Magazine article The Spectator

Mighty, If Fallen

Magazine article The Spectator

Mighty, If Fallen

Article excerpt

NAPOLEON BONAPARTE: ENGLAND'S PRISONER, THE EMPEROR IN EXILE by Frank Giles Constable, L18.99, pp. 206, ISBN 1841193909

William Warden, a navy surgeon, served on the Northumberland when it conveyed Napoleon to his prison in St Helena. Although there were those who doubted the accuracy of the letters that he published in 1816, great interest was attached to some of his accounts. Thus he reports a conversation with Napoleon at Longwood, in which the ex-emperor explains how amused he is by what the English newspapers are writing about him. 'Liar', 'tyrant', 'monster' he seemed to take for granted, but he was surprised and annoyed when one paper called him 'a coward'. And he is supposedly a coward not because he `fled from the enemy' but because he had not had the courage to commit suicide. `The editor misunderstands me,' he complained. 'I have, at least, too much courage for that.'

Apart from raising the question of whether or not Napoleon did attempt to commit suicide at the time of his first resignation in 1814, this story presents us with the problem that is at the centre of Frank Giles's excellent book. And this is: what did the English think of Napoleon when he was their prisoner? The difficulty begins when Napoleon, wearing his famous olivecoloured greatcoat over his uniform, boarded the Bellerophon on 15 July 1815. He was received with the utmost courtesy by the captain and crew, and later by the flagship admiral. It was Napoleon who led the way into the dining cabin and seated himself in the principal place. He was, as Giles puts it, the prisoner, or the honoured guest, according to one's interpretation.

When the Bellerophon dropped anchor at Torbay, the public was able to react to the presence of Napoleon. Immediately the ship was surrounded by small boats, crammed with people determined to catch a glimpse of him. When the ship moved to Plymouth, the same thing happened, and the captain of the Bellerophon claimed that, at one time, `upward of a thousand' boats were present, each one carrying no fewer than eight people. Napoleon responded, he took off his hat and bowed, and at times the people rose in their boats and applauded him. Eventually, the Commander-inChief of the Channel Fleet, Admiral Lord Keith, expressed his alarm that `idle folk' were coming, even from Glasgow, in order to see the ex-emperor. …

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