I have an impossible mission for you. Should you decide to accept it, if successful you will be rich beyond your wildest dreams. But fail and, if you are lucky enough to live, you will spend the rest of your life in the deepest darkest prison on earth. The object of this mission is a 48 year old male, being held prisoner on a remote volcanic island (above). It has no port and only one beach. The nearest land is another island, 800 miles to the northwest. The nearest port is 1,200 miles to the east. Your mission must be accomplished without using aircraft or balloons, motorboats, radio, or electricity of any kind, or high explosives. You see, it is 1817, and the mission is to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte.
It is hard to imagine today the terror Napoleon inspired in the British ruling class. He had not a drop of royal blood in his veins, and no privileged education. Yet as a lowly general the "Corsican Ogre" humiliated an Austrian Army in northern Italy. Then like a new Pharaoh, he conquered Egypt. He was elected Emperor of France in 1804, and six months later crowned King of Italy. For almost two years his Grand Army threatened an invasion of England, and then suddenly "Le petit Corporal" spun about and almost without firing a shot, captured Vienna and an Austrian army of 30,000 men. A month later he was cornered in Czechoslovakia by a combined Russian and Austrian army of 85,000 men. He crushed them in a few hours. After surrendering, Czar Alexander was forced to admit, “We are babies in the hands of a giant.”
The famous quatrains of Nostradamus were quoted as predicting Napoleon's rise: “An Emperor will be born near Italy”. Everywhere he went Kings were overthrown, kingdom's collapsed, and fortunes evaporated. Napoleon closed Europe to all English trade, and cost English bankers vast treasure, not even counting the wealth they had to spend on ships and men of their own. He was the “bogeyman of Europe.” In 1814, after fifteen years and five million dead, Napoleon was finally cornered, forced to abdicate, and exiled to the tiny island of Elba, 12 miles off the coast of Italy. A year later he escaped, and in the famous 100 days reconquered France, recruited a new army of 72,000 men, invaded Belgium, beat a Prussian army of 84,000 men, and finally, at the “very close” battle of Waterloo, was stopped by sacrificing another 45,000 lives. This time the British were determined to lock “Boney” away where he could never escape.
The prison they picked in 1816 was St Helena, a wind swept tropical volcanic island rising 2,000 feet out of the south Atlantic, a third of the way between Africa and South America. Its arid coastal cliffs were cleaved by a half dozen V shaped canyons where rivers fell from the humid forested interior. The British Prime Minister assured his cabinet, “At such a distance and in such a place, all intrigue would be impossible.” But they were still taking no chances.
Ensconced in a single story mansion called Longwood (above) near the center of the island, Napoleon and his small retinue were watched round the clock by a battalion of 2,800 soldiers and 500 cannon. A British officer was required to set eyes upon Napoleon twice a day. He was not allowed out side after sunset, nor if there was an unidentified sail on the horizon. Eleven warships patrolled the seas around the island, and at sunset every boat was secured under guard and every bridge and gate was locked. Residents of the island's only village, Jamestown, were allowed out after 9 pm only with a signed pass. Escape seemed impossible.
But, of course, from the moment of his imprisonment there were those who wanted to set “The Thief of Europe” free again. A group of retired French officers, who had emigrated to Texas in America, were raising funds and plotting Napoleon's escape. His brother Joseph, one time King of Spain, had escaped to America with 20 million francs. And there were others, more surprising, such as the legendary British Admiral Thomas Cochrane, AKA “the Sea Wolf”. Two years after this brilliant officer commanded the naval squadron that burned Washington D.C. in 1814, Cochrane was convicted of stock fraud, and forced to resign from the British Navy. Bitter, he sold his skills to Chile, where he founded their navy and helped win their independence from Spain. And word was that Cochrane was planning to free Napoleon to lead the revolutionaries in South America.
But the man all the would-be rescuers sought out was a common smuggler named Tom Johnson (above). He'd been born to Irish parents living in southern England, and had become a successful smuggler by the age of 12. The revenue agents caught him twice, but after his second escape he somehow managed to reach France.Using his knowledge of the English coast Tom Johnson quickly again became such a successful smuggler that while Napoleon was planning his invasion of England, he met with Tom and offered him a command in the French navy. Tom said no, so Napoleon threw the smuggler into prison. After nine months Tom escaped yet again, and was later caught by a British warship almost within sight of America. But this time the Admiralty was desperate enough to grant Tom a pardon and put him on the payroll. And one of the first jobs they gave him was to review a new invention being offered to save England from Napoleon's invasion fleet - a submarine.
