Napoleon and Saint Helena, 1815-1816

Author(s) : MORRISS Roger
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Chapter 4 of Cockburn and the British Navy in Transition, University of Exeter Press, 1997

Napoleon’s escape from Elba marred the peace to which Cockburn expected to return in May 1815. His flag was retained in commission at Portsmouth and, though he himself returned to his house in Cavendish Square, London, there was every prospect of immediate service. Waterloo on 18 June seemed to settle the war, but on 15 July Napoleon surrendered to Maitland in the Bellerophon off Rochefort and, soon after, Cockburn learned of the task to be his. On 21 June he had been made commander-in-chief at the Cape of Good Hope. This, as much as his known ‘energy of character’, accounted for orders issued to him at the end of July. St. Helena, to which the British government determined to exile Napoleon, was within the Cape station. Cockburn was the appropriate officer to convey and secure him there. Yet on this occasion Lord Bathurst as Secretary of State and the Board of Admiralty laid more than normal stress on the personal qualities necessary for the task. The Prince Regent required Napoleon’s confinement to be no more severe than was necessary to his perfect security; indulgence, on the other hand, could permit no betrayal ‘into any improvident relaxation’ of duty. There could be no repeat of the Elba escape. Precision of judgement was at a premium, and the ‘zeal, ability and discretion’ revealed by Cockburn on earlier occasions were ‘the best pledges that can be given for the due performance of the Prince Regent’s intentions’.1

Bathurst’s instructions were conveyed to Cockburn by the Admiralty on 31 July. He was to hoist his flag in the 74-gun Northumberland at Spithead, take in convoy two troopships carrying a battalion of the 53rd Regiment and a detachment of artillery, and to rendezvous with the Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound where he was to take on board Napoleon and his suite. From there, in company with seven more vessels and a store ship, he was to convey the former emperor to St. Helena.2 Memoranda from Bathurst detailed the precautions Cockburn was to take regarding the luggage, valuables and money of the whole French party; measures for the security of Napoleon once at St. Helena; and the channels along which correspondence with Napoleon were to pass.3

These instructions were to shape Cockburn’s management of Napoleon and his entourage. However, it was the enforcement of compliance with the spirit of these regulations, that was to be the real test of Cockburn. Napoleon was an emperor defeated, yet still regarded as emperor by his followers, treated by them as such, and accustomed to the servility due to one. To check his pretensions, reduce him to submission and control his conduct – all without losing his co-operation – demanded a confidence amounting to an insurmountable sense of superiority from the first, Napoleon posed repeated minor, but important, problems of personal control. For him the battle was now one of wits; conflict at a psychological level. But it was conflict at a level at which Cockburn also excelled. Speed of thought, word and deed were his strength. At no time on the voyage did Cockburn lose control, and on no occasion was he reduced to discourtesy or emotion. At St. Helena, though at times indirect conflict revived, it was quickly checked. The successful internment of Napoleon at St. Helena was thus as much the product of Cockburn’s capacity for managing the man as of the government’s list of instructions.

I) Mastering ‘The General’

Management was essential even before the voyage commended. The Northumberland had been at Portsmouth only 48 hours when Cockburn arrived from London on 2 August. Stores and equipment were still being loaded, the crew being obliged to work through the night to stow them away. Next morning, when Captain Charles Ross4 ordered her to be unmoored, the crew grumbled with discontent at a new commission, and six men were confined. After the first anchor was raised, Cockburn addressed them, pointing out the ship would be relieved when peace was arranged; but in the meantime he would consider any applications men might make in the proper way for exchange on grounds of ill-health, wounds or long service. He then sent them to their duties, to which they went ‘cheerfully and properly’. Even the six in confinement protested their innocence, assured him of their readiness and loyalty and inclination to do as required. He had them released and they resumed their duties in the ‘best manner possible’.5

In Torbay on 6 August the Bellerophon, Tonnant (carrying the flag of Lord Keith, commander-in-chief in the Channel) and the frigate Eurolas were unexpectedly sighted off Berry Head. It transpired that Keith had hurriedly removed the Bellerophon from Plymouth to avoid the threat of a writ of habeas corpus taken out to require Napoleon to appear in evidence at a trial in London.

After conferring in the afternoon, Cockburn and Keith went on board the Bellerophon to inform Napoleon of his removal to the Northumberland next day. Napoleon protested, challenging the right of the British government to dispose of him as they wished. Keith and Cockburn simply insisted on the necessity for them to obey their orders. Cockburn returned next morning and (as required by Bathurst) examined the baggage of each member of the French party to remove arms and valuables that might be used to purchase assistance.6 4,000 napoleons were transferred to Captain Maitland to be sent to the British Treasury. Finally, about midday Cockburn and Keith again waited on Napoleon to accompany him to the Northumberland. Popular interest in him was intense. The waters about the ships were crowded with boats from shore carrying sightseers. After a long wait, he eventually appeared on the deck of the Bellerophon where, as he took his departure, dead silence prevailed – so ‘deeply the attention of every man must have been riveted’. Descending to the Northumberland’s barge, he took his place between Keith and Cockburn. 28 others made up the French party which accompanied Napoleon to the Northumberland. They included Grand Marechal Comte de Bertrand, General Comte de Montholon, both their wives, Comte de Las Cases and General Gourgaud; also fourteen servants and five children.7 They posed an immediate accommodation problem. All were found quarters but not without difficulty. The ladies and their families received adequate space and privacy, but each of the other members of the suite also asked for, and expected, a separate cabin. For a day the party settled in, the Northumberland lying-to while a squadron of one frigate, six brigs and sloops joined her. On 9 August, they sailed for St. Helena.

