“Wherever you find a fathom of water, there you will find the British” Napoleon Bonaparte.
A bright day in the late spring of 1815 found the people of Rochefort going about their business as usual. Workers bustled on the quay’s in front of the Corderie Royale, the longest building in Europe and one of the most elegant looking cordage making factories in the world. Across a belt of green grass it overlooked the military harbour, painted by Vernet, it’s rope walk produced the sinews that kept France’s ships at sea. Rochefort had been a place of “refuge, defense and supply” for the ships of the French Navy since the 17th century, its major arsenal and military harbour had been fortified by Vauban in the 1660’s, which made it a symbol of old French pride. The graceful geometry of the old Marshal’s defences, and understated symmetry of the Corderie, did not quite sit at ease with the tricolour flying from every steeple and every ship in the harbour. The sudden rumble of gunfire shattered the facade of tranquil calm. People stopped what they were doing and looked to seaward where the foreign ship could be seen shrouded in smoke, 3 miles out, in the Pertuis d’Antioch. Only the mysterious party in the hotel Grande Palais and the men on the ship knew why.
For Captain Frederick Maitland the latest resumption of the great war with France had begun on the 27th of June, when the captain of HMS Cephalus brought him the declaration of war. Up until then, due to the delay’s inherent in the sea service, the Admiralty had issued strict orders to all commanders that only armed vessels of the Government France could be detained or forced into port until confirmation of a declaration of war was received. Maitland had sailed from Cawsand Bay on the 24th of May, having taken command of HMS Bellerphon on the 9th of April, to join Admiral Henry Hotham’s squadron in the Bay of Biscay. He had joined Hotham whose pennant was hoisted on the Superb, off Île d’Yeu with HMS’ Astrea, and Telegraph and a small fleet of transports. Hotham was at that moment embroiled in a secret mission attempting to aid a Bourbon rising in the old trouble spot of Vendée. At the plea of Louis XVIII in Ghent, and despite warnings from the Admiralty and the Horse Guards, the Prince Regent had instructed that arms and equipment be readied to transport a Royalist officer, the Comte de Rochejacquelein to assist the rebels. This had been done but the transports had been sent back, and Hotham had to intercept them mid channel and return to station, were he found a disorganised ragtag army of 5,000 men, half unarmed, ignorant of the use of artillery, who would be defeated in early June and Rochejacquelein killed.
Hotham had ordered Maitland to proceed with the Eriadnus to Rochefort on the 30th to intercept a Corvette bound for the West Indies with proposals from Bonaparte to declare for him. This vessel evaded Maitland on the 9th, artfully taking advantage of a northerly wind, and from then to the 27th of June, he busied himself with detaining store ships and transports, bagging 220 men of the 9th Légère en route to Martinique, which must have salved some of the disappointment. Maitland had been intercepting small coasting vessels and Chasse-Marée’s ever since then. On the 28th (Bellerophon’s 2nd day of the war) Cephalus brought in a chasse-marée which would be useful in exercising the great guns, (these small coastal boats were not worth sending in to prize courts as they would take months to be valued for a pittance and much of the cash would end up with the Admiralty anyway) but she also brought some news. Bonaparte had been defeated by the Duke of Wellington outside of Brussels on the 18th of June. Orders came from Lord Keith on the 30th that a victory salute was to be fired by all ships on his station, and so the Navy celebrated the victory with a deafening “Feu du joi”. On the day of the salvo a small boat was seen coming out from Bordeaux, it approached and laid alongside. Maitland probably waited in his cabin for the 1st officer Lt Mott to see to it, paperwork being a continual battle for officers on blockade within a day’s reach of their commanding officer, Maitland made sure to keep in constant contact with Superb, now cruising off Quiberon Bay, after the failed Royalist rising. The boat brought a message. Secreted in the stem of a quill pen was a letter, it bore no date, no subscription and no signature, remarkably it was written in English and on very thin paper that had been rolled very tightly to fit in the pen. It must have fairly burnt up Maitland’s hands as he read the carefully written, closely grouped words telling him that Bonaparte had arrived in Bordeaux from Paris and was intending to escape. The mysterious informant advised the British admiral to take all precautions, told of troop movements to help keep the population in control and that special note of American privateers, especially the Susquehanna of Philadelphia carrying General Bertrand, should be taken.
