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The Tragedy of St. Helena   By: (1847-1937)

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In my early sea life, I used to listen to the eccentric and complicated views expressed by a race of seamen long since passed away. Occasionally there were amongst the crew one or two who had the true British hypothetical belief in the demoniacal character of Napoleon, but this was not the general view of the men with whom I sailed; and after the lapse of many years, I often wonder how it came about that such definite partiality in regard to this wonderful being could have been formed, and the conclusion that impresses me most is, that his many acts of kindness to his own men, the absence of flogging and other debasing treatment in his own service, his generosity and consideration for the comfort of British prisoners during the wars, his ultimate defeat by the combined forces of Europe, the despicable advantage they took of the man who was their superior in everything, and to whom in other days the allied Kings had bent in homage, had become known to the English sailors.

How these rugged men came to their knowledge of Napoleon and formed their opinions about him may be explained in this way. Hundreds of seamen and civilians were pressed into the King's service, many of whom were taken ruthlessly from vessels they partly owned and commanded. Indeed, there was no distinction. The pressgangs captured everybody, irrespective of whether they were officers, common able seamen, or boys, to say nothing of those who had no sea experience. Both my own grandfathers and two of my great uncles were kidnapped from their vessels and their families into the navy, and after many years of execrable treatment, hard fighting, and wounds, they landed back into their homes broken men, with no better prospect than to begin life anew. It was natural that the numerous pressed men should detest the ruffianly man catchers and their employers, if not the service they were forced into, and that they would nurse the wrong which had been done to them.

They would have opportunities of comparing their own lot with that of other nationalities engaged in combat against them, and though both might be bad, it comes quite natural to the sailor to imagine his treatment is worse than that of others; and there is copious evidence that the British naval service was not at that period popular. Besides, they knew, as everybody else should have known, that Napoleon was beloved by his navy and army alike. Then, after the Emperor had asked for the hospitality of the British nation, and became its guest aboard the Bellerophon , the sailors saw what manner of man he was. And later, his voyage to St. Helena in the Northumberland gave them a better chance of being impressed by his fascinating personality. It is well known how popular he became aboard both ships; the men of the squadron that was kept at St. Helena were also drawn to him in sympathy, and many of the accounts show how, in their rough ardent way, they repudiated the falsehoods of his traducers. The exiled Emperor had become their hero and their martyr, just as impressively as he was and remained that of the French; and from them and other sources were handed down to the generation of merchant seamen those tales which were told with the usual love of hyperbole characteristic of the sailor, and wiled away many dreary hours while traversing trackless oceans. They would talk about the sea fights of Aboukir and Trafalgar, and the battles of Arcola, Marengo, Jena, Austerlitz, the Russian campaign, the retreat from Moscow, his deportation to Elba, his escape therefrom, and his matchless march into Paris, and then the great encounter of Waterloo, combined with the divorce of Josephine and the marriage with Marie Louise; all of which, as I remember it now, was set forth in the most voluble and comical manner... Continue reading book >>

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