Napoleon had been shut up at Longwood House for more than five years before Barry O’Meara,1 Tom Johnson, and another Englishman whose name has not been recorded hit upon the idea of engineering his escape from St. Helena by means of a submarine. Although the date, 1821, seems remote for a submarine, Leonardo da Vinci had built one as far back as the latter part of the fifteenth century, William Bourne constructed another in 1578, and 50 years later King James I is supposed to have made a submerged voyage in Cornelius Drebbel’s diving boat. During the American Revolution David Bushnell’s submarine tried to sink a British man-o’-war in New York Harbor, while Robert Fulton’s Nautilus was a part of the French Navy in 1800-01, so that even in 1821 the invention was an ancient one.
1 O’Meara’s connection with Johnson and the submarine has been established solely by Montholon’s statement in The Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena, Vol. III, p. 141, that, “five or six thousand louis were expended on this project by a friend of O’Meara’s.” This may seem like slender evidence, but from what we know of Barry O’Meara it is hardly possible that he was not an active participant in the expedition.
Barry O’Meara occupies rather an anomalous place in history. Originally an army doctor who had been requested to resign from the service after being involved in a duel, he managed to wangle a naval appointment and was surgeon of H.M.S. Bellerophon when Napoleon boarded her at Rochefort on July 15, 1815. During the passage to England a friendship sprang up between Napoleon and O’Meara. When the Emperor’s own physician refused to go to St. Helena, Napoleon asked that Dr. O’Meara be allowed to accompany him. At St. Helena O’Meara was quite the slippery intriguer. Napoleon bought him over and it was through him that the Emperor’s secret correspondence was smuggled to Europe. At the same time, he spied on Napoleon for Governor Lowe; and, unknown to either Napoleon or Lowe, O’Meara reported the Emperor’s private conversations to a friend in the British Admiralty who circulated the dispatches among the Cabinet. Banking on the influence that this gave him with the Government, O’Meara openly flouted Sir Hudson’s authority. Of course, that sort of thing couldn’t go on forever, and in July, 1818, O’Meara was dismissed from his post. Returning to England he wrote several mendacious pamphlets and a book vilifying Sir Hudson Lowe and making a martyr of Napoleon. Almost overnight O’Meara became a London celebrity and his Napoleon in Exile deceived a generation. The motives behind O’Meara’s double dealing—other than greed and a desire for notoriety—are unfathomable. But, even if his loyalty was purchased, he was, in his own strange way, faithful to the Emperor.
Tom Johnson, a minor naval hero and one of the most extraordinary of all the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century smugglers, first came into the public eye when, in 1798, at the age of 26, he and another were “apprehended for obstructing and ill-using some revenue officers on the Sussex coast.”2 They were thrown into the New Gaol in the Borough, from which they shortly made their escape “in a most daring manner.” The authorities considered Johnson of sufficient importance to offer a reward of £500 for his recapture. In 1799 he emerged from hiding to volunteer his services as pilot to the British expedition to the Helder, North Holland. As a naval foray the expedition was a great success, even though the military, and most important part of it, was a dismal failure. But Johnson performed his duties so well that General Abercromby and the Duke of York prevailed upon William Pitt to grant him a free pardon. Johnson is next described as plunging into an extravagant mode of living, contracting debts to the amount of £11,000. To pay these off he went back to his old trade of smuggling. The revenue men were unable to catch him, but the bailiffs soon had him in the Fleet for debt. The officers of the Inland Revenue immediately pounced upon him with smuggling charges, and he was “capitally indicted, on very strong grounds.” One dark night in November, 1802, Johnson, with the aid of a bribed turnkey, pried his way out of his cell and scaled the 70-foot outer wall of the prison. He was painfully injured in dropping to the street, but managed to crawl to where some friends were waiting in a post chaise and four. He was whisked away to a lugger stationed off Brighton and in a few hours was safely in Calais. From Calais he made his way to Flushing and there, a year later, we find him being importuned by the French to pilot the Bologne Invasion Flotilla to England. Johnson refused point-blank, even though offered a pension of £600 a year. Napoleon himself tried to persuade him to pilot the flotilla across the Channel, and when Johnson stoutly retorted that “I am a smuggler, but a true lover of my country, and no traitor,”3 Napoleon flung him into a dungeon to reconsider his refusal. Johnson, however, managed to escape to America after 9 months of imprisonment.