Occurrences on the voyage concerning Napoleon were fully documented by Cockburn in a diary. This, including minutes of his conversation, were copied by his secretary, J.R. Glover, who himself kept a diary embellished with informqtion derived from Cockburn’s. The latter’s diary has been published twice, Glover’s three times, but none of these printed versions are entirely trustworthy.8 Words vary between the two publications of Cockburn’s diary; and doubt must always attach to the accuracy of Glover’s account as Cockburn himself observed that Glover copied minutes of his conversations and other documents inaccurately. These printed versions can, however, be checked against copies of both diaries that have survived in manuscript, and these with copies of minutes corrected by Cockburn after he discovered Glover’s inaccuracy.9 The latter were sent to Melville and survive in the National Library of Scotland.

Cockburn compiled his minutes and diary partly – as a naval man – out of habit, partly to keep Melville and other members of the Government informed of events. He simply requested that his account ‘not be made so generally know as to risk its getting into the public papers’, particularly while he was still at St. Helena. Cockburn was aware that he had an opportunity too. Warren Hastings observed that it was worth Cockburn’s while ‘to keep a log of all the Napoleonisms, good, bad and indifferent (for all are character), that escape from his passenger during the voyage’.10 It became Cockburn’s determination ‘to note down… every particular this extraordinary man tells’. He did more than this, adding his observations on Napoleon’s behaviour, attitudes and state of mind, and occasionally his own opinion of Napoleon’s credibility. His charge was thus treated as a subject of study; the diary was a report of his findings. From its emerges the relationship Cockburn formed with Napoleon, the tenor of which was marked by the periodic checks Cockburn placed on his charge’s conduct. From it we thus appreciate the means by which Cockburn came to manage Napoleon, and obliged him to accept the new terms of his existence.

Cockburn can have had no illusions as to the challenge this management problem presented. He was well aware of the ruthlessness of the man: in 1813 he had described him as ‘a despot who has deluged the world with blood and invariably caused misery and desolation wherever he has been enabled to infuse his… influence’.11 He quickly learned his arrogance. As an Emperor, Napoleon did not think he should be confined at all: their first encounter, at which he had learned his fate, had generated anger; the examination of baggage, extreme indignation. On the Bellerophon, Cockburn, Keith and Ross waited for Napoleon to appear for transfer to the Northumberland nearly an hour; only Keith calmed Cockburn’s impatience, desiring he ‘be put in mind’.12 Galling too that day was Napoleon’s condescension in pinching Cockburn’s ear! – a practice he employed to ingratiate himself with subordinates.

For the methods he used to reduce Napoleon to subordination, Cockburn has been accused of lacking fine feelings, chivalry, magnanimity, and consideration for the situation of an ex-emperor.13 He certainly took the role of custodian seriously. ‘You may depend on my taking care of the common disturber’, he assured Croker on the day they sailed, so long as Crocker attended to Cockburn’s claims for expenses.14 For beneath the banter lay a common understanding that the British government intended to incarcerate Napoleon for good. But, above all, Cockburn was concerned to win the psychological duel for intellectual supremacy which constituted the critical element in physical control.

An adroit campaign to check Napoleon’s pretensions began as soon as he stepped on board the Northumberland. The first priority was to limit Napoleon’s claims to living space. To prevent any possible dispute, he was allotted a sleeping cabin (12 feet by 9, with a passage leading to the quarter gallery) of which Cockburn had the identical opposite on the other side. But on being left to talk to would-be followers in the after or great cabin, he promptly assumed an ‘exclusive right’ to that as well, as had been the case on the Bellerophon. Cockburn countered by taking in and introducing his lieutenants, with Sir George Bingham, Lord Lowther and the Hon. W.H. Lyttelton, begging the latter three sit down once the lieutenants had left to establish a British presence, while he himself found Bertrand to explain the after-cabin was common space.15

During the first day, Napoleon maintained a polite, sociable façade, and seemed reconciled to his fate. At times, however, especially when reminded of his increasing distance from Europe, he became dejected. Adding to these moods was a repressed anger – a sulkiness – that followed checks on his claims to special treatment. As Cockburn was responsible for these checks, the moods added to difficulties of management, especially in the first week when Napoleon tried on several occasions to exact from English officers the deference to which he was accustomed.16

All had gone well for the first three days. Cockburn was pleased. On government instructions he addressed his charge and treated him with no more respect than would have been accorded an army general. ‘It is impossible for people to conduct themselves better or with more propriety than General Bonaparte and his followers are doing’, he advised Melville on 9 August. ‘The General has descended from Emperor on board the Bellerophon to be prisoner on board the Northumberland with wonderful flexibility of mind and I am very much mistaken if I shall have any further difficulty in performing the task your lordship has confided to me’. However, that same evening, as Cockburn confided to his diary:

‘After dinner he went upon deck and persisted on keeping off his hat as he walked up and down, evidently with a view to inducing the English officers on deck also to continue uncovered (as his French attendants did, and as I am told the officers of the Bellerophon used to do whilst he remained on the deck of that ship). Observing this, I made a point of putting on my hat immediately after the first compliment upon going out, and I desired the officers to do the same, at which he seemed considerably piqued, and he soon afterwards went into the cabin and made up his party at vingt-un, but he certainly neither played nor talked with the same cheerfulness he did the first night…’

This Cockburn attributed to ‘downright sulkiness’, but, as Glover observed, it ‘produced no alteration in our manners towards him, neither was he paid more respect to than any other officer present’.

This lack of response prompted Napoleon next day to demonstrate his contempt for the code of conduct expected of him. Immediately after dinner, having swallowed his coffee and before anyone else could be served he got up ‘rather uncivilly’ and went up on deck. Cockburn intervened: ‘this induced me to request particularly the remainder of the party to sit still and he consequently went out only attended by his Marechal without the slightest further notice being taken of him’. Indeed, to give Napoleon the opportunity to repeat his incivility every evening should he so wish, the steward was requested to ‘serve coffee to the General and such of his followers as chose to take it immediately after the cloth was removed, whilst we would continue at table and drink our wine’. ‘It is clear he is still inclined to act the Sovereign occasionally’, Cockburn noted, ‘but I cannot allow it, and the sooner therefore he becomes convinced it is not to be admitted the better’.