Frederick Maitland was from an Aristocratic Scots family and related to Lord Lauderdale. The son of a successful Naval captain. Born at Rankeilour in Fife on 7 September 1777 he was 39 in 1815, and had joined Royal Navy at an early age. A portrait shows him with boyish good looks, sensitively large eyes, a distinctive pointed nose, a strong jaw and thick wavy hair. Like his ship, he had seen long and varied service during the last twenty years, being present at fleet actions, convoy escort and blockading duty from the Mediterranean, to North America and Western France. In 1809 he had played a supporting role at the battle of Basque Roads, giving him a prior knowledge of the coast and it’s fickle tides, often harsh seas and contrary winds. He was in many respects the worst nightmare for a fugitive trying to escape from western France. Bellerophon, but going by the simile of “Billy Ruffian” to her crew, was also an experienced veteran by 1815. She had been built in 1786, the 74 gun third rate Ship of the Line had been through three fleet actions, hitting the high points of the Glorious First of June, the Nile and Trafalgar. She had seen fourteen captains walk her quarterdeck’s hallowed starboard side, and seen one fall dead on it at Trafalgar. Now it was the endgame. With her high masts, rigid cordage and distinctive Nelson checker she was an impressive sight and a grim reminder of who ruled the waves.
Maitland acted quickly, dispersing his little flotilla along the immediate coast. The Myrmidon (Captain Gambier) to Bordeaux, the Cephalus (Captain Furneaux) to Arcasson, leaving Bellerophon alone before Rochefort, were Maitland’s instinct told him Bonaparte would try escape from. With no more ships to send the important message to Hotham, he entrusted it to a junior Lieutenant and sent him off in the ship’s barge to contact a cruiser at take the message on. The barge encountered Cyrus halfway there which took them and the message to the Admiral. Left alone off Rochefort, Maitland observed the chasse-marée, captured and cast adrift by Cephalus, drifting out to sea, and he determined to pursue her and sink her. As they gained on the drifting craft Maitland was scanning the horizon with his telescope and spied what at first looked like a child’s boat with paper sails. After destroying their target Maitland stood towards the strange object and found it to be a small rather unseaworthy punt, with an eighteen year old and a twelve year old in it. They had gone out for amusement when they had lost an oar and drifted out to sea, becoming stranded they had been up the creek with only one paddle so to speak, without nourishment for 36 hours, the elder was nevertheless heroically attempting to fight a strengthening offshore breeze with a crude replacement oar and both boys’ hands were badly blistered. Had Maitland not providentially happened upon them, they would surely have died, he took them aboard and later they were successfully reunited with their family. On the 1st of July Bellerophon was back on her station, and Maitland learned from a Rochefort shipmaster that the two Frigates anchored, under the gun batteries in Aix roads had taken on powder and were in all respects ready for sea. If Bellerophon had not been cleared for action since the 27th she certainly was now, at once making a clean sweep fore and aft, the cabins being dismantled by the knocking down of the bulkheads. The tiny Île d’Aix floats seemingly suspended by the pull of the Île d’Oléron and the French mainland, this small button sitting in the middle of Basque Roads was now put under a close blockade by Maitland. If the warships (Saale, Méduse, and two support ships, the brig l’Epervier and the Mouche a corvette) were preparing for sea, they had to be considered a means of escape for Napoleon, Maitland stood in as close as the enemy batteries would permit, and deployed guard boats to patrol during the night. He also began training his crew in preparation for a boarding action, selecting one hundred stout men under Lieutenant Mott to board one French frigate immediately after she had been silenced, so he could pursue the other. With the arrival of another tranquil evening HMS Pheobe, carrying Bellerophon’s barge appeared under Captain Hillyar, on the way to blockade Bordeaux. This allowed Maitland to recall Myrmidon, but the squadron, especially that part blockading Basque Roads, was in desperate need of some fast frigates. On the 7th Maitland received a letter from Hotham informing him that Bonaparte was likely to make for America, (All Hotham’s dispatches and vice versa took a day to reach their destination, this was written on the 6th) and about his concern that one of the French frigates would inevitably escape if a breakout was attempted, he therefore empowered him to detain any frigate that passed him for ten days, and if