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Why did the British choose St. Helena?

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Why did the British choose St. Helena?

Postby FBC-Elvas, Portugal » October 10th, 2015, 3:28 pm

Prof. Jacques-Olivier Boudon of the University of Paris Sorbonne answers the question why the British government decided to exile Napoleon on St. Helena.

After the defeat of Waterloo the Allies were naturally concerned what would happen to Napoleon Bonaparte. The Emperor managed to leave the battlefield and return to Paris where he hoped to play a political role. The main priority of the Allies was to bring peace and order in France and to restore the Bourbons to the throne, well aware of the difficulties of such a restoration. Indeed Napoleon's return from Elba had revealed the extreme fragility of the power of Louis XVIII. Strengthening the throne was therefore a top priority, but that assumed the ousting of Napoleon from the political scene and with him all his supporters. The Allies wanted above all to prevent any revolutionary upheavals and a possible new threat from France - which led them to seize the fortresses that surrounded the country and that France had managed to preserve in 1814. Meanwhile, they encouraged the new government to punish those who had facilitated the return of Napoleon in 1815. But why then should Napoleon himself be spared the punishment planned for his cronies? Why exile him rather than condemn and execute him? And why was it that the British alone had the responsibility of deciding the lot of this cumbersome prisoner? The answer to these preliminary questions should help understand why they came to choose the island of St Helena as the place of deportation.

Even before the return of Louis XVIII to Paris, the English were determined to capture Napoleon. Having learned of his departure from the capital in the direction of the Atlantic and knowing of his plans to leave the European continent, the British government had given strict orders to prevent the Emperor getting to America. Ships posted off the French coast had orders to search any suspicious ships and to apprehend Napoleon. In an order sent 8 July to Captain Maitland: "The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty having every reason to believe that Napoleon Bonaparte meditates his escape from France to America with his family, you are hereby required and directed, in pursuance of directives from their lordships, signified to me by Admiral the Right Honourable Viscount Keith, to keep the most vigilant look-out, for the purpose of intercepting him; and to make the strictest search of any vessel you may fall in with, and if you be so fortunate as to intercept him, you are to transfer him and his family to the ship you command, and, there keeping him in careful custody, return to the nearest port in England (going into Torbay in preference to Plymouth) with all possible expedition; and on your arrival, you are not to permit any communication whatsoever with the shore …" 1

Not only did the English intend to capture Napoleon, but to hold onto him. There could be no question of handing him to a French government that was not yet fully restored. Louis XVIII only returned to Paris the same day. More generally, the British government was dubious of the King of France's capacity to decide the fate of the fallen Emperor. But the idea of handing Napoleon over to the French, for him to be tried, was not yet completely ruled out, even if it was not really taken very seriously. Thus, in a letter that the British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, sent to Castlereagh, on 15 July, 1815, (as it happens the day of the surrender of Napoleon which he obviously could not have yet known about) he said to him: "I am desirous of apprising you of our sentiments respecting Bonaparte. If you succeed in getting possession of his person, and that the king of France does not feel sufficiently strong to bring him to justice as a rebel, we are ready to take upon ourselves the custody of his person on the part of the other Powers and indeed we think it should be better that he should be assigned to us than to any other member of the Confederacy. " 2

The negative opinion that Lord Liverpool clearly held regarding the possibility that France might judge Napoleon shows that, at that time, the British were convinced that it was they who should take that responsibility, rather than any other country. They knew that they were the best placed and also the most motivated to get their hands on the fallen Emperor. Castlereagh, upon learning of the capture of Napoleon, expressed the general sentiment of the British government [in a letter to Lord Liverpool on 17th July]: “after fighting him for twenty years, as a trophy he seems to belong to us” 3.

Castlereagh who was responsible for foreign affairs, in his capacity as Secretary of State in the Tory government formed by Lord Liverpool in 1812, had a long history of fighting against Napoleonic France. 4 Already in 1808, he had been responsible for the decision that Britain intervene in Spain against the French army. In his eyes, the English were the only ones to have demonstrated consistency in the war effort against France, justifying the image of the trophy. But a trophy must be shown off in order to have value. That's why, in the aforementioned letter [17th July] to the Prime Minister, Castlereagh suggested that Napoleon be detained at Fort St. George in Scotland.