Napoleon seems to have realised he would gain no concessions by such behaviour. He was low in spirits for several days, and Cockburn allowed the mood to take its course, deliberately refraining from unnecessary contact. On 13 August ‘owing to his appearing inclined to try to assume again improper consequence, I was purposely more than usually distant with him, and therefore, though we exchanged common salutations and high looks, nothing passed between us worth noticing’. Such deliberate disregard was conspicuous, especially when Napoleon demanded the attention that was withheld. In the evening of Sunday, 13 August, when he and Madame Bertrand wished to play cards – though he was informed it was customary for the officers not to play cards on Sundays – he told Glover to send for Cockburn and Sir George Bingham, observing that, as upper circles in London played, presumably Cockburn would not dislike it. Yet neither Cockburn nor Bingham appeared.

Napoleon had now been on board a week. From this time relations gradually improved, and on the terms set by Cockburn. On the 14th, they ‘were again distant and high with each other, though perfectly civil’; on 15th Napoleon seemed more sociable and at ease. It was his birthday and Cockburn made him ‘compliments upon it and drank his health, which civility he seemed to appreciate’. That evening after dinner they had a long conversation, walking together on deck. Next day Napoleon seemed better in spirits and behaviour. Cockburn thus reciprocated: ‘I am always ready to meet him half-way when he appears to conduct himself with due modesty and consideration of his present situation’. By 24 August Cockburn felt sufficient confidence to advise Melville that he had ‘every reason to believe we shall not have any further difficulty or even unpleasant occurrence during the remainder of the voyage’; finding he would not be allowed to resume the emperor, he had ‘fallen again into his proper place’.17 On 27 August so confident was Cockburn of Napoleon’s stability, he caused the whole squadron to steer between Gomera and Palma in the Canary Islands simply to gratify the latter’s curiosity.

Such confidence was perhaps premature. On 6 September Cockburn was surprised to have Napoleon getting up after dinner for his usual walk, though it was pouring with rain. Cockburn had no doubt Napoleon ‘intended this dash of his should give us a great idea of his hardiness of character’. But ‘the General’ was quickly wet through, the walk soon over, and ‘no further particular notice was taken of it by any of us’. There was one further incident. On crossing the Equator, the Comte de Bertrand attempted on Napoleon’s behalf to gain permission to distribute ‘one or two hundred napoleon’s among the seamen. Cockburn ‘considered this to be an attempt of the General’s to avail himself, with his usual finesse, of a plausible excuse to distribute such a large sum amongst the seamen solely with a view of rendering himself popular with them’. He ‘pointedly prohibited it’, permitting the distribution of no more than five napoleons. Bertrand argued vehemently. ‘The rhetoric, however, as usual’ had not ‘the slightest affect towards changing my determination’. Napoleon let the matter drop, showed no sign ‘that he was hurt or piqued’, but did not send even five napoleons.

One factor helping to stabilise relations was the invariable routine into which meetings between French and English fell. The patterns of their respective lives coincided only in the evenings. At dinner Cockburn always sat beside Napoleon, their places requiring observance of essential courtesies. At table only some of the English officers spoke French: Captain Ross, for example, spoke little. Cockburn’s fluency on the other hand permitted his to communicate at will, his conversations with Napoleon commanding the attention of all diners. Cockburn was able to draw him out, sometimes prompting with questions, so that his reminiscences became the main accompaniment to meals. This was followed by exercise on deck, in which Cockburn and Napoleon usually walked together, mostly out of earshot. These conversation – ranging between ‘free and pleasant’ to ‘a frank strain’ – were vital to the understanding they developed. Both gave equally: Cockburn flattered by his questions; Napoleon rewarded with his confidences. It was during one of these conversations that Napoleon gave his side of the events surrounding the attempted rescue of Ferdinand VII, in 1810. Finally, evenings were completed by an hours or more of cards.

The relationship so formed was to prove of long-term value to Cockburn. Its remnants were still evident in 1816. But it did entail a risk. By becoming so intimate, there was a chance of slipping under Napoleon’s influence. That he did not was due to his objective assessment of his charge. Within three days Cockburn had taken particular note of Napoleon’s manners: ‘uncouth and disagreeable and to his French friends most overbearing if not absolutely rude’. At chess with the Comte de Montholon, ‘he appeared to me to play but badly and was evidently inferior to his antagonist, who I observed nevertheless was quite determined not to win the game from his ex-majesty’. Later Cockburn commented on his geographical ignorance, his hypocrisy, untruthfulness and malicious hatred of England. By the end of the voyage, he had even come to question the man’s capacity to reason dispassionately and apply his own logic to his own situation. The questioning of Napoleon’s rationality was a common practice among contemporaries. Cockburn did so after close acquaintance over two months.

By studying and humanising him, Napoleon diminished in Cockburn’s estimation. In contrast, Cockburn seems to have risen in respect among the French party, especially for his professional competence. On the day when St. Helena was sighted numerous suggestions were made as to when they would see land. Glover records that Cockburn ‘decided we should see it at six o’clock, and so correct was he in his calculations that the time we saw it did not differ a minute… at which Bonaparte and all the French party seemed much astonished’.

