July 15 1815: NAPOLEON SURRENDERS!

“At break of day, on the 15th of July, 1815, l’Épervier French brig of war was discovered under sail, standing out towards the ship, with a flag of truce up; and at the same time the Superb, bearing Sir Henry Hotham’s flag, was seen in the offing. By half-past five the ebb-tide failed, the wind was blowing right in, and the brig, which was within a mile of us, made no further progress; while the Superb was advancing with the wind and tide in her favour. Thus situated, and being most anxious to terminate the affair I had brought so near a conclusion, previous to the Admiral’s arrival, I sent off Mr Mott, the First Lieutenant, in the barge, who returned soon after six o’clock, bringing Napoleon with him.

On coming on board the Bellerophon, he was received without any of the honours generally paid to persons of high rank; the guard was drawn out on the break of the poop, but did not present arms. His Majesty’s Government had merely given directions, in the event of his being captured, for his being removed into any one of his Majesty’s ships that might fall in with him; but no instructions had been given as to the light in which he was to be viewed. As it is not customary, however, on board a British ship of war, to pay any such honours before the colours are hoisted at eight o’clock in the morning, or after sunset, I made the early hour an excuse for withholding them upon this occasion.

Buonaparte’s dress was an olive-coloured great coat over a green uniform, with scarlet cape and cuffs, green lapels turned back and edged with scarlet, skirts hooked back with bugle horns embroidered in gold, plain sugar-loaf buttons and gold epaulettes; being the uniform of the Chasseur à Cheval of the Imperial Guard. He wore the star, or grand cross of the Legion of Honour, and the small cross of that order; the Iron Crown; and the Union, appended to the button-hole of his left lapel. He had on a small cocked hat, with a tri-coloured cockade; plain gold-hilted sword, military boots, and white waistcoat and breeches. The following day he appeared in shoes, with gold buckles, and silk stockings—the dress he always wore afterwards, while with me.

On leaving the Épervier, he was cheered by her ship’s company as long as the boat was within hearing; and Mr Mott informed me that most of the officers and men had tears in their eyes.

General Bertrand came first up the ship’s side, and said to me, “The Emperor is in the boat.” He then ascended, and, when he came on the quarter-deck, pulled off his hat, and, addressing me in a firm tone of voice, said, “I am come to throw myself on the protection of your Prince and laws.” When I showed him into the cabin, he looked round and said, “Une belle chambre,” “This is a handsome cabin.” I answered, “Such as it is, Sir, it is at your service while you remain on board the ship I command.” He then looked at a portrait that was hanging up, and said, “Qui est cette jeune personne?” “Who is that young lady?” “My wife,” I replied. “Ah! elle est très jeune et très jolie,” “Ah! she is both young and pretty.” He then asked what countrywoman she was, begged to know if I had any children, and put a number of questions respecting my country, and the service I had seen. He next requested I would send for the officers, and introduce them to him: which was done according to their rank. He asked several questions of each, as to the place of his birth, the situation he held in the ship, the length of time he had served, and the actions he had been in. He then expressed a desire to go round the ship; but, as the men had not done cleaning, I told him it was customary to clean the lower decks immediately after their breakfast, that they were then so employed, and, if he would defer visiting the ship until they had finished, he would see her to more advantage.

At this time I proposed to him to allow me to address him in English, as I had heard he understood that language, and I had considerable difficulty in expressing myself in French. He replied in French, “The thing is impossible; I hardly understand a word of your language:” and from the observations I had an opportunity of making afterwards, I am satisfied he made a correct statement, as, on looking into books or newspapers, he frequently asked the meaning of the most common word. He spoke his own language with a rapidity that at first made it difficult to follow him; and it was several days before I got so far accustomed to his manner of speaking, as to comprehend his meaning immediately.

In about a quarter of an hour, he again intimated a desire to go round the ship; and although I told him he would find the men rubbing and scouring, he persisted in his wish of seeing her in the state she then was. He accordingly went over all her decks, asking me many questions; more particularly about any thing that appeared to him different from what he had been accustomed to see in French ships of war. He seemed most struck with the cleanliness and neatness of the men, saying “that our seamen were surely a different class of people from the French; and that he thought it was owing to them we were always victorious at sea.” I answered, “I must beg leave to differ with you: I do not wish to take from the merit of our men; but my own opinion is, that perhaps we owe our advantage to the superior experience of the officers; and I believe the French seamen, if taken as much pains with, would look as well as ours. As British ships of war are constantly at sea, the officers have nothing to divert their attention from them and their men; and in consequence, not only is their appearance more attended to, but they are much better trained to the service they have to perform.”

