The Objects

23rd Jul 1815

Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, with permission.

Napoleon in Plymouth

Contributed by: Renaud Morieux

On July 15, 1815, Napoleon left Rochefort, the French Atlantic port where he had taken refuge after Waterloo, and surrendered to Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland of the 74-gun HMS Bellerophon. The vessel then sailed to Britain. It anchored off Brixham and Torbay (Devon) on July 24, and reached Plymouth on July 26.

The exact terms by which Napoleon was received on board the Bellerophon and the nature of his conversation with Maitland still remain uncertain to this day. While Napoleon would argue until the end of his life that he had voluntarily come on board the ship, in the belief that its captain would offer him political asylum in Britain, Maitland always claimed that he had stated clearly that he was not authorized to make any promise of this sort.

While the British government was trying to reach a decision about what to do with its prisoner, the ship was anchored in Plymouth harbor, where it would remain for two weeks.

This painting, entitled Scene in Plymouth Sound in August 1815 (1816), by the Swiss John James Chalon (1778-1854), represents HMS Bellerophon (centre), surrounded by small boats loaded with onlookers.

Napoleon’s presence off the English coast aroused the curiosity of thousands of people, from all social ranks. The same scene had occured in Brixham and Torbay. Were the spectators merely fascinated by a celebrity (and what a celebrity!) whom they could see in the flesh, or, was it, as some radicals hoped and the government feared, a sign of a deeper political sympathy among the British public for democratic ideas?

On August 4, the Bellerophon left Plymouth, and on the 7th, Napoleon was transferred to HMS Northumberland, which would transport him to Saint-Helena.