The end of the voyage on 15 October was a welcome release from a passage of 67 days. Napoleon suffered its latter part with more patience than his followers. Yet sight of the island was discomforting. ‘Nothing can possibly be less prepossessing, nay more horribly forbidding, than the first appearance of this isolated and apparently burnt-up, barren rock, which promises neither refreshment or pleasure’. Its ‘terrific appearance’ and ‘stupendous barren cliffs’ seemed ‘to but ill accord with the feelings of our guests’.18 Cockburn immediately found them rented accommodation in Jamestown to which they disembarked on 16 October. Cockburn also visited Longwood, the house of the Lieutenant Governor of the East India Company who managed the island. Repeating the visit with Napoleon on the 17th, it was fixed as the house ‘the General’ would occupy after extension and renovation. On his return journey, Napoleon noted the Briars, a cottage housing the Balcombe family about a mile and a quarter from Jamestown. Rather than return to the lodging house, Napoleon wished to occupy a small outhouse close to the Briars stopped to discuss this with the Balcombes and it was promptly agreed. Until the improvements at Longwood were completed about mid-December, Napoleon accordingly lived at the Briars with most of his followers in Jamestown. Meanwhile Cockburn lived on board the Northumberland, later moving to the castle in Jamestown.

II) Governor of St. Helena

The problems Cockburn now faced took several forms. He remained in sole charge of Napoleon, and would so remain until the arrival of the new Governor in April 1816. He not only had to make Longwood habitable for the French party, but the island habitable for the troops placed there to guard him. In addition, he had to erect and maintain a system of regulations around Napoleon that would prevent any repetition of the Elba experience. Both tasks interacted and not to advantage. Security restricted the sources from which building materials, furnishings and provisions could be obtained quickly; but while such supplies were limited, neither army nor French party could be settled into permanent quarters; the French party could not be reconciled to their new habitat; and a lasting system of security could not be established around their permanent residence.

Security was nevertheless Cockburn’s first priority. Lord Bathurst had laid down minimum measures. The boundaries of Napoleon’s residence were to be posted with sentries; his outings beyond those bounds were to be accompanied by an English officer and orderly, except when strange ships were in sight, when outings had to be discontinued, indeed any communication with islanders forbidder. Letters to Napoleon had to be read by Cockburn before delivery; those from outside the island had to go first to the Secretary of State in London. Letters out were to be similarly treated. Complaints or any other representation as to treatment had also to go to London accompanied by the comments of Cockburn or the new Governor. These same regulations applied to his followers as well as to Napoleon19

On the island, Cockburn and his successor had sole responsibility for all matters affecting security. From the troops stationed there, he was authorised to weed out all foreigners or others of untrustworthy character or disposition and send them to the Cape, from where replacements and reliefs were to be ordered. Foreign civilians could also be sent there20 The whole coast and even boats frequenting landing places were considered under Cockburn’s control. Troops were to be stationed at landing places, and the arrival and departure of every ship closely observed; their intercourse with the shore was to be only as approved. Bathurst took upon himself to issue orders preventing foreign ships, both merchant and naval, from calling there.

These regulations effectively sealed St. Helena from the outside world and brought the whole island under Cockburn’s control. Interpreting Bathurst’s instructions in his own way, he eventually had guard boats patrolling to windward and leeward of the island21 Sea-going vessels were permitted to land only if in want of water or provisions; even then a guard was put on board. Along the shore every private boat was secured at sunset and given an armed guard. Inland every bridge and gate, bar one, was closed and locked at sunset, and no person allowed outside Jamestown without a signed pass after 9 pm22

Security increased in stringency the closer Napoleon was approached. Detailed instructions were issued to each officer responsible for part of Cockburn’s system. Those, for example, to the officer stationed at Napoleon’s house required him to obtain certain knowledge of the captive’s presence twice every twenty-four hours. Cockburn was to be informed at 8 a.m. and at sunset the exact time when his sure presence was established. Without permission, the whole of Napoleon’s household had to be indoors by 9 p.m. Any extraordinary or suspicious movement such as the packing of trunks was to be reported immediately. The officer stationed at the gate in the boundary marked by sentries was given specific instructions as to whom they could allow through without a pass. The officer at the lodge gate, when Napoleon moved to Longwood, received another even shorter privileged visitors list23

Initially, dragoons on orderly duty carried all the messages Cockburn required. Later, after the move to Longwood, a signalling system was established by which an officer on duty could send secret signals to or from ten signal stations around the island. Cockburn then required to know whenever Napoleon passed through the cordon round his house: the code included messages indicating whether Napoleon was within or beyond that perimeter, properly attended or not, well or unwell24 It thus became possible for an officer to raise the alarm promptly even had his charge escaped him while out riding25

Yet the establishment of this system depended on the occupation of Longwood. The morale of the French party depended on this too. Only three weeks after their debarkation Count Bertrand began a series of complaints to Cockburn, recounting events since Napoleon’s surrender, and deploring his master’s confined quarters, lack of amenities, exercise, and adequate company. At the Briars, Bertrand complained, he occupied ‘the pavilion’ which contained ‘but one room in which he is obliged to dress, eat and walk and to remain all day’. It was impossible for him to take a bath; there were no saddle horses available for riding; he was surrounded by sentries; his companions – except Count de Las Cases and his son who lived in a small room above the Pavilion – were all lodged at a distance; and when they visited him were accompanied by a British army sergeant.

‘It were much to be wished that the conduct observed toward the Emperor should be such as to remove from his thoughts the remembrance of the horrible position in which he is now placed. It is such that one may dare to affirm that even barbarians would be affected by it and would treat it with consideration.’26

The complaint obliged Cockburn ‘officially to explain’ (as he was to do on repeated occasions) that he had ‘no cognisance of any Emperor being actually upon the island or any such person possessing such dignity having… come hither with me in the Northumberland‘. He had already pulled back the ring of sentries, but it was ‘incompatible’ with his instructions to dispense with the accompanying sergeant or officer. Even so, it was Cockburn’s ‘most anxious study’ to render the situation of the French party ‘as little irksome and disagreeable as possible’27 To Bathurst, Cockburn observed ‘their requests and complaints (particularly those of M. de Bertrand) but increase with every favour or attention shewn them’.