2 The Gentleman’s Magazine, London, 1802. Vol. LXXII, part ii, p. 1156.
3 The United Service Magazine, Vol. XXV, 1902, “An Extinct Training School for the Fighting Forces,” by H. N. Shore, p. 589.
When he returned to England the smuggling charges were dropped. In the autumn of 1805 he was entrusted with the command of His Majesty’s cutter Nile, in which he took part in Sir Sidney Smith’s abortive torpedo raids (Robert Fulton’s torpedoes were, at this time, extensively used by the Royal Navy) on the Boulogne Flotilla. During the summer of 1806 he served in Admiral Lord St. Vincent’s fleet in the blockade of Brest. On August 8 of that year we find St. Vincent writing to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Viscount Howick, that “only the vigilance of the enemy prevented Tom Johnson from doing what he professed.”4 We have no means of knowing what Johnson tried to do, but it appears that he tried to sink one of the French ships by floating a torpedo against her. Fulton, writing in 1806, speaks of Johnson as one of the few men in England who realized the value of the torpedo as a weapon of war.
Captain Thomas Johnson of the Nile cutter is also mentioned as having fought several engagements with French privateers, but, despite all this, he backslid again and was imprisoned for smuggling. However, in July, 1809, when preparations were being made for the Walcheren expedition, which, it was hoped, would crush Napoleon’s power in Holland, Johnson was pardoned for the second time and installed as pilot. The “ill-planned, ill- advised” Walcheren affair—another Gallipoli—was an unmitigated failure, but Johnson distinguished himself by swimming into the harbor, pulling a torpedo on the end of a long line, and blowing up a section of the Dutch ramparts. As a reward for this daring feat he was given a pension of £100 a year on the promise that he “should afterwards refrain from his smuggling propensities.”5
4 E. P. Brenton, Life and Correspondence of John Earl of St. Vincent, London, 1838. Vol. II, p. 298.
5 The Gentleman’s Magazine, London, 1839. Vol. XI (N. S.), part i, p. 553.
In 1814 the British Admiralty commissioned Johnson to build a submarine from the plans which they had shelved when Robert Fulton submitted them in 1804. “This singular vessel,” as the Naval Chronicle6 describes here, was an improved version of Fulton’s Nautilus,
in shape much resembling a porpoise, 27 feet in length, five in depth, and five broad, arched over, sharp at each end; her materials, principally consisting of wrought and cast iron, are in a state of considerable forwardness. The inventor of this extraordinary machine undertakes to sail her on the surface of the water as an ordinary boat; he can immediately strike her yards and masts, plunge her to any depth he pleases under water, and remain there 12 hours without any inconvenience or external communication, as occasion may require. To strike her yards and masts, and descend under water, is but the work of two or three minutes. He can row, and navigate her under water at the rate of four knots an hour; remain stationary at any particular depth, and descend or ascend at pleasure; this vessel is strongly built and so well fortified as to defy the effect of a twelve pounder at point-blank shot. It is supposed government designs this formidable invention to counteract the Torpedo system of America; the proprietor can attach any quantity of gunpowder to any sunken body and explode the same at pleasure.
On one occasion this vessel fouled a ship’s anchor cable. Her position seemed hopeless. Johnson calmly glanced at his watch and said, “We have but two and one half minutes to live unless we get clear of the cable.”7 Fortunately, the submarine drifted free and rose to the surface in a moment or two. However, she was not used in the War of 1812 and was probably broken up for scrap long before 1821.
In 1815, at the close of the war with France, Johnson was given command of the revenue cutter Fox and enforced the excise laws so effectively that he became highly unpopular with his old comrades, the smugglers. He was endearingly known to them as “that scurvy rat” and hardly dared leave his cutter when in port for fear of being waylaid and murdered.8 In 1820 he is reported to have made some experiments at Moulsford, Berkshire, with a submarine that carried a clockwork-detonated torpedo on her back. Johnson’s idea was to dive under an enemy vessel, fasten the torpedo to her bottom with a screw, and leave it there to explode an hour or two later. The trials of this boat were successful, but the Admiralty, whose attitude towards submarine warfare had undergone a radical change since 1814, “refused to sanction the project as being too diabolical.”9
