Monday, November 07, 2005

Napoleon on Board the ‘Northumberland'

Extracts from letters from an officer of the Marines
H.M.S. Northumberland Aug. 5, 1815
It is my guard, and I have to sit in the antechamber of Napoleon, to prevent communication between him and the ship’s company, and also to be a check on his own domestics; it is now one and I must keep awake to six … Napoleon gets very sulky if he is not treated with that deference and respect to which he is accustomed: his own followers treat him with the same respect as if he was still emperor.

Beattie, my captain, was at Acre: Napoleon learnt this in conversation; seemed quite pleased, caught hold of his ear and gave it a good pinch (which is his custom when pleased), and seems to have taken a great liking to him.

He is sometimes very communicative: to-day he mentioned the project he had formed for invading England in 1805, declared it had been his intention to lead the expedition himself; and said it might have succeeded.

The plan was this: he sent his fleet to the West Indies for the purpose of drawing our fleets there, which it did, Lord Nelson and Sir Robert Calder both following Villeneuve there; he -was to return immediately to the Channel, and Napoleon said he calculated that Villenueve would be in the Channel at least a fortnight before our fleets could get back.

His army was embarked (200,000 he says), but the plan was disconcerted by Villeneuve's going into Cadiz instead of coming to the Channel. His words were, ' He might as well have been in the East Indies as at Cadiz;' and he then declared that if Villenueve had obeyed his orders, he should certainly have invaded England, be the result what it might.*

Bertrand is the only one that seems to feel his situation ; he speaks of Napoleon often with tears, and is extremely agitated when conversing on the state of France. He says Napoleon did not calculate upon fighting the English and Prussians at Waterloo. The Prussians were beaten on the 16th, and it was not supposed they could have been up to take part in the battle of the 18th. He thinks the French would have been victorious if the Prussians had not come up ; but circumstances were not favourable. The French soldiers fought very well; the officers did not.

I asked him what became of the French army after the battle, why they did not retreat in some sort of order? He said, with a shrug, they were annihilated, there were none left; yet, notwithstanding these admissions, they break out gasconading about their victories. ....

Napoleon's spirits are better; he enters into conversation very freely on different parts of his life. The other day he was speaking of Waterloo: he said he had not the least idea of fighting on the 18th: he did not suppose Wellington would have given him battle; he so fully expected Wellington to retreat, that he had not even made preparations for battle, and was a little taken by surprise.

' But,' said he, ' I never was so pleased as when I saw he intended to fight. I had not a doubt of annihilating his army; it was the only thing I could have wished. I expected him to abandon Flanders, and fall back on the Russians ; but when I found he gave me battle singly, I was confident of his destruction. My soldiers behaved well; my generals did not.'

He says it was dusk when his army was thrown into confusion ; that if he could have shown himself, they would have rallied and been victorious ; but that the rout was so great, he was carried away in the throng. He went to Paris to try to save the honour of France, but found he could not.

He positively asserts that previously to the battle of Waterloo, and after his return to France, Austria proposed to him to abdicate in favour of Napoleon II., and promised to support him. His followers, too, have mentioned so many particulars respecting this, that I do not doubt the fact. This proposition had nothing to do with the forged letter of the Duke of Bassano, which they also speak of as a falsehood : none such was shown to him by Murat.

He has been talking this evening about his turning Mahometan: he said it was a long time before he could persuade them that he was a true Mussulman ; but at last I persuaded them that Mahomet was wrong in some things, and I was right; and they acknowledged me to be the greater man.' He says that in his retreat from Acre he lost nearly half his army.

Yesterday he remarked that Madame Bertrand was in much better spirits than when she attempted to drown herself, and added, ' A man of true courage will bear up against misfortunes, and finally surmount them, while common minds will sink under them.' He converses sometimes on the subject of his making away with himself, and calmly reprobates the idea of his being supposed capable of it.**

I believe the object of the guard is to prevent communication with the crew. Napoleon told the admiral that he did not doubt he could get many to join him if he tried; and, indeed, they are a set of as mutinous rascals as I ever heard of; though I don't think they would assist him to escape. What I am going to state
must, for the credit of the country, be a secret: they mutinied, and refused to get anchor up at Portsmouth; the Artillery company, the 53rd, and ourselves, were under arms for three hours—that is to say, till we had sailed.

About twenty of the principal seamen were seized and confined, but sent away from the ship; and the conduct and language of the sailors now is beyond everything; they think nothing of striking the midshipman.* . . .

St. Helena.—We arrived at this barren horrid island yesterday, after a passage of ten weeks. In my former travels in these latitudes everything seemed animated; the sea swarming with fish, water brilliant and phosphoric, sky without a cloud. Now everything has been the reverse: since we left Madeira, the sun has been constantly obscured with clouds; the weather, even on the equator, as cold as you can have had it in England; scarcely a fish to be seen; and, what is still more extra-ordinary, the trade-winds, which in the tropics are calculated upon as certain, have blown almost from the opposite quarter to what they were expected, and thereby opposed our progress.

We crossed the equator on the 23rd September, the same day as the sun; the greatest height of the thermometer was then only 75°, with a vertical sun; since it has been as low as 66°: today it is only 70°. Napoleon has been in pretty good health and spirits all the voyage, conversing on every subject without the least hesitation.

Editor’s note [Here follows the well-known justification of the poisoning of the sick at Jaffa ; execution of the Due d'Enghien, &c. &c.]

I have dined three times with Napoleon. I cannot say I think his manners have much of that elegance which might have been expected from a person of his ci-devant rank. He has a particularly disagreeable grunt when he does not understand what you say, and desires a repetition. He converses freely, but not at table, with the Frenchmen, and takes no more notice of the ladies than if they were a hundred miles off. I have not heard him speak once to Madame Bertrand at table, and seldom elsewhere.

Napoleon landed on the 17th of October: he appeared a good deal affected at leaving the ship, and spoke so.

Did I tell you that the band, who used to play every day, struck up of their own accord, a few days after we left England, Vive Henri Quatre, upon Buonaparte coming after dinner ? Thinking it might hurt his feelings, we stopped them immediately; but he had heard enough to know what it was, and requested they would play that or any other French tune, as he liked it much ; and afterwards they played the loyal and revolutionary airs indiscriminately.

Of the Due d'Enghien's business he said, not a fortnight ago (December 1815) — and you may rely upon he did say, though I did not hear it — it was in dictating to his secretary, Las Casas—two days after the Due was executed, he received proofs of his innocence, and that the Due even solicited employment in his service, stating his poverty; but that the application was not received till after his death.

This Buonaparte certainly said; for I do not think his secretary would say so if it was not true: and he said he had it from Napoleon's mouth, as part of papers which he was dictating the I day before I had it.****

Editors’ Notes
* His plan, as described by M. Thiers, was much more complicated, and required a concurrence of events on which it was preposterous to rely.
** He must have forgotten his own attempt to poison himself at Fontainehleau, clearly proved by M. Thiers.

*** This state of things appears to have been carefully concealed
from the public.
**** Mr. Warren stated, in his printed, letters that he had seen a copy of the alleged letter from the Due d'Enghien in the possession of Las Casas.


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