But to Croker at the Admiralty he admitted he could hardly hope for reconciliation to their destiny until he had them established at Longwood, to which object his ‘principal attention and efforts’ were therefore directed28

The house took more work to put in order than Cockburn had anticipated. The materials available for doing so were less than expected and the island’s whole stock of suitable timber had to be purchased at a high price. Repairs and additions were made with the aid of the Northumberland‘s carpenters and crew, and completed about mid-December. Then house frames and artificers were required to create accommodation for the 53rd Regiment that otherwise had to live under canvas half a mile from Longwood29 Plank too was needed, and not just for people. The increased military force on the island required a larger stock of cattle; they were usually brought from the warmer African coast so that sheds were necessary for their pastures. As American traders were excluded from the island, Cockburn supposed England was the best source of these materials. But two months later he also requested plank from Rio de Janeiro along with mules to carry everything the five miles to Longwood30

Building materials were not all that was lacking. Initially even basic provisions for ships ‘crews were short. By 11 November the Northumberland was down to half rations of bread and flour with only four days’ supply left. More was available from the East India Company stores but at an ‘exorbitant price’. A naval store ship was expected. So also was a collier, and equally in demand. The Company’s stock of coal was small and real inconvenience was anticipated on that account. Good wines were short. Wine was the staple drink of children as well as of adults in the French party, and at every meal including breakfast. For Croker to judge demand, he was sent an account of consumption on the voyage: 20 dozen of port, 45 of claret, 22 of Madeira, 5 of malmsey, 13 of champagne and 7 of sherry – 1,344 bottles in 70 days. As wines at St. Helena were poor in quality and expensive, Cockburn suggested that ships heading for St. Helena put in to a French port for a quantity31

The problem of food supply was apparently resolved with the return of the vessels taking foreigners to the Cape. The Governor informed him that that settlement could supply bullocks, sheep, poultry, salt pork, wheat, forage, soap, salt, candles and fruit – all ‘to any extent’, being the produce of the area. Moreover the Cape overflowed with British manufactured products32 In December Bathurst was attempting to hasten the shipment of furniture for Longwood, and in March there was a request for books – to be selected with the advice of Barbien, the former librarian to the emperor, and of the Council of State at Paris33

After extension and repair, Longwood consisted of more than forty rooms. As accommodation Ross thought it ‘very good’; Glover described it as ‘an English gentleman’s country seat’. Napoleon was initially satisfied,34 entertained enthusiastically for a fortnight, when the novelty wore off. With house-room for almost all his followers, and stabling for twelve horses, a carriage and phaeton, he had company as well as provision for exercise. At 1,750 feet above sea level, the site of the house was cooler – about 65°F – than the lower valleys and coast. It was surrounded by a park of about four miles circumference, partly cultivated as a farm by the East India Company. Its perimeter marked the first line of sentries; a second some way beyond formed an enclosure about twelve miles in circumference. Within this area Napoleon and his followers had free movement; beyond, they were accompanied by an English officer35

Cockburn’s hope that the French party would become reconciled to their fate after moving to Longwood was not soon realised. The move itself on 10 December brought forth a tirade against the British government and, more particularly, against the regime exercised by Cockburn. He had been prompt in forbidding Dr. O’Meara, the naval surgeon placed at Longwood, from acting as a British officer and accompanying French residents beyond the sentry line, he having on 17 December gone with General Gourgaud to see the island’s Governor36 At Longwood this prohibition was received as ‘an affront, as insulting to him as to us’.

On 21 December Montholon gave vent to the range of grievances the decision provoked. To the injustice of sending Napoleon to St. Helena was added ‘that of relegating us to the most savage part of the island’, lacking ‘convolutions’ of which British ministers would not have dared deprive them. ‘Yet every day those communications with the inhabitants, which are authorised by such of your instructions as you have made known to us, are additionally restricted’. Visitors to Longwood were obliged to receive their passports from Cockburn. Thus the French party could ‘not freely see’ even the island’s inhabitants. Anything wanted from town had to be ordered in writing. Yet errors had given rise to a ‘multiplicity and continual variations of orders’:

‘I appeal to you, Sir, whether every day does not bring about a change in our position, or whether we are only subject to fixed rules.’

They were in want of everything; ‘the little furniture placed at Longwood appears to have been composed of articles grown old in waiting rooms’. General de Montholon had been charged to buy articles from the 4,000 napoleons given up before leaving the Bellerophon, but Cockburn had ordered the Jamestown shopkeepers not to deal with them. For shooting, they wanted fowling pieces; but only if returned each night. The scenery around Longwood consisted of barren rocks which they could only ‘contemplate with horror’; the gum trees gave no shade; and the water was scanty and of bad quality. ‘The Emperor is ill off at Longwood and is much incommoded by the smell of oil paint, the climate is here more disagreeable than in all the rest of the island: one lives in the circle of clouds and in a very damp atmosphere; the health or the Emperor is deranged, and we all of us suffer’37

In reply, regarding an ‘Emperor’ Cockburn had no cognisance. As to the letter:The very uncalled for intemperance and indecency of the language which you have permitted yourself to use to me respecting my government I should not perhaps, Sir, condescend to notice, did I not think it right to inform you that I shall not in future consider it necessary to answer any letters which I may receive couched in a similar strain of unfounded invective; and to assure you how much you are deceived if you really believe the Government of Great Britain have not “dared” (as you have been pleased to express it) to give every requisite order for authorising whatever measure may be deemed necessary; as well as for the furtherance of the purposes for which you and the other French officers and persons… have been sent here or for insuring a continuance of due tranquillity and security to the island; although I have the satisfaction to add that the instructions hereupon breathe throughout the same moderation and justice which has hitherto characterised the whole conduct of my Government towards you; and which (notwithstanding your individual assertions to the contrary) will, I have no doubt, obtain the admiration of future ages as well as every unprejudiced person of the present.

