Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

My novel Napoleon in America imagines what might have happened if Napoleon Bonaparte had escaped from St. Helena. That was the remote South Atlantic island to which Napoleon was banished after being forced off the French throne in 1815 following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. How difficult would it have been for him to escape?

A View of the Town and Island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean belonging to the English East India Company

A View of the Town and Island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean belonging to the English East India Company

St. Helena hard to escape

Napoleon was considered the prisoner of the four major powers that had allied to defeat him: Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia. Britain had custody of him. A volcanic speck 1,200 miles (1,900 km) west of Africa and 2,000 miles (3,200 km) east of Brazil seemed an ideal place to stash a public menace, especially one who had earlier in the year managed to escape from the considerably less remote island of Elba.

Jailbreak would be a tough proposition. The island’s forbidding terrain was augmented by strong fortifications. As Alexander Beatson, an officer in the East India Company (which possessed the island) and governor of St. Helena from 1808 to 1813, wrote:

The extraordinary formation of the island itself, being encompassed on all sides by stupendous and almost perpendicular cliffs, rising to the height of from six to more than twelve hundred feet, and through which formidable barrier there are but few inlets to the interior, are collectively such a variety of natural advantages that perhaps they are not to be equalled….

The only accessible landing-places are James Town, Rupert’s Bay and Lemon Valley on the north and Sandy Bay on the South. All these points are well fortified and powerfully protected by Fleur d’eau Batteries, furnished (excepting Sandy Bay) with furnaces for heating shot; and as cannon are also placed upon the cliffs in their vicinity, far above the reach of ships…no ships could possibly stand the fire of the defences which protect the anchorage and the whole of the Northern coast; and in regard to the Southern landing place, Sandy Bay, it is equally secure against a naval attack….

[T]here are several small paths from the interior leading down the precipices to the sea, which are frequented by fishermen, but they are so very difficult of access that persons unaccustomed to such frightful roads would find it extremely difficult, if not impracticable, and particularly in the night, to ascend them…and they might very easily be defended by rolling stones from the heights….

Telegraphs…are placed upon the most commanding heights…and are so connected with one another, and so spread all over the island, that no vessel can approach without being descried at the distance of sixty miles…. Nothing can pass in any part or even in sight of the island without being instantly known to the Governor. (1)

Plots to rescue Napoleon

Despite Governor Hudson Lowe’s efforts to ensure that Napoleon and his retinue at Longwood House were heavily guarded, there was no shortage of escape plans. On the International Napoleonic Society’s website, Lally Brown, author of the excellent The Countess, Napoleon and Saint Helena, has nicely transcribed an intercepted 1816 letter to Napoleon’s companion in exile, General Henri Bertrand. This describes a “boat that will drift to the back of the Island…in the shape of an olde (sic) cask but so constructed that by pulling at both ends to be sea worthy and both boat and sails which will be found inside will be painted to correspond with the colour of the sea.” Napoleon was expected to slide down a cliff on a rope to get to this vessel, the ultimate destination being the United States. (2)

Another of Napoleon’s companions, General Charles Montholon, referred in his memoirs to several schemes of escape, including an 1820 proposal from a naval captain.

His vessel was returning from the Indies; he had arranged everything so as to be able to receive the Emperor in a boat at a point of the coast previously designated and convey him to his vessel without running the slightest risk of being stopped. He asked no reward for himself, but demanded a million of francs for the person whose concurrence was necessary, in order that the Emperor might safely pass from Longwood to the coast. This million was not to be payable until the Emperor had reached America, and even landed; another condition was, that the Emperor should only be accompanied by two persons…. Another project of a similar nature was conceived; it was to be carried out by means of submarine vessels; five or six thousand louis were expended on this project by a friend of O’Meara’s [an Irish surgeon who had earlier been Napoleon’s doctor on St. Helena]. (3)

Though a submarine plot sounds far-fetched, an Irish adventurer named Tom Johnson claimed he had been offered £40,000 to attempt such a rescue. There is evidence Johnson was involved in such a plot and may even have possessed a primitive submarine, as detailed in couple of articles–one by Emilio Ocampo in Napoleonica. La Revue; the other by Mike Dash on the Smithsonian website.

Napoleon considered escape plans

Napoleon at St. Helena, a postcard based on a painting by Paul Delaroche. Source: Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive—Gift of Leonard A. Lauder

Napoleon at St. Helena, a postcard based on a painting by Paul Delaroche. Source: Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive—Gift of Leonard A. Lauder

According to Montholon, Napoleon considered several escape plans but declined to take advantage of them. “[H]is resolution not to struggle against his destiny being immovable, he must persist in refusing his offers.” (4) Napoleon feared he would be assassinated or forgotten if he went to the United States, and thought it better to remain a martyr on St. Helena. He also hoped that an eventual change of government in either London or Paris would allow him to return from exile.

