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Napoleonica. La Revue

2011/2 (N° 11)



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1

Sir Walter Scott’s 9-volume Life of Napoleon published in 1827 was one of the first and most widely read biographies of the French emperor in the English language. [1]  Walter Scott, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Emperor... [1] It was a commercial success and also quite controversial. Although Scott is considered the “father” of the historical novel, his Life of Napoleon was a thoroughly researched effort, based on extensive correspondence with contemporary military and political figures, trips to London, where the government granted him free access to archives dealing with Napoleon’s imprisonment at St. Helena, and Paris, where he spoke with friends and enemies of the former Emperor. Among Scott’s influential network of correspondents within the British government were the Duke of Wellington and Lord Bathurst, who as Secretary of War and the Colonies had been responsible for Napoleon’s safe custody. [2]  http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/works/prose/napoleon.html#reception,... [2] And unlike William Hazlitt’s, a contemporary who wrote a competing more sympathetic biography, his portrayal of Napoleon was quite negative and prejudiced, a clear refutation of the thesis that all biographers fall in love with their subjects. [3]  William Hazlitt, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, London:... [3]

2

There was another important difference in the way Hazlitt and Scott wrote about Napoleon’s captivity at St. Helena. The former emphasized the harsh, odious, vexing and unjust restrictions placed upon the imperial prisoner. Naturally he made no mention of any plan or attempt to escape or rescue that could justify those restrictions. Scott instead emphasized that “schemes for Napoleon’s escape were not wanting.” In his view, these schemes justified the restrictions imposed on the imperial prisoner. Today we know that at least in this respect, i.e., the possibility of Napoleon’s rescue or escape from St. Helena, Scott was right. Elsewhere I have explained in some length why. [4]  Emilio Ocampo, The Emperor’s Last Campaign: A Napoleonic... [4]

3

In the ninth volume of his Life Scott described in some detail one of such schemes. It was “a plot to deliver Napoleon from St. Helena, of a very singular kind,” wrote Scott. The man behind it was a certain captain Thomas Johnstone, “a smuggler of an uncommonly resolute character, and whose life had been a tissue of desperate risks.” According to Scott, Johnstone “had made a memorable escape from Newgate, and had afterwards piloted Lord Nelson’s vessel to the attack of Copenhagen, when the ordinary masters of the fleet, and pilots, declined the task.” What is even more incredible is that Johnstone was also said “to have meditated a bold attempt to carry off Buonaparte on a former occasion, when he trusted himself on the water for the purpose of visiting Flushing. [5]  A harbor in the southwestern Netherlands on the former... [5] ” With respect to this last episode though, Scott clarified that he did not know whether there was “any good authority for the story.” [6]  Scott, Life of Napoleon, vol. 9, pp. 285-286. [6]

4

From the little we know of him Johnstone [7]  In some accounts his name is also spelled as Johnson... [7] seems to have been a mix between a rogue and an adventurer that dabbled as an inventor. An account of some of his exploits was published in 1823, an extract of which is worth transcribing:

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Captain Thomas Johnstone, better known as Johnstone the Smuggler, of all the men of the present day, bears, perhaps, in his life and adventures, the closest assimilation with that of Rob Roy. The desperate conflicts, hair-breadth escapes, ready wit, intrepidity, personal prowess, place his endowments nearly on a par with the northern hero. No prison has yet been found strong enough to hold him. His escape from the Fleet prison was scarcely second in perils and difficulties to that of Jack Shepherd [8]  Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) was a notorious English robber,... [8] from Newgate. And still more arduous was his flight from the cells of a dungeon in Flushing, wherein, on the recurrence of war between England and France, in 1803, he was confined under a military guard. After his escape from the new gaol, in the borough, loaded with heavy irons, a thousand pound reward was offered for his apprehension. The political services he rendered the British government, and particularly the Duke of York, as Commander in Chief, obtained him a general pardon. [9]  John Brown, The historical gallery of criminal portraitures,... [9]

6

It is important to note that this account of Johnstone’s exploits made no mention of any plan to rescue Napoleon. It was Scott who provided additional details about it, which he may have obtained from Bathurst or other sources within the British government as up until then no mention of it was ever made in the London newspapers or any other published account. According to Scott, Johnstone “certainly engaged” in a plan to rescue Napoleon with:

7

A submarine vessel, that is, a ship capable of being sunk under water for a certain time, and of being raised again at pleasure by disengaging certain weights, was to be the means of effecting this enterprise. It was thought that, by sinking the vessel during daytime, she might escape the notice of the British cruisers, and, being raised at night, might approach the guarded rock without discovery. [10]  Scott, Life of Napoleon, op. cit., vol. 9, pp. 285... [10]

8

Coming from a master of fiction one might easily be tempted to dismiss this account as a fanciful flight of the imagination. On the other hand, we should remember that Scott had corresponded at length with Lord Bathurst, who was the cabinet minister responsible for the Napoleon’s safe custody. He also clarified that he had doubts about Johnstone’s earlier alleged attempt to kidnap Napoleon but made no caveat regarding the submarine plot. Besides, he was not the only well-informed contemporary who mentioned the submarine project. Chateaubriand, who served as French foreign minister during the Bourbon restoration, picked up in his memoirs (probably from Scott’s) the story that a smuggler named Johnson had “meditated an attempt to carry off Bonaparte by means of a submarine vessel.” [11]  François René Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’outre-tombe,... [11] Count Montholon, who accompanied Napoleon to St. Helena, mentioned the submarine rescue plot in his controversial memoirs and added that five or six thousand louis d’or [12]  This was roughly equivalent to 12 000 francs, or approximately... [12] were spent on its construction. [13]  Charles Tristan de Montholon, Récits de la captivité... [13] Nevertheless, most accounts of the St. Helena saga don’t even mention the submarine rescue plot. [14]  Among the notable exceptions is Lord Rosebery, who... [14] And most contemporary historians, if they ever came across it, also dismiss it as a far-fetched idea. [15]  The submarine plot was recounted in an article by US... [15] Unfortunately, when it comes to Johnstone’s submarine plot it is hard to disentangle truth from fiction, as the reliability of some of the few available sources is questionable and official documents are hard to find. But as we shall see, several independent sources suggest that a plot to rescue Napoleon with a submarine may indeed have actually existed and that it may possibly have had the backing and/or knowledge of Napoleon’s family.

9

It is important to note that the submarine Scott was referring to was not the Nautilus envisioned by Jules Verne in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which was powered with electricity (or anything remotely like it). It can be better described as a submersible vessel, i.e., one that could navigate below the surface for very short periods of time. However, we will use the term submarine throughout this article. Before going further, it is important to note that even though by 1820 the idea of such a vessel was probably too far fetched for the general public, it was not for the Admiralty or the British ministers, who were well aware that it could be built and used to rescue Napoleon.

