Napoleon comes to Plymouth…

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I have the great good fortune to live not far from Plymouth, Devon. Ever since the days of Sir Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada, Plymouth has played a key role in Britain’s maritime history. But it was on this day in 1815 that perhaps the most amazing sight was ever seen on the harbour…
This description of the scene is taken my from little non-fiction volume, Stockwin’s Maritime Miscellany

Shortly after the Battle of Waterloo Napoleon Bonaparte surrendered – not to Wellington but to the captain of the ship that had dogged his steps for more than 20 years, Bellerophon – ‘Billy Ruffian’ to her crew. The ship sailed for England and the ship anchored at Torbay. Every effort was made to keep the famous man’s presence a secret and no-one was allowed to come on board. However a sailor dropped a black glass bottle into the water which was retrieved by some young boys in a small boat nearby. Inside the bottle was a rolled piece of paper with the electrifying message, ‘We’ve got Bonaparte on board.’

In 1816 British artist John James Chalon recreated the scene when Napoleon came to Plymouth

In 1816 British artist John James Chalon recreated the scene when Napoleon came to Plymouth

Once the word got out the vessel was quickly surrounded by sightseers in everything that could float. Bonaparte even appeared on deck to greet the crowds. The British government were worried that the emperor might escape before they could work out what to do with him so Bellerophon was hastily ordered to weigh anchor and sail to Plymouth, with its more secure harbour.

Needless to say people thronged there; at the height of the madness 10,000 people boarded 1000 boats in an attempt to get a view of the most famous man in the world. Several even drowned in the frenzy.

The crew of Bellerophon hung notices over the ship’s side as to their famous guest’s movements: ‘In cabin with Captain Maitland’, ‘Writing with his officers’…

Among the crowds were large numbers of pretty young women and fashionably dressed ladies, naval officers, red-coated army officers, smartly-attired gentlemen. The men took off their hats respectfully when Napoleon showed himself as he did every evening around 6 p.m. He commented on the beauty of the young ladies and appeared astonished by size of the crowds.

On August 7 Napoleon was transferred to Northumberland for exile in St Helena, where he remained until his death in 1821.


Stockwin’s Maritime Miscellany is published by Ebury Press. It is available in hardback and ebook format worldwide.

Copyright notices
Image: John James Chalon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

2 Comments on “Napoleon comes to Plymouth…

  1. I found this prize-read as a hardback in a second-hand store, and thought myself an exceptional winner. What a remarkable expansion of history I’d never known before .. and I’m a student of Napoleonic wars history. Imagine, if you can, that Hitler (e.g.) was on display after the war in a glass-front parlor directly off Picadilly. Would you have traveled some distance to view such an ogre?

  2. in an age of so called celebrities it is hard to imagine a response today anywhere near that accorded to the arrival of Napoleon. A fascinating insight into history and the far reaching effects of the Napoleonic wars.

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