This did not stop tales of rescue attempts from circulating. Many of these involved privateers and adventurers in the Gulf of Mexico or Brazil. The last chapter of The Bonapartes in Americaby Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance (Philadephia, 1939), describes several of these escapades. Historian Rafe Blaufarb posits that most such stories were spread deliberately by Napoleon’s supporters to foment panic among European governments and to retain the attention of the political opposition in France and Britain. (5)

Still, Governor Lowe’s cordon was penetrable. Napoleon and his suite were able to bribe British officers and others to get around the restrictions on communication and carry letters and papers to Europe. European visitors smuggled in messages and gifts for Napoleon, including locks of his son’s hair. Niles’ Weekly Register reported on August 8, 1818, that “[a] sailor belonging to an East India ship has terribly alarmed wise Johnny Bull by reporting that while the ship lay off St. Helena he swam to the shore, clambered the rocks, eluded the guards and paid a friendly visit to some of Napoleon’s domestics, with whom he was acquainted!” (6)

Over the years conspiracy theorists have contended that Napoleon did escape from St. Helena and wound up either in Europe or the United States. They claim that it was not Napoleon who was buried on St. Helena in 1821 and removed to Paris in 1840, but an alleged double. Candidates for this role vary, depending on the theory. (7) This is the basis of the films The Emperor’s New Clothes (2001) and Monsieur N (2003).

While I am firmly in the camp of those who believe Napoleon died on St. Helena, it is fun to speculate about what might have happened if he had escaped. You can read an excerpt from Napoleon in America here.

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon’s Arrival at St. Helena

Why didn’t Napoleon escape to the United States?

How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

10 Myths about Napoleon Bonaparte

Fake News about Napoleon Bonaparte

  1. UK Foreign Office’s Memorandum on St. Helena. General Alexander Beatson, 1815, as quoted in Michael John Thornton, Napoleon After Waterloo: England and the St. Helena Decision (Stanford, 1968), pp. 63-64.
  2. Hudson Lowe Papers, British Library, excerpt from Add.MSS 20115, postmarked March 13, 1816, as transcribed by Lally Brown in “The St. Helena Counterpoint: Napoleon’s Exile – The Myth Exploded,” http://www.napoleonicsociety.com/english/helene.htm, accessed Oct. 12, 2013.
  3. Charles Montholon, History of the Captivity of Napoleon at St. Helena, Vol. III (London, 1847), pp. 140-141.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Rafe Blaufarb, Bonapartists in the Borderlands: French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815-1835 (Tuscaloosa, 2005), p. 78.
  6. H. Niles, ed., Niles’ Weekly Register, Vol. XIV (Baltimore, 1818), p. 401.
  7. See, for example, Pierre Paul Ebeyer, Revelations Concerning Napoleon’s Escape from St. Helena (New Orleans, 1947).

22 commments on “Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?”

  • Nigel says:

    Even after the French defeat at Waterloo the apparatus of French Intelligence was a powerful force to be reckined with so nothing would have been beyond them. Perhaps they just felt Napoeon had had his time?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      The Bourbons certainly had no desire to see Napoleon again. The French did have an extensive intelligence network, although Napoleon refused to see the French commissioner on St. Helena, as well as the Russian and Austrian commissioners (Prussia didn’t bother to send a representative), who were supposed to be monitoring his captivity for their governments. Napoleon said of the Marquis de Montchenu (the French commissioner): “[H]e is a fit representative of the ancient class. The other day when he met General Gourgaud he spoke of the antiquity and greatness of his family, so do they all in France; and to those, as in this case, who have risen by the Revolution, nothing can mark more strongly their want of sense.”

  • Chris Coleman says:

    Indeed, legend has it that Napoleon, with a little help from some friends made it to Louisiana and died there. They can even point to his grave site. Who knows? While Napoleon had many enemies, he also had many friends–friends with deep pockets. With money, a double and willing conspirators, much could have been accomplished.

  • Madelyn says:

    I think this is very interesting, I was in world history class and I asked my teacher Kelli Gerhardt about how he escaped and she told me to look it up and I found this and it helped me a lot. Thanks.

  • RUBEN RUIZ says:

    Estoy de acuerdo que el Emperador no escapo de Santa Helena y si creo que murio envenenado…..pero es hermoso imaginar y soñar que uno de los mortales mas carismaticos que ha dado la historia pudo haber tenido un fin mas acorde a su trayectoria…soy admirador del Emperador y trato de documentarme con toda la literatura posible sobre su etapa y su legado historico………

  • Martin Fernandez says:

    He escaped from St. Helena. He landed in Louisiana. The Bonaparte Family already had contacts in the U.S. in theory, it was Pirates that saved him. Cajun Pirates.