10

We cannot talk about submarines in 1820 without talking about American inventor Robert Fulton (1765-1815), who pioneered their development. The first submarines were built in the early seventeenth century but didn’t become part of naval warfare until much later. [16]  For the development of submarines before Fulton see... [16] It was a Connecticut native named David Bushnell who first used them as an offensive weapon them at the time of the American War of Independence. [17]  Farnham Bishop, The Story of the Submarine, New York:... [17] Bushnell actually attacked two British vessels with his submarine (which he called the Turtle). Although the results were mixed the American nevertheless managed to instil fear in the captains of the Royal Navy sailing along New England’s coast. [18]  H. W. Dickinson, Robert Fulton, Engineer and Artist,... [18]

11

By the end of the eighteenth century, while living in Paris, Fulton refined Bushnell’s original (and very crude) submarine design and submitted a proposal to the French government to build “a machine which flatters me with much hope of being able to annihilate their [England’s] Navy.” [19]  Fulton to the Directory, Paris, November 13, 1797,... [19] In Fulton’s design the submarine would tow an underwater bomb (which he called a torpedo) to be planted under enemy vessels. The initial response was positive and after some negotiations, the American inventor proposed to build his submarine, which he baptized the Nautilus. Though its design fell far short of that of a modern submarine, “it was so far ahead of anything previously accomplished or suggested that it entitles Fulton to be credited with being the first to propose a type of vessel capable of plunging and being navigated beneath the surface of the water.” [20]  Parsons, Robert Fulton, op. cit., p. 27. [20] However, before construction began, the Minister of Marine cancelled the project. A year later, after a change of minister, Fulton insisted and obtained a more encouraging response. A specially appointed commission examined Fulton’s designs and recommended proceeding with the construction of the submarine. However, for some reason the government made no decision. [21]  “Rapport des commissaires nommés par le ministre de... [21]

12

After the coup of 18 Brumaire, which elevated Napoleon to power, Fulton decided to insist one more time. In 1800, he sent a letter to the Minister of Marine with a proposal to build the Nautilus. The American inventor was convinced that his submarine would bring to an end the supremacy of the Royal Navy. Napoleon learned about the project and appointed a commission to study its feasibility. [22]  Dickinson, Robert Fulton op. cit., p. 79. See also... [22] Fulton built and launched the Nautilus and conducted several successful trials first in Paris and then at Le Havre. “Navigation under water is an operation whose possibility is proved,” he confidently wrote to the members of the commission in November 1800. [23]  Fulton to Monge, Laplace and Volney, November 7, 1800,... [23] Thanks to their favourable recommendation Fulton actually met Napoleon a few days later. In February 1801, the Minister of Marine wrote to Fulton saying that Napoleon had approved his proposals and that he would be paid 10,000 francs to improve and test the Nautilus at Brest. [24]  Forfait to Fulton, February 27, 1801, in Dickinson,... [24] Fulton moved there for a few months and conducted several successful experiments. “I conceived every experiment of importance to be proved in the most satisfactory manner,” he wrote to the commissioners in September 1801. [25]  Fulton to Monge and Laplace, September 9, 1801, in... [25] He also wrote again to Napoleon but received no response. [26]  Fulton to First Consul, September 9, 1801, in Paris,... [26]

13

News of Fulton’s successful experiments quickly reached England where they caused some alarm. [27]  The Naval Chronicle for 1801 (London, January-August... [27] The Treaty of Amiens signed in 1802 put an end to the war between the two nations. For this or some other unknown reason Napoleon withdrew his support for the submarine project. So when hostilities between France and England resumed in 1803 Fulton’s submarine and torpedo took no part in them. [28]  Furber, “Fulton and Napoleon in 1800”, art. cit., pp.... [28] But the British authorities had taken note of Fulton’s experiments and sought ways to bring him over to their side. Disappointed at the lack of enthusiasm for his projects in France and encouraged by a greater financial reward on the other side of the Channel, by the spring of 1804 Fulton moved to London where he submitted both innovations (submarine and torpedo) to the Admiralty. At that time the British government feared Napoleon’s invasion and it was thought Fulton’s innovations could help derail it. After some negotiations, on July 20, 1804 Fulton signed a contract with William Pitt, who was the Prime Minister, and Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, for the use of his plan “of attacking fleets by submarine bombs.” Under certain conditions, the contract contemplated paying Fulton nearly £100,000 for developing his torpedo system (the British ministers showed no interest in the Nautilus). [29]  “Articles of Agreement between the Right Honourable... [29] Even though the submarine was not to be built, Fulton considered it an essential part of his “system” of submarine warfare. [30]  Fulton to Lord Grenville, May 5, 1806, in Parson, Robert... [30]

14

According to some sources Johnstone, who was said to have returned to England after being granted a pardon, worked alongside Fulton. Interestingly, neither Fulton nor any of his biographers ever mentioned the smuggler. According to an historian who studied Johnstone’s career in some detail, both men had met in Paris in 1802, after the former escaped from Fleet prison. [31]  Tom Pocock, The Terror before Trafalgar: Nelson, Napoleon... [31] But according to a contemporary account, they met for the first time in England:

15

About 1804, [Robert] Fulton, the celebrated American engineer, was in treaty with Mr. Pitt, Earl St. Vincent, &c. for his submarine torpedoes, for which he was to have had £50,000 if he could have brought them to perfection. Johnstone being then resident at Dover, became acquainted with him, and worked himself so far into Fulton’s secrets, that when the latter quitted England in disgust, Johnstone conceived himself able to take up his projects. [32]  Brown, The historical gallery op. cit., vol. 2, pp.... [32]

16

The initial trials for the torpedo were not successful. There was lack of enthusiasm from the Admiralty but Pitt, the Prime Minister, and Lord Castlereagh, who was Secretary of War, continued to give their support to Fulton. [33]  Parks, “Robert Fulton and Submarine Warfare”, art cit.,... [33] Finally, on October 1805 the American inventor succeeded in blowing up a brig with his torpedo. [34]  For more details of this trial see Robert Fulton, Torpedo... [34] However, this success, which showed the power of submarine explosions, alarmed the British naval establishment. In an interview with Fulton the Earl St. Vincent, First Lord of the Admiralty, said that in his view “Pitt was the greatest fool that ever existed, to encourage a mode of war which they who commanded the seas did not want, and which, if successful, would deprive them of it.” [35]  Fulton, Torpedo War, op. cit., p. 9. [35] It is unclear whether the Admiralty was sceptical of Fulton’s innovations or whether it feared that they (the submarine, the torpedo and the steamboat) were a threat to British naval supremacy and therefore had scant interest in making them a reality. Besides, Nelson had just destroyed French and Spanish naval power at the battle of Trafalgar rendering torpedoes unnecessary. And to make matters worse for Fulton, Pitt, who had been one of his most important supporters, died in early 1806. During the rest of that year, the American inventor became embroiled in a bitter negotiation with the British government to get paid what he believed were his fees. To support his case he wrote a forty-page manuscript in which he showed how his submarine and torpedo system could revolutionize naval warfare. Without much luck, at the end of 1806 Fulton returned to New York. [36]  Robert Fulton, “On submarine navigation and attack”,... [36] Apparently by this time Johnstone had become well acquainted with the American’s submarine designs. [37]  Pocock, The Terror, op. cit., p. 226. [37] It is unclear whether this was because he had worked with Fulton, because he stole them or because somebody else gave them to him.