Cockburn stood by his orders: changes in them were only made to suit the convenience of the French party; Longwood was ‘beyond comparison the most pleasant as well as the most healthy spot of this most healthful island’; Napoleon had expressed himself satisfied with the house; Cockburn had given no orders to tradesmen in Jamestown; and it was not for him to explain to Montholon his grounds for finding fault with O’Meara38

Even so, there is evidence that Cockburn was influenced by Montholon. Following the move to Longwood, he had made every effort to mitigate the harsher features of Napoleon’s captivity. Thus, for example, at half past eleven one Saturday night Captain Poppleton, the officer on duty at Longwood, was informed by Glover that the Admiral was ‘much annoyed’ that afternoon to learn Napoleon had not been allowed to pass the sentry at Huts Gate. Poppleton had to explain to Napoleon that it was ‘entirely a mistake either of the officer at Huts Gate or of the orders given him’; at the same time he had to ‘state that General Bonaparte and all his suite (including servants) have the liberty of passing and repassing anywhere within the (outer) cordon of sentries’39 Aggravated by the sight of the guards, Napoleon requested they be allowed to wear civilian clothes; Cockburn accordingly directed the officer on duty at Longwood not to wear uniform40 Six days after Montholon’s tirade, Cockburn allowed Englishmen and the inhabitants of the island working at Longwood to have passes and periods of leave to visit other parts of the island. Another four days later, Count Bertrand was allowed to grant passes to people wishing to visit Longwood, or those who were invited – the passes simply to be deposited with the sentry at the lodge gates and sent to Cockburn next morning. Later, he facilitated purchases from the 4,000 napoleons confiscated on the Bellerophon, and did courtesies like passing on English newspapers, even before he had read them himself41

Such measures indicate a degree of flexibility. On the major issue however -Napoleon’s ability to exercise beyond the outer cordon of sentries unaccompanied by a British officer – Cockburn remained firm. As both knew, a concession on that point would have rendered control of Napoleon’s movement next to impossible. His determination not to concede it reinforced by his distrust of Napoleon. On the voyage out, he noticed behaviour that disqualified him, to his mind, as a gentleman. Being no gentleman, in his view, Napoleon lacked the honour to keep to his word.

His distrust increased after the move to Longwood when Napoleon’s domination of his followers again became apparent. In a private conversation with Montholon, Cockburn discovered that the letter of 21 December had virtually been dictated by Napoleon: ‘Written in a moment of petulance of the General (who has been subject to paroxysms of such nature)’. Montholon ‘was aware of the reproach to which he subjected himself by writing it’; indeed he ‘considered the party to be in point of fact vastly well off and to have everything necessary for them’42 The sarcasm with which Cockburn denied Napoleon emperor status fuelled the captive’s frustration43 The ‘paroxysm’ produced by Cockburn’s insistence in December that all visitors to Longwood carry passes was reported by O’Meara reported to an Admiralty friend. ‘He [Napoleon] sent for me in great haste and with considerable emotion’ and demanded that Cockburn’s orders be rescinded.

It is, added he, an insult and one of those which are daily offered to myself or some of my followers. I will never receive any person coming with a Pass from the Admiral, as I will immediately set down the person receiving it as like the donor and a “spy upon me”. Tell him that his sending to inform me that the sentinels are placed in order to prevent people from annoying me with visits is only adding wrong to insult. I will chuse myself what kind of visitors I like…

Was the Admiral to heap every kind of benefit on me, the manner in which he does it would make me conceive each and every one an insult – everything is given to us as if we were demanding alms.

Yet face to face, Cockburn and his captive still seemed capable of reviving that rapport they had established on the voyage. O’Meara added that Cockburn had an ‘audience’ with Napoleon a few days later and was able to satisfy him that ‘several of the things he had imputed to him had been misrepresented, and they parted better friends than I expected’44

Cockburn’s resolution to enforce regulations hardened as the duration of Napoleon’s captivity lengthened and the likelihood of fraternisation between captives and captors increased. In February he had to investigate the occurrence of a ‘highly improper communication’ between a naval officer and Bertrand; and in May, a ‘suspicion’ that an army officer had been asked to carry letters for Napoleon. He was as rigorous with his own subordinates as with the French party in insisting that written communications to or from the French were read first by himself. From February permission to visit Longwood and even spoken communication with detainees had to receive his sanction45 The insulation of Napoleon and his followers from their captors soon seemed justified. In April the consul at Rio de Janeiro wrote to warn Cockburn of the arrival of a number of Frenchmen and their families who had emigrated ‘chiefly from motives of disgust at the Restoration’. One was alleged to have been a member of Napoleon’s ‘secret police’. It was therefore probable that attempts would ‘be made by some of them, or at any rate by their means, to open a secret correspondence with General Bonaparte46

Such fears were given substance by the interception of proposals for Napoleon’s escape. A letter intercepted in St. Helena’s Post Office, written by a Frenchman in English to escape suspicion, spoke of preparations for Napoleon’s escape by rope down a cliff and then by boat drifting before the wind to a ship 14 miles to leeward. The writer described the boat – ‘a masterly contrivance’ – as shaped like an old cask and painted the colour of the sea. It was ‘so ingeniously wrought inside (being steel) that it will render and stretch to 4 times the length it appears to be with a clever graplin at one end that will spring out with pressure of the thumb’. The also spoke of ‘the most cordial fraternal reception’ Napoleon would receive in the United States, and the support he would obtain from Americans as well as from people in France and Spain47

In London fears of such a rescue turned ministers ‘thoughts towards the need for a trained engineer to inspect the island and propose improvements in the physical barriers to escape48 On 13 March Cockburn received Bathurst’s instructions to occupy Ascension Island in order to remove ‘the facilities’ it would provide to people planning Napoleon’s escape. Late in April, H.M.S Havannah was accordingly sent from St. Helena with a detachment of soldiers to occupy the island49

By this time, Cockburn had been relieved of his custodial duties. Major General Sir Hudson Lowe arrived in mid-April to become Governor of the island with special responsibility for Napoleon. Cockburn remained commander-in-chief of the Cape station for a while longer but had transferred his custodial responsibility by 17 April when he went with Lowe on the latter’s first visit to Longwood as Governor. It was to prove a humiliating experience, for Napoleon took the opportunity to revenge himself on his gaoler by adopting ‘some rather unpleasant points of etiquette’.