none appeared to use the 20 gun Slaney, that was bringing the orders, which could at least pursue the enemy if not stop him. A day later Maitland lost the Slaney, which was sent down the Mamusson passage with orders for the Daphne, and more orders came from Hotham at Quiberon Bay. Maitland was to keep any ship that passed by from ten days to a fortnight, especially frigates of which Hotham had none to give but would send them along if any appeared, in the meantime he hoped to give him two 20 gunners. Bonaparte had applied to the British government for a passport of safe conduct, and it had been refused as of the 1st of July. This action seems to be either naive or a daring bluff, but not only was it worth a try, in fact it may not have even got as far as Paris had it not been for the sly mind of one of his enemies. When Wellington arrived in Paris, he had insisted that Fouché, the feared and brilliant old Minister of Police, be reinstated in that post to keep order in the capitol. Whether he knew or not that the wily Fouché was the best instrument for the quick and efficient removal of the Provisional Government that had formed in Napoleon’s absence, cannot be said. Nevertheless it was so, and when the petition for passports of safe conduct arrived, Fouché authorised that they be passed on to the British so it would be confirmed that Napoleon was already trying to flee overseas. Hotham felt he would make for Rochefort and was still concerned about one of the frigates escaping. Admiralty orders had come to the effect that all ships undertaking the search for Bonaparte were to act on that mission only and to proceed under the assumption he was not taken until it was categorically confirmed.
At Basque Roads, the day of the 9th was pure routine, standing in close by night and guard boats beetling silently back and forth across the dark waters around Aix roads until dawn. Maitland was awoken at daylight the next day with a message from the officer of the watch requiring his presence on deck. Coming topside he was alerted to a Corvette standing out from the French squadron, Maitland ordered to make ready to sail, thinking it might be a reconnaissance, prior to an attempted breakout, but then a flag of truce was made out and the corvette reached them by 7. She was the Mouche, a tender to the warships in Aix roads, and she had aboard two very singular French gentlemen to see the captain. General Savary Duc de Rovigo and Comte Las Cases were helped, as elegantly as possible up the side and shown into Maitland’s cabin. By a quirk Maitland actually knew Savary from numerous encounters at Sir Sydney Smith’s table at the Turkish camp at El Arish during the treaty talks in 1800 when Savary was General Dessaix’s Aide de Camp,
negotiating the French evacuation of Egypt. They handed over a letter from Comte Bertrand, Grand Maréchal de Palais. As he sat down to read it he was told that HMS Falmouth had arrived bearing orders from Admiral Hotham and Captain Knight came aboard directly. Maitland was keen to have all meetings with Bonaparte’s men witnessed. Knight gave Maitland the dispatches which essentially confirmed much of what was already known, and would clarify much of what Napoleon’s emissaries would then try and convince him of. The Frenchmen stayed between two and three hours, and much of Maitland’s time was taken by the reading and writing, while the French restlessly paced the cabin interrupting him as he wrote replies to Hotham and Bertrand. He distractedly conversed with them, trying to gauge Napoleon’s intentions. Despite being able to speak English well, the French used the old foreign affair’s trick of pretending they could only speak their own language, hoping to catch an unguarded word. How effective this was is debatable, as Maitland had met some of Napoleon’s party before and spent up to 3 weeks in their company, while he may not have known they spoke English, he let nothing slip. Bertrand’s letter was ultimately a request for information regarding Maitland’s orders in the case of his master’s proposed exit to America, and whether he knew anything about the passport. Las Casas and Savary were there to ask whether Maitland would stop the Emperor from leaving in a neutral ship, to convince him that Napoleon was not escaping but choosing to end the bloodshed by leaving, and that he still had great support in France. Maitland knew the passport was rejected, and he gathered from the passion of the other arguments that Napoleon indeed had very little popular support. Despite this he could not be sure, and he did not have enough ships to be certain of catching him if he tried to escape. Maitland wrote a non committal letter back to Bertrand, hoping to keep Napoleon in port until the Admiral replied, and appraised Hotham of developments, which were conveyed to him by the Falmouth that day.