17

Although while in the United States, Fulton continued to experiment with torpedoes and submarines he concentrated his energies in developing a steamboat. [38]  Barnes, Submarine Warfare, op. cit., pp. 33-37. [38] In 1807, he built the first commercial steamboat, the North River Steamboat (later known as the Clermont), which ferried passengers between New York City and Albany and became a huge commercial success. The era of steamers had started. But soon after, Fulton’s attention turned back to his submarine project. In 1810 he published a book titled “Torpedo war and submarine explosions” in which he explained how underwater bombs could radically transform naval warfare. [39]  See Fulton, Torpedo War, op. cit. [39] This warning was taken seriously by Lord Stanhope, one of his mentors in England, who submitted a motion in the House of Lords “which he thought related to a subject of more importance than any set of motions that had been before them for a considerable time past, as it related to that on which the very existence of the nation depended, the British navy.” The motion was rejected. [40]  William Cobbett, Great Parliamentary Debates, London,... [40] Interestingly, at this time the US naval establishment also rejected Fulton’s innovation. [41]  Farnham Bishop, The Story of the Submarine, New York:... [41]

18

In 1812 when England and America entered into war, Fulton offered his services to the American government. [42]  Benson John Lossing, The pictorial field-book of the... [42] He not only designed and built the first warship propelled by steam but also refined his submarine design. The new version, called the Mute, would be much bigger than the original Nautilus. Details are sketchy and the evidence is contradictory. According to some sources it was to be propelled by steam, according to others with a crankshaft manned by a hundred men crew. “His [Fulton’s] design was, that she should approach an enemy, which he supposed she might do in fogs or in the night, without being heard or discovered, and do execution by means of his torpedoes or submarine guns.” [43]  David Colden Cadwallader, The life of Robert Fulton,... [43] Apparently Fulton started building this new submarine but before the hull was finished, he died. [44]  J. Franklin Reingart, The Life of Robert Fulton, Philadelphia,... [44]

19

Although in 1804, the British government had only been interested in the torpedo it appears it that at the outset of the War of 1812 it not only commissioned Johnstone to build a torpedo system but also a submarine:

20

Johnstone was able to make out a strong prima facie case indicative of ultimate success, for, in 1812 or 1813, having exhibited a model of the internal clock-work, or machinery, he entered into a contract or agreement with the cabinet ministers, who are represented as having agreed to give him one hundred thousand pounds, if he could construct a submarine boat, capable of being steered, elevated, and depressed at pleasure, under water, and at the same time affix the torpedo under the bottoms of ships. A celebrated civil engineer, then resident in High Holborn, undertook to make the boat, whose hull was formed of sheet iron; her figure, that of a salmon swimming; her length, about twenty feet; and her space in the inner chamber, about six feet square. This was formed in an inside boat, formed of cork and wood. In 1814, this wonderful piece of mechanism was nearly completed at a village on the Thames’ side, not far from Watlington or Wallingford; and the projector showed me three letters of safeguard, addressed to the magistracy and military commanders of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, signed by the Duke of York, as commander-in-chief, the Earl of Liverpool, and Lord Sidmouth, stating, that Captain Johnstone was employed on an experiment that had the sanction of government, and desiring he might not be interrupted. At that period… eleven thousand screws were already used in the vessel, and more than as many pounds been expended. [45]  Brown, The historical gallery op. cit., vol. 2, pp.... [45]

21

The Naval Chronicle of 1814 included a brief description of such a submarine, which the British government planned to use “to counteract the torpedo system of America.” It was 27 feet long and five feet wide made of wrought and cast iron and shaped like “a porpoise.” It could sail above the surface as an ordinary boat, but if necessary, her skipper could “immediately strike her yards and masts, plunge her to any depth he pleases under water and remain there 12 hours without any inconvenience or external communication” and it could navigate under water “at the rate of four knots an hour.” [46]  The Naval Chronicle for 1814 Containing a General and... [46] This description would fit Fulton’s original Nautilus design. Was this the submarine Johnstone had been reportedly building near Wallingford? It is unclear.

22

However, when the war came to an end at the end of 1814 it appears that any submarine plans, if ever seriously considered, were shelved on both sides of the Atlantic. Unlike the steamboat, which offered clear commercial advantages, a submarine only made sense to a government at time of war. Another forty years would pass before it would again be considered and used as an offensive weapon. [47]  Bishop, The Story of the Submarine, op. cit., pp. ... [47]

23

The first instance I found of British concern regarding the possible use of a submarine to rescue Napoleon was in late 1817. In fact it was right after the first serious rescue attempt was derailed in Brazil. This attempt did not actually involve Johnstone or a submarine vessel but instead a steamboat, another naval innovation pioneered by Fulton. Supposedly one of the leaders of the rescue expedition was general Michel Brayer, a bonapartist émigré who had recently arrived in Buenos Aires. [48]  For more details about this and other rescue attempts... [48] Therefore, after informing the Foreign Office, the British Consul in Rio de Janeiro warned a captain of the Royal Navy stationed in Buenos Aires and asked him to keep a close watch on the increasing number of Napoleonic veterans arriving into that city and to report on the appearance of “any steamship.” Weeks later the British captain replied that he had not seen any of such vessels but that recently “a young man formerly a midshipman of the Orpheus arrived here bringing with him the plan of a submarine boat invented in England and for which a patent has been obtained. This boat is of iron capable of containing six persons who are able to remain under water several hours and at the same time to pull the boat with considerable velocity; this machine was offered to this government [Buenos Aires] but I fancy they refused to have anything to do with it as the sum demanded was very large.” [49]  Sharpe to Chamberlain, Buenos Aires, December 4, 1817,... [49]

24

It doesn’t seem that the objective of the midshipman of the Orpheus was to use a submarine to rescue Napoleon but the British consul in Rio de Janeiro made sure this report and all the other information regarding the rescue expedition derailed in Brazil reached Sir Hudson Lowe at St. Helena. The news quickly reached Napoleon via William Balcombe, a friendly Englishman who was the purveyor of Longwood House, Napoleon’s prison-residence. Balcombe reported that the Portuguese authorities had arrested a group of French officers who had planned to rescue Napoleon “with a submarine.” [50]  Montholon mentioned a “Sommariva system.” I have not... [50] It appears that Balcombe mixed up the reference to the submarine design offered to the government of Buenos Aires with the Brazil plot. Napoleon complained that it was all a “fable” made up by the British ministry to justify Lowe’s harsh restrictions. [51]  Aleksandr Antonovich de Balmain, Count, Napoleon in... [51] Be it as it may, the account in Scott referred to a plot to rescue Napoleon with a submarine that was to be executed in late 1820 or early 1821.

25

For somebody intending to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena a submarine would seem ideally suited for the purpose. An English visitor to island noted in 1816 that “ships cannot approach it without being discovered at a great distance by the telegraph station… The few landing places are exceedingly dangerous to attempt.” The island’s natural obstacles, its remoteness, and Lowe’s “vigilant arrangements by sea and on land” made it almost impossible for Napoleon “to attempt an escape without being detected.” There was not “a seemingly accessible point but that a battery was established there.” There was permanent garrison at St. Helena made up of 500 officers and 2,300 soldiers plus five hundred cannon and sentries at the most likely landing points. In addition, three frigates and two men of war, each carrying 20 guns, and six brigs “constantly patrolled the island’s coast and surroundings.” [52]  John Barnes, A tour through the Island of St. Helena,... [52]

26

A would-be rescuer who managed to land undetected at St. Helena would still have faced daunting obstacles. Longwood House, Napoleon’s prison residence, was located on the Longwood Plateau, in the eastern side of the island, and was heavily guarded by British soldiers. Nobody could enter or leave Longwood’s enclosure after sunset. Lord Bathurst warned Lowe that “if evasion be the object of General Buonaparte, … no part of the twenty four hours is better calculated for its successful execution than that between dark and morning and it is therefore least of all possible during that period to abandon the precautions which have at other times been considered important.” [53]  Bathurst to Lowe, July 19, 1816, London, National Archives,... [53] During Napoleon’s captivity, a cannon was fired to announce dawn and sunset and also to announce the arrival of any ship at Jamestown. [54]  Ken Denholm, From signal gun to satellite: a history... [54] Despite these precautions, there are several instances of visitors entering Longwood House without Lowe’s permission. Besides, Napoleon’s residence was not far from Prosperous Bay, one of the few points of the island that was easily accessible from the sea. It was the kind of challenge that someone like Johnstone, an experienced smuggler who had allegedly escaped from prison more than once, could attempt.

