Fallen Eagle: How the Royal Navy Captured Napoleon, Norman MacKenzie

Fallen Eagle: How the Royal Navy Captured Napoleon, Norman MacKenzie

This book looks at the period between Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and his departure for exile on St. Helena. The title is slightly misleading. One large part of the book deals with the relationship between Napoleon and the government that replaced him in Paris, and another with the treatment Napoleon received once he had been captured while the ship that captured Napoleon (the Bellerophon) doesn't make an appearance until page 119. This is by no means a criticism of the book, and in fact is one of its strengths. The section on the fall of Napoleon is particularly fascinating, and helped to fill a gap in my own knowledge of events between the moment Napoleon drove away from Waterloo and his arrival in exile on St. Helena. 

I'm not sure I agree with the attempts to make a parallel between the treatment of Napoleon and the modern phenomenon of 'rendition'. There was nothing secret about Napoleon's fate – he even became a tourist attraction while he was being held on a British warship off the south coast – and a return to exile after his escape from Elba was just about the kindest fate available to him at the time, with both the Bourbons and the Prussians after his blood. Most of the controversy over Napoleon's fate seems to be based on his own unrealistic expectations of the reception he would receive in Britain after so many years of hostility.

A better parallel would be with recent attempts at 'regime change', although as many argued at the time that regime change had happened a year earlier, when Napoleon had abdicated and gone into exile on Elba – the legal problems caused by that return from exile, and its impact on Napoleon's legal status is another theme of the book – was he an outlaw, a pirate, a prisoner of war or a political figure? The British government was concerned enough to eventually legalise their actions in Parliament, just to be on the safe side!

The three key players in this book are Napoleon; Joseph Fouché, Napoleon's Minister of Police during the Consulate and Empire and Captain Frederick Maitland, captain of the Bellerophon. The focus of the narrative switches between these three men, looking at their motives, problems, plans and concerns. Maitland's superiors, Napoleon's supporters and opponents in France, the Bourbons, the Prussians and the duke of Wellington all make more fleeting appearances.

This is a fascinating book that looks at the relatively neglected but crucial period that finally ended the Napoleonic and Revolutionary Wars, bringing peace to Europe after two decades of warfare. The insight into the devious political manoeuvring is of particular interest, and rather nicely contrasts with the worries over legal niceties on the British side.

1 Vanquished
2 The Politics of Paris
3 A Time for Decision
4 A Crisis of Fits and Starts
5 Who Governs?
6 Where Next?
7 Malmaison
8 Last Chance
9 Delays and Difficulties
10 Means of Escape
11 The Man who Captured Napoleon
12 Journey's End
13 Rendition?
14 An Incomparable Event
15 Just in Time
16 Billy Ruffians
17 Seized and Detained
18 Strict Regime
19 Verdict
20 Gone

Author: Norman MacKenzie
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 236
Publisher: Bellerophon
Year: 2009

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