At noon on the 11th of July Bellerophon was at riding at anchor in Basque Roads, when her lookouts spotted a small boat coming out from the Île d’Oléron. Dependant almost entirely on local information to warn him of Napoleon’s moves, no piece of gossip or tattle could be entirely ignored, and she was allowed to come alongside. What Maitland learned from the two respectable countrymen proved to be a little spicier that mere gossip. A message had arrived at their town that morning for a pilot who had once guided a frigate out of the treacherous Mamusson passage, offering a reward to pilot a vessel out to sea through it. To Maitland it was obvious that Bonaparte was still considering all possibilities and he needed to take swift action to counter him, and demonstrate that there was no escape. Despite the flood tide coming in Bellerophon got under weigh and beat out of the Pertuis d’Antioch before night fell, and stationed herself between the lighthouses of Île de Re and Oléron, with Slaney which had rejoined Maitland that day. Mermidon was dispatched to cover Mamusson passage and to close in on the entrance whenever the weather permitted. Having settled the arrangements the blockading force settled in for another watchful night. HMS Cyrus was spotted approaching on the morning of the 12th and Maitland wasted no time in seconding her to his command. He telegraphed that he wished her to take a position close to the Belaine Lighthouse and to search closely any vessel that tried to pass through the Pertuis d’Breton. Nothing more happened until noon when lookouts spotted white flags flying from the towers of La Rochelle. This was the first sign of anti Bonapartist sympathies since the defeat of the rebels in early June and Maitland was keen to show them he was aware of it. With all haste he made sail and ran into Basque Roads, hoisting the white Bourbon flag on the Main topgallant and firing a crashing royal salute which must have caused no little consternation ashore, nevertheless by nightfall the white flags had gone, and the tricolour flew once more unchallenged along the coast. Then rot had set in though as on morning of the 13th Royalist standards blossomed, fluttering in the breeze, in every town and Bonaparte’s nowhere in sight in either La Rochelle or Île de Oléron. This worrying display of Royalist tendencies must have promoted some action on the part of the fugitive. From a distance of 3 miles the frigates in Aix roads were plainly visible through a telescope readying for sea. Their stern’s were covered in vegetables and their topgallant yards were crossed and studding sail gear rove. Lowering his telescope Maitland could see things were coming to a head and that night he had the guard boats out as close in as they dared, with orders to signal back as soon as they detected the frigates attempting to put to sea. He had slip buoys on the anchor cables and the topsail and topgallant yards swayed to the mastheads, the sail’s stopped with rope yarns, in preparation for a quick departure. The night wore on uneventfully and by daybreak nothing had happened, the frigates were still at anchor. The officer of the watch called Maitland to the deck as the light strengthened, he appeared to see the Mouche was standing out from Île de Aix under a flag of truce. Accordingly Maitland hoisted a white flag to the fore topgallant masthead by return and she came alongside. Comte Las Casas returned aboard attended this time by General Comte Lallemand who was another Egyptian acquaintance of Maitland’s. Lallemand had been Aide de Camp to General Junot when they were prisoners aboard his former command, HMS Camelion. As they were coming up, Maitland sent for the Captain of the Slaney. Despite wishing to await corroborating support Maitland found Las Casas eager to begin at once. As soon as he came on the quarterdeck he pressed to know whether there had been a reply from the Admiral yet. Maitland said that there had not yet been any, but was expecting it hourly and in the meantime suggested that they should have breakfast with him. Halfway through the meal Captain Sartorious arrived, and probably joined them, then they got down to business. Las Casas gave a strong performance but Maitland was firm. He could not sanction Bonaparte travelling to America in a French, American or British ship without orders from the Government, no matter how much blood Napoleon wanted to avoid shedding. He would allow him aboard if he wished to go to England, however he could make no promises about what would happen when they got there. Without any clear idea of what the ministers wished to do with Napoleon once they got him, Maitland spent a long time concentrating on persuading them that getting the Emperor on the Bellerophon unconditionally was the only answer, trying to make everything seem as attractive as possible, siting Lucien Bonaparte’s treatment by the British Government. In the end at 9:30 the meeting broke up, Maitland had stayed firm, and seemed to appear to hold all the cards (of which he did hold allot but in truth not all), Comte Las Casas rose and resignedly told him that “Under all circumstances I have little doubt that you will see the Emperor aboard the Bellerophon.” Maitland asked where Napoleon was, Las Casas said in the Hotel Grand Palais, Rochefort, where he was often cheered by the staff, neither of which Maitland believed, he thought that Napoleon was aboard the frigates. Maitland was right to be suspicious, but was wrong in thinking Napoleon had been aboard ship since arriving on the 3rd of July, he had only transferred himself to the Île de Aix and the Frigate Saale on the 8th, either way Napoleon had already decided on surrender before his emissaries even set foot on the Bellerophon.
