A fascinating exhibition at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery explores the mystique that grew up around the man – monster to some, folk-hero to others. Centred around a painting by Jules Giradet, which shows thousands of people in small boats in Plymouth Sound flocking to catch a glimpse of him, the exhibition runs until September 26.
Just how did the most famous man in the world at that time happen to be making this journey?
After the Battle of Waterloo Napoleon Bonaparte surrendered – not to the Duke of Wellington but to the captain of the ship that had dogged his steps for more than 20 years, HMS Bellerophon – ‘Billy Ruffian’ to her crew. The ship sailed for England and anchored at Torbay on 24 July 1815. Every effort was made to keep the famous man’s presence a secret, and no-one was allowed to come on board. However, a sailor dropped a black glass bottle into the water which was retrieved by some young boys in a small boat nearby. Inside the bottle was a rolled piece of paper with the electrifying message, ‘We have Bonaparte on board!’
Once the word spread, the vessel was quickly surrounded by sightseers in anything that could float. Bonaparte even appeared on deck to greet the crowds. The British government was worried that the emperor might escape before they could work out what to do with him, so Bellerophon was hastily ordered to weigh anchor and sail to Plymouth, with its more secure harbour.
Needless to say people thronged there; at the height of the madness it was said that around 10,000 people boarded 1,000 boats in an attempt to get a view of the most famous man in the world.
The crew of Bellerophon hung notices over the ship’s side as to their famous guest’s movements: ‘In cabin with Captain Maitland’, ‘Writing with his officers’…
Among the crowds were large numbers of pretty young women, naval officers, fashionably dressed ladies, red-coated army officers and smartly attired gentlemen. The men took off their hats respectfully when Napoleon showed himself, as he did every evening around 6 p.m. He commented on the beauty of the young ladies and appeared astonished by the size of the crowds.
On 7 August Napoleon was transferred to HMS Northumberland for exile in St Helena, where he died in 1821.
This account (and many other wonders from the Golden Age of Sail) is from Stockwin’s Maritime Miscellany. There’s a copy of the book up for grabs – just email me with the year Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Napoleon I. First out of the hat on July 31 will be the winner! Please include your full postal address.
Deadline: July 31
Coronation: Jacques-Louis David [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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