27

When I first wrote about this incredible project I assumed that the plan was to approach St. Helena’s windward side on a bigger vessel (maybe a steamboat) at a distance that would not attract the British cruisers and then use the submarine to sail towards the island without being detected. I recently came across another interesting piece of evidence about it that came from Johnstone himself. It is a document he gave to a clergyman turned writer and journalist named Frederic Naylor Bayley, who included it in his own memoirs published in 1835. Bayley clarified that all his information came from Johnstone’s “own lips and writing” and claimed it was an “accurate and true narrative of events.” He also made clear “that in no other publication is there to be found either an elaborate or correct notice of any one of the adventures of this extraordinary man.” [55]  Frederic William Naylor Bayley, Scenes and stories:... [55]

28

This account came to light eight years after Sir Walter Scott first mentioned the submarine plot in his Life of Napoleon. And it appears that Johnstone had been particularly displeased at the way Scott had described his exploits [56]  He specifically denied having ever attempted to kidnap... [56] and wanted to set the record straight as can be seen by a letter he addressed to Bayley:

29

I have to thank you for laying before me the materials which your industry has gathered respecting my changeful career. They are, however, spurious, as well as all former anecdotes of me have been; not excepting those of Sir Walter Scott. I have now corrected them, and added many other materials connected with my escapes and expeditions; as well as a description of the power of the submarine ships, by means of which the Emperor Napoleon was to have been rescued from St. Helena. It gratifies me to add, that your work will now contain the only correct account of me that can be published until I can fulfil my design of placing my own life before the world; of which, the pages you have given can of course be considered only as an episode. [57]  Johnstone to Bayley, September 20, 1834, in Bayley,... [57]

30

Bayley inserted Johnstone’s account verbatim in his book. In his view, the plan to rescue Napoleon with a submarine was “so ingeniously devised, so carefully settled, and so completely prepared, that had the attempt been made, we are persuaded it would have been crowned with success, and Johnson [sic] himself was convinced of this.” [58]  Thomas Johnstone, undated, “A correct description of... [58] According to Bayley, the daring Irish smuggler and inventor (or plagiarizer) planned to write a lengthier and more elaborate version of his story in his memoirs. [59]  Bayley, Scenes and stories, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 2... [59] But for some reason he never wrote them or had them published. So we are left with a fragment, which despite having been written by a self-promoter nevertheless sheds additional light on the submarine plot while at the same time raising a few questions:

31

I constructed two submarine ships, which I intended should be engaged in the meritorious and humane service of rescuing the immortal emperor Napoleon – the greatest man of his age – from the fangs of his jailor, Sir Hudson Lowe. The Eagle was of the burthen of a hundred and fourteen tons, eighty-four feet in length, and eighteen feet beam; propelled by two steam engines of forty horse power. The Etna – the smaller ship – was forty feet long, and ten feet beam; burthen, twenty-three tons. These two vessels would be propelled – the large one with two engines of twenty horse power each [60]  This paragraph appears to contradict the previous one... [60] ; the small one with one engine of ten horse power, high pressure, well arranged, equipped with warlike stores, and thirty well chosen seamen, with four engineers. They were also to take twenty torpedoes, a number equal to the destruction of twenty ships, ready for action in case of my meeting with any opposition from the ships of war on the station. These two ships were to be stationed at a convenient distance from the rock (at St. Helena), abreast of Longwood House, the highest point of the island, being two thousand feet above the level of the sea, and because deemed inaccessible, of course unsuspected. All the accessible points were well fortified and guarded. In this position the two vessels were to lay at anchor at a cable’s length from each other, the smaller one close to the rock, well fortified with cork fenders, in order to guard against any injury which might be apprehended from the friction or beating against the rock, which could at all times be prevented by hauling off or on, as occasion required. This smaller ship would be provided with a mechanical chair, capable of containing one person on the seat, and a standing foot-board at the back, so that the person at the back could regulate the ascent or descent at pleasure. Attached to this chair would be a patent whale-line, two thousand and fifty feet long, with all the necessary apparatus ready when called for. Thus far arranged, the vessels were to remain submerged during the day, and at night approach the surface. Every thing being then perfectly in order, I should then go on shore, provided with some other small articles, such as a ball of strong twine, an iron bolt, with a block, which I would sink into the ground at the top of the rock, opposite Longwood House, and abreast of the submarine ships. I should then obtain my introduction to his Imperial Majesty, and communicate my plan. The residence of the emperor being surrounded by a chevaux-de-frise, and the stables being outside, the servants only had access to the house. I proposed that the coachman should go into the house at a certain hour which should be fixed, and that His Majesty should be provided with a similar livery, as well as myself, the one in the character of coachman, the other as groom; and that thus disguised we should pass into the coach house, and there remain unnoticed and unperceived. We should then watch our opportunity to avoid the eye of the frigate guard, who seldom looked out in the direction of the highest point in the Island, and on our arriving at the spot where our blocks, &c. were deposited, I should make fast one end of my ball of twine to the ring, and heave the ball down to my confidential men, then on the look out below, who would make the other end fast to the fall belonging to the mechanical chair, by which means I should be able to haul up the end of the fall, which I should run through the block, and then haul up the mechanical chair to the top. I should then place His Majesty in the chair, while I took my station at the back, and lowered away with a corresponding weight on the other side, until we arrived safe at the bottom. Embarked on board the Etna, into which we should have lowered, as it lay close under the rock, I should then cast off our moorings, and haul alongside the Eagle, and remain there during the day; in the evening, prepare our steam, and get under weigh as soon as it became dark. In this position I should propel by steam until I had given the island a good berth, and then ship our masts and make sail, steering for the United States. I calculated that no hostile ship or ships could impede our progress, so as to offer any very serious obstruction, as in the event of an attack I should haul our sails, and strike yards and masts (which would only occupy about forty minutes), and then submerge. Under water we should wait the approach of the enemy, and then, by the aid of the little Etna, attaching the torpedo to her bottom, effect her destruction in fifteen minutes.

32

This account, if true, adds some interesting details to the information provided by Scott. First, Johnstone suggests that there were two submarines, the Etna and the Eagle, instead of one. Second, the submarines were powered by steam instead of oars and a rig. Again, if true, this represented a major technological innovation over Fulton’s original Nautilus design. The other interesting detail is that Johnstone confirmed that all negotiations “were carried on through O’Meara.” [61]  Bayley, Scenes and stories op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 2... [61] He was referring to Barry O’Meara, Napoleon’s former doctor at St. Helena, who Sir Hudson Lowe had expelled from the island in early 1818. O’Meara was very familiar with Lowe’s security arrangements so his participation in this project would have been very valuable to Johnstone. Upon his return to London, the Irish doctor lobbied intensely and publicly in favour of his former patient but his participation in any rescue plan has rarely if ever been mentioned.