Lallemand now asked whether there was any chance of the Emperor’s companions being handed over to the new French Government, here Maitland firmly assured him that no such action would be taken and saw them out. In the course of the day Maitland was joined by the Myrmidon under Captain Gambier, running a relayed message from the Gironde warning that Bonaparte was intending to escape from Rochefort in a Danish sloop disguised in a wine barrel. Captain Sartorius and Gambier dined with Maitland before going onto the Myrmidon to take up position north east of Bellerophon to prevent vessels sailing close inshore and tighten the blockade, with the net finally closing Maitland was taking no chances. Not long after they left a barge was spotted sailing out from the Frigates on the Île de Aix, still flying a white flag, Maitland accepted it and called back Sartorious and Gambier as witnesses. At 7 the barge came alongside and Las Casas and General Baron Gourgaud, one of Napoleon’s Aides de Camp came abroad. Maitland at once attempted to confirm Napoleon’s presence with the frigates, and told them he knew it was impossible for them to have come from Rochefort in the time between their last meeting and now. Las Casas confirmed the Emperor was on Aix and told Maitland he had a letter from General Bertrand, he took them into the cabin where they delivered the letter. There in black and white, Napoleon would come aboard the Bellerophon with the ebb tide between 4 & 5 O’clock the next day.
Arrangements now had to be finalised. Once Maitland had accepted this, he was given a list of the other passengers in Napoleon’s considerable suite which also comprised women and children. He was also given a letter from Napoleon to be delivered to the Prince Regent. At Las Casas’ request Maitland provided pen and paper so Napoleon could be informed of his acceptance, but not before he again cautioned him that he could promise nothing when they got to England. The letter to the Prince Regent would be sent with Gourgaud on the Slaney immediately. Captain Sartorius took the letter and a despatch from Maitland to the Secretary of the Admiralty and sailed with Gourgaud at once. The Saale’s barge set off back to Aix with the letter for Napoleon. Las Casas remained on board to see to the arrangements of the cabins. Bellerophon had been cleared for action for some time now, and her cabins needed reconstructed, it was therefore past 1 AM before the carpenter had put all the bulkheads back up and Maitland could go to bed. Sleep would prove elusive however. He was awoken twice before 3 AM first by the appearance of a small boat urgently informing him that Bonaparte had been smuggled out of La Rochelle in a chasse-marée disguised as a sailor. With his recent despatch in mind Maitland confronted Las Casas, who upon hearing that the event was supposed to have taken place at 10 AM, assured Maitland on his honour that he had left Napoleon at 5:30 with every intention of coming aboard Bellerophon. Maitland took his word, even when another boat arrived with exactly the same information a few hours later. Keeping his nerve Maitland questioned the man about La Rochelle, asking what the mood of the town was and would it be safe to send a boat to buy supplies. He was told that though the townspeople were well inclined to Louis, the 4,000 strong garrison was for Bonaparte and so he’d best await until he had the Emperor aboard before sending any men ashore.
