A spanking breeze was enough to bring ‘The Renown’ into harbour with a dash of old navy spirit.
As she settled to the wharf all hands were busy making good and ‘showing the flag’ to the amazed audience on the quay. They were dressed in best rig and when the admiral stepped ashore, a flurry of officials hurriedly made their way down to the quay to pay respects to such a distinguished visitor.
Admiral Lord Cochrane, sixty-five years old and plump as a turkey cock wore his full uniform and every medal he‘d received in fifty years’ service. A naval man might have wondered at some of the ribbons and insignia he wore; there were purple sashes and jeweled stars which never came from England. Upon his fore-and-aft cocked hat, sat a jewel glistening in the blazing sun.
“Our joy is as great as our surprise M’Lord.” The mayor bowed and doffed his hat. “Had we notice of your arrival, we would have shown our respect!”
“No need of ceremony,” was the reply, as if the ship’s crew always wore their best on landing at every port. The large man heaved himself down the gangplank and waved a vague salute to the Union Jack at the flagpole on the dock. He doffed his hat and wiped his face with a cloth revealing his bright red hair undiminished by age and his greying mutton chop whiskers.
The island harbour was Jamestown, St Helena; the most isolated of His Majesties Dominions in the South Ocean. It had no claim to distinction save for the outstanding fact that the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte was held here in exile. The garrison providing the guards and sentries were no more than two hundred man and officers and the total amounted to less than the crew of the warship which had moored so neatly.
“I’d be obliged if you would make my arrival known to His Imperial Highness and, of course, to the Govenor.” Cochrane was tall and looked down on the official with a kindly patronage. “Is it possible to find some shade, I find this sun a little too much for an old man!” He waved his hat like a fan and followed a servant to the veranda of the Custom House to await a formal welcome.
The Admiral was a remarkable man. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he found himself ‘on the beach’, with no fleet to command and heavily in debt. He enlisted in the Navy of the New Republic of Chile, taking command of the hastily formed navy to fight the old Regime of Spain which still held power in South America. His panache and experience had achieved wonderful results and the strange medals and jewels were awarded by the grateful new Nations he helped to create.
Hurrying down from Longwood House, Sir Hudson Lowe presented himself. “A very good welcome My Lord! May I ask what brings you to this godforsaken place?”
It took very little intuition to guess he hated the posting. Cochrane scrutinised the Governor with a shrewd eye and hesitated before replying.
“There is a matter of confidential nature I must put before the Emperor.”
“We do not address him with that title in this place.” Lowe replied, “but if you wish I can arrange a meeting. Of course, it will be my duty to attend.”
“Nonsense! This matter of personal and confidential nature and I have sworn to deal directly with,”– he hesitated–“Napoleon, and in secrecy.”
The governor stiffened as he considered this suggestion.
Clearly, such a confidence was out of line in the strictest sense, but what harm would be done?
A friendly word in Whitehall might be valuable.
“Let me consider it with the prisoner’s advisors, if they agree it may be possible.”
A warm smile crinkled the corners of the admiral’s eyes. “Then do me the honour of dining this evening aboard! It is time I had some civilised company instead of rough seadogs.”
His laugh set a flock of parakeets in flight and Lowe bowed with just sufficient nod to express his consent.
The evening went well. The officers of the Renown, kitted out in their various dress uniforms were presented to The Governor. Among the group, he was surprised to find most of them were ex officers of the British Navy, cast aside at the end of the war and had found employment in the New States; Uruguay, Chile and Argentina. By the time he had been dined, Lowe had consented to permit the audience with his prisoner on the following day.
When Cochrane landed the following morning, he found a guard of honour formed around the ancient carriage which served as the Governor’s coach. An aide de camp waited on him and they set off at a snail’s pace up the long hill to Longwood. The house sat among trees at the top of the hill and apart from a verandah which stretched the width of the house, it was a gloomy brick building with little favour. A slight mist hung in the air and Cochrane began to see why Lowe described the place in the way he did.
A French officer stood ready to greet them and showed them into a drab drawing room to await the prisoner. Knowing he would find it difficult to rise when the Emperor came in, the admiral stood leaning a little on his dress sword for support. He noticed a curtain covering the opening to an adjacent room, twitch very slightly and sensing he was observed, took up a pose to impress his observer.
Suddenly, the curtain was drawn and Napoleon stood before him. “ Mon Cher Amiral, un grand merci pour votre visite.”
The man who stood before him seemed puny to Cochrane. He was smaller than he had imagined and was dressed in field grey with no decoration. His figure was familiar to every soldier and sailor in Europe. The contrast between the large corpulent Englishman and the Emperor of All France could not have been greater.
Cochrane bowed and spoke in English. “I have come round the Cape to present the respects of the Liberated Nations to you, your Highness.”
Napoleon shrugged and held out his hand. “What am I? A Emperor of this rugged island of –“he looked for the word –“Brumes?…fogs?”
He nodded to the aide de camp and the young man withdrew, leaving the two great men alone. Napoleon took a seat and motioned Cochrane to be seated.
“You may know,” Cochrane began,” I have commanded the fleets of the Liberated Nations to drive the Spanish from the new World.”
The Emperor nodded with a slight smile. Perhaps he was comparing such a feat with the victory at Austerlitz or Jena.
“I am authorised to seek your agreement to join with the Nations and forge another great Empire here in the southern Hemisphere.” He leant forward as he spoke resting each large hand on his knees. “I bring the request of President Bolivar to offer you this golden crown which has been snatched from your head by Fate.”
Bonaparte sat motionless for a time and then cupped his face in his hand. His large domed head with the wisps of dark hair still plastered across his forehead bent to the floor. Cochrane gazed at him; wondering at the figure of the man who had held all Europe to ransom. When he lifted his head, Napoleon’s eyes had transformed his face. The light of ambition glowed with a startling intensity once more. The tired weary figure was banished and confidence lit up his countenance with new life.
“This is the Will of the Nations?”
“I have travelled a thousand miles to bring this message.”
“Then let God’s will be done!”
He rose and approached the Admiral as if to embrace him. Cochrane tried to rise but his weight defeated him and he struggled to get out of his seat.
“Stay as you are. I embrace your hands with joy and gratitude.” He took Cochranes’s hand in his and held them for a moment. In his turn, the admiral blessed his luck he had avoided a Gallic embrace.
They remained in conference for an hour. Cochrane explained that the plan was to return after the Council of Nations had ratified the plan.
“But how long will that be?” Bonaparte looked concerned,“I intend to return within three months. I will send a courier before we arrive and we will follow at the date he will specify. Be sure Monsieur L’Empereur, we will bring you in triumph to Santiago.”
“But the troops?”
“I have no doubt we can complete this exercise without bloodshed. My men are, after all, Englishmen too.”
With due ceremony the Admiral withdrew and after attending on the Governor, set sail again for Chile.
Three months to the day, a frigate of the Chilean navy appeared in the offing outside
Jamestown harbour. The Captain came ashore with a sealed order for the Emperor’s eyes only. It was never delivered. The Emperor had died three weeks before of an unknown gastric illness.
FOOTNOTE; The basis of this story is true. Cochrane devised a scheme to create a new Empire in South America and offer it to Napoleon (who was just fifty one.) The officer bringing the plan arrived three weeks after Napoleon died. The cause of death has never been finally established.