6 Vol. XXXI, London, 1814, p. 287.
7 Shore, p. 591.
8 C. G. Harper, The Smugglers, London, 1909, p. 160.
9 C. W. Sleeman, Torpedoes and Torpedo Warfare, Portsmouth, 1880, p. 291.
The following year O’Meara and his nameless friend approached Johnson with the scheme to liberate Napoleon. Johnson agreed to supervise the construction of the submarine for £40,000 to be paid when she was ready to sail. He was also promised a huge but unspecified sum for piloting the vessel to St. Helena and from there to an American port. There is no denying that this was a miserable piece of treachery on Johnson’s part. While other smugglers were turned over to the press gang or allowed to rot in jail for years on end, he had been pardoned time and again; and while those who had given a lifetime of faithful service to the crown were retired on a pittance, Johnson was granted a pension equal to that of a captain in the Royal Navy. Yet, he was willing to betray his country for the equivalent of $200,000. But perhaps we should not censure him too much—greater treachery has been done for less. Benedict Arnold’s price was only $30,000.
The submarine was constructed in England, apparently for the simple reason that it was the last place on earth that the British would expect such a plot to be hatched. Building the vessel secretly was comparatively easy. At that time more than a few otherwise respectable British shipbuilders were briskly turning out numbers of small sailing craft fitted with double bottoms and false bulkheads, to be used in smuggling tea, silk, tobacco, French brandy, and other contraband. If it were represented to the proper shipwright that the submarine was to be used in a smuggling venture, not a whisper about it would have gone beyond the shipyard.
All that we actually know about Johnson’s submarine is that she was 100 feet long and that before she dived her mast and sails were rapidly lowered and stowed away in a slot in the deck. However, since we also know that Johnson had access to Fulton’s plans, we may fill in the gaps by saying that outwardly she resembled an ordinary sailing vessel. Within the external wooden hull there was a circular hull made of brass and capable of withstanding the pressure of a 60- to 80-foot dive. The space between the two hulls was used as a ballast tank. Unlike the submarines of today she was not submerged by means of hydroplanes, but by a vertical propeller at the bow. Below the surface she was driven at a speed of about 4 knots by a manually operated screw propeller. She had no periscope—that did not become standard equipment for more than 75 years. Except for the observations that the captain made by exposing the top of the conning tower for a moment and peering through one of a number of thick glass eyeports, she ran blind. Her subsurface course was determined by compass and dead reckoning. However, it was not necessary that she remain submerged most of the time. She plunged only to escape investigation, otherwise she went along under sail like a common boat. When she did have to dive, her compressed air tanks made it possible for her to run for 12 hours or more without surfacing.
Johnson and O’Meara planned to make the 70-day journey to St. Helena on the surface, approach the island at dusk, submerge, and run in close to shore.
They were not, however, the only ones who had thought of rescuing Napoleon by submarine. On January 25, 1818, Admiral Plampin, commander of the British squadron off St. Helena, sent a dispatch to the Admiralty describing a metal submarine operated by a crew of six which was to be carried on board ship from Brazil and lowered over the side a few miles from St. Helena.10 Little or no attention was paid to Plampin’s report. There is no indication that the vessel was ever constructed, nor does it appear that Johnson had anything to do with her. Doubtless she was designed by a French naval officer who had either seen Fulton’s submarine or examined the scale drawings of the Nautilus in the archives of the French Ministry of Marine.
St. Helena is a little isle; the crater of an extinct volcano, it is only 47 square miles in area and lies 1,200 miles from the nearest West African port, 1,700 from the east coast of South America and 4,500 from England. From the time Napoleon landed until the day he died, all except British men-o’-war and East Indiamen were forbidden to put in at the island. As an additional precaution, all passing vessels were stopped and examined by a number of brigs and sloops which “hovered about.” An approaching sail could be observed at a distance of 60 miles, and when a strange ship was sighted warning was flashed to every part of the island by a system of signal telegraphs. These semaphore stations were also used to keep track of Napoleon’s movements.
10 “Revue des Etudes Napoleoniennes,” Paris, 1932, p. 302, vide St. Helena by Octave Aubry, Philadelphia, 1936, pp. 348-49.