33

According to Johnstone’s sole biographer, sometime in late 1819 Johnstone received enough money to start building a submarine in a shipyard at Blackwall Reach on the Thames. The shipyard workers were told that the vessel would be used for smuggling. The cost of building the submarine was estimated at £15,000, a considerable sum at the time. [62]  James Cleugh, Captain Thomas Johnstone 1772-1839. Smuggler’s... [62]

34

Another piece of this puzzle is Colonel Francis Maceroni, another picturesque character who was involved in plots to rescue Napoleon. Besides being a spy and an intriguer, Maceroni also dabbled as an inventor and even wrote a book on steam powered carriages, predecessors to the automobile. [63]  Francis Macirone [sic], A Few Facts concerning Elementary... [63] In his memoirs, published in 1838, three years after Bayley’s account, he briefly described one of such plots, which also involved “his worthy, honourable, warm-hearted, lately departed friend,” Barry O’Meara. Unless the Irish doctor was involved in two separate plots at the same time Maceroni must have been referring to the submarine plot although he made no mention of Johnstone or a submarine. “I was made privy to, and was to have taken part in, the operation,” Maceroni claimed. He also said that to rescue Napoleon “means of no insignificant character were insured” and that “the mighty powers of steam were mustered to our assistance.” When I read this sentence many years ago, I suspected that Maceroni was referring the Rising Star, a steamboat commissioned by Lord Cochrane, which by late 1820 was still docked on the Thames. For a long time the British government had suspected Cochrane of intending to use the Rising Star to rescue Napoleon. [64]  The British government suspected that Lord Cochrane... [64] But Johnstone’s description of a steam-powered submarine puts these comments in a different light. Maybe Maceroni wasn’t referring to Cochrane’s steamboat but Johnstone’s submarine. “Means of no insignificant character were insured” to rescue Napoleon, Maceroni asserted, including placing “friendly” British officers at St. Helena. [65]  Francis Maceroni, Memoirs of the Life and Adventures... [65] This last detail, if true, would have made it easier for a would be rescuer to enter Longwood House. Unfortunately the third and last volume of Maceroni’s memoirs – in which he promised to provide more details of a “well-digested plan for rescuing the Emperor Napoleon from St. Helena” in which O’Meara played an important role– never saw the light as his publisher went bankrupt. [66]  Maceroni’s publisher enlisted a then unknown writer... [66]

35

The problem is that unfortunately Maceroni is not the most trustworthy witness. In 1817, many years before the submarine plot was contemplated, Napoleon allegedly described him as “a mongrel Englishman, who born in England has an Italian name is employed by Murat at Naples, afterwards by Fouché and by Metternich, knows everybody… You may depend upon it that he is an intrigante.” [67]  O’Meara to Lowe, June 30, 1817 in London, Public Records... [67] This is what O’Meara told Sir Hudson Lowe. However, it wouldn’t be the first time Napoleon tried to feed misleading information to his guardian.

36

Was the submarine plot just the half-baked plan of a crackpot? Possibly. On one hand, even though it took another forty years before Jules Verne wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and submarines entered the public imagination, their construction and operation was technologically feasible by the early nineteenth century and most certainly by 1820. Also, the funds to build a submarine could have been easily available to Johnstone. As we have seen, the main advantage of using a submarine to rescue Napoleon was the ability to approach the island below the surface and avoid detection by the numerous sentries placed along St. Helena’s coast. Whether Napoleon would have agreed to escape with Johnstone is another story.

37

On the other hand, the available testimonies, including Johnstone’s, raise a lot of questions. Was it possible to build a steam-powered submarine as Johnstone claimed or was he exaggerating? The first operational steam powered submarine that we have notice of was built more than fifty years later. [68]  See Bishop, The story of the submarine, op. cit., p.... [68] Also could one really travel all the way to St. Helena in a submarine or was it necessary to carry the submarine in another vessel? How about sailing to the United States? Did Johnstone have enough space in the Eagle to carry water and provisions for Napoleon and a 35-men crew for several months? The logistics involved seem quite daunting. Lets keep in mind that by the time Bayley published his account, the Irish smuggler had become a sort of submarine impresario so he might have been exaggerating to attract potential clients.

Despite the scepticism raised by these unanswered questions, we cannot underestimate the seriousness with which British and French authorities took the plans to rescue Napoleon (no matter how farfetched they may seem to us today). In early 1820 an informer tipped Lord Castlereagh that a plan to rescue Napoleon was afoot. The Foreign Secretary was sceptical but immediately alerted his French counterpart, the Duke of Richelieu, who by this time was as fearful as ever of the possibility of Napoleon’s escape. Castlereagh didn’t mention a submarine in his letter but said he thought the plans were “the production of some very wild individual, if, in truth, they shall prove to have any existence whatsoever. I nevertheless think it right that they should be submitted to Your Excellency’s inspection, however absurd in conception and design.” [69]  Castlereagh to Richelieu, April 10, 1820, in Robert... [69] This warning revived Richelieu’s worst nightmares. He immediately wrote back to Castlereagh asking if there was some way of obtaining “from the man who wrote to you more information about the means which he believes to be able to use to bring the evasion of the prisoner of St. Helena without implicating your government.” Richelieu was troubled that the alleged conspirators believed they would “be able to effect the escape of Buonaparte with only £20,000.” Castlereagh replied that he had “not been able to obtain any satisfactory information regarding the individual in Poland Street to who I am referred… You will no doubt be enabled to ascertain whether the writer of the letters resides at Dunkirk and who he is. This may possibly suggest some expedient by which the means of the parties to undertake such a project may be estimated or put to the test, or by which their scheme, most probably framed for swindling purposes, may be detected.” Castlereagh nevertheless promised to do anything necessary to dissipate “all anxiety which might result from the supposed ability of these parties to effectuate such an object.” [70]  Castlereagh to Richelieu, April 28, 1820, op. cit.,... [70] Was Castlereagh referring to Johnstone’s project? They way he described it (“absurd in conception and design”), the dates and the money involved, suggest he was. Unfortunately I couldn’t find in the Castlereagh Archives any other correspondence between the Foreign Secretary and the Duke of Richelieu in the spring of 1820.

O’Meara is clearly one of the missing pieces of this puzzle. Unfortunately, he left no record whatsoever concerning his involvement in any rescue plans (at least none has been found). However, two weeks after Castlereagh made his discovery, the Irish doctor paid a visit to the English radical politician John Cam Hobhouse and made an unusual request. O’Meara had recently visited Napoleon’s mother who “was willing to petition the English parliament” on behalf of her son and had asked O’Meara “to draw up the petition.” O’Meara asked Hobhouse if he could write it. He explained that the objective was to show Napoleon that he had “nothing to expect from the English nation & must do what he can for himself.” [71]  Hobhouse diary, May 6, 1820, London, British Library,... [71] Maybe another refusal by the English Parliament to liberate him or alleviate his imprisonment would convince Napoleon to agree to escape from St. Helena? We can only speculate. What is certain is that Napoleon had already refused to entertain many plans of escape less risky than the one proposed by Johnstone.

To understand why all these plans of escape were taken seriously at the time we need to understand the historical context. By the fall of 1820, the political situation in Europe had become so unstable that those who after Waterloo had favoured Napoleon’s execution instead of his exile felt vindicated. The events in England, France, Spain, Portugal and more particularly in Italy “rendered the safe custody of Napoleon a matter of even more political importance than it had been at any time since his fall” as his escape could have the “most formidable” consequences. [72]  Scott, Life of Napoleon, op. cit., vol. 9, p. 287. [72] In fact, at the end of September 1820, Lord Bathurst sent Sir Hudson Lowe his most serious warning since Napoleon was imprisoned at St. Helena:

The reports which you have recently made of the conduct of General Buonaparte and of his followers make me suspect that he is beginning to entertain serious thoughts of escaping from St. Helena and the accounts which he will have since received of what is passing in Europe will not fail to encourage this project. The overthrow of the Neapolitan Government, the revolutionary spirit which more or less prevails over all Italy, and the doubtful state of France itself, must excite his attention and clearly show that a crisis is fast approaching, if not already arrived, when his escape would be productive of important consequences. That his partisans are active cannot be doubted; and if he were ever willing to hazard the attempt, he will never allow such an opportunity to escape. You will therefore exert all your attention in watching his proceedings, and call upon the Admiral to use his utmost vigilance, as upon the navy so much must ultimately depend. In what shape and in what manner this attempt will be made, I cannot judge, but I am satisfied this storm will not pass over unnoticed at Longwood. General Buonaparte has money at [his] command, he has partisans in abundance, he has means of communication which your regulations may occasionally intercept but cannot entirely prevent; the times are most favorable for the attempt; and, without thinking that he habitually courts a hazardous enterprise, I cannot persuade myself that he will shrink from one which, if successful, must now promise such important results.

