Chapter One - The Capture. Extract from a Gilded Cage

Extract from A Gilded Cage: CHAPTER ONE: THE CAPTURE


In 1810 Lucien Bonaparte and his family lived at Musignano a country house some 90 miles north-west of Rome, and just south of the small town of Canino.  When the day came in August of that year to leave their home and set out to board ship for America there must have been a general feeling of trepidation and mixed emotions.3  This departure had taken months of planning and preparation by both family and staff.  They had all enjoyed a comfortable home in the countryside of Tuscania and relished the pleasant lifestyle.4  Now they all were about to make a huge leap into the unknown.

Lucien had been contemplating emigration to America for some time but had always hoped that it could be avoided.  If only ‘they’, the family, would leave him alone.  Yet he knew he had little choice; he believed that his brother, who was becoming increasingly autocratic, was more than capable of having him arrested and even assassinated.  Now that his mentor, his Holiness Pope Pius VII, had been obliged by Napoleon to go into exile in France, it seemed that there was now all the more reason to go.  The main task was to get away and hope that his ‘escape’ would remain undetected until he was well beyond the influence of his ‘imperial’ brother, who he feared could change his mind at any time.

Alexandrine, Lucien’s wife, would have shared his concerns but she would have been even more anxious for their children – aware of the risks and uncertainties of sailing across oceans but probably more concerned for their
future as émigrés in a strange land far from the culture they had known.5  For the thirty or so staff and servants accompanying them it was an act of faith that the head of the household knew what he was doing.  Many of them had already followed him to Spain and to Paris and more recently here to Rome and Canino.  Their loyalty was well proven but this voyage to the New World was a huge step.  Was it a step too far?  Perhaps some of the staff saw this as an opportunity for themselves in the ‘land of the free’?  In any event the decision had been made – it was time to depart.

In all probability Lucien, his secretary Monsieur Joseph Servières and his long time friend and companion Monsieur Count Charles de Châtillon had already set off for the port of Civitavecchia; the ancient port on Italy’s east coast that served Rome.6  If they were going to avoid last minute problems they needed to ensure that the family entourage could embark in suitable conditions and that the considerable baggage train, already on its way, was received aboard ship.  The farewells from the old and infirm retainers remaining behind would have been loud and tearful as the convoy set off.  The family would have been split between several coaches perhaps each holding an adult with one or two children.  We might imagine that Alexandrine travelled with her youngest child the eighteen month old Paul7 and his nurse-maid together with the family priest Père Maurice8 as companion.  In the next coach three year old Jeanne and her nursemaid travelled under the watchful eye of twelve year old Anna9,
Alexandrine’s daughter from her first marriage, and perhaps accompanied by the family physician, Henri de France.  Following on in the third was Lucien’s nephew-by-marriage, André Boyer looking after Charlotte10 or ‘Lolotte’ as the family called her and Christine-Egypta11 known as ‘Lili’, the two girls, 15 and 12, were born to Lucien’s first wife, Christine.12  In the fourth coach, on one bench seat were Alexandrine’s eldest Bonaparte children, Charles-Lucien, 7, and Letitia, 6 with their tutor, L’Abbé Charpentier de Bâle, on the other.  Finally Madame Servières, the secretary’s wife, and her child probably shared a carriage with some of the senior staff who, by one account, numbered 23 servants, ten women and thirteen men.13  Some of these servants were Corsicans who had loyally followed Lucien from their homes in Ajaccio.  Even if some of the younger servants had travelled both on top and behind each coach one could again imagine that two further coaches, or perhaps carts, would be needed to transport the remainder of the retinue.

After the farewells the bone shaking tedium of the 40 mile journey would have soon taken its toll on everyone’s patience as the carriages creaked and groaned on the hot dusty road to Civitavecchia.  Given the young age of the children and the slowness of travelling in convoy on poor roads they may well have had a night’s rest on the way.  The sight of the sea and the tangle of ships’ masts would have raised their spirits and signalled a welcome relief to the end of the first phase of their journey.  As they approached closer to the quay that lay under the protection of the round turrets of Fort Michelangelo they would have seen their ship anchored a few hundred yards offshore identified by its American flag hanging limply from the stern post.  As their cutter approached the ship its name would have been discernible on the stern, Hercules.

