This popular painting dramatises an extraordinary moment in Plymouth’s history between July and August 1815, when one of the world’s infamous leaders was held captive in Plymouth Sound.
Self-styled Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had surrendered in June to Captain Maitland of HMS Bellerophon, following the Battle of Waterloo. When Maitland weighed anchor in Torbay – and word got out that ‘Boney’ was on board – crowds gathered. It was decided to move him to Plymouth for greater security while his fate was decided.
French artist Jules Girardet’s imaginative reconstruction was painted in 1890, seventy-five years after these events. It reflects contemporary accounts in several respects, notably the sheer number of people afloat in the bay.
As news spread, sightseers came not just from Plymouth but up country. The sea was calm, and apart from two rainy days, as many as 10,000 people took to the water every afternoon in 1,000 boats.
Napoleon appeared on deck daily, doffing his bicorn hat, bowing, and generally playing to the gallery. The crowds responded in kind, shouting and cheering, raising hats and waving handkerchiefs.
People really did dress in their finest clothes, as Girardet portrays, and Napoleon remarked it was impossible to distinguish which of the women were ladies. He did not just win the hearts of the crowd. Crew who sailed with him declared him to be ‘a devilish good fellow‘. Maitland even gave him his cabin.
Such was the groundswell of sympathy for the fallen Emperor that the officials who had gathered nearby to decide his fate were thrown into confusion. Napoleon had hoped for asylum within the UK. These scenes may have helped scupper those hopes.
An exclusion zone was enforced around the Bellerophon and warning shots fired above the crowd. A dockyard worker was drowned and his family cast into the water when their boat was capsized by a swift-moving naval cutter. Two women drowned when the Bellerophon returned to Torbay in early August, before Napoleon was transferred to HMS Northumberland, bound for exile on Saint Helena without trial.
The Bellerophon was already near the end of her working life in 1815 and had almost been destroyed three times in battle against Napoleon. She went on to be converted into a prison ship and was renamed ‘Captivity’. She was finally broken up at Stonehouse Creek. Ship’s surgeon George Bellamy purchased some of the timbers to build his house, Burrow Lodge, which still stands in Plymstock.
Based on an original article by Fiona Saint