“I believe you are right,” said he. He then went on to talk of several naval actions; adding, “Your laws are either more severe, or better administered, than ours; there are many instances of French officers having conducted themselves ill in battle, without my being able to punish them as they deserved:” among others, he mentioned the names of two naval officers; and speaking of one of them, said, “He ought to have suffered death, and I did all I could to bring it about, but he was tried by a French naval court-martial, which only dismissed him the service.” I observed, “The laws appear sometimes to be administered with more than sufficient severity. I commanded a frigate in the affair of Basque Roads; and in my opinion, the sentence of death on the Captain of the Calcutta was unjust: he could do no more to save his ship, and she was defended better and longer than any one there.” He answered, “You are not aware of the circumstances that occasioned his condemnation; he was the first man to quit his ship, which was fought some time by her officers and crew after he had left her.”

He next said, “I can see no sufficient reason why your ships should beat the French with so much ease. The finest men of war in your service are French; a French ship is heavier in every respect than one of yours, she carries more guns, those guns of a larger calibre, and has a great many more men.” I replied, “I have already accounted for it to you, in the superior experience of our men and officers.” “I understand,” said he, “from some Frenchmen who were on board your ship for several days,[5] that you take great pains in exercising your guns, and training your men to fire at a mark.” I answered, “I did so, because I considered it of the greatest importance;” and I added, “that if the frigates had attempted to put to sea, he would probably have had an opportunity of seeing the effect of it.” He asked me “if I thought two frigates, with four-and-twenty pounders on their main decks,[6] were a match for a seventy-four gun ship; and whether it was my opinion, if he had attempted to force a passage in the ships at Isle d’Aix, it would have been attended with success.” I replied, “that the fire of a two-deck ship was so much more compact, and carried such an immense weight of iron, in proportion to that of a frigate, and there was so much difficulty in bringing two or three ships to act with effect at the same time upon one, that I scarcely considered three frigates a match for one line-of-battle ship;—that, with respect to forcing a passage past the Bellerophon, it must have depended greatly on accident, but the chances were much against it; as the frigates would have had to beat out against the wind for three or four leagues, though a narrow passage, exposed to the fire of a seventy-four gun ship, which, from being to windward, would have had the power of taking the position most advantageous for herself.” He then said, reverting to what had passed before about firing at marks, “You have a great advantage over France in your finances: I have long wished to introduce the use of powder and shot in exercise; but the expense was too great for the country to bear.” He examined the sights on the guns, and approved of them highly; asked the weight of metal on the different decks, disapproving of the mixture of different calibres on the quarter-deck and forecastle. I told him the long nines were placed in the way of the rigging, that they might carry the fire from the explosion clear of it, which a carronade would not do: he answered, “That may be necessary, but it must be attended with inconvenience.” His enquiries were generally much to the purpose, and showed that he had given naval matters a good deal of consideration.

On seeing the additional supply of wads for each deck made up along with the shot-boxes, in the form of sophas, with neat canvass covers, he observed, “The French ships of war have all the preparations for action that you have, but they have not the way of combining appearance with utility.”

We had breakfast about nine o’clock, in the English style, consisting of tea, coffee, cold meat, &c. He did not eat much, or seem to relish it; and when, on enquiry, I found he was accustomed to have a hot meal in the morning, I immediately ordered my steward to allow his Maître d’Hôtel to give directions, that he might invariably be served in the manner he had been used to; and after that we always lived in the French fashion, as far as I could effect that object.

During breakfast he asked many questions about English customs, saying, “I must now learn to conform myself to them, as I shall probably pass the remainder of my life in England.”

The Superb, as I before observed, had been seen in the offing early in the morning, and was now approaching with a light breeze: he asked two or three times how soon she would anchor, seemed very anxious to know whether the Admiral would approve of my having received him; and when I went to wait on Sir Henry Hotham, requested I would say he was desirous of seeing him.

