The modern travel industry has brought tourists to just about every part of the world, however seemingly inaccessible. I suspect however that, though the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic is widely known as the place of detention of the ex-Emperor Napoleon, very few tourists ever get there. I’m all the more glad therefore to welcome back my guest blogger, Lally Brown, has not only lived on the island, but has also put it to very good account in writing a very authoritative book about Napoleon’s exile there. You can find out more about Lally and her books at the end of her article, but first let’s hear here tell about one of the great “What Ifs...” of history.
“Napoleon’s submarine and the escape that wasn’t”
by Lally Brown
First of all a big "thank you" to Antoine for inviting me back to write another article for the Dawlish Chronicles blog, it’s both an honour and a real pleasure.
Like many other readers I was intrigued by Antoine’s excellent and informative post of 24th March 2016 concerning the Farfadet Submarine Disaster of 1905, and I was reminded of an extraordinary plot to rescue ex-Emperor Napoleon from his exile on remote St. Helena by submarine.
Over the five and a half years of Napoleon’s imprisonment on the island of St. Helena several escape plans were hatched. Apparently Napoleon studied all of them but declined to risk any. Some were quite bizarre and some sound positively dangerous. Would Napoleon really have allowed himself to be dressed as a woman and smuggled on board a ship in Jamestown harbour? Or been lowered down a steep cliff in a basket in the dead of night? I think not! However the submarine plot, if true, must be the most hazardous of all the proposals.
The submarine story is fascinating. It starts late in 1797 when an American inventor living in Paris, Robert Fulton (1765-1815) took an original submarine drawing designed by a gentleman called Bushnell to the French government. By towing an underwater bomb, called a torpedo, Fulton was convinced his submarine (called Nautilus) could successfully ‘annihilate England’s Navy’. The idea was initially well received, but before construction could start, for some reason the project was cancelled. Possibly because Napoleon was busy elsewhere in Switzerland, Italy and Egypt.
Fulton did not give up. In 1801 he managed to meet Napoleon who agreed to give him 10,000 francs to test his invention. Fulton moved to Brest where he conducted several successful experiments. He wrote: “I conceived every experiment of importance to be proved in the most satisfactory manner’
He submitted his report but in 1802 the Treaty of Amiens was signed and hostilities between France and Great Britain were halted and Napoleon lost interest in the submarine. Disappointed Fulton moved to England and approached the authorities there. At first all seemed to be going well and Fulton began his experiments, but when the promised funds were not forthcoming Fulton left England for New York in 1806 in disgust.
Fulton’s Submarine drawings in the World Digital Library (wdl.org)
Listed as having ‘no known restrictions on publication’
It was while he was in England that Fulton apparently met the notorious Captain Thomas Johnstone (1772-1839). A very shady character who was to become central to the St. Helena submarine escape plot. Sir Walter Scott in his ‘Life of Napoleon’ described Johnstone as: ‘A smuggler of an uncommonly resolute character, and whose life had been a tissue of desperate risks.’
After Fulton’s departure for America, Johnstone stepped in and quickly took over the submarine plans and in 1812 at the outset of war with the U.S. the British Government commissioned Johnstone to build a torpedo system and a submarine and by 1814 Johnstone’s submarine was almost complete: ‘The 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.’
Unfortunately for the hapless Johnstone war with the U.S. ended in February 1815 and the submarine no longer held any interest for the British, funds were withdrawn and the project shelved. However, when Napoleon was banished into exile to the remote island of St. Helena after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, it seems that Johnstone became convinced his submarine design could be used ‘in the meritorious and humane service of rescuing the immortal emperor Napoleon’ from his South Atlantic rock.
Johnstone searched out people he felt might be willing to fund his ‘adventure’ to rescue Napoleon. In 1818 he managed to ingratiate himself with Barry O’Meara, the doctor who had attended Napoleon on St. Helena before being removed by Governor Sir Hudson Lowe. Barry O’Meara was a keen supporter of the ex-Emperor, lobbying in London on Napoleon’s behalf. Johnstone’s approaches proved successful and in 1819 he received £15,000 to start building a submarine. Where all the money came from is unclear but Count Montholon (Napoleon’s General and friend on St. Helena) says in his memoirs that ‘five or six thousand louis d’or was given to the funding of a submarine’. Johnstone immediately set up operations at Blackwall Reach on the Thames, telling the workers the submarine would be used for smuggling. It is possible the submarine was actually completed by late 1820, Sir Walter Scott says Johnstone’s 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.’
Personally I think it highly unlikely that Napoleon would have considered escaping from St. Helena inside a submarine, but let Johnstone himself have the last word. Below is an account Johnstone apparently gave to Frederick William Naylor Bayley, who included it in his own memoirs published in 1835. Whether it is fact or fantasy still remains a mystery.
‘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 , 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. Everything 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.
|Longwood House (by Lally Brown) - Napoleon's St. Helena residence|
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 lookout 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 underweigh 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.
Death of Napoleon - by Paul Léon Jazet (after Steuben)
Napoleon died on St. Helena on 5th May 1821 but if he had succeeded in escaping from the island, by submarine or any other means, our history today might be very different.
Those of you interested in learning more about Napoleon’s years on St. Helena might enjoy my book The Countess, Napoleon and St. Helena and anyone interested in the ‘what if Napoleon had escaped’ alternative history scenario will surely appreciate Shannon Selin’s book Napoleon in America.
About Lally Brown
Lally has lost count of the number of homes she has had over the years but says her most memorable are those on remote St. Helena Island where ex-Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was imprisoned and where he died; Montserrat in the Caribbean when the volcano erupted, Turks and Caicos Islands and the British Virgin Islands.
As she looks back, Lally is writing about her adventurous life using the journals she kept at the time. Her books prove that truth can indeed be far stranger than fiction, with erupting volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, evacuations, abduction, drug smugglers, people smugglers, armed robbery, hangings, stowaways, bribery, corruption, political intrigues, riots, and much, much, more.
To get more information on Lally Brown’s books click on the image above
And to learn more about Shannon Selin’s alternative history of Napoleon's career in America click on image on right:
The year is 1821. Former French Emperor Napoleon has been imprisoned on a dark wart in the Atlantic since his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Rescued in a state of near-death by Gulf pirate Jean Laffite, Napoleon lands in New Orleans, where he struggles to regain his health aided by voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Opponents of the Bourbon regime expect him to reconquer France. French Canadians beg him to seize Canada from Britain. American adventurers urge him to steal Texas from Mexico. His brother Joseph pleads with him to settle peacefully in New Jersey...