Dawn on the 15th of July 1815 revealed the familiar landmarks of Basque Roads being lit by the early sun, promising a fine day, and one that everyone aboard the little flotilla had gotten used to, over the last 2 months blockade. It was a place used to the sight of the Navy’s success, now it would witness another. The entire coast, if not the sea itself was a testament to the triumph of Britain’s sailors. Nevertheless despite the momentous occasion at hand nothing, not even Napoleon interrupted the stately routine of a King’s ship, which went on oblivious to the unfolding drama. Indeed an air of understatement hangs over the whole affair, as if it had already been laid down as a part of the ship’s daily routine. Stow hammocks and capture Napoleon. From the quarterdeck of the Bellerophon, the white flag of truce flying at her fore topgallant, Maitland watched the French brig l’Epervier make sail and stand out from Île de Aix. How he must have felt to see 22 years of strife and pain symbolically riding towards him in the shape of a little brig bearing a flag of truce. How apt it must have felt that it was HMS Bellerophon at the final act, and indeed that the Navy be allowed to finish the job started on the Glorious First of June. Whatever feelings of pride and excitement he might have felt, for in the coming months so many in Britain would strain to catch just a glimpse of the great disturber, let alone stare him in the face, talk and dine with him, he kept it to himself but his anxiousness to finish the business must have been obvious as soon as HMS Superb was sighted approaching from Quiberon Bay. Sir Henry Hotham was anxious too. Being the superior officer on the station, if he could reach Bellerophon before Napoleon surrendered, he would supersede Maitland and be able to take Bonaparte himself. As the hours passed it became clear that the ebb tide had failed and the brig was struggling to make way. At 5:30 with Superb coming closer and closer Maitland was determined to be the one to “Bag Boney”. Maitland ordered Lieutenant Mott to take the barge and go and fetch him. Andrew Mott was a long serving sea officer too, his date of birth is not known, but he was probably around Maitland’s age or a little younger. He was a strict but well respected officer, just the type Maitland liked to have as his executive, a man who was tireless in his duty which he performed admirably and was a harsh counterbalance to his own general affability. Mott immediately had the barge launched and was soon on his way to intercept the brig, he would recount that most of the crew of l’Epervier had tears in their eyes as Napoleon boarded the barge, and cheered him at the top of their heartbroken lungs until out of earshot as they watched him board the British ship.
Maitland now watched the barge come alongside, he had given some deep thought as to how Bonaparte should be received, the Government had given no instructions as to whether to treat the fallen Emperor as a prisoner, or to acknowledge his rank, a thing no British Government had yet to do with any grace. In the end the decision was made for Maitland by the long established traditions of the service. As it was customary on British ships of war to give no honours before the colours were hoisted at 8, the crew would not assemble, Bonaparte would not be piped aboard, and the Marines, formed at the break of the poop would not present arms. The time was just after 6 when General Bertrand scrambled up the side, mounted the deck, exchanged bows with Maitland and announced with all the dignity that he could muster “The emperor is in the boat” Maitland, not least the entire crew, were eager to catch sight of the emperor but it would seem that Maitland at least was expecting something different to what appeared. Napoleon came up the side in his legendary undress uniform of the Chasseurs á Cheval de la Garde Impérial, with the Grand and small crosses of the Legon d’Honneur, the Iron Crown and the Union pinned to his lapel, a plain gold hilted sword at his side, the legendary cocked hat sat square on what Maitland considered an oversized head, the tricolour cockade impudently pinned in its arch, military boots gleamed on his feet and the whole framed by the famous olive grey greatcoat. Yet to Maitland it was a very neat but uninspiring looking man who appeared up the side of his ship. Having ascended this very ordinary looking Napoleon stepped up to the quarterdeck faced Maitland, pulled off his hat and in a firm tone, and no little subtle showmanship told him. “I am come to throw myself on the protection of your Prince and laws” As Maitland showed the Emperor into the cabin and the door shut behind them, the Great Wars with France finally ended.
See you again for another Adenture in Historyland. Thanks for reading.
For further reading online, find out Napoleon’s side of the story with Shannon Senlin’s excellent “Why didn’t Napoleon Escape to the United States”
The Surrender of Napoleon, Sir Frederick Lewis Maitland. Napoleon’s Britons and the St Helena Decision, Paul F Brunyee Billy Ruffian, David Cordingly British Agents in France 1792-1815, Elizabeth Sparrow.