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The hunt for Napoleon

Napoleon at Plymouth

According to both History and Hollywood the story of Napoleon usually ends with a lonely figure in a large hat, one arm thrust into his grey coat, as he stands before the ridge at Waterloo on the evening of the 18th of June, 1815. All around him are the broken ruins of his once proud army, and night is falling. The great gambler has failed in his last throw of the dice. The next thing we generally hear of him is of his last years, spent as an exile on the island of St Helena, in the distant Southern Atlantic. But what happened between these two events?

As he boarded his coach that night and sped off towards the west, the former Emperor was a man in serious trouble. When the Napoleonic wars had ended in French defeat the previous year, the allies had treated him leniently. He had been given the Mediterranean island of Elba to rule and allowed to retain hundreds of followers. All of this was granted to him on his word of honour that he would allow peace to return to the war-ravaged continent. But that spring he had broken his pledge, returned to France, and seized power in a military coup. His enemies were sure to deal more harshly with him this time.

Four days later he arrived in Paris, with the successful armies of the coalition hard on his heels. In the French capital there were scenes of panic. Napoleon now found that most of his friends and supporters had deserted him. The legislature refused him its support and the people had turned against him. He abdicated in favour of his son, fled the city and vanished into the wide French countryside.

Where had he gone? In the capitals of Europe there was consternation. The army of the Duke of Wellington redoubled its effort to find him, sweeping northern France for the fugitive. Prussian troops were ordered to block roads and search vehicles. They were told to capture the Corsican, dead or alive, with a clear hint that the second outcome would not be unwelcome. On the west coast of France the Royal Navy was mobilised to block any potential threat that Napoleon might be intending to escape westwards across the Atlantic.

There was good reason to suppose that the USA would be his chosen destination. Napoleon was a popular figure there, particularly after having agreed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. This was the transfer of practically the entire Midwest from France to the US for the bargain price of fifteen million dollars. Furthermore America had been at war with Britain as recently as 1814, and Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph, was already living in exile there.

In the waters of the Bay of Biscay, British ships hunted for the deposed French leader. Sloops probed deep up the estuaries of the Charente and the Loire. A string of frigates and brigs were placed outside every port, no matter how small. The Channel Fleet maintained a close blockade on the naval base at Brest, while the third rates Superb and Bellerophon watched Quiberon Bay and the port of Rochefort respectively.

Rumour and gossip swirled around the figure of Napoleon. He was spotted in Brest, being smuggled onto a fishing boat disguised as a rather short but portly deckhand. Next a letter was found that spoke of a plot to smuggle him out of Bordeaux, packed in an empty cask of wine. Meanwhile he was actually being secretly rowed across to the tiny island of Aix, where a French Navy corvette waited to whisk him away.

But if the Royal Navy had learnt nothing else in the previous twenty years of war, it was how to blockade the French coast. Rumour of the plan was picked up by Captain Frederick Maitland, one of Nelson’s trusted Band of Brothers, on the Bellerophon. He quickly surrounded the little island with his ships. Napoleon tried to negotiate with the navy to be allowed to leave for America, but Maitland stood his ground. He would only accept the former Emperor’s surrender. With no illusions as to what would happen to him if he fell into Prussian hands, and with their troops closing in on him from the east, he finally gave in. Once more his plans had been defeated by the Royal Navy, that wooden wall that he had encountered again and again, whenever he reached the shores of his empire. Napoleon came on board Maitland’s ship on the 15th of July, 1815, and was taken back to Britain. He would never stand on French soil again.

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