The Bellerophon: Napoleon's Last Stage
Last Saturday I attended the regional chapter meeting of the Romantic Novelists’ Association in which I was fortunate enough to hear an informative talk by my fellow UK Historical blogger, Nicola Cornick. The topic was the legend of the hero, and one of the aspects she discussed was the way real-life heroes contribute to creating their own legend.
The talk reminded me of a scene in my novel, The Darcy Cousins,
in which Georgiana and her cousin Clarissa take a trip to Plymouth Sound to catch a glimpse of Napoleon on board The Bellerophon, where he was held after surrendering to Captain Maitland.
When they arrive in Plymouth, it’s almost impossible for them to procure a boat, since the sea around The Bellerophon is packed with other spectators eager to catch a glimpse of the defeated emperor. Georgiana and her party consider it a stroke of good fortune when they are finally able to make use of a fisherman’s boat, even though it reeks of fish.
Captain Maitland describes the crowd on one particular day, the 30th of July 1815, as “a crush” – with over one thousand boats surrounding the ship, and each boat containing at least eight people. At least eight thousand people surrounding the boat! But those weren’t the only spectators. The shore was crammed with people using opera glasses or telescopes to try and spot “Boney.”
Napoleon played to the crowd by establishing a time for his appearance: 6:30 in the evening. The crew played along by holding up boards containing periodic “updates” that described Napoleon’s actions. The whole affair was in fact a huge media event – whether it was a letter by Napoleon protesting his treatment that was “leaked” to the press, or Sir Charles Lock Eastlake’s painting of Napoleon on board the ship, which was immediately exhibited to enormous success. In an age when there was no photography and no television, the painting served to provide the public with that “eyewitness” account for those who were not there to see Napoleon themselves.
It was Napoleon’s last chance to play in front of an audience. A few days later, he was transferred to The Northumberland, and taken to St Helena where his only audience were a few hundred people and a desolate rock.