When Napoleon became an English tourist attraction

Napoleon in Plymouth Sound, August 1815 (Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon at Plymouth) Image copyright Plymouth City Council: Museum and Art Gallery
Image caption There were so many boats in Plymouth Sound at least one writer said the sea looked like a giant theatre stage

After his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was briefly kept prisoner on a warship in Plymouth Sound. The harbour became packed as crowds flocked to see their defeated enemy. Now the city is commemorating this most unlikely, and involuntary, of south coast holidays.

After his shattering defeat in 1815 at the hands of Wellington in Belgium, Napoleon knew he would be hunted down in Europe and had planned to flee to the United States.

He found the port of Rochefort blockaded by his old nemesis, the Royal Navy, however and on the morning of 15 July surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland of HMS Bellerophon.

Michael Broers, Professor of Western European History at the University of Oxford, said: "Some of the military leaders, especially the Prussians, would have gladly shot him.

"But that was not the political culture of the time, you did not execute a head of state. But they had failed in exiling him to Elba [after an earlier defeat], they could not risk failing again."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A small retinue including officers sailed with Napoleon - and none of them could be sure of their fates

It took nine days to sail to England, the celebrity prisoner emerging rarely, except for one morning when he came up for a last glimpse of the French coast.

Arriving off the coast of England, anchor was dropped near to the tiny Devon fishing village of Brixham. However, despite an attempt at secrecy, news leaked quickly and a flotilla of small boats began to circle.

The ship moved on to the greater security of the naval base at Plymouth but the news had beaten them there too.

Here, while the European powers argued what to do with the world's highest profile prisoner, "Old Boney" pulled in the crowds.

Plymouth Sound was, to use modern phrasing, rammed. Visitors flocked not just from Devon and the South West but London too. No-one who witnessed the scene would forget it.

George Home, a midshipman aboard HMS Bellerophon, recalled: "The Sound was literally covered with boats; the weather was delightful; the ladies looked as gay as butterflies.

Napoleonic Wars

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Napoleon escaped the field at Waterloo but found nowhere to hide in France and knew many would like to see him dead

In wars following the French Revolution in 1789, an obscure Corsican artillery officer called Napoleon Bonaparte made a meteoric rise through the ranks.

Ambition and talent saw him embark on a political career which culminated in him being declared Emperor in 1804.

Time and again defeating the armies of Austria, Russia and Prussia, Napoleon's power was limited by losses to the Royal Navy, such as Trafalgar.

Finally overwhelmed by enemies and exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba in 1814, a brief comeback was ended by his defeat at Waterloo.

"Bands of music in several of the boats played favourite French airs, to attract, if possible the Emperor's attention, that they might get a sight of him, which, when effected they went off, blessing themselves that they had been so fortunate."

Dr James Gregory, lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Plymouth, said: "When he arrived, the reaction surprised and alarmed the authorities. He sat for 10 days. What should be done with him? Would his presence prompt disorder? Would someone try to rescue him? Would he come ashore? Only one thing seemed certain - this was a unique moment in history."

Monthly Magazine estimated 10,000 sightseers, Hewson Clarke's Impartial History claimed 1,000 vessels were in the Sound, the scene "beggaring all description". Edward Seymour's History of the Wars noted the people came, "regardless of experience or even of personal safety".

Midshipman Home also mentions collisions as boats surged at a possible sighting and according to several accounts, lives were lost.

Image caption Plymouth Sound now plays host to ferries and private boats but memories of Napoleon's visit are to be preserved

Napoleon apparently played up to the attention, regarding the crowds through a telescope and often doffing his famous hat, accompanied with a smile.

The reaction? Despite all the years of war, loss and odium, correspondents noted the atmosphere of general "cheerings and acclamations".

This enthusiasm, and deference shown by the crew, troubled a Times journalist sent to the scene: "This I did not like to see, it hurt the feeling of all to see so much humility paid him."

But what of his ultimate fate?

Professor Broers says: "Napoleon had wanted America, now he suggested a kind of house arrest in England. How seriously he took the idea is hard to tell.

"But it was impossible. Politically and for security reasons, he had to be a long way away. St Helena, a suggestion for his first exile and very, very remote, was quickly selected."

He left for St Helena in the South Atlantic on 7 August. He died, probably from stomach cancer, on 5 May 1821.

To mark the 200th anniversary Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery held an exhibition on the visit. Later this year an "enhanced plaque", made from a stone from the house where he died attached to granite from Dartmoor prison, will be placed on the sea front.

Plymouth's Honorary French Consul, Alain Sibiril, who spearheaded the project, told BBC Inside Out: "When we discovered Napoleon has left Plymouth for St Helena, we felt we wanted to give something back to city.

"But it has not been easy, as it is not easy to sell Napoleon to the English because obviously he's the villain, he's the enemy."

Napoleon in Plymouth was broadcast on Inside Out at 19:30 BST on Monday 28 September on BBC One South West. It will then be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

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