Saturday, 8 August 2015

Napoleon in the Plymouth Sound

In August 1815, HMS Bellerophon anchored in Plymouth Sound carrying a man who had captured the imagination of millions and changed lives across Europe. Thousands took to tiny boats to witness the spectacle. People travelled long distances to Plymouth, hiring every available vessel to go out on the water and stare at the ship and its famous passenger.

Plymouth has been the scene of many important moments in history. Most of them have involved ships coming or going. Amongst these, the capture and subsequent exile, of Napoleon was of great importance to all the people of Europe. It is 200 years this week since the 'fallen Emperor' arrived in the Plymouth Sound. He surrendered to the ship outside La Rochelle after seeking refuge on Ile D’Aix, in the Charente-Maritime whilst planning his escape to America.
 
The house on Ile D'Aix where Napoleon was
accommodated before his surrender

Whilst waiting to hear of his fate and dreaming of a future living in England, he was kept on the ship in Plymouth Sound for 10 days before being exiled to St Helena.

Many lives were lost in the 22 years of war until the final battle on a sloping field just outside the village of Waterloo. The peninsular wars were particularly long and bitter. England’s part was played out many miles away by the politicians, soldiers, sailors and of course their families. On the Iberian peninsular however, there are many physical reminders of whole areas that became embroiled in the fighting. Battlements, fortifications and memorials tell the story of the scars caused by the conflict fought by so many across the continent.
 
Napoleonic fortifications in Loredo, Northern Spain

The impact of the Peninsular wars on Plymouth itself were far reaching from the influx of prisoners of war, through the expansion of the dockyards and the construction of the military hospital at Stonehouse. Apparently Napoleon was impressed by the construction of the outer breakwater which was underway at the time of his stay in Plymouth. The strategic and naval importance of Plymouth was finally confirmed by the anchoring of the Bellerophon in the Sound with Napoleon imprisoned on board.
 
Jennycliff Bay, Plymouth where the Bellerophon anchored

The visit has been commemorated locally this summer with an exhibition at the museum and other events. There are also plans for a commemorative monument consisting of Dartmoor granite (from the prison) and stone from St Helena which arrived in the city by Brittany ferry. This was certainly one of the pivotal pints in history in which Plymouth played an important part.  
 

 

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