If Only Napoleon Had A Submarine

By Larry Jimenez on Wednesday, May 13, 2015
“He who fears being conquered is certain of defeat.” —Napoleon Bonaparte

In A Nutshell

At a time when the technology was still in its infancy, notorious British smuggler Tom Johnson hatched a plan to rescue Napoleon from exile in St. Helena by submarine. Working from plans drafted by Robert Fulton, Johnson proposed to evade British patrol ships by approaching the island underwater and spirit the Emperor away to the United States. Once considered a tall tale by historians, evidence from independent sources has now confirmed that such a plan was actually considered and taken seriously by the British and French governments.

The Whole Bushel

After Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, the British sent him to exile on the lonely Atlantic island of St. Helena. It was a forbidding prison, its difficult terrain guarded by sentries and all approaches by sea under close surveillance by the Royal Navy. The British were cautious to the point of paranoia, but their fears were well grounded. Throughout his six years of exile, there were numerous attempts to snatch away Napoleon. (Making St. Helena rescue-proof while allowing the imperial prisoner as much comfort as possible was the task of the governor, Sir Hudson Lowe.)

Among the many bizarre plans to help the Emperor escape was a seemingly far-fetched one—use a submarine to approach the island undetected. Considering that vessels that traveled underwater were a largely untested technology in the early 1800s, the following story has an implausible ring to it. But despite the inconsistencies in details and the inevitable exaggerations of our sources, the overall evidence leaves little question that the plot is historical fact.

The mastermind of the daring scheme was a colorful character named Thomas Johnson (or Johnstone). Born in Ireland, he was an intrepid adventurer and smuggler whose exploits could rival those of Indiana Jones. Johnson escaped from prison twice, which lent him a certain aura of invincibility. He was also a gifted inventor. It was his services to the British government that earned him a pardon.

At the time, with war between Britain and France raging, American inventor Robert Fulton tried to interest the French government in his pioneering submersible vessel and underwater bomb (which he called a “torpedo”). But with the Peace of Amiens in 1802, Napoleon lost interest, and Fulton offered the submarine Nautilius to Britain. But the Admiralty, fearful that the awesome destructive power of submarine warfare might backfire against Britain, was ambivalent toward the project.

It is unknown if Johnson ever actually met Fulton, but the smuggler somehow obtained Fulton’s submarine plans. During the War of 1812, Fulton got the attention of the US government, and Britain called upon Johnson to build a torpedo system to counteract the Americans. When the war ended in 1814, both countries shelved their superweapons, and the matter passed out of consideration. But the result was that, by the time of Napoleon’s exile, it was more than likely that Captain Johnson had an actual submarine ready or had the means to build one. In 1820, the Bonapartists were looking for just such a vessel and were ready to shell out thousands of pounds to obtain one. It wouldn’t be hard to hook the erstwhile smuggler to their cause.

As Johnson himself tells it, he would prepare two steam-powered submarines, the Eagle and the Etna. The plan was to have the smaller Etna creep as close as possible to the rocks at the base of St. Helena’s sheer cliffs. Johnson would scale the cliff at night and fetch Napoleon from Longwood, his prison house. The Emperor would disguise himself as a coachman, Johnson as a groom. With a mechanical chair, Napoleon would be lowered down the cliff and board the Etna, to be transferred later on the Eagle. The pair would then proceed to the United States and safety. Should they encounter the British patrol ships, both submarines were armed with 20 torpedos, sufficient to blow up an equal number of ships out of the sea.

Either Johnson was exaggerating, or he seriously overestimated the capabilities of his submarines. It may not be at all possible to sail the vessels all the way to St. Helena under their own power. There is no evidence to suggest that Johnson ever solved the problem of a ship submerging in neutral buoyancy (the weightless state between floating and sinking) from just plunging helplessly to the bottom. It is also unlikely that Napoleon, who refused less risky plans before, would agree to the seemingly crackpot venture.

Napoleon’s death finally ended all schemes of rescue. Johnson persisted in his attempts to attract potential clients to his new technology, but without success. The Admiralty continued to ignore him. Thomas Johnson died in 1839. The submarine would have to wait till near the end of the century to become a viable and practical weapon of war.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Wikipedia
Cairn: The attempt to rescue Napoleon with a submarine: fact or fiction?
Smithsonian: The Secret Plot to Rescue Napoleon by Submarine
The Terror Before Trafalgar, by Tom Pocock