In this same letter, Bathurst ordered Lowe to review “all the different ways by which Buonaparte may attempt his escape, and the best means therefore of preventing it.” [73]  Bathurst to Lowe, September 30, 1820, in Forsyth, History... [73] Bathurst didn’t have to worry much as Napoleon died only a few months later.

So what happened to the submarine rescue plot? According to Maceroni “the object [rescuing Napoleon] would have been achieved, but money fell short.” He claimed that O’Meara had asked Eugene de Beauharnais, Madame Mere and Cardinal Fesch for money to finance the rescue project but returned to England “without having found any support from those who owed every penny they possessed to the illustrious prisoner.” [74]  Maceroni, Memoirs, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 428-429. [74] Other evidence somewhat contradicts Maceroni’s version. As already mentioned, Count Montholon claimed that between five and six thousand louis d’or were spent on the construction of the submarine. [75]  Montholon, Récits, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 434. [75] And in April 1820 the Austrian government informed Lord Castlereagh that members of the Bonaparte family had transferred substantial funds to London. [76]  Hans Schlitter, Kaiser Franz I und die Napoleoniden,... [76] This was almost at the same time the Foreign Secretary warned Richelieu about a rescue plot.

And did Johnson ever build a submarine? We have three conflicting accounts, none of which allows us to reach a definitive answer. The first was unearthed by British naval historian Tom Pocock and suggests that at the end of 1820, Johnstone’s submarine was actually launched and was intercepted while sailing down the Thames. The painter Walter Greaves (1846-1930) remembered a story told by his father, who was the owner of a boatyard at Chelsea:

My father said there was a mysterious boat that was intended to go under water… for the purpose of getting Napoleon off the island of St. Helena. So, on one dark night in November [1820], she proceeded down the river (not being able to sink as the water was not deep enough). Anyhow, she managed to get below London Bridge. The officers boarding her, Capt. Johnson [sic] in the meantime threatened to shoot them. But they paid no attention to his threats, seized her and, taking her to Blackwall, destroyed her. [77]  Greaves’ testimony, personal archive of Tom Pocock,... [77]

The second version is provided by Scott, who had access to government sources, claimed that Johnstone’s submarine vessel “was actually begun in one of the building-yards upon the Thames; but the peculiarity of her construction having occasioned suspicion, she was seized by the British government.” [78]  Scott, Life of Napoleon op. cit., vol. 9, p. 286. [78] Finally, in Johnstone’s version, “the [submarine] vessels were laid down to be coppered when news arrived of the exile’s death.” [79]  Bayley, Scenes and stories, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 2... [79] One day maybe a diligent (or lucky) historian will find a document that will shed more light on what really happened.

What is certain is that by the end of 1820, rumours of Napoleon’s escape were rife. In late November, The Times reported that the rumours were so strong in Paris that they had produced “a fall of half per cent in French stock.” [80]  The Times, November 20, 1820. [80] And as the revolutionary fever spread throughout the rest of Europe, concerns about Napoleon’s perfidious influence increased among the supporters of hereditary monarchies. The schemes to rescue Napoleon that some historians dismiss today as totally farfetched were taken seriously at the time by all the governments of Europe. In fact, they strongly influenced their policies at the time. In his Life of Napoleon, Scott explained why:

These [rescue efforts, including Johnstone’s], and others which we could name, were very perilous and wild attempts, yet calculated to keep vigilance alive; for in every case in which great natural difficulties have been surmounted by such enterprises, it has been because these difficulties have been too much relied upon. But while such precarious means of escape were presented from time to time, the chance upon which Napoleon secretly relied for release from his present situation, was vanishing from his eyes. The complexion of the times, indeed, had become such as to strengthen every reason which existed for detaining him in captivity. The state of England, owing to the discontent and sufferings of the manufacturing districts, –and more especially that of Italy, convulsed by the short-lived revolutions of Naples and Savoy, rendered the safe custody of Napoleon a matter of more deep import than it had been at any time since his fall. What the effect of his name have produced in that moment of general commotion cannot be estimated, but the consequences of his escape must have been most formidable. The British ministry, aware of the power of such a spirit to work among the troubled elements, anxiously enjoined additional vigilance to the Governor of St. Helena. [81]  Scott, Life of Napoleon op. cit., vol. 9, pp. 287-... [81]

Lord Bathurst years later openly admitted to Scott that as long as Napoleon lived “the large body of the discontented in France (and indeed elsewhere) had a rallying point to look to and there could be no doubt that his escape would at any time have been followed by a fearful result.” [82]  Bathurst to Sir Walter Scott, July 2, 1827, Sir Walter... [82]

So what can we conclude about this amazing story? First, despite the various not totally trustworthy, and at times conflicting versions, it appears that some of Napoleon’s supporters seriously entertained the idea of rescuing him with a submarine and actually spent considerable money building one. Second, Johnstone was involved in this project. Third, we don’t know how close the plan came to being executed and whether the submarine was actually launched. Fourth, and more importantly, we also don’t know if Napoleon would have ever agreed to escape from St. Helena aboard a submarine. Finally, one thing we do know is that the British government took this and other rescue plots seriously enough to derail them and to increase vigilance at St. Helena. From an historical standpoint this is more important than whether such plots seem harebrained to us today.

As to Johnstone, he continued to peddle his submarine ideas to a variety of potential clients without much success. In 1823 he proposed to use one to destroy the French fleet then blockading Cadiz. According to the Nautical Magazine, “the Spanish Committee [83]  The Spanish Committee was a group of Englishmen who... [83] , after having favourably rewarded the projects, made an offer to the Cortes to execute it at their own expense; but the dissolution of that body put a stop to the enterprise.” [84]  On submarine navigation, The Nautical Magazine: a journal... [84] Five years later he reportedly again approached the Admiralty to engage him to build a submarine, hinting at the interest of foreign powers in the project. He was rejected and tried to promote the idea of using a submarine to recover sunken treasures without much success. He died at his home by the Thames in 1839. [85]  Pocock, The Terror, op. cit., p. 230. [85]

Notes

[*]

Independent scholar. I would like to thank Professor Peter Hicks at the Fondation Napoléon for his valuable comments. The sole responsibility for any errors and/or omissions is mine.

[1]

Walter Scott, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, Emperor of the French. With a Preliminary View of the French Revolution, London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green, 1827.

[3]

William Hazlitt, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, London: Office of the Illustrated London Library, 1827.

[4]

Emilio Ocampo, The Emperor’s Last Campaign: A Napoleonic Empire in America Apaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009.

[5]

A harbor in the southwestern Netherlands on the former island of Walcheren.

[6]

Scott, Life of Napoleon, vol. 9, pp. 285-286.

[7]

In some accounts his name is also spelled as Johnson or Johnston.

[8]

Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) was a notorious English robber, burglar and thief. He was arrested and escaped four times, making him a notorious public figure very popular with the lower classes. The fifth time he was caught, he was quickly convicted and hanged.

[9]

John Brown, The historical gallery of criminal portraitures, foreign and domestic A selection of the most impressive cases of Guilt and Misfortune to be found in Modern History, Manchester: Gleave, 1823, vol. 2, pp. 494-496.

[10]

Scott, Life of Napoleon, op. cit., vol. 9, pp. 285-286.

[11]

François René Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’outre-tombe, Liège, Imprimerie de J.G. Lardinois, 1849, vol. 3, p. 180.

[12]

This was roughly equivalent to 12 000 francs, or approximately £9,000.

