On Thursday 27th July 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte sailed into Plymouth – though not under his own steam! So what brought him to Plymouth and did he receive a warm reception? Bracken Jelier tells the story.
Somewhere in a cottage in Plymstock lie the last bones of the great warship Bellepheron in which ‘Boney’, the former Emperor of France Napoleon Bonaparte, was carried from France after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and on whose decks he spent three quite comfortable weeks in Plymouth Sound before being exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic.
Bellepheron, a 74 gun man’o’war completed for the Royal Navy in 1787, dogged Napoleon for over twenty years from the Nile to Trafalgar and around the blockades of French ports, before finally becoming a prison hulk at Plymouth, where she was broken up in 1836. Her timbers were auctioned off and doubtless found their way into many buildings in the area – including that of former Naval Surgeon George Bellamy at Plymstock.
So how did the ‘Imperial Magnate’ (as one reference of the time called him) come to be the object of unprecedented public attention, curiosity and perhaps even adoration aboard a ship of the Royal Navy sitting off Plymouth and Sutton Harbour?
Napoleon had caused death and destruction across Europe, brought chaos, threatened the British as never before – and yet when he stepped out on deck before the throngs of sightseers there was a definite cheer; Joseph May of Devonport was one of the last living witnesses and he recalled ‘thousands of men, women and children standing up in their boats’ and giving ‘a subdued roar, not approaching a huzzah, not partaking in the least of reproach’. Mr May recalled thousands, and other spectators put the figure at a thousand boats and ten thousand people.
The Bellepheron, named for the ancient Greek slayer-of-monsters, was a first rate warship weighing around 1600 tons and was 168 feet in length. She mounted 74 guns, and was brought into service at a time when war threatened around the globe. The ship found herself at various times in the Mediterranean, the North and South Atlantic, and the Baltic; she was kept busy deterring, escorting, and fighting. She was in Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar, and was repaired following the battle and subsequent storm at Devonport Dockyard.
When Napoleon threatened again she was actually in Devonport being dismantled ready for paying off, when urgent orders arrived to reverse the process and get to sea. (Echoes of another great Naval adventure to the South Atlantic nearly 170 years later?) Bellepheron was sent to blockade North Western French ports, and found herself off Rochefort.
Napoleon meanwhile, defeated by Wellington and the Allies, was on the run (albeit in a fairly grand and relaxed style) and planned to escape to America – but knew that he could not hope to beat the Royal Navy’s blockade. He headed toward Rochefort, hoping to avoid capture by a restored French monarchy; this dream rapidly began to dissolve, and learning of Napoleon’s location the Captain of the Bellerophon Frederick Maitland sent word that he would be happy to take Napoleon aboard. Le Petit Emperor weighed his options for three days and, as the net closed, accepted Maitland’s terms and came aboard with his retinue of aides and officers. (In fact Maitland had had to race to take the great prize as his Admiral was headed post haste in the Bellerophon’s direction; Maitland despatched his barge to get Napoleon aboard before his Commander could do so!) Bellerophon was however so apt a vessel in terms of her size and history that Napoleon remained aboard, being allowed Maitland’s Great Cabin.
The warship headed across the Channel and arrived off Dartmouth on the 24th July, where her famous (or infamous) guest’s presence became known. Maitland had stiff orders to keep Napoleon secure and allow no visitor aboard, and so on the 26th July the vessel moved to Plymouth and anchored inside the newly completed Breakwater. ‘Just beginning to show above the water’, it also provided a spectacle for the public to view, and to land upon for a picnic, well supplied with food and drink by opportunist boatmen. Napoleon is reputed to have passed favourable comment on the great construction.
A routine developed, with Napoleon promenading on deck at five each evening and then dining with the Officers at six. This allowed the sightseers to schedule their boat trips! The crew of the Bellepheron even used a chalkboard at the fo’c’sle bearing such useful intelligence as ‘HE IS ASLEEP’ or ‘HE IS DINING’ upon it.
Napoleon was afforded great respect by Maitland and his crew – though not without a diplomatically firm touch by Maitland when the need arose. At one point he was obliged to threaten Napoleon’s Aides with ‘measures unpleasant to both them and himself’ should they persist with threats to kill Bonaparte rather than allow him to be taken away to exile. There were rumours of escape plots; indeed Maitland one evening could not locate Napoleon, following a report that a small boat was to have spirited him away. Maitland could not of course simply crash into the cabin, so had a young officer climb out on a spar to look through a window! Still unsure, he had his own servant enter the cabin on some pretext – to find Napoleon awake on his bed. Sigh of relief by Captain Maitland!
Two frigates as guard ships were stationed to either side of the Bellepheron, with cutters being rowed in a patrol around them, to keep the small fleet to keep sightseers at bay. Matters became so chaotic at one point that blank charges were fired and tripper-boats ‘bumped’ to dissuade closer attentions. Napoleon disliked the noise, and requested Maitland to cause it to stop ‘should it be within his power’ Maitland obliged.
She lay as the object of enormous interest under Staddon Heights, near the mouth of the Cattewater and entrance to Sutton Harbour. Artists visited (Charon and Easterbrook) and one can only imagine from the paintings produced at the time at what chaos and confusion there must have been as the armada of small boats rowed and sailed from all the available slips and steps that Plymouth had to offer to afford passengers a glimpse of The Great Man.
Eventually it was decided in London that Napoleon would not be given or allowed passage to America (one can only imagine how his presence in post-revolutionary / pre-civil war America might have changed history!) and that he would be taken into exile with a small retinue to the small South Atlantic island of St Helena.
To achieve this, he would be transferred at sea to a ship more suited to a long hard voyage, HMS Northumberland. On the night of the 5th/6th August this was accomplished and away went Napoleon to the island on which he was destined to die five years later.
And what of Bellepheron herself? Within months she was being dismantled again, and because she was spacious inside was chosen as a prison ship. This was of course the period of transportation and colony building, with hulks making useful prisons at sea ports. Initially for men and later for boys she ended up in Plymouth, renamed the CAPTIVE so that her proud name could be re-used by a Warship, and when no longer needed she was sold in 1836 for scrap. Her timbers made £4030.
Some souvenirs remain, now in private hands or the National Maritime Museum’s collection (her figurehead survives after being bought and donated privately by Maitland) – and perhaps also in the timbers of that cottage in Plymstock.