The Superb anchored about half-past ten, and I immediately went on board, and gave the Admiral an account of all that had occurred, adding, “I trust I have done right, and that the Government will approve of my conduct, as I considered it of much importance to prevent Buonaparte’s escape to America, and to get possession of his person.” Sir Henry Hotham said, “Getting hold of him on any terms would have been of the greatest consequence; but as you have entered into no conditions whatever, there cannot be a doubt that you will obtain the approbation of his Majesty’s Government.”

He then said, “How do you feel as to keeping him? would you like to part with him?” “Certainly not,” was my answer: “as I have had all the anxiety and responsibility of conducting this matter to an issue, I am of course desirous of taking him to England; but, as I do not wish to keep him, or any man, in my ship against his will, if he desires to remove into another, I shall certainly not object.”

I then delivered Buonaparte’s message, that he was desirous of receiving a visit from the Admiral, who said he would wait upon him with much pleasure.

I soon after returned to the Bellerophon, and told Buonaparte that the Admiral meant to wait on him; upon which he desired Count Bertrand to go and pay his respects to Sir Henry. I accompanied him, and while the Admiral was preparing for his visit, Captain Senhouse attended General Bertrand through the ship.

In the afternoon, Sir Henry Hotham, accompanied by Captain Senhouse, and Mr Irving, his secretary, came on board the Bellerophon. They were introduced to Buonaparte by General Bertrand, in the after-cabin, where he had a good deal of conversation with them: he showed his portable library, which was laid out in small travelling cases round the cabin; asked various questions, principally relative to the discipline and regulation of our ships of war, and finally invited them all to remain to dinner.

Dinner was served about five o’clock upon Buonaparte’s plate. This was arranged by his Maître d’Hôtel, whom I had told to regulate every thing in the manner most likely to be agreeable to his master.

When dinner was announced, Buonaparte, viewing himself as a Royal personage, which he continued to do while on board the Bellerophon, and which, under the circumstances, I considered it would have been both ungracious and uncalled for in me to have disputed, led the way into the dining-room. He seated himself in the centre at one side of the table, requesting Sir Henry Hotham to sit at his right hand, and Madame Bertrand on his left. For that day I sat as usual at the head of the table, but on the following day, and every other, whilst Buonaparte remained on board, I sat by his request at his right hand, and General Bertrand took the top. Two of the ward-room officers dined daily at the table, by invitation from Buonaparte, conveyed through Count Bertrand.

He conversed a great deal, and showed no depression of spirits: among other things, he asked me where I was born. I told him, in Scotland. “Have you any property there?” said he. “No, I am a younger brother, and they do not bestow much on people of that description in Scotland.” “Is your elder brother a Lord?” “No, Lord Lauderdale is the head of our family.” “Ah! you are a relation of Lord Lauderdale’s! he is an acquaintance of mine, he was sent Ambassador from your King to me, when Mr Fox was Prime Minister: had Mr Fox lived, it never would have come to this, but his death put an end to all hopes of peace. Milord Lauderdale est un bon garçon;” adding, “I think you resemble him a little, though he is dark and you are fair.”

When dinner was over, a cup of strong coffee was handed round; he then rose and went into the after-cabin, asking the Admiral and all the party to accompany him, the ladies among the rest. This was the only time I ever saw them in the apartment in which he slept.

After some conversation, he said, in a cheerful and playful way, that he would show us his camp bed; and sent for Marchand, his premier valet de chambre, who received his order, and soon returned with two small packages in leather cases; one of which contained the bedstead, which was composed of steel, and, when packed up, was not above two feet long and eighteen inches in circumference; the other contained the mattress and curtains, the latter of green silk. In three minutes the whole was put together, and formed a very elegant small bed, about thirty inches wide.

He then went out, and walked the quarter-deck for some time, and retired to his cabin about half-past seven o’clock. Soon after, when the Admiral was going to return to his ship, he proposed to Bertrand to take leave of him. He went into the cabin, but returned immediately with an apology, saying he was undressed, and going to bed.

In the course of the afternoon, the Admiral invited Buonaparte, with the ladies and all his principal officers, to breakfast, the following day: which invitation was accepted, apparently, with much satisfaction.

— Captain Maitland of H.M.S. Bellerophon, in the Atlantic off of Rochefort, writes about July 15 1815.

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