[13]

Charles Tristan de Montholon, Récits de la captivité de l’Empereur Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène. Avec une introduction de M. Maillefer, Paris : Paulin, 1847, vol. 2, p. 433. Montholon’s reliability as a witness is often questioned. I believe his comments have to be put in context and contrasted to other primary sources.

[14]

Among the notable exceptions is Lord Rosebery, who nevertheless dismissed it. Lord Rosebery was doubtful about any rescue plans, including Johnstone’s. Consequently he was one of many historians who believed Lowe’s restrictions were unjustified. Archibald P. Primrose, Lord Rosebery, Napoleon: The Last Phase, London: Harper and Brothers, 1901, p. 113.

[15]

The submarine plot was recounted in an article by US naval historian David Whittet Thomson in “They Wanted to Rescue Napoleon,” US Naval Institute Proceedings 69, (Sep-Dec. 1943), pp. 794-800.

[16]

For the development of submarines before Fulton see William Barclay Parsons, Robert Fulton and the Submarine, New York: Columbia University Press 1922, pp. 17-23 and G. L. Pesce, La navigation sous-marine, Paris : Vuibert & Nony, 1897, pp. 23-31.

[17]

Farnham Bishop, The Story of the Submarine, New York: The Century Co., 1916, pp. 13-23.

[18]

H. W. Dickinson, Robert Fulton, Engineer and Artist, His Life and Work, London: John Lane Company, 1913, p. 73.

[19]

Fulton to the Directory, Paris, November 13, 1797, in Dickinson, Robert Fulton, pp. 74-76.

[20]

Parsons, Robert Fulton, op. cit., p. 27.

[21]

“Rapport des commissaires nommés par le ministre de la Marine relativement à l’invention de la machine dit Nautilus tendant à la destruction des vaisseaux anglais, par le citoyen Fulton”, September 12, 1798, in Paris, Archives Nationales, Marine D’21, ff. 48-58, quoted in Corinne Jez, “Le bateau-poisson de M. Fulton,” in Jean-Marcel Humbert, Bruno Ponsonnet (eds), Napoléon et la mer, Paris : Seuil-Musée nationale de Marine, 2004, pp. 187-188. Most of the original correspondence between Fulton and the Directory as well as the report from the commissions appointed by the Directory and Napoleon to evaluate the feasibility of the submarine project in the French National Archives can be found translated into English in Dickinson, Robert Fulton op. cit., pp. 79-98.

[22]

Dickinson, Robert Fulton op. cit., p. 79. See also Holden Furber, “Fulton and Napoleon in 1800: New Light on the Submarine Nautilus,” The American Historical Review, 39, No. 3 (Apr., 1934), pp. 489-494.

[23]

Fulton to Monge, Laplace and Volney, November 7, 1800, Paris, Archives Nationales, Dossier Marine D’21, f.98 quoted in Dickinson, Robert Fulton op. cit., pp. 106-109.

[24]

Forfait to Fulton, February 27, 1801, in Dickinson, Robert Fulton op. cit., pp. 113-114, and “Pièce 5477 Décision”, March 20, 1801, in Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, Paris : Plon, 1861, vol. 7, p. 90. See also Wallace Hutcheon Jr., Robert Fulton: Pioneer of Undersea Warfare, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1981, p. 46. See also reference in a letter by Napoleon concerning Fulton and his projects in Thierry Lentz (éd.), Correspondance générale de Napoléon Ier, Paris : Fayard, 2007, letter 9013, July 21, 1804.

[25]

Fulton to Monge and Laplace, September 9, 1801, in Dickinson, Robert Fulton op. cit., pp. 119-122.

[26]

Fulton to First Consul, September 9, 1801, in Paris, Archives Nationales, Marine D’21, f.114, quoted in Jez, “Le bateau-poisson de M. Fulton”, art. cit., p. 189.

[27]

The Naval Chronicle for 1801 (London, January-August 1801), vol. 4, p. 287; The Monthly magazine and British register (London, August 1, 1802), vol. 14, pp. 31-33, 335 and The European Magazine and British Review (January to June 1802), vol. 41, p. 164.

[28]

Furber, “Fulton and Napoleon in 1800”, art. cit., pp. 489-494.

[29]

“Articles of Agreement between the Right Honourable William Pitt, first Lord Commissioner of his Majesty’s treasury and Chancelor of the Exchequer, and the Right Honourable Lord Viscount Melville, first Lord of the Admiralty, in behalf of his Majesty’s government on the one part, and Robert Fulton, citizen of the United States of America and inventor of a plan of attacking fleets by submarine Bombs,” London, National Aarchives, ADM Secretary, in-Letters 5121, quoted in Dickinson, Robert Fulton op. cit., pp. 182-184. In the end Fulton received only a fraction of this amount. For a more detailed analysis of the economic proposal offered to Fulton and his financial dealings with the British government see E. Taylor Parks, “Robert Fulton and Submarine Warfare,” Military Affairs, 25, 4 (Winter, 1961-1962), pp. 178-179.

[30]

Fulton to Lord Grenville, May 5, 1806, in Parson, Robert Fulton op. cit., pp. 115-116.

[31]

Tom Pocock, The Terror before Trafalgar: Nelson, Napoleon and the Secret War, London: J. Murray, 2002, pp. 102, 150.

[32]

Brown, The historical gallery op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 494-496.

[33]

Parks, “Robert Fulton and Submarine Warfare”, art cit., p. 179. See also John Sanford Barnes, Submarine warfare, offensive and defensive, New York: Van Nostrand, 1860, pp. 35, 101.

[34]

For more details of this trial see Robert Fulton, Torpedo War and Submarine Explosions, New York: William Elliot, 1810 (reprinted by William Abbatt in 1914 as Extra No. 35 of The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries), pp. 7-10.

[35]

Fulton, Torpedo War, op. cit., p. 9.

[36]

Robert Fulton, “On submarine navigation and attack”, 1806, in Parsons, Robert Fulton op. cit., pp. 53-77. See also Parks, “Robert Fulton and Submarine Warfare”, art. cit., p. 182.

[37]

Pocock, The Terror, op. cit., p. 226.

[38]

Barnes, Submarine Warfare, op. cit., pp. 33-37.

[39]

See Fulton, Torpedo War, op. cit.

[40]

William Cobbett, Great Parliamentary Debates, London, 1810, vol. 17, p. 298.

[41]

Farnham Bishop, The Story of the Submarine, New York: The Century Co., 1916, pp. 34-35.

[42]

Benson John Lossing, The pictorial field-book of the War of 1812, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1869, pp. 241-250.

[43]

David Colden Cadwallader, The life of Robert Fulton, New York, 1817, p. 235.

[44]

J. Franklin Reingart, The Life of Robert Fulton, Philadelphia, 1856, p. 191.

[45]

Brown, The historical gallery op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 495-496.

[46]

The Naval Chronicle for 1814 Containing a General and Biographical History of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, London, January-July 1814, vol. 31, p. 287.

[47]

Bishop, The Story of the Submarine, op. cit., pp. 36-42.

[48]

For more details about this and other rescue attempts see Ocampo, The Emperor’s Last Campaign, op. cit.

[49]

Sharpe to Chamberlain, Buenos Aires, December 4, 1817, London, National Archives (NA), FO 63/211, f.7.

[50]

Montholon mentioned a “Sommariva system.” I have not been able to decipher the meaning of this reference or if it has any meaning at all. January 28, 1818, in Montholon, Récits de la captivité op. cit., vol. 2, p. 247. General Gourgaud also mentions the Brazil plot but refers to a steamboat instead of a submarine as the means to rescue Napoleon. See Gaspard Gourgaud, Sainte-Hélène : Journal inédit de 1815 à 1818, Avec préface et notes de MM. Le Vicomte de Grouchy et Antoine Guillois, Paris : Ernest Flammarion, 1899, vol. 2, p. 459.