Lowe had made an appointment for them both. When they reached the house, he informed Bertrand that he and Cockburn would ‘go up’ together.

From the outer reception room, Lowe was immediately shown into Napoleon’s apartment and only after half an hour – on turning to ask Cockburn if he had brought with him a copy of the Regent’s speech – did he discover that his predecessor in office had not followed him into the room.

On going out I found Sir George in the anti-chamber much irritated. He told me Bertrand had almost shut the door in his face as he was following me into the room; that a servant had put his arm across him. He said he would have forced his way, but that he was expecting I would have turned round to see if he was following me, when he supposed I would have insisted on our entering the room together…

Napoleon was ready to receive him after Lowe went in search of him. But Cockburn would not go in50 Both Bertrand and Montholon visited him later to make apologies, but he remained affronted.

Cockburn was relieved as commander-in-chief on the Cape station by Sir Pulteney Malcolm in mid-June. He sailed for Ascension island and Spithead with Glover on the 19th. According to Glover, his departure caused a ‘general regret… testified on the crowded beach as we embarked’; his ‘hospitality’ had made him a ‘universal favourite’. But Napoleon was glad to be rid of him; indeed had occupied his time in drawing up a memorial against him. According to Napoleon, Cockburn’s behaviour had been ‘rough, overbearing, vain, choleric and capricious’ – an opinion strikingly similar to that Cockburn had suggested of his captive in his diary on the voyage51

In London, Cockburn’s balancing act between gaoler and host was already appreciated. The Prince Regent deigned to notice his conduct. Bathurst observed that he had ‘discharged a very delicate trust with great zeal and judgement’. He had not been imposed upon by an authoritative tone, deceived by mis-representation or cajoled by flatteries; at the same time he had been mindful ‘of that tenderness and respect which adverse fortune, however merited, has ever a right to claim from the generous and humane’52

Cockburn’s achievement gains in perspective when compared to that of Sir Hudson Lowe. After an angry exchange in August 1816 Lowe never met Napoleon again, though he was to remain Governor of the island until after his captive’s death in 1821. To those who remained on St. Helena, he appeared to lack drive, organisation, as well as tact. At Longwood progress in building works fell off. According to Major Barnes, who wrote to Cockburn late in July, the means were abundant ‘but the system, the energy and the soul of the thing’ was wanting. Little was done to alter Cockburn’s security arrangements: new regulations simply recapitulated those already established53 And Lowe himself admitted a reluctance to alter arrangements for supply. ‘The subject of the general provisioning of this island for the navy, the inhabitants, the East India Company’s troops is one of very complex consideration’, Lowe advised Bathurst on 21 April 1816. The island was then ‘pretty well supplied’ so he would not be ‘too hasty in making any change’54 Instead Lowe tired the French party ‘to death with volumes of trifles’. Things were ‘not well managed, Malcolm informed Cockburn on returning to England in September 1817; ‘I sincerely wish they had left you Governor and Ministers would now be better pleased’55


BL - British Library
HMC Historical Manuscripts Commission
LC - Library of Congress, Washington
NLS - National Library of Scotland
NMM - National Maritime Museum
SRO - Scottish Records Office

