With Napoleon on St Helena
With Napoleon on St Helena
.................. AT THE OUTSET OF THE CAPTIVITY
STOKOE APPOINTED SURGEON OF THE CONQUEROR, ADMIRAL PLAMPIN'S FLAG-SHIP-HE STARTS FOR ST. HELENA ON MARCH 15, 1817-THE GENERAL IGNORANCE IN EUROPE OF WHAT WAS HAPPENING ON THE "ISLAND OF EXILE"-STATE OF AFFAIRS WHEN STOKOE ARRIVED (JUNE 29, 1817).
IN DECEMBER 1816 A SHIP of the line was being fitted out at Portsmouth. This was the Conqueror , on which Sir Robert Plampin had just hoisted his flag. Dr. John Stokoe was offered the post of surgeon on this vessel, which was to start for St. Helena in the spring, and not to return until 1820.
It was no very tempting prospect, to remain so long upon a desolate island, a mere speck, 6000 miles from Europe, in the great expanse of sea lying between Africa and America! Stokoe had completed twenty-one years of service; he would soon be entitled to his retiring pension. He might have finished his time in his own country, in a naval hospital in some quiet roadstead in Great Britain. His seniority gave him the right to a stationary appointment. If he still wished to wander, the English could easily give him a pleasanter station than St. Helena; in the Mediterranean, in India, or at the Antilles. He had only to make his choice and to ask for a post, which he was bound to receive.
Yet he preferred St. Helena. This barren rock, a short time before almost unknown, had suddenly become famous. England had chosen it for Napoleon's last pedestal. "I thought," said Stokoe, "that I should see the great man and probably have the honour of conversing with him-little did I think at that time that the honour would be so dearly purchased!"
The Emperor had then been for fourteen months in the solitude of the Southern Atlantic. Nothing was now known of him whose fame had caused his slightest gesture to be noted. No news came from the land of exile. George III.'s Ministers had isolated it from the rest of the world: they allowed no indiscreet correspondence to issue from it, even forbidding the soldiers and sailors of the garrison to speak about Napoleon in their letters or to mention his name. The police and secret bureaus of Europe used every effort and gave every help that this silence might be maintained, and Louis XVIII. had agents in the principal ports, who watched the arrivals from St. Helena, dogged the footsteps of suspected travellers, and stole their papers.
For information about the island which the Conqueror with its 74 guns was to guard, Stokoe consulted the papers, but in vain-the press was under orders of silence.
Some pamphlets had appeared, professing to satisfy the universal curiosity. He obtained and read them. The information gained from these sources seemed very vague. Some of it, in its improbability, verged on the ridiculous.
A personage named Tyder, for example, boasted of having been able to "interview," as we should say nowadays, "the Imperial convict." Napoleon had confided to him that it would not be very difficult to escape from St. Helena. He might be inclined to make the attempt. In an "air-balloon gondola" he would cross the 1200 miles which separated the island from the coast of Africa. He would civilise the negroes of this continent, and once more form a vast empire, summoning to him his partisans and brothers, his wife and son. In the meantime he amused himself with one of Madame de Montholon's maids, took snuff in huge quantities, and played at war in the following manner. "He had brought from France five or six cases containing 20,000 to 30,000 wooden men, two inches high, and of all colours, generals, officers, artillerymen, knights, and foot soldiers. With the help of his companions he placed them in battle array on a mahogany table, and all these battalions, broken up at will, set forth the movements of two hostile armies, one commanded by Bertrand, the other by Napoleon, whose army w