Longwood, Napoleon’s residence, was situated almost in the center of the island, isolated from the settlement on a plain more than 1,700 feet above sea level. A regiment was encamped near by, sentinels stood guard at all strategic points, and at night the cordon was drawn in close round the house. The entire garrison of St. Helena consisted of three regiments of infantry, five companies of artillery, and a detachment of dragoons—in all, about 3,000 men, in addition to the local militia. This military establishment, coupled with the fact that St. Helena was the “most inaccessible spot in the world, the easiest to defend, [and] the most difficult to attack,” made it possible to allow the Emperor a certain amount of freedom. He was at liberty to do whatever he liked within a two-mile radius of Longwood, and, although he never availed himself of the privilege, to ride beyond those limits subject only to the restriction that he remain away from the shore and that he be accompanied, at a distance, by a British officer.
A gaunt rock rising sharply from the sea, St. Helena had only one good harbor, St. James’s Bay, which was commanded by batteries of cannon and guarded by a couple of frigates. A few of the island’s other bays were also protected by fortifications, but there were no fewer than 23 places where a handful of men might safely and easily have landed from a small boat—or a submarine.
And the landing would have been a fairly simple matter. Astonishing as it may seem, Sir Hudson Lowe admits, in one of his official reports, that if a vessel could evade the naval patrol, there was “hardly any obstacle ... to their coming in close to shore in the night-time, sending in a boat, and disappearing before morning.” Lowe adds that it was impossible to watch the grounds of Longwood closely enough to prevent Napoleon’s “passing unperceived through some part of the line, particularly in rainy or foggy weather.”11 To forestall any such attempt, a British officer was billeted at Longwood and ordered to report on Napoleon’s presence twice daily. But the officer rarely saw his charge, and then only for a moment. It is more than likely that if Napoleon had managed to get away his absence would not have been noticed for some time. For example, General Gourgaud, Napoleon’s Aide-de-Camp, writes in his diary on August 1, 1817: “I haven’t seen the Emperor for four days. Has he escaped?”12 Napoleon continually protested, however, that he did not want to escape:
We must submit to our fate; our destinies are written in heaven. We must follow our Star. . . . I think I owe it to my Star to be here. . . . It is better for my son that I am here; if he lives, my martyrdom will give him the crown. . . . America I have nothing to look forward to but murder and oblivion, and I therefore prefer to stay at St. Helena. . . . I presume that when things right themselves in France and everything becomes tranquillized, the English government will allow me to return to Europe. . . . Even if I should leave here I should not return to France; my career is finished.
11 Forsyth, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena, London, 1853. Vol. I, pp. 232-33.
12 The St. Helena Journal of Gen. Baron Gourgaud, London, 1932, p. 251.
When, in November, 1820, the captain of an East Indiamen told Count Montholon, one of Napoleon’s companions, that “he had arranged everything so as to be able to receive the Emperor in a boat at a point of coast previously designated, and convey him to his vessel without the slightest risk of being stopped,” Napoleon gave some thought to the proposal and then directed Montholon to say that “he thanked the captain for his devotedness, and believed in the success of his plan but that his resolution not to struggle against his destiny being immovable, he must persist in refusing his offers.”13
13 Montholon, Vol. III, pp. 140-41.
Yet, suppose Napoleon had escaped. Where could he have gone? What could he have done? We have the considered opinion of General Gneisenau, “one of the most acute intellects of his time,” that “Peace in France is not re-established, affairs are even worse. So long as a soldier of Napoleon’s breathes . . . tranquillity will not return to that . . . nation. If Bonaparte put his foot on the soil of France he would reign more absolutely than before, and again be enabled to shake the foundations of . . . Europe.” Napoleon knew better than Gneisenau that France only awaited his coming, but was he really the political corpse that he pretended to be? Napoleon was not fool enough to believe that England would ever let him go even if the French overthrew the Bourbon monarchy and demanded his return. Neither, I am sure, did he harbor more than the ghost of a hope that Metternich would ever allow his son to rule as Napoleon II. In an unguarded moment Montholon let slip the real reason for Napoleon’s indifference to the opportunity for escape offered by the English captain: The Emperor would trust no one but a member of his own family or one of his old servants, “for, if he got on board, who knows whether, when he was three leagues distant from land, he might not be thrown into the sea.” Moreover, he expected to be rescued by his brother Joseph.