The Secretary of State appears therefore to ignore the intentions of Lord Liverpool (expressed in the same letter of 15 July): we should be at liberty to fix the place of his confinement either in Great Britain or in Gibraltar, Malta, St. Helena, the Cape of Good Hope or any colony we might think most secure. We incline at present strongly to the opinion that the best place of custody would be at a distance from Europe and that the Cape of Good Hope or St Helena would be the most proper stations for the purpose " 5

Even though St Helena already appears as one of the preferred destinations, the British government had not completely ruled out the idea of internment in Britain or in Europe. Yet six days later, on 21 July, Lord Liverpool was categorical. The choice of Saint Helena had been made. The reasons for this were two-fold: first because of a desire not to keep Napoleon in England or even in Europe, for fear that he would become the object of public curiosity, and perhaps ultimately of compassion, but above all due to the fear that he might once again be the source of a revolutionary uprising. In other words, the British Prime Minister was concerned that, after a few months of captivity, the popularity of Napoleon might provoke further unrest.

The British government was able to judge already the first effects of the capture of Napoleon. The arrival of the deposed Emperor had already generated an undeniable curiosity. Napoleon himself utilized with skill the British attachment for freedom and the right to asylum, writing on 14 July a letter to the Prince Regent: "Confronted by the factions which divide my country, and the enmity of the greatest powers of Europe, my political career has come to an end. I come, like Themistocles, to sit within the home of the British people; I put myself under the protection of its laws, which I claim from Your Royal Highness, being the most powerful, the most constant, the most generous of my enemies ". This letter would have moved the future George IV. Furthermore the crowds converged en masse upon Torbay to see the prisoner, which led the government to order the departure of Bellerophon to Plymouth. But in the harbour of that port, again skiffs loaded with the curious flocked again towards the ship upon which Napoleon was staying.

These manifestations of curiosity, even sympathy, led the British government to speed up the decision of a far-distant exile. They had to avoid at all costs the Emperor landing on English soil where he could assert his rights before a judge. That it be his intention was at least suggested by the contents of his letter to the Prince Regent. Napoleon was familiar with the English legislation on protection of individual freedom and hoped to benefit from it, a fact of which Lord Liverpool was well aware. He highlighted these questions of law to justify the removal, in his letter to Castlereagh on 21 July, but that is also why he prohibited the landing of the Emperor and his retinue. As long as he remained at sea, he was not on English soil and would never set foot there. On 29 July, Napoleon learned in the press of the project to send him to St. Helena, a fact which was officially confirmed to him on 31 July, by Lord Keith the commander of the British fleet in the English Channel when he came on board Bellerophon, accompanied by Under Secretary of State for War, Sir Henry Bunbury 6.

The idea of sending Napoleon to St. Helena was not, however, invented in July 1815. It had previously been considered earlier in 1815 when it was suggested that Napoleon be transferred from the island of Elba, considered unsafe, to another destination, but at that time the British government had not been very favourable 7. The idea resurfaced in July when the British government sought a place of detention for Napoleon. Clearly it was the island's remoteness which explained St Helena as a first choice. "At such a distance and in such a place, any espace plan will be impossible, and at such a long distance from Europe, he will be quickly forgotten," wrote the Prime Minister to his Foreign Minister 8

But they could just as well have chosen an even more distant place. Indeed the Cape was considered, but its recent integration into the British colonies and especially its proximity to the hinterland contributed to the rejection of this hypothesis. To understand the eagerness of the British to get rid of Napoleon, we need to evaluate the fear of disorder that arose from the mere mention of his name. When he returned to France in March 1815, he not only defied the European rulers who had conquered him a year earlier, but posed, in their view, a serious threat to the international order that they had painfully tried to establish in Vienna. Nevertheless the idea to have him tried and executed as a "traitor" was barely touched. When the Prime Minister underlined the fact that the solution of an execution orchestrated by the King of France would be ideal [“the best termination of the business”], he also recognized that such a solution would most likely be “impracticable” 9. So a distant exile it would have to be, which was not as it happened an unusual method, since the French themselves had used it during the Revolution and the beginning of the Consulate, sending opponents to the other side of the world.

