‘Since General Buonaparte’s arrival at St Helena I have been so occupied that I have seen but little of him. . . but in the evenings I understand he has regularly invited himself to join the family party in the house, where he plays at whist with the ladies.’ This is from a diary kept by Sir George Cockburn while he was in charge of Napoleon, in transit to, and residing on, the island of St Helena. Apart from such daily details, the diary is also full of Napoleon’s recollections of various military campaigns. Cockburn, born 240 years ago today, was a highly successul British sailor who rose through the ranks to become Admiral of the Fleet and First Naval Lord.
Cockburn was born on 22 April 1772 in London, the second son of Sir James Cockburn and his second wife Augusta Anne Ayscough. Educated at schools in Marylebone and Margate, he also attended the Royal Navigational School in London. Aged 14, he went to sea, and rose rapidly in the Royal Navy, being promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 1793. He was appointed to the Victory, Lord Hood’s flagship off Toulon, and then to the sloop Speedy, the frigate Meleager under the orders of Captain Nelson, and to the Minerve, a large frigate captured from the French, which was later present at the battle of Cape St Vincent.
In 1803, Cockburn was appointed to the Phaeton, which he commanded for two years in the East Indies, and to the Captain, then to the Pompée, which took him to the West Indies. After taking part in the capture of Flushing in 1809 (part of the otherwise disastrous landing of British forces in the Low Countries), he returned to Britain, and married his cousin Mary Cockburn with whom he had one surviving daughter.
Further promotion to rear-admiral followed service on the Indefatigable around Spain. In 1814, on the Marlborough Cockburn battled against the American militia, cruising along the Chesapeake Bay to seize shipping and raid ports. In 1815, he was summoned back to Europe and given the task of escorting Napoleon, who had been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, to St Helena. Cockburn remained there for some months as island governor before being relieved. Napoleon, though, would be confined there until his death in 1821.
Cockburn was first elected as a Tory MP in 1818, and remained an MP for different constituencies until 1847 with one long gap in the 1830s. He was knighted in 1815, and elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1820. He served two terms as First Naval Lord (1833-1836 and 1841-1846) and as Commander-in-Chief, North America and West Indies Station between 1832 and 1836. He was appointed a full admiral in 1837. In 1852, he inherited the family baronetcy from his elder brother, before dying a year later. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The History of Parliament, or the book, Cockburn and the British Navy in Transition by Roger Morriss, which is partially viewable on the Amazon website.
There is no evidence that Cockburn regularly kept a diary, but he did keep one for a short period while charged with transporting and looking after the prisoner, Napoléon Bonaparte. A first edition appeared in the US in 1833 (published by Lilly, Wait, Colman and Holden) compiled from the original manuscript in the handwriting of Cockburn’s private secretary. This was titled Buonaparte’s Voyage to St Helena; comprising the diary of Rear Admiral Sir G Cockburn, during his passage from England to St Helena, in 1815.
In the book’s preface, the publishers explain: ‘There is another copy of this manuscript in existence, which was, at one period, in the course of publication in England, but considerations, which may be obviously inferred from the character of the production itself, then led to its suppression, and must continue to prevent its appearance from that quarter.’
Indeed, it was not until 50 years later, in 1888, that Cockburn’s journal was published in the UK (by Simpkin, Marshall & Co.) as Extract from a Diary of Rear-Admiral Sir George Cockburn with particular reference to Gen. Napoleon Buonaparte on Passage from England to St Helena, in 1815 on board HMS “Northumberland”.
This version’s preface says: ‘The manuscript, from which this “Extract” has been printed, was found, in his own hand-writing, among the papers of my late father; attached to it being a note, also in his own handwriting, to the effect that it is a reproduction of a copy found at St Helena, in 1824 or 25, among the effects of one who had held an official position as Admiral’s Secretary or Captain’s Clerk on board the “Northumberland” on her voyage to St Helena, where he died, and who had no doubt made it as a matter of pardonable curiosity and satisfaction for himself; and it is now published in the belief that it’s intrinsic interest, as closing a gap in the later career of the great soldier, will be deemed sufficient excuse for it’s seeing the light.’