Joseph Bonaparte had collected a large following of French refugees in the United States and his rescue expedition (which does not seem to have been known to Johnson and his friends) was organized with the help of Marshal Grouchy, Generals Raoul, Lefèbre-Desnouettes, Clauzel, Charles Lallemand and his brother Henri. The plan called for almost simultaneous operations in several parts of the world. A light schooner, fitted out by Stephen Girard and carrying a number of cannon in her hold, was to sail from Philadelphia for St. Helena to ascertain the strength of the garrison and observe the positions of the British cruisers. Then, turning back, she was to mount her guns and rendezvous with the main fleet—a 74-gun ship which was to sail from a South American port, and four armed schooners that were to clear from Baltimore and Annapolis—at the Portuguese island of Fernando de Noronha.
The entire expedition, consisting of 6 ships and a force of about 2,000 men, was then
to sail for St. Helena, engage the English cruisers, and . . . make three attacks by land, one on the Capitol, another on Sandy Bay, and a third on Prosperous Bay. The first is a sham, designed to draw the English troops to Jamestown; the second, which will employ the major strength of the expedition, will carry the fort in the middle of the island; and the last will be directed against Long- wood for the purpose of carrying off Buonaparte and putting him on the swiftest sailing-ship, which will bring him to the United States.
Napoleon’s former servants, Archambault and Rousseau, who had been expelled from St. Helena in October, 1816, were to act as guides when the expedition landed.
The command of the landing force was entrusted to General Raoul, and Lord Cochrane had agreed to lead the naval attack. Thomas, Lord Cochrane, a captain in the Royal Navy who had been mixed up in an unsavory stock swindle in 1814 and cashiered after being jailed and fined £1000, would have been just the man for the job. However, in April, 1817, he was offered $25,000 a year to command the Chilean Navy, and the expedition had to get along without him. In the end his place was taken by Jean Lafitte, the pirate, and a steamboat was substituted for the man-o’-war.
Meanwhile Colonel Poli, commandant of the fort of Gavi near Genoa, and another colonel were to carry off L’Aiglon and bring him to Lucien Bonaparte. As soon as Lucien and the young Napoleon were safely in America, the Emperor intended to sail for Cherbourg, “there to try his fortune.”
The defects of this plan are obvious. Still, it had a fair prospect of success. But, luckily or unluckily, depending upon which way your sympathies lie, one of Joseph’s men was in the pay of the British and transmitted a full report to London in July, 1817. A copy of this dispatch is preserved among the Lowe Papers in the British Museum, and I have made use of the extract published by G. L. St. M. Watson in A Polish Exile with Napoleon.
As a result, several members of the South American contingent were arrested at Pernambuco in November, 1817. Naturally, this threw the whole expedition into confusion and it was some time before it was reorganized under the leadership of Charles Lallemand, Baron Rigaud, and Jean Lafitte. Lafitte’s pirate fleet was to engage the British squadron, or rather, to make a pretense of attacking it so as to draw it away from St. Helena, while French troops were landed on the island. When, in time, the Frenchmen had cut their way to Longwood and escorted Napoleon to the coast, a swift vessel, commanded by a former officer in the Imperial Navy, Captain Boissière, was to dash in and take the Emperor on board.
Although Napoleon suggested some of the details of Lallemand’s projected attack on St. Helena, it is only proper to observe that in O’Meara’s rapier thrust there was far less risk of failure than in Lallemand’s smashing saber blow. The only flaw in either scheme was that the rescuers delayed too long. Napoleon’s health began to sink in the autumn of 1820, and shortly before the submarine was launched, and just as Lallemand’s expedition was ready to sail, the news came that Napoleon was dead. The Emperor had escaped at last.
The members of Joseph Bonaparte’s various expeditions filtered back into France or drifted into obscurity in America. While Johnson never received his £40,000, the submarine seems to have been turned over to him in payment for his efforts. Not long after Napoleon’s death in May, 1821, Johnson gave the boat a trial run in the Thames during which he and several others remained submerged for 10 hours. In 1823 he tried to sell her to the Spanish Revolutionists for use against the French fleet which was then blockading Cadiz. The collapse of the revolution put an end to the negotiations and it appears that the submarine was eventually confiscated by the British Government.
In 1831 Tom Johnson turned up as a member of Dom Pedro’s naval forces in the Portuguese rebellion, but his last years were spent amidst the drab surroundings of the Vauxhall Bridge Road. He lived in his own house near the Thames dockside, and his end was like that of most adventurers. He died at the age of 67, quietly, and in bed.