Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIV, 4

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIV, chapter 4
Bonparte aboard the Bellerephon – Torbay – The Act confining Bonaparte to St Helena – He transfers to the Northumberland and sets sail

On the 15th of July, the Épervier conveyed Bonaparte to the Bellerephon. The French boat was so small that, from the deck of the English vessel, they could not see the giant riding the waves. The Emperor, accosting Captain Maitland, said: ‘I come to place myself under the protection of the laws of England.’ For once at least the contemner of the laws admitted their authority.

The fleet sailed for Torbay: a host of ships cruised around the Bellerephon; the same excitement was shown at Plymouth. On the 30th of July, Lord Keith notified the supplicant of the act which confined him to St Helena: ‘That is worse than Tamerlane’s cage,’ Napoleon said.

This violation of the rights of man, and of respect for hospitality, was disgusting: if you first see the light of day on any ship, provided it is under sail, you are English born; by virtue of the age-old customs of London, the waves are considered the soil of Albion. And yet an English ship was not an inviolable altar for a suppliant, it did not place the great man who embraced the Bellerephon’s stern under the protection of the British trident! Bonpaarte protested; he argued points of law, spoke of treachery and perfidy, and appealed to the future: yet had he not, in his might, trampled underfoot the sacred things whose guardianship he now invoked? Had he not carried off Toussaint-Louverture and the King of Spain? Had he not had English travellers, who happened to be in France at the time of the breaking of the Peace of Amiens, arrested and imprisoned for years? It was permissible therefore for mercantile England to imitate what he had done himself, and inflict an ignoble reprisal; but she could have acted differently. Civil rights and the rights of man were violated in the person of the Duc d’Enghien; yet the heroic race of the Condés never claimed a drop of blood from the immortal soldier on his defeat. Monsieur Dupin’s letter makes known to us the generosity of the unfortunate Duc de Bourbon regarding his son’s remains. (See Book Sixteen of these Memoirs.)

Napoleon’s heart did not match his head in greatness; his quarrels with the English are deplorable; they revolted Lord Byron. How could he deign to honour his gaolers with even a word? It is painful to see him stoop to verbose conflicts with Lord Keith at Torbay, and with Sir Hudson Lowe at St Helena, issuing memos because they break faith with him, quibbling about a title, or a little more or less gold or honours. Bonaparte confined to himself, was confined to his glory, and that ought to have sufficed: he had nothing to ask of men; he failed to treat adversity despotically enough; one could have forgiven him for making a last slave of fortune. I find nothing remarkable in his protest against the violation of the laws of hospitality except the place and signature attached to that protest: ‘On board the Bellerephon, at sea: Napoleon.’ The harmonies of immensity are at play there.

From the Bellerephon, Bonaparte was transferred to the Northumberland. Two frigates burdened with the future garrison of St Helena escorted him. Some of the officers of that garrison had fought at Waterloo. This explorer of the globe was allowed to have with him Monsieur and Madame Bertrand, and the Messieurs de Montholon, Gourgaud, and de Las Cases, willing and generous passengers on a submerged plank. According to an article in the Captain’s instructions, Bonaparte was to be disarmed: Napoleon alone, prisoner on a vessel, in the midst of the Ocean, disarmed! What magnificent terror his power invoked! But what a lesson of Heaven’s to men who abuse the sword! The stupid Admiralty treated like a Botany-Bay felon this grand convict of the human race: did the Black Prince disarm King Jean?

The squadron weighed anchor. Since the boat that carried Caesar, no vessel has been burdened with a like destiny. Bonaparte drew near to that sea of miracles over which the Arabs of Sinai had seen him pass. The last Napoleon saw of the French coast was Cape la Hague; scene of another English victory.

The Emperor was mistaken as to the degree of interest in him, when he expressed the desire to remain in Europe; he would soon have become merely a commonplace, withered prisoner: his old role was finished. But the new location carried him to fresh fame, beyond that role. No man of similar renown has had a like end to Napoleon’s. He was not, as after his first fall, proclaimed the autocrat of a few iron and marble quarries, the former to provide him with a sword, the latter a bust; eagle that he was they gave him a rock, on the point of which he remained in the sunlight until his death, in full view of the whole world.