On the 18th June 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated at The Battle of Waterloo by Arthur Wellesley, The Duke of Wellington and the Prussian General Blucher, who arrived later in the day with a force of 30,000 troops, causing Napoleon to split his forces. The battle commenced at 11.20am and was finished by 8.30pm. A day later, on the 19th June, Napoleon abdicated and was taken into custody by the British and exiled to the remote island of St Helena, situated in the middle of the South Atlantic, thousands of miles from Europe and any sort of civilisation.
Two years later, in August of 1817 a young Royal Naval officer, called Captain Hall, arrived on St Helena on board HMS Lyra which was transporting Lord Amherst, the British Ambassador to China, back to the United Kingdom. Captain Hall made every attempt to gain an interview with Napoleon who was living in a house called Longwood high on the island. Eventually Napoleon did grant him an interview after much negotiation. At first negotiating through the Governor of St Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe, seemed somewhat futile. Lowe and Napoleon did not like each other. Captain Blakeney, who was Napoleaons guard, proved a better approach. Blakeney and Napoleons physician, Dr D’elleara got some response, however, Napoleon was either too tired after a walk or about to do some task and a meeting always seemed inconvenient. Captain Hall visited Marshal Bertrand and his wife Countess Bertrand in their house close by Napoleons residence. Hall and Bertrand got along very well and Countess Bertrand sympathised with Captain Hall in his request to meet Napoleon. Marshall Bertrand himself made overtures to Napoleaon about the possibility of a meeting but Napoleon apparently ignored his friend’s suggestion. As an aside, Captain Hall mentioned to Dr D’elleeara that his father, Sir John Hall, had visited and spent some time at Brienne, the French military academy, when Napoleon was there himself, as a student. Dr D’elleraua immediately replied that Hall should have mentioned this before. Apparently, Napoleon had great respect for officers who had attended courses at Brienne. He himself had promoted many officers to his own staff from the Brienne academy. This news was relayed to Napoleon and Napoleon was all too pleased to then receive Captain Hall. Captain Hall recorded his encounter in his journal. He reveals much about Napoleon as a man and a leader of men.
Longwood, Napoleon's house on St Helena.
On the 13th August Hall received a message. It first got to his two colleagues, Captain Harvey and Lieutenant Clifford and he only heard about it later in the day, because the message had been sent to James Town, the signaller presuming he would be there. Captain Hall , after visiting Marshal Bertrand had returned to the Governor’s residence and not to James Town. Hall immediately felt panic when he received the message.It had been sent at 1pm. He feared he would be late for the appointed time of the meeting. He rushed to Longwood, Napoleon’s home on the island. The message had read:
“General Bonaparte wishes to see Captain Hall at two o’clock”.
“I lost no time in obeying the invitation, but galloped over the hills as fast as I could, being prompted to use all speed lest Bonaparte should think that I had intentionally kept him waiting.
On being ushered into the room, I observed Bonaparte standing before the fire. He was leaning his head on his hand, with his elbow resting on the mantle piece. He looked up and immediately advanced a pace towards me, returning my bow in a quick, careless manner. On my going close up to him he asked me in a hurried way “What is your name?” I answered “Hall”.
From this we can see that Napoleon was an intense individual.
Upon telling him my name he said, “Ah Hall, I knew your Father at Brienne. He was then learning French and reading Mathematics. He was very fond of Mathematics and liked to converse on the subject. He did not mix much with the young men at the college; he lived principally with the priests, apart from us.
I expressed some surprise at his recollecting any individual for so long a time, when his thoughts had been so much engaged with important affairs. “Oh it is not in the least extraordinary” said Bonaparte “because your Father was the first Englishman I ever saw, and I have recollected him on that account during all my life”.
Napoleon was one of those individuals that can hold everything in their head. He was able to compartmentalise things and give due importance to each.
Upon his asking me more particularly about my Father’s occupations, I told him that he was president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
This furnished him with a new topic, and he continued for some minutes cross questioning me about the nature of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Hall had heard that Napoleon was interested in the sciences and new ideas of all types. His questioning proved to show that this was right.
He next asked how many children my Father had? I said, “Nine alive”. “Ah c’est beaucoup” said Bonaparte with an air of affected gravity accompanied by a formal sort of bow, as if he felt desirous of making up for the slighting manner in which he had just been treating my Father on the score of age.
His next question was, “Are you married?”, and on my stating that I was not, he asked in a quick impatient way, “Why don’t you marry?”.
He showed a close interest in Hall himself and his circumstances. Hall replied to Napoleon's enquiries about his married status that he didn’t have enough money to marry yet. Napoleon seemed to understand this situation and moved the discussion on.
Bonaparte now began questioning me about our late voyage of discovery, of which he had heard nothing from any of the gentlemen of the [HMS] Alceste who had preceded me. This was very fortunate for me, because the topic was quite new to him. It accordingly interested him highly. Bonaparte had been always supposed to have a strong taste for every thing oriental, and for whatever related to voyages of discovery in particular.
I can fully believe that this is correct, for he appeared deeply interested in by the account which I gave him of what we had seen, and he carried on his enquiries with a fervour and an anxiety to be informed which I have never seen in any other person.
He wanted to know all about Loochoo,an island group south west of Japan where Hall had visited on his voyages. He interrogated Hall about the people, money, arms, agriculture and religion. He studied intensely some sketches that had been made of the people and customs. His questions were incisive and searching. He showed a deep interest.
Loochoo Islands off Japan.
It would be in the highest degree satisfactory to be able to give his questions in the order and in the very words they were put, but this is unfortunately not in my power. They were very numerous and sagacious, not thrown out at random, but ingeniously connected with one another, so as to make every thing assist in forming a clear comprehension of the subject. I felt that there was no escaping his scrutiny, and such was the rapidity and precision with which he apprehended the subject, that I felt at times as if he were as well or better informed upon it than I was myself, and that he was interrogating me with a view to discover my veracity and powers of description.
Napoleon was in high spirits while putting these questions and carried on his enquiry with so much cheerfulness, not to say familiarity that I was more than once thrown completely off my guard, and caught myself unconsciously addressing him with the freedom and confidence of an equal. When I checked myself upon these occasions and became more formal and respectful, he encouraged me to go on with so much real cheerfulness, that I soon felt myself quite at ease in his presence.”
Hall relaxed in his presence and felt that at times he was lured by Bonaparte’s effusiveness into being too familiar and overly animated and tried to check himself but easily returned to being familiar once more.It is known that Napoleon had a close relationship with his Imperial Guard. He inspired great loyalty. He also had a close relationship with his officers and it is easy to see how at the height of his powers he could be the supreme commander. He encouraged not just loyalty but love and affection .The interview with Captain Hall lasted about twenty minutes.
In those short twenty minutes we can see how Napoleon formed a closeness with Hall. Napoleon was not only adored by soldiers but also by the French people. He had an open personality ready to encompass everybody and everything.
“ I have scarcely discovered a single topic on which Bonaparte did not put some questions. He spoke deliberately and distinctly and waited with the utmost patience and attention for answers.”
Captain Hall was impressed by Bonaparte and through Halls words it makes us feel impressed by him too.
All the reports concerning the Duke of Wellington’s personality and his relationships with people show him to be arrogant, officious, misogynistic and demanding. Two more very different personalities as adversaries I cannot imagine. I know who I prefer.
Captain Hall’s journal:
The National Army Museum: