Riding south from Malmaison, Napoleon was joined at Niort by his brother Joseph and his brother-in-arms Gourgaud. They reached Rochefort (thirteen miles southeast of La Rochelle) late on July 3, and found the expected frigates—the Saale and the Méduse—anchored in the harbor; but behind these was a small squadron of British warships blockading the port and apparently forbidding unlicensed egress.
On July 4 Napoleon sent an inquiry to the captain of the Saale—could rooms be prepared for him and some friends for a voyage to America, and could the Saale get through the blockade? He was told that the frigates were ready, and might try to elude the warships at night, at the risk of being stopped or bombarded; but if they got through, their superior speed would soon lose the men-of-war. Napoleon now revealed the effects of his recent ordeals by beginning nine days of vacillation, turning from one plan to another for escape, and from one companion to another for advice. Joseph, who resembled him in appearance, offered to disguise himself as the Emperor, and to let himself be detained by the British, while Napoleon, in civilian dress, might be allowed to leave on one of the frigates on an apparently routine voyage. Napoleon refused to endanger his brother. Joseph himself later sailed on one of the frigates to America.
Forgetting fifteen years of war, Napoleon now played with the fancy that England, if he voluntarily surrendered, might treat him as a distinguished prisoner, and allow him a modest plot of land on which he might live as a peaceful squire. On July 10 he sent Las Cases and Savary (Duc de Rovigo) to ask Captain Frederick Maitland, on H.M.S. Bellerophon, if any passports had been received by him for Napoleon’s passage to America. The captain, of course, had none. Then Las Cases asked whether, if Napoleon surrendered himself to the British, he might expect to be treated with the usual generosity of the English people. Maitland replied that he would be glad to receive Napoleon and take him to England, but that he had no authority to make any promise about his reception there.
Shortly before or after or during that conversation Captain Maitland received from his superior, Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Hotham (then cruising off the northwest coast of France), a message apprising him that Napoleon was in or near Rochefort, and was intending to cross to America. The admiral added: “You will employ the best means of preventing him from sailing on the frigates…. If you have the good fortune to capture him, you will put him under good guard, and proceed with all careful speed to a port in Britain.”19
On or about July 14 Napoleon received warning that Louis XVIII had ordered General Bonnefours to proceed to Rochefort and arrest him.20 Bonnefours acted as slowly as he dared. Napoleon now felt restricted to three choices: to surrender to Louis XVIII, who had every reason to hate him; to risk capture in an attempt to defy the British blockade; or to surrender to Captain Maitland in the hope of British generosity. He chose the last course. On July 14 he wrote to the Prince Regent, who was then ruling Great Britain:
YOUR ROYAL HIGHNESS:
Exposed to the factions which distract my country, and to the disunity of the greatest powers in Europe, I have ended my political career, and I come, like Themistocles, to sit at the hearth of the British people. I put myself under the protection of their laws, which I invoke from Your Royal Highness as the most powerful, the most determined, and the most generous of my enemies, to grant me this protection.
Napoleon entrusted this letter to Gourgaud, and asked him to seek permission to take it to London by the next boat. Maitland agreed, but the boat that carried Gourgaud was long detained by quarantine, and there is no evidence that the letter ever reached its destination.
On July 15 Napoleon and his companions were taken to the Bellerophon, and offered themselves in voluntary surrender to Great Britain. “I come aboard your ship,” said Napoleon to Maitland, “to place myself under the protection of the laws of England.”22 The captain received them courteously, and agreed to give them passage to England. He told them nothing of Admiral Hotham’s message, but he warned Napoleon that he could not guarantee him a favorable reception in England. On July 16 the Bellerophon sailed for England.
In retrospect Maitland gave a good mark to his prize captive:
His manners were extremely pleasing and affable. He joined in every conversation, related numerous anecdotes, and endeavoured in every way to promote good humour. He admitted his attendants to great familiarity,… though they generally treated him with much respect. He possessed, to a wonderful degree, a facility in making a favorable impression upon those with whom he entered into conversation.23
The British crew were charmed, and treated him with the greatest deference.
On July 24 the Bellerophon reached Tor Bay, an inlet of the English Channel on the coast of Devonshire. Soon two armed frigates placed themselves on either side of the ship; Napoleon was clearly a prisoner. Admiral Viscount Keith came on board and greeted him with simple courtesy: Gourgaud followed to tell Napoleon that he had been unable to get his letter through to the Prince Regent, but had been compelled to give it to Keith, who made no mention of it.24 Keith bade Maitland bring his ship into Plymouth harbor, thirty miles away; there the Bellerophon remained till August 5. During that time it became a goal of British curiosity; from every corner of southern England men and women rode to Plymouth, crowded into boats, and waited for the imperial ogre to take his daily walk on the deck.
The British government spent days determining what to do with him. The predominant opinion was in favor of treating him as an outlaw who had been declared so by the formal declaration of the Allies, and as one who had been leniently dealt with by the Treaty of Fontainebleau, had violated his pledge to observe that treaty, and thereby had forced Europe into another war costly in lives and wealth. Obviously he deserved death, and if merely imprisoned he should be grateful. But now the imprisonment must be such as to make it impossible for the offender to escape and fight again. Some mercy might be due him for having freely surrendered, saving the Allies much trouble; but this mercy must not allow any possibility of escape. So the British government bade Keith inform the prisoner that he must make his home henceforth on the island of St. Helena, some twelve hundred miles west of Africa. It was remote, but it had to be, and its remoteness would relieve the prisoner and his custodians from the necessity of close confinement stringently supervised. England’s allies were consulted, and agreed to the verdict, merely stipulating their right to send commissioners to the island to share in supervision.
Napoleon almost broke down when he learned that he had been condemned to what he considered a living death. He fought back with passionate protests, but yielded when he saw that these were met with silent resolution. He was granted some favors. He was allowed to choose five willing friends to accompany him. He named General Bertrand, his “grand marshal of the palace”; the Comte and Comtesse de Montholon (he had been Napoleon’s aide-de-camp at Waterloo); General Gourgaud, his devoted protector; and (counting for one) the Comte de Las Cases and his son. Each was allowed to take servants and 1,600 francs. Napoleon took several servants, and managed to take a considerable sum of money. Hortense’s diamond necklace was concealed in Las Cases’ belt; 350,000 francs were hidden in the garments of his servants. Each man in the party was required to give up his sword; but when Admiral Keith came to receive Napoleon’s the Emperor threatened to draw it in self-defense, and Keith did not insist.25
On August 4 the Bellerophon left Plymouth for Portsmouth, and there surrendered its prisoner, his retinue, and their belongings to a larger ship, the Northumberland, which on August 8 left for St. Helena.