The fact that St. Helena was an island was obviously a deciding factor in the final choice. But this aspect alone would not be enough to explain it. The British government ordered on 21 July, several reports from senior officers who had been in command at St Helena, to weigh up the benefits of such a destination. The first, written by Major General Torrens, focuses on the military strengths of the island which could be defended with limited resources: "But the whole island is a fortress and appears admirably adapted to confinement of the ex-Emperor". It also emphasizes that “the surf is almost constantly so high all around the island as to render the approach of a vessel next to an impossibly anywhere but at St James's harbour itself”. Torrens furthermore strongly recommended that Napoleon “never be allowed to approach the town of St James's where there is a constant assemblage of American traders and from whence he could escape with the greatest facility” 10.

Major General Beatson, having five years experience as commander of the island, also underlined the numerous advantages of the island. He first highlighted its remoteness, but also emphasized its compactness, and the small size of its population into which no foreigner could penetrate himself without being immediately spotted. Finally from a military point on view, the island surrounded by cliffs of 600-1200 feet, provides a natural barrier against any attempt to land. Being well-armed and fortified, it was possible to keep within constant sight of the English guns any boat attempting to drop anchor. At the same time, says Major General Beatson, a prisoner may be allowed a certain degree of freedom or even be the subject of some attentions from the Governor. He even considered that Napoleon might ride a horse. 11

The choice of St. Helena, however, required some adjustments as to the organization of the island. It was, after all, a possession not of the English crown, but of the East India Company, which represented an additional advantage in that it was not wholly under British jurisdiction. It was one of the points of support for English ships en route to India, but also for the warships that cross the South Atlantic. In some respects the government's choice illustrates the loss of autonomy of the Company, noticeable since the late eighteenth century, and that the victories against the French had accentuated leading to the reorganization of the circuits of international trade. Already in 1813, the renewed charter of the Company had led to the abandonment of the Company's monopoly over trade with the Indies. But indeed, since the India Bill of 1784, the government had control over its operation, indirectly at least, given that two members of the British Cabinet were members of the Company's Audit Office, and the Government also nominated its key officials including the Governor General. This position was held, since 1812 , by the Earl of Buckinghamshire, former Governor of Madras and the main initiator of the reform of 1813, with which the government had to deal in 1815. 12

An agreement was finally reached with the representatives of the East India Company, on 26 July 1815 13. In practice, the Company retained the management of ordinary affairs on the island, but the civil and military government of the territory was to be to be entrusted to a senior officer designated by the government and given special powers, the current governor Colonel Wilkes, receiving compensation for this loss of power. However, he would remain responsible for the civil administration of the island until the arrival of Hudson Lowe in 1816. It was also agreed that all expenses occasioned by the captivity of Napoleon would be the responsibility of the British Treasury and the exceptional provisions of the Convention would come to an end with the captivity of Napoleon. To guarantee the security of the island and to guard against possible escape attempts by sea, it was provided that with the exception of warships, only vessels belonging to the Company could anchor in the port of St James, henceforth forbidden to neutral vessels. This precaution was easier to apply at St Helena than it would have been on an island whose livelihood was dependant on the trade of its products, which was yet another reason in favour of St Helena as the final destination. "St. Helena is perhaps the place in the world from which neutrals can be excluded without any material inconvenience", wrote Lord Liverpool to Castlereagh 14.

All these negotiations were supervised by the Secretary of State who, at the request of the Prime Minister, was responsible for obtaining a formal agreement from the allies, which led to the signing of an agreement to this effect on 2 August 1815. The Russians, Prussians and Austrians accepted Napoleon's exile to St. Helena where they would be represented by a special commissioner. But the case is also closely followed by Wellington, who had a particular interest in the fate of Napoleon and was notified on 24 July of the choice of Saint Helena as the final destination. He was also consulted in particular on the military aspect of the operation, namely the choice of Hudson Lowe as Governor, and the sending of the 13th Infantry Regiment to reinforce the garrison on site 15. Given the role played by Wellington in the peace settlement, it was unthinkable that he could be kept out of the negotiations concerning the fate of Napoleon.