The story of how this American vessel, Hercules, came to be chosen is an interesting one and comes from the detail gleaned from the subsequent legal action taken by the crew.14  They were to sue the owner, in a Massachusetts court, for the wages that they were owed from this voyage.  It would appear that due to the risks of sailing into the European war zone the owners had intended only paying wages if the voyage made a profit.  It would seem that this condition had not been explained to the crew when the Hercules, under the command of its master Edward West, had sailed from Salem, America, on 2 August 1809.  The ship arrived at her Naples destination on 15 September where she unloaded her cargo only to find as it was taken ashore that it had been sequestered by the Neapolitan Government and auctioned off.  Then in March 1810 the Hercules and her crew, which had been detained for the past four months at Naples, learned that, along with 29 other American vessels, it had been confiscated.  This order had been made apparently by the then King of Naples and Sicily, Joachim-Napoleon Murat (Lucien’s brother-in-law) on orders ‘from Paris’ for violating the blockade.15  The ships and their cargoes were then to be sold off and the proceeds used by the government.  Edward West and his crew remained aboard, prisoners in their own ship.  West could only sit and wait for his ship to suffer a similar fate to those others that had already been sold.  He started to seek a way out of his predicament by trying to find a buyer for the vessel and ideally one who would then be prepared to hire him to sail it.  Then to his great surprise and delight a ‘high ranking official’ came aboard and offered to return the Hercules and his ship’s papers, as well as repay the expenses of his lost cargo, which was worth, it was understood, more than $60,000.  All he had to do was to sail to Civitavecchia and take on freight for Philadelphia.  Despite his ready agreement he was escorted there by the corvette Achille, they arrived at Civitavecchia on 21 July.  It was only then that he found out that the ‘freight’ included a human element.  He was to take Lucien, his family, staff and freight directly to America.  For this service he received a $2000 advance with a promise of $8000 more if he safely delivered his passengers and cargo to Philadelphia.  Edward West must have been a happy man not only to be set free and have his cargo paid for but also to be given fare-paying passengers for the return voyage home.  However, to accommodate some forty extra people, particularly as many were women and children, for a voyage that would last several weeks, was a challenge.16  He was helped by the line of credit that had been given to him by the same official to fit the ship out.  He set his crew to work.  The carpenters would have been kept very busy creating extra cabins and sleeping spaces.  No doubt West would have felt obliged to give up his cabin to this noble visitor and his wife but under the circumstances be happy to do so.  With the preparations complete he would have welcomed the family aboard and introduced them to their new surroundings in good humour.  After a few last minute purchases of extra rations and other comforts; the Hercules set sail on 8 August despite a rising wind and a falling barometer reading.17  Lucien was keen to go and would not hear of any delay.

Once under way and with the family settled into some sort of routine Lucien would have had some time to reflect.  He made a mental note to thank his sister, Caroline Murat, for her assistance in persuading her husband to take the risk of helping him to the extent that he had.  The unresolved problem that still remained was getting past the British.  His request for Mr Hill, Britain’s Minister to the King of Sardinia at Cagliari, to provide him with safe passage had not arrived.18  Lucien had no option but to accept the risk and hope they would get past the British undetected.  Perhaps the poor weather would help cover their escape.

It was not long before this same poor weather became a hindrance rather than a help.  Many of the passengers were seriously seasick.  Either Captain West, or the state of the family, persuaded Lucien it was foolish to go on and the Hercules sought shelter in the Bay of Cagliari, at the southern end of the island of Sardinia, and anchored there in the ‘Roads’ on 10 August.  Lucien was keen to get his family ashore and sent messages to the Sardinian King, Victor Emanuel I, asking for permission to land.  Lucien now encountered his next problem. Victor Emanuel I had been obliged to flee Italy for Sardinia when he inherited the Savoy crown in 1802 and subsequently set up his government at Cagliari.  He had no love for the French.  Lucien would have known that the King of Sardinia was allied with England and would have preferred to have avoided all contact with both Sardinia and the British but now he had no option but to fall upon their mercy.