  • MP Middleton says:

    I too have written a book. It is called “Tom Johnson’s submarine and how he met Napoleon” (now with the printer and soon to be published)
    The book is an amusing tale based on the Tom Johnson ledgends.

  • Martin Heron says:

    Are there any further sources to corroborate or expand upon the Aug 8th 1818 intrusion by the East India sailor beyond the Baltimore article?

    I’m currently researching for a screenplay of Napoleon’s time on St Helena, and think it could act very naturally as a crucial moment in defining Hudson Lowe’s ever-growing paranoia over escape attempts.

    It’s probably fair game in terms of artistic license even if it isn’t true, but I’m researching thoroughly to ensure that I’m fictionalising as little as possible.

    So if there’s anything more out there that you know of that discusses it I’d be interested to read it. Many thanks!

  • Shannon Selin says:

    You can check British newspapers from the period to see whether they say anything about the incident. Also there may be something about it in the British Library manuscripts related to Napoleon’s detention on St. Helena (the Hudson Lowe papers). Good luck with the screenplay!

  • Angela Strydom says:

    Would never know if this was true, but for the past, I have no idea how long, my family has been telling a story of how my Great, Great Grandfather, who was at the time a butcher in France (Bakeer), assisted in the escape of Napoleon From St Helena. He was even rewarded with a ring, which he later lost while kneading meat.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Napoleon never actually escaped from St. Helena, so your family story might be about Napoleon’s escape from Elba and return to France in 1815, Angela. Your ancestor could have played a role along the way. You might enjoy this article about how Napoleon escaped from Elba: https://shannonselin.com/2016/02/how-did-napoleon-escape-from-elba/.

  • Albert Franklin says:

    It may seem that both historically and factually as we may want to look at the past Napoleon did not fled from his last captors.
    However, how then was it possible in the United Kingdom where in can be found that a minor female child was given a lock of Napoleon’s hair when in fact the actual grade of it was totally the opposite? This would tend to mean, that whom ever died at Saint Helena may very well have been murdered?

  • Graham Watkins says:

    St. Helena was also used for prison camps hold captured Boer War soldiers. Escape attempts were made but, as far as I’m away, none succeeded. I visited the Island as a seaman in the 1970s and must say trying to escape in a small boat would have been extremely foolhardy. The Atlantic Ocean is very unforgiving.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for your comment, Graham. It’s interesting that nobody escaped, even some 80 years after Napoleon’s time on the island. It does sound like an extremely dangerous prospect.

  • Robert Straitt says:

    Hello Angela Strydom,
    It seems my family has a somewhat similar family history, about Napoleon and his coming to America. My Grandfather who was born in 1895 told me when I was a teenager (early 1970s) about the event and at the time he had several letters from those times to explain. As I was the only one at the time interested in family history he was going to give the box with all the letters and memorabilia to me. He stopped to see one of my uncles on the wat to visit my family and died of a heart attack. My uncle, a police officer, had his house broken into and the metal cash box was stolen along with the contents. I found out years later when I was speaking with my uncle, and he recalled some of the contents with letters in French and English. During the time the box was stolen my uncle was a little on the wild side so had no interest in family history or history in general. But later we tried to follow-up on some of the information he remembered his dad (my granddad) telling him. We were never able to prove anything one way or the other, but it was interesting that when we went to look for duplicates of certain records, the log that there was such a record had been there in the government offices but the copies were missing without explanation… Of course these were records from the 1800s, so no telling what happen to them.

    Interesting that my grandfather served in the Navy, and there are a number of archives, which I have found on Accessory, showing him leaving and re-entering the US, with different nationalities sometimes and different places of birth. He had divorced my dad’s mom when my dad was about 5 years old and my dad never saw him again until my dad was in his 5os… My grandfather always went to a place outside of Winchester England it seems, although he would use the port of Liverpool all the time instead of the more local port of Southampton.

    Unfortunately much of the privately held documents of history are lost by a lack of good administrative practices of the families that held them.

    Suffice to say that there are many mysteries of our past that will never be resolved. I can add that in my many travels to Corsica, I have met decedents of the Bonaparte’s, including Napoleon that are descendent from some of his illegitimate offspring. While they have no official claims, they are well recognized within the Corsican community as being decedent from Napoleon numerous affairs. So who knows?

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for your family story, Robert. It’s too bad those documents have gone missing.

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The extraordinary formation of the island itself, being encompassed on all sides by stupendous and almost perpendicular cliffs . . . and through which formidable barrier there are but few inlets to the interior, are collectively such a variety of natural advantages that perhaps they are not to be equalled.

Alexander Beatson