[51]

Aleksandr Antonovich de Balmain, Count, Napoleon in Captivity: The reports of Count Balmain Russian Commissioner on the Island of St. Helena 1816-1820, ed. Julian Park, New York/London: Century Co., 1927, p. 161.

[52]

John Barnes, A tour through the Island of St. Helena, London: J. M. Richardson, 1817, p. 172.

[53]

Bathurst to Lowe, July 19, 1816, London, National Archives, A CO 248/2, ff. 63, 70-72.

[54]

Ken Denholm, From signal gun to satellite: a history of communications on the island of St Helena, Jamestown, 2001, pp. 8-9.

[55]

Frederic William Naylor Bayley, Scenes and stories: by a clergyman in debt. Written during his confinement, London: A. H. Baily & Co, 1835, vol. 2, p. 133.

[56]

He specifically denied having ever attempted to kidnap Napoleon at Flushing.

[57]

Johnstone to Bayley, September 20, 1834, in Bayley, Scenes and Stories op. cit., vol. 2, p. 136.

[58]

Thomas Johnstone, undated, “A correct description of the Submarine Ship called the Eagle, which was intended to take away the Grand Emperor, Napoleon, in July, 1821, had not death hurried him out of this world, on the 5th of May previously,” in Bayley, Scenes and stories, op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 233-252.

[59]

Bayley, Scenes and stories, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 251.

[60]

This paragraph appears to contradict the previous one unless the Eagle carried “two engines of forty horse power” combined or twenty horsepower each.

[61]

Bayley, Scenes and stories op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 241-245.

[62]

James Cleugh, Captain Thomas Johnstone 1772-1839. Smuggler’s Reach, London: Andrew Melrose, 1955, p. 305. Unfortunately Cleugh does not detail his sources so his biography is of relative value.

[63]

Francis Macirone [sic], A Few Facts concerning Elementary Locomotion, London: Effingham Wilson Royal Exchange, 1834.

[64]

The British government suspected that Lord Cochrane had built the Rising Star to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena. Supposedly, the steam vessel had been commissioned by the Chilean government. Be it as it may, it was only allowed to sail after Napoleon’s death. See Ocampo, The Emperor’s Last Campaign, op. cit., pp. 264-265.

[65]

Francis Maceroni, Memoirs of the Life and Adventures of Colonel Maceroni, London: John Macrone, 1838, vol. 2, pp. 423-426.

[66]

Maceroni’s publisher enlisted a then unknown writer named William Thackeray to edit his Memoirs. Thackeray found Maceroni’s adventures “so interesting” that he proposed to re-write them to make a best-seller. “The book must be rewritten, and will cause a world of trouble,” Thackeray explained to the publisher. “The Colonel must give you carte-blanche about alterations, and not disown the book when published. We may make a hero of him by these means; if after the work’s publication he blusters or denies it, the sale will be seriously injured.” Thackeray to John Macrone, London, July 26, 1837. Grateful thanks to Peter Shillingsburg, Professor of English at the University of North Texas, for sending me an extract of this letter.

[67]

O’Meara to Lowe, June 30, 1817 in London, Public Records Office (now National Archives) ADM 3/191 Admiralty Minutes June-December 1818. Also quoted by William Forsyth in History of the Captivity from the letters and journals of the late Lieut.-Gen. Sir H. Lowe, and official documents not before made public, London: J. Murray, 1853, vol. 2, p. 386. O’Meara didn’t include this description of Maceroni in his own memoirs.

[68]

See Bishop, The story of the submarine, op. cit., p. 61.

[69]

Castlereagh to Richelieu, April 10, 1820, in Robert Stewart Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd Marquis of Londonderry, Memoirs and correspondence of Viscount Castlereagh second Marquess of Londonderry, edited by his brother Charles W. Vane, Third Marquis of Londonderry, London: William Shoberl, 1848-1853, vol. 12, p. 239.

[70]

Castlereagh to Richelieu, April 28, 1820, op. cit., vol. 12, p. 251.

[71]

Hobhouse diary, May 6, 1820, London, British Library, Mss Add. 56541 Broughton Papers, fol. 33.

[72]

Scott, Life of Napoleon, op. cit., vol. 9, p. 287.

[73]

Bathurst to Lowe, September 30, 1820, in Forsyth, History of the Captivity op. cit., vol. 3, pp. 250-251.

[74]

Maceroni, Memoirs, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 428-429.

[75]

Montholon, Récits, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 434.

[76]

Hans Schlitter, Kaiser Franz I und die Napoleoniden, vom sturze Napoleons bis zu dessen Tode aus Schriftstücken des K. und K. Haus, Hof and Staatsarchivs, Vienna: F. Tempsky, 1888, p. 397.

[77]

Greaves’ testimony, personal archive of Tom Pocock, in Pocock, The Terror, op. cit., pp. 226-227.

[78]

Scott, Life of Napoleon op. cit., vol. 9, p. 286.

[79]

Bayley, Scenes and stories, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 245.

[80]

The Times, November 20, 1820.

[81]

Scott, Life of Napoleon op. cit., vol. 9, pp. 287-288.

[82]

Bathurst to Sir Walter Scott, July 2, 1827, Sir Walter Scott’s Papers, National Library of Scotland.

[83]

The Spanish Committee was a group of Englishmen who sympathized with the Spanish liberals in their fight against Bourbon despotism. Among its members were Sir James Mackintosh and John Cam Hobhouse.

[84]

On submarine navigation, The Nautical Magazine: a journal of papers on subjects connected with Naval Affairs, London: Simpkin Marshall & Co., 1833, vol. 2, p. 189.

[85]

Pocock, The Terror, op. cit., p. 230.

Résumé

English

In his best selling biography of Napoleon published in 1827, Sir Walter Scott asserted that at some point in 1820 a certain Captain Thomas Johnstone, “a smuggler of an uncommonly resolute character”, had attempted to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena with a submarine. Many historians have dismissed this story as too farfetched. The article here, the most complete on this subject to date, brings to light some previously unrecognised contemporary accounts that, although sometimes conflicting and/or questionable in their details, lend credence to Scott’s assertion that some of Napoleon’s supporters seriously entertained the idea of rescuing him with a submarine and spent a considerable amount of money to build it. It also seems that the British government took this and other rescue plots seriously enough to derail them and to increase vigilance at St. Helena.

Français

Dans sa célèbre biographie de Napoléon, parue en 1827, Sir Walter Scott affirmait qu’en 1820, un certain capitaine Thomas Johnstone, un « contrebandier au caractère particulièrement déterminé », avait essayé de faire évader Napoléon de l’île de Sainte-Hélène avec un sous-marin. De nombreux historiens ont considéré cette histoire comme trop farfelue. Cet article, l’un des plus complets à ce jour, met en lumière certains récits de contemporains laissés de côté qui, bien que contradictoires et/ou discutables dans leurs détails, apportent un certain crédit à l’assertion de Scott selon laquelle des partisans de Napoléon avaient sérieusement imaginé de le faire évader avec un sous-marin et avaient, à cet effet, dépensé des sommes considérables pour le construire. Il semble également que le gouvernement britannique avait pris ce complot, et d’autres encore, au sérieux, assez pour les faire avorter et renforcer la surveillance à Sainte-Hélène.

Pour citer cet article

Ocampo Emilio, « The attempt to rescue Napoleon with a submarine: fact or fiction? », Napoleonica. La Revue 2/ 2011 (N° 11), p. 11-31
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-napoleonica-la-revue-2011-2-page-11.htm.
DOI : 10.3917/napo.112.0011


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