Journal of the proceedings of the late embassy to China: Henry Ellis’ account of his visit to St Helena

Author(s) : ELLIS Henry
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Following the failure of the British embassy to China in 1816, the three representatives (Henry Ellis, Sir George Staunton, and William Amherst) stopped over on St Helena on their way back home. Henry Ellis' account of the trip includes a record of a number of interviews that the men were granted with Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor exiled to the island.

The embassy’s visit to St Helena

We left Simon's bay on the 11th of June and arrived at St. Helena on the 27th.
July 1. – St Helena presents mass of continued barrenness, and its only utility seems to consist in being a mark to guide ships over the waste of waters. This feeling is certainly removed on landing, and situation may be found, particularly Plantation House, the residence of the governor, possessing much picturesque beauty; but on the whole, the strongest impression on my mind was that of surprise, that so much human industry should have been expended under such adverse circumstances and upon such unpromising and unyielding materials.

We had heard so much at the Cape of the vicissitudes of temper to which Buonaparte was subject that we were by no means confident of being admitted to his presence; fortunately for us, the Ex-Emperor was in good humour, and the interview took place on this day.

Lord Amherst was first introduced to Buonaparte by General Bertrand, and remained alone with him for more than an hour. I was next called in, and presented by Lord Amherst. Buonaparte having continued in discourse about half an hour, Captain Maxwell and the gentlemen of the embassy were afterwards introduced and presented. He put question to each, having some relation to their respective situation; and we all united in remarking that his manners were simple and affable, without wanting dignity. I was most struck with the unsubdued ease of his behaviour and appearance; he could not have been freer from embarrassment and depression in the zenith of his power at the Tuileries.
Buonaparte rather declaimed than conversed, and during the half hour Lord Amherst and I were with him seemed only anxious to impress his sentiments upon the recollection of his auditors, possibly for the purpose of having them repeated. His style is highly epigrammatic, and he delivers his opinion with the oracular confidence of a man accustomed to produce conviction: his mode of discussing great political questions would in another appear charlatanerie but in him is only the development of the empirical system, which he universally adopted. Notwithstanding the attention which be might be supposed to have given to the nature of our government, he has certainly a very imperfect knowledge of the subject; all his observations on the policy of England, as relating to the past, or looking to the future, were adapted to a despotism; and he is either unable or unwilling to take into consideration the difference produced by the will of this monarch being subordinate, not only to the interests, but to the opinion of his people.
He used metaphors and illustrations with great freedom, borrowing the latter chiefly from medicine: his elocution was rapid, but clear and forcible; and both his manner and language surpassed my expectations. The character of his countenance is rather intellectual than commanding, and the chief peculiarity is in the mouth, the upper lip apparently changing in expression with the variety and succession of his ideas. In person Buonaparte is so far from being extremely corpulent, as has been represented, that I believe he was never more capable of undergoing the fatigues of a campaign than at present. I should describe him as short and muscular, not more inclined to corpulency than men often are at his age.
Buonaparte's complaints respecting his situation at St. Helena would not, I think, have excited much attention if they had not become a subject of discussion in the House of Lords; for as he denied our right to consider him a prisoner of war, in opposition to the most obvious principles of reason and law, it was not to be expected that any treatment he might receive consequent to his being so considered, would be acceptable. On the other hand, admitting him to be a prisoner, it is difficult to imagine upon what grounds he can complain of the limited restraint under which he is placed at St. Helena.

His complaints respecting a scanty supply of provisions and wines (for I consider Montholon as the organ of Buonaparte) are too absurd to deserve consideration, and it is impossible not to regret, that anger, real or pretended, should have induced so great a man to countenance such petty misrepresentations. I must confess that the positive statements which had been made respecting the badness of the accommodations at Longwood had produced a partial belief in my mind; even this, however, was removed by actual observation. Longwood House, considered as a residence for a sovereign, is certainly small, and perhaps inadequate; but viewed as the habitation of a person of rank, disposed to live without show, is both convenient and respectable. Better situations may be found in the island, and Plantation House is in every respect a superior residence; but that is intended for the reception of numerous guests, and for the degree of exterior splendour belonging to the office of governor.
The two remaining circumstances of Buonaparte's situation deserving attention are the restraints which may affect his personal liberty and those which relate to his intercourse with others. With respect to the first, Buonaparte assumes as a principle that his escape, while watched by the forts and men of war, is impossible; and that, therefore, his liberty within the precincts of the island ought to be unfettered. The truth of the principle is obviously questionable, and the consequence is overthrown by the fact of his being a prisoner, whose detention is of importance sufficient to justify the most rigorous precautions; his own conclusion is nevertheless admitted to the extent of allowing him to go to any part of the island, provided he be accompanied by a British officer: for all justifiable purposes this permission is sufficient; nor is it intended to be nullified in practice by undue interference on the part of the officer in attendance. For purposes of health or amusement he has a range of four miles, unaccompanied, and without being overlooked; another of eight miles, where he is partially in view of the sentries; and a still wider circuit of twelve miles, throughout which he is under their observation. In both these latter spaces he was also free from the attendance of an officer. At night, indeed, the sentries close round the house. I can scarcely imagine that greater personal liberty, consistent with any pretension to security, could be granted to an individual, supposed under any restraint at all.
His intercourse with others is certainly under immediate surveillance, no person being allowed to enter the inclosure at Longwood without a pass from governor; but these passes are readily granted, and neither the curiosity of individuals, nor the personal gratification which Buonaparte may be expected to derive from their visits, are checked by pretended difficulties or arbitrary regulations. His correspondence is also under restraint, and he is not allowed to send or receive letters but through the medium of the governor: this regulation is no doubt disagreeable, and may be distressing to his feelings; but it is a necessary consequence of being what he now is, and what he has been.
Two motives may, I think, be assigned for Buonaparte's unreasonable complaints: the first, and principal, is to keep alive public interest in Europe, but chiefly in England, where he flatters himself that he has a party; and the second, I think, may be traced to the personal character and habits  of Buonaparte, who finds an occupation in the petty intrigues by which these complaints are brought forward, and an unworthy gratification in the tracasseries and annoyance which they produce on the spot.
If this conjecture be founded, time alone, and a conviction of their inutility, will induce Bonaparte to desist from his complaints, and to consider his situation in its true light; as a confinement with fewer restrictions upon his personal liberty, than justifiable caution, uninfluenced by liberality, would have established.
We left St. Helena on the 2nd of July, and arrived at Spithead on the 17th of August, 1817, on the whole perhaps more gratified than disappointed with the various occurrences of the expedition.

Background to the visit

Henry Ellis was the third of three commissioners (alongside Sir George Staunton and William Amherst, 1st Earl Amherst) sent as part of an embassy to Peking in 1816. The commissioners' refusal to perform the kowtow ritual before the Jiaqing Emperor resulted in the Chinese authorities refusing them entry into Peking and the mission was to prove unsuccessful. On the way back to Britain from China, the embassy stopped at St Helena, where the commissioners were granted several interviews with Napoleon Bonaparte, exiled to the island. The full details of the China embassy can be read here (external link via Google Books).


Originally published by John Murray in 1817.
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