1) Lord Bathurst to Lord Melville, 30 Jul 1815, NMM, COC/2.
2) Admiralty Sec. To GC, 31 Jul 1815, NMM, COC/3.
3) 'Memoranda', War Department, 30 Jul 1815, NMM, COC/1.
4) Ross had been Cockburn's flag captain in four successive vessels since 1813.
5) GC to Melville, 2 Aug 1815, SRO, GD51/2/1081/10.
6) The senior officers 'absolutely refused to attend the examination of the baggage or the counting of money', GC to Admiralty Sec. 7 Aug 1815, LC Cockburn papers, cont.12.
7) C. Shorter, Napoleon and his fellow travellers (1908), 40, 60.
8) Cockburn's diary was published in Boston, USA, in 1833 and in London in 1888; when entitled Extract from a diary of Rear-Admiral Sir George Cockburn, with particular reference to Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte, on passage from England to St Helena in 1815 on board HMS Northumberland. Glover's was published in 1893, 1895 and 1906, on the last occasion under the title Napoleon's Last Voyages.
9) For the MS of Cockburn's diary see BL, Wellesley papers, Add. MSS. 37,294, ff.72-134; for a photocopy of Glover's see NMM, XJOD/2. For the minutes corrected by Cockburn see GC to Melville, 22 Oct, 11 Nov 1815, NLS, 886, ff.165-174.
10) W. Hastings to General G. Hastings, 24 Sep 1815, HMC Hastings MSS, iii, 379.
11) GC to Mr Dedasckoff, Russian ambassador to USA, 1 Jun 1813, LC Cockburn papers, cont 9.
12) Shorter, 44.
13) Ibid., 73; Lord Roseberry, Napoleon, The Last Phase (1937), 109-11.
14) GC to Croker, 9 Aug 1815, LC Croker papers.
15) Extract, 6; NMM, XJOD/2, f.7; for the embarrassment felt by the three, see Shorter, 84-92.
16) The following account of the course of relations is derived from Extract, 10-76; and NMM, XJOD/2, ff.16-39, 152.
17) GC to Melville, 24 Aug 1815, SRO, GD51/2/1081/19.
18) NMM, XJOD/2, ff.140, 165. Cockburn also noted their change of mood. GC to Croker, 22 Oct 1815, LC Cockburn papers, cont. 12.
19) 'Memoranda', War Department, 30 Jul 1815, NMM, COC/1, ff.5-12.
20) 79 foreigners, soldiers and their wives were transferred to the Cape. These included three gunners of the Royal Artillery who behaved badly on the voyage out. Cockburn was sorry that the whole of the Royal Artillery embarked at Portsmouth (except officers and non-commissioned officers) were 'Irishmen to a man and by no means the description of people I could have wished to have had with me on this service'. Three foreigners were sent back to Europe as well as a French servant smuggled on board the Northumberland. GC to Admiralty Sec., 22 Oct 1815, LC Cockburn papers, cont. 12.
21) His proposals for guardboats were included in the letter of 22 Oct 1815, ibid.
22) Shorter, 62.
23) GC to Colonel G. Bingham, 10 Nov 1815, BL Add. MSS. 20,114, ff.266, 269.
24) GC to Captain Poppleton, 11 Dec 1815, BL Add. MSS. 20,114, f.283.
25) By the time the French party moved to Longwood, Cockburn was 'confident not only of it being quite impracticable for the General or any of his followers to escape…, but even for them to have communication with any person whatever without my sanction'. LC Cockburn papers, cont. 12.
26) Count Bertrand to GC, 5 Nov 1815, BL Add. MSS. 20,114, f.260.
27) GC to Bertrand, 6 Nov 1815, ibid., f.265.
28) GC to Bathurst and to Admiralty Sec., both 11 Nov 1815, ibid., ff.273, 277.
29) Two of four transports with prefabricated housing arrived in mid-December, LC Cockburn papers, cont. 12.
30) GC to Admiralty Sec. 11 Nov 1815, BL Add. MSS. 20,114, f.273; GC to Admiralty Sec. 9 Feb 1816, LC Cockburn papers, cont. 12; H. Chamberlain to GC, 17 Apr 1816, BL Add. MSS. 20,115, f.55. 'Mules were necessary owing to the local farmers' oxen being overworked and ill fed.
31) See BL Add. MSS. 20,114, ff.271, 307. When supply ships did arrive, Cockburn then faced a storage problem. Provision for 6-7 months were placed in the Northumberland and some in the timber houses not in use by troops. LC Cockburn papers, cont. 12.
32) Lieut. General Lord Charles Somerset to GC, 29 Dec 1815, BL Add. MSS. 20,114, f.307.
33) See BL Add. MSS. 20,114, f.299, BL Add. MSS. 20,115, f.43.
34) Shorter 63; NMM, XJOD/2, f.147; GC to Admiralty Sec. 13 Dec 1815, LC Cockburn papers, cont. 12.
35) NMM, XJOD/2, ff.149-150.
36) GC to Capt. Poppleton, 18 Dec 1815, BL Add. MSS. 20,114, f.288.
37) General Count de Montholon to GC, 21 Dec 1815, BL Add. MSS. 20,114, f.293.
38) GC to Montholon, 22 Dec 1815, ibid., f.300.
39) J.R. Glover to Poppleton, n.d., BL Add. MSS. 15,729, f.17.
40) NMM, XJOD/2, f.151.
41) BL Add. MSS. 20,114, ff.304, 309-10; BL Add. MSS. 20,115, ff.30, 70. On 4 June 1816 Cockburn advised the Admiralty that £1,757, or nearly half, of the 4000 napoleons had been spent. LC Cockburn papers, cont. 12.
42) GC to Bathurst, 12 Jan, 17 Mar 1816, BL Add. MSS. 20,115, ff.2, 36.
43) GC to Bertrand, 14 Mar 1816, ibid., f.30.
44) Dr O'Meara to J. Finlaison, 16 Mar 1816, ibid., f.31.
45) GC to respective officers, 17 Feb 1816, ibid., f.25; GC to Hudson Lowe, 13 May 1816, BL Add. MSS. 15,729, f.25. See also GC to Bertrand, 22 Mar 1816, BL Add. MSS. 20,115.
46) H. Chamberlain to GC, 17 Apr 1816, ibid., f.57.
47) A copy of the letter is located among papers ca Apr 1816, ibid., f.185.
48) 'Extract from Colonel Wilks remarks'. ca Apr 1816, BL Add. MSS. 20,115, f.43.
49) Admiralty Sec. to GC, 27 Dec 1815, NMM, COC/5. Ascension was 'only three days run from St Helena'. Although not previously thought necessary, Cockburn had proposed occupation of the island on his arrival at St Helena, 'not only to give us a stronger right to examine any vessels arriving there and take from them any persons who may have escaped from hence, but more particularly to prevent America or any other nation from planting themselves there as upon a hitherto unoccupied and unowned island… for the purpose of favouring sooner or later the escape from hence of General Bonaparte or any of the persons unwillingly detained here'. GC to Admiralty Sec. 22 Oct 1815, 12 Jan 1816, LC Cockburn papers, cont. 12.
50) Sir H. Lowe to Sir H. Bunbury, 22 Apr 1816, BL Add. MSS. 20,115, f.79.
51) NMM, XJOD/2, f.168; Recollections of a Long Life. By Lord Broughton…, ed. J.C. Hobhouse (6 vol., 1909), i, 343.
52) Bathurst to GC, 5 Aug 1816, NMM, COC/11, f.157.
53) Major I. Barnes to GC, 24 Jul 1816, NMM, COC/7; NMM, XJOD/2, f.163. For Lowe's instructions from the Secretary of State, 12 Sep 1815, see BL Add. MSS. 20,114.
54) H. Lowe to Bathurst, 21 Apr 1816, BL Add. MSS. 20,115, f.74.
55) Sir P. Malcom to GC, 5 Sep 1817, NMM, COC/8.

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