Lucien asked Mr Hill, who was still at Cagliari, to support this request.  He was after all the same man to whom he had applied successfully for a passport two years before.  Mr Hill saw matters differently.  He was there to maintain a friendly relationship with the Savoy government and to see that England’s interests were upheld by advising them appropriately.  Hill felt he could not help and his advice to the Savoy government was to allow Lucien to tie up alongside the quarantine quarters, an isolation area, probably a ship’s hulk in the bay, in which they would be confined.  Lucien pleaded by letter to the King; according to ses Mémoires, he wrote seventeen letters between 10 and 20 August.  He even wrote several times to the Russian ambassador, Prince Koslovski and asked him to help but received the reply that as Russia was currently Napoleon’s ally he could only oppose the request.19  During the period that these negotiations took place another British ship arrived at Cagliari on 14 August, HMS Salsette.20  It happened that Sir Robert Adair was on board.21  He was recently Ambassador to the Porte (Turkish Empire) and, due to ill-health, was on his way back to England.  The ship may well have been calling in at Cagliari to pick up dispatches or was forced there by the same storm that Lucien encountered.  Mr Hill and Sir Robert discussed the situation.  Mr Hill then directed22 that Sir Robert was to seek an interview with Lucien and inform him ‘that there was no chance of his being allowed to go to America’.  The meeting took place apparently at the ‘Health Station’, as the ship or hulk used as the quarantine quarters was known.

Lucien continued to plead his case and asked that his family be permitted to go ashore if he agreed to stay on board.  Mr Hill must have been instrumental in advising the King to refuse permission.  The King took his advice and additionally asked Lucien to leave his bay.  In a subsequent conversation Lucien asked Sir Robert if he might sail in convoy with him in the Hercules when he returned to England but was told ‘that, even if that request was granted, he could not answer for his being allowed to remain on English ground except as a prisoner of war’.  Lucien then asked to be allowed either to remain in Sardinia or return to Civitavecchia but, according to the (British) Cabinet Memorandum on Lucien’s arrest, Mr Hill decided that ‘the most prudent course would be to
conduct him to Malta; there to await the decision of His Majesty’s Government’.23  After some hesitation Lucien apparently acquiesced to this plan to be taken to Malta as a prisoner of war.  It is most likely that Sir Robert informed Lucien that he should surrender to HMS Pomone, a frigate already in the area and which may already have been in the bay.  At this point, having given his instructions to Captain Robert Barrie of Pomone, Sir Robert did not stay to see what would occur but left to continue his journey to England on 16August.24  No doubt he wished to report as quickly as possible the news that Mr Hill had ordered Captain Barrie to take the Hercules and convey the prisoners to Malta where they could be held until it was decided what to do with them.

Lucien on the eve of his departure from Cagliari received a note from the Sardinian Court that infuriated him.  It implied that he had agreed to become a prisoner of war.  He wrote at once to Mr Hill and protested that he had not willingly given himself up as a prisoner and protested that the court had been wrongly informed.  He complained that he had not been allowed to go to England, or to return to Civitavecchia or even remain in Sardinia and that if he left the harbour he would be stopped and taken to Malta.  He protested again that having sought passports he could not be considered a prisoner of war.  It was a muddled argument that held no water.  It was quite clear, and he knew it, that once he set out from the bay at Cagliari he would be stopped and arrested.  Those were the instructions to Captain Barrie and so on 20 August when Hercules set sail it was apprehended once out of sight of land by Barrie who then demanded Lucien’s surrender.

Mr Hill later observed that it did not really matter if Lucien had properly understood that he was to be a prisoner or not as ‘it certainly did not entirely depend upon his will whether he wished to capitulate, or surrender at discretion’.  The fact of the matter was that he was not going anywhere on his own.  The Pomone was a 38 gun frigate and under her Captain had had a very successful war and he and her crew were a very experienced and a very efficient fighting unit.25  There was no question of trying to avoid capture.  The Hercules had no option but to ‘heave to’.  According to Lucien’s Memoirs a junior British officer came aboard and having established that he was indeed addressing Lucien Bonaparte and not Signor Fabricio (one of Lucien’s aliaases) asked,
apparently rather brusquely, whether he wished to be taken to England or Malta ...