Both the earlier US edition and the later UK edition are freely available at Internet Archive. Here are two extracts from the start and end of the diary.
7 August 1815
‘On reaching the deck [Buonaparte] said to me, “Here I am, Admiral, at your orders!” He then asked to be introduced to the Captain, then asked the names of the different officers and gentlemen upon deck, asked them in what countries they were born and other questions of such trifling import, and he then went into the cabin with Lord Keith and myself, followed by some of his own people. After I had shown him the cabin I had appropriated for his exclusive use and requested him to sit down in the great cabin, he begged me to cause the Lieutenant of the ship to be introduced to him; as, however, at this time his own followers came to take leave of him, I thought it best to leave him for a little while to himself, and I found soon afterwards advantage was taken of this for him to assume exclusive right to the after, or great cabin. When I therefore had finished my letters I went into it again with some of my officers and desired M. de Bertrand to explain to him that the after cabin must be considered as common to us all, and that the sleeping cabin I had appropriated to him could alone be considered as exclusively his. He received this intimation with submission and good humour and soon afterwards went on deck, where he chatted loosely and good-naturedly with everybody.
At dinner he ate heartily of almost every dish, praised everything and seemed most perfectly contented and reconciled to his fate. He talked with me during dinner much on his Russian Campaign, said he meant only to have refreshed his troops at Moscow for four or five days and then to have marched for Petersburg, but the destruction of Moscow subverted all his projects, and he said nothing could have been more horrible than was that campaign; that for several days together it appeared to him as if he were marching through a sea of fire owing to the constant succession of villages in flames which arose in every direction as far as his eye could reach; that this had been by some attributed to his troops but that it was always done by the natives. Many of his soldiers however, he said, lost their lives by endeavouring to pillage in the midst of the flames. He spoke much of the cold during their disastrous retreat, and stated that one night, after he had quitted the army to return to Paris, an entire half of his Guard were frozen to death.
He also told me in the course of this evening that previous to his going to Elba he had made preparations for having a Navy of 100 sail of the line; that he had established a conscription for the Navy, and that the Toulon Fleet was entirely manned and brought forward by people of this description; that he ordered them positively to get under weigh and manoeuvre every day the weather would permit of it, and to stand out occasionally and to exchange long shots with our ships; that this had been much remonstrated against by those about him and had cost him at first a good deal of money to repair the accidents that occurred from the want of maritime knowledge, such as from the ships getting aboard of each other, splitting their sails, springing their masts, &c., but he found that even these accidents tended to improve the crews and therefore he continued to pay his money and oblige them to continue to exercise. He said he had built his ships at Antwerp in rather too great a hurry, but he spoke highly in praise of the port and said he had already given orders for a similar establishment to have been formed on the Elbe; and had fortune not turned against him he hoped to have sooner or later given us some trouble, even on the seas. He stated that the reason he had over-hurried the ships at Antwerp, before mentioned, was because he was anxious to press forward an expedition from thence against Ireland.
After taking his wine and coffee he took a short walk on deck and afteryards proposed a round game at cards; in compliance with which we played at vingt-un until about half-past ten, won from him about seven or eight napoleons, and he then retired to his bedroom, apparently as much at his ease as if he had belonged to the ship all his life. I afterwards disposed of his whole party for the night, though not without some difficulty; the ladies with their families making it necessary I should provide them with adequate room and accommodation, and yet each other person of the suite asking for and expecting a separate cabin to sleep in and in which to put their things.’
22 October 1815
‘Since General Buonaparte’s arrival at St Helena I have been so occupied that I have seen but little of him. I went with him, however, one day to Longwood, and he seemed tolerably satisfied with it, though with his attendants he has since been complaining a good deal; and having stated to me that he could not bear the crowds which gathered to see him in the town, he has, at his own request been permitted to take up his residence (until Longwood should be completed) at a small house called the Briars, where there is a pretty good garden, and a tolerably large room, detached from the house, of which he has taken possession, and in which and the garden he remains almost all day; but in the evenings I understand he has regularly invited himself to join the family party in the house, where he plays at whist with the ladies of the family for sugar-plums until his usual hour of retiring for the night.’