Christopher Woodward considers the continuing power exerted by Napoleon on the French and British during his exile on St Helena up till, and beyond, his death.
A month after Waterloo Napoleon surrendered to the British, handing himself over to Captain Maitland of the Bellerophon on the coast of Brittany. A week later the warship sailed into Brixham in Devon. The people of this small port were the first in Britain to discover that the country’s greatest enemy had been captured.
Sitting on the quay were three schoolboys, John Smart and Charlie and Dick Puddlecombe. They had been given an extra week’s holiday to celebrate the victory. To their generation Napoleon was ‘Boney’: ‘Limb from limb he’ll tear you, just as pussy tears a mouse’, parents sang to children who refused to go to sleep.
As soon as the Bellerophon anchored, the three boys joined a local baker rowing out with fresh loaves of bread to sell to the sailors but an officer shouted: ‘Sheer off. No boats allowed here ... if you don’t let go I’ll sink you’. As they rowed away, however, a sailor in one of the lower gun ports dropped a small black bottle into the water. Inside was a piece of paper bearing the words: ‘We have got Bonaparte on board.’
The boys told the town and within hours the ship was surrounded by boats. At three o’clock the enemy appeared on deck, recalled Smart. ‘He took off his hat ... and bowed to the people, who took off their hats and shouted “Hooray!”’. ‘How curious these English are,’ ....