Finally Napoleon officially learns from the mouth of Admiral Keith the fate reserved for him. Not being familiar with English, he asked Las Cases to translate for him the missive from the chief commander of the English fleet in the Channel and discovers the conditions of his captivity: "The island of St. Helena was chosen for his future residence; its climate is healthy and the local conditions are such that he may be treated more leniently than would be possible elsewhere, bearing in mind the necessary precautions that will be necessary to ensure his person" 16. It was indeed to a prison island that Napoleon was headed on board Northumberland in August 1815. Having been born on an island, Corsica, 46 years earlier, it was said of him that “the sea was his destiny” 17.

Bibliographical details
Certain references marked with an asterix * refer to original English language documents whereas the original French article in some cases cites sources of documents in French translation.

1 Cited in Sir Walter Scott, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, Volume 3 page 271. *
2 quoted in Napoleon After Waterloo: England and the St. Helena Decision by Michael John Thornton 1968 page 59 *
3 Lord Castlereagh to Lord Liverpool, 17th July 1815, quoted in British diplomacy, 1813-1815 : select documents dealing with the reconstruction of Europe by Webster, Charles K. (Charles Kingsley), Sir, 1886-1961 London, G. Bell and sons, 1921, 410 p., p. 350.
4 John W. DERRY, Castlereagh, Londres, Allan Lane, 1976, 247 p.
5 quoted in Napoleon After Waterloo: England and the St. Helena Decision by Michael John Thornton 1968 page 59. *
6 Général Baron GOURGAUD, Journal de Sainte-Hélène 1815-1818, éd. Par Octave Aubry, Paris, Flammarion, 1947, t. 1, p. 49.
7 Rory MUIR, Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon 1807-1815, New Haven-London, Yale University Press, 1996, 466 p., p. 343.
8 quotation translated from a French translation. Liverpool to Castlereagh, 21 July 1815, in Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, K.G., edited by his son, The Duke of Wellington, K.G., London, John Murray, 1864, vol. 11, 753 p., p. 47.
9 “To conclude, we wish that the King of France would hang or shoot Bonaparte as the best termination of the business ; but if this is impracticable, and the Allies are desirous that we should have the custody of him, it is not unreasonable that we should be allowed to judge of the means by witch that custody can be made effectual”, Liverpool to Castlereagh, 21 July 1815, in Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, op. cit., p. 47.
10 Major-Général Torerens au comte Bathurst, 22 July 1815, in Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, op. cit., p. 51.
11 Memorandum concerning the Island of St. Helena, by Major-General Beatson, 28 July 1815, ibid., p. 74-77.
12 Philip LAWSON, The East India Company. A History, London, Longman, 1993, 188 p., p. 140.
13 Charles Grey and Thomas Reid to the Earl of Buckinghamshire, 26 July 1815, in Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, op. cit., p. 61-62.
14 Liverpool to Castlereagh, 28 July 1815, ibid., p. 80.
15 Earl Bathurst to Wellington, 24 July 1815, ibid., p. 55-6. The secretary of state for War and the colonies writing to the Duke of Wellington, about Hudson Lowe: “I do not believe we could have found a fitter person of his rank in the army willing to accept a situation of so such confinement, responsibility, and exclusion from society”
16 Emmanuel de LAS CASES, Le Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, Paris, Flammarion, rééed. 1983, t. 1, p. 45.
17 See Jacques-Olivier BOUDON, "La mer comme destin", in Jean-Marcel HUMBERT et Bruno PONSONNET (Eds.), Napoléon et la mer. Un rêve d'empire, Paris, Le Seuil, 2004, p. 16-23

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Re: Why did the British choose St. Helena?

Postby Shannon Selin » October 14th, 2015, 4:42 pm

Great article. Thanks for posting, Sarah.

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Re: Why did the British choose St. Helena?

Postby Mark » October 14th, 2015, 7:45 pm

Thanks for posting, Sarah! Most interesting.

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