The Secret Plot to Rescue Napoleon by Submarine
by Soren Dreier
Tom Johnson was one of those extraordinary characters that history throws up in times of crisis.
Born in 1772 to Irish parents, he made the most of the opportunities that presented themselves and was earning his own living as a smuggler by the age of 12. At least twice, he made incredible escapes from prison. When the Napoleonic Wars broke out, his well-deserved reputation for extreme daring saw him hired–despite his by then extensive criminal record–to pilot a pair of covert British naval expeditions.
But Johnson also has a stranger claim to fame, one that has gone unmentioned in all but the most obscure of histories. In 1820–or so he claimed–he was offered the sum of £40,000 [equivalent to $3 million now] to rescue the emperor Napoleon from bleak exile on the island of St. Helena. This escape was to be effected in an incredible way–down a sheer cliff, using a bosun’s chair, to a pair of primitive submarines waiting off shore. Johnson had to design the submarines himself, since his plot was hatched decades before the invention of the first practical underwater craft.
The tale begins with the emperor himself. As the inheritor of the French Revolution–the outstanding event of the age, and the one that, more than any other, caused rich and privileged elites to sleep uneasy in their beds–the Corsican became the terror of half of Europe; as an unmatched military genius, the invader of Russia, conqueror of Italy, Germany and Spain, and architect of the Continental System, he was also (in British eyes at least) the greatest monster of his day.
In the English nursery he was “Boney,” a bogeyman who hunted down naughty children and gobbled them up; in France he was a beacon of chauvinism. His legend was only burnished when, defeated, apparently conclusively, in 1814 by a grand coalition of all his enemies, he was exiled to the small Italian island of Elba–only to escape, return to France, and, in the campaign famously known as the Hundred Days, unite his whole nation behind him again. His final defeat, atWaterloo, left the British determined to take no further chances with him.
Exile to St. Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic 1,200 miles from the nearest land, was intended to make further escape impossible.
Yet, while Napoleon lived (and he endured six increasingly morose years on St. Helena before finally succumbing to cancer–or, some say, to arsenic poisoning), there were always schemes to rescue him. Emilio Ocampo, who gives the best account of this collection of half-baked plots, writes that “Napoleon’s political ambition was not subdued by his captivity.
And his determined followers never abandoned hopes of setting him free.” Nor did the Bonapartists lack money; Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, who was at one time the King of Spain, had escaped to the United States with a fortune estimated at 20 million francs. And the emperor’s popularity in the United States was such that–Ocampo says–the British squadron taking him into exile headed several hundred miles in the wrong direction to evade an American privateer, the True Blooded Yankee, which sailed under the flag of the revolutionary government of Buenos Aires and was determined to effect his rescue.
The greatest threat, indeed, did come from South America. Napoleonic France had been the only power to offer support when the continent sought independence from Spain, and a few patriots were willing to contemplate supporting an escape or, more ambitiously, an invasion of St. Helena. The prospect was attractive to Napoleon as well; if there was no realistic hope of returning to Europe, he could still dream of establishing a new empire in Mexico or Venezuela.
Safely landed on St. Helena, though, the emperor found himself in what was probably the most secure prison that could have been devised for him in 1815. The island is extremely isolated, almost entirely ringed with cliffs and devoid of secure anchorages; it has only a handful of possible landing places. These were guarded by a large garrison, totaling 2,800 men, armed with 500 cannon. Napoleon himself, meanwhile, was held at Longwood, a refurbished mansion with extensive grounds in the most remote and dismal portion of the interior.
Although the emperor was allowed to retain an entourage, and offered a good deal of freedom within the confines of Longwood’s estate, everything else on the island was strictly controlled by St. Helena’s stern and efficient governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, whose career prospects were intimately bound up with the security of his famous captive. Longwood was strongly guarded; visitors were interrogated and searched, and the estate was barred to visitors during the hours of darkness. An entire Royal Navy squadron, consisting of 11 ships, patrolled constantly offshore.
So concerned were the British to scotch even the faintest possibility of escape that small garrisons were even established on Ascension Island and at Tristan da Cunha, 1,200 miles further out in the Atlantic, to forestall the unlikely possibility that these uninhabited volcanic pinpricks might be used as staging posts for a rescue. No single prisoner, probably, has ever been so closely guarded. “At such a distance and in such a place,” the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, reported with satisfaction to his cabinet, “all intrigue would be impossible.”SOURCE