In 1800 American Robert Fulton (above) built a working prototype for the French revolutionaries. The four man crew of the Nautilus were supplied with air up to 25 feet under the surface via a snorkel. Underwater she was faster than a row boat on the surface, and while on the surface the Nautilus was powered by a sail which ingeniously popped up from a deck hanger. But Napoleon took one look at the leaky thing and decided Fulton was a fraud. He ordered the prototype destroyed. That was when the British offered Fulton the modern equivalent of $10 million if he could build one for England.
Maybe the Admiralty never thought it would work, and they hired Fulton just to keep him occupied. But the inventor still brought his experience and plans for an even bigger submarine. The Nautilus II would be 35 feet long, with a crew of six, two snorkels, a bigger sail and could remain at sea for 20 days. Tom Johnson went over the plans with Fulton at Dover, and they discussed them in detail. But after the British Navy destroyed the French and Spanish fleets at the battle of Trafalgar, they had no need of Fulton's submarine. Discouraged, Fulton took the offer to build a commercial steam boat in New York. But somebody knew the smuggler Tom Johnson was still interested in the idea. That, plus Johnson's reputation for audacity, convinced some body that the old smuggler should be offered the equivalent of $3 million to rescue Napoleon.
The plan conceived by Johnson involved two submarines. The larger one would approach St. Helena at night from the leeward side, and then submerge at dawn. The next evening, she would surface and launch the smaller sub, which would land Johnson and another man at the foot of the cliffs on the north side of the island (above). Johnson would ascend the cliff, where he would install a bosun's chair. Then he would make his way to Longwood, where he would slip through the British cordon. The next evening, Johnson and Napoleon would sneak out and make for the cliff. Napoleon would be lowered in the chair, and be spirited away before dawn.
In 1818 the Times of London reported on rumors of a plot to rescue Napoleon, and ex-Admiral Cochrane's wife assured several people that such a plan existed. Cochrane was still working with the Chilean Navy. It might all be a fantasy, except we know from British Admiralty records that early in 1820 a commission of senior naval officers reviewed expense accounts for a submarine, built by Johnson. And leading that commission was Sir George Cockburn, the soldier who burned down the White House in 1814, while under orders from Admiral Thomas Cochrane. The records show Johnson was asking for 100,000 pounds, and the sailors gave him just 4,735 pounds. But clearly there was at least one submarine in existence in 1820, and Johnson had control of it.
What does not seem clear is that Johnson’s submarine could have accomplished the rescue mission. More than likely, Johnson's plot was a scam to obtain money from Napoleon's supporters. But if Johnson had not intended upon trying, why, late one night in November of 1820, did Tom Johnson try to steal his submarine?He got as far as London Bridge, when the navy caught up with him. And according to a Thames boatman who witnessed the scene, “Captain Johnson...(was) threatening to shoot them. But they paid no attention to his threats, seized her (the submarine) and taking her to Blackwall, burned her.” Thus ended the impossible mission.
Was any of it possible? Were there really far flung plots to rescue Napoleon? Well, remember the island 800 miles to the northwest of St. Helena? Its name is Ascension Island, and in 1815 British marines were sent ashore to occupy it, in the unlikely event that some one would try to use it as a base to rescue Napoleon. And as they splashed ashore they reported some one had left a written a message in the beach sand; “Le mai l'Empereur Napoleon vit pour toujours” It translated as, “May the Emperor Napoleon live forever!”
He did not. Napoleon Bonaparte died on St. Helena in May of 1821, possibly of stomach cancer, or possibly from arsenic poisoning: by whom is any one's guess. Tom Johnson was sent to debtors prison, and while there seems to have contributed to a fanciful retelling of his plan to rescue Napoleon. Upon his release Johnson was granted a comfortable pension, and retired to Southern England. In 1832 Admiral Thomas Cochrane was restored to his full rank in the British Navy, and was later even promoted to Real Admiral. He died in 1860.
Considering the entire tale from beginning to end, I have to say, it it had not involved Napoleon, I would have called it impossible. But with Napoleon, nothing was impossible.