When former emperor Napolean came to Devon
- Credit: Getty Images
It has now been two hundred years since the death of Napoleon Bonaparte on May 5, 1821.
He was only fifty-one when he died but even today remains one of the most famous people to have ever lived. His fame derives largely from his spectacular run of military successes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Although he ultimately came unstuck in the end, his initial military genius enabled him to win power in revolutionary France and become emperor.
He changed the destiny of France and Europe forever. The early 19th century was entirely dominated by the Napoleonic Wars which bear his name.
He is probably less well known for his trip to the county of Devon. But it did happen.
Napoleon’s stay in Devon came soon after he finally faced his Waterloo and was defeated at the famous battle there in June 1815. Sensing the game was up, the ex-emperor hoped to escape to the USA, another country which, like France, had recently had a revolution and which he felt might be sympathetic to his plight. Instead, he found himself under arrest on the HMS Bellerophon under the command of the British captain, Frederick Maitland. In July, the ship anchored off Torbay as it awaited further orders.
It must have been a big comedown for the onetime French emperor. Napoleon had risen from a position as an obscure Corsican corporal to that of an all-powerful leader with remarkable speed only twenty years before. Now he had fallen from power even more quickly. Still only in his forties, he was forced to grow accustomed to the loss of his imperial privileges and with his hours and days suddenly very empty had lots of time to reflect on where he had gone wrong. Master tactician though he was, the man who so recently seemed to have the world at his feet must have been forced to confront the fact that his prospects of ever returning to power again had now vanished forever. He spent his days playing cards with the crew or writing letters appealing for clemency to the Prince Regent.
Napoleon was effectively in lockdown and was permitted one walk along the deck for fresh air and exercise per day. These occasional appearances on deck by the defeated conqueror generated considerable excitement amongst the local Devonians. Soon the HMS Bellerophon was surrounded by hundreds of sightseers crowded into little boats eager to catch a glimpse of the fallen conqueror. Napoleon initially seems to have enjoyed the attention, occasionally waving to those who had come to see him.
Captain Maitland didn’t approve of these incursions at all and attempted to get his men to man the lifeboats to chase these sightseers away, but to no avail. The endless procession of people continued coming to look at Napoleon like a party of tourists going to see a caged lion in a zoo.
Perhaps, surprisingly bearing in mind the captive had so recently been a clear enemy of Britain, some onlookers nevertheless took pity on the doubtless rather forlorn and increasingly scruffy-looking Bonaparte. A number even attempted to smuggle extra clothes and food to him. It seems doubtful any actually ended up getting to him.
Occasionally, other sightseers, perhaps ex-servicemen themselves would hurl abuse at him. Eventually, Napoleon abandoned his daily walks on deck completely.
Napoleon hoped for mercy. “I wanted nothing of them (the British government) but hospitality…” he said. “My only wish was to purchase a small property in England and end my life there in peace and tranquillity.” It was not to be. The HMS Bellerophon soon sailed away. Napoleon spent the rest of his life in St Helena. He would never see Devon or England again.