. Another rowboat, farther away than the family’s boat, started rowing toward them. The children threw what looked like apples or tomatoes at the heads of the men in the drink.
“Serves them right.” Tommy’s hard-oak face had flushed. “Damned careless.”
The calls for Bonaparte were rhythmic, a chant. Then they turned into song.
Will, counting the cannon holes to get it right on his sketch, did not recognize it until he heard Bragge’s over-the-top line, “the Corsican devil tamed, the empire restored.” He turned to rib Olivia about it, and stopped short.
She was standing again, hips automatically moving with the current. Hands clasped to her chest, she was not singing. Tears rolled down her face.
He watched her a moment, unsure what to do. He did not wish to unbalance her. He glanced at Tommy, who shrugged his bewilderment as well.
Bonaparte seemed to respond to this call. He turned and marched back to their side of the ship. Will sketched furiously, marking in as much detail as possible. How the man’s collar reached nearly to his ears, the deep sockets of his eyes. How his shoulders seemed to thrust back, perhaps to balance the fulsome roundness of his belly. The hint of red on his cuffs under that giant coat.
How the British officers gave him wide berth, yet followed his every move with their eyes. How they wore their full complement of weaponry, while he appeared unarmed.
The ex-emperor courteously allowed him a full ten minutes to memorize every detail. Green coat, red collar and cuffs, gold epaulettes. Five of those minutes Napoleon spent staring out at his audience through what looked to be an opera glass.
Too soon, the Corsican sat down, presumably to write. Though they waited another fifteen minutes, he did not reappear. Will sketched the family in the boat beside him, noting the colors of the sails on the boats and a top hat passing by in the water beside their boat.
The wind was coming up. He sketched the placement of the ships, and the variety of boats. Already the closest-in ones were turning to return to land.
For more on Napoleon and the Bellerophon:
Napoleon in England? – My earlier blogpost
Regency Bicentennial: Bonaparte about the Bellerophon, The Regency Redingote (Kathryn Kane), more to the story
Why didn’t Napoleon escape to the United States? From Shannon Salin’s blog
Life on board the Bellerophon with Napoleon, letter from an officer on board to his mother describing Napoleon’s arrival and daily habits.
Book: The Billy Ruffian: The Bellerophon and the Downfall of Napoleon. David Cordingly, 2003, Bloomsbury