Billy Ruffian: the Bellerophon and the downfall of Napoleon By David Cordingly

Boney's nemesis: Christopher Hart on the stirring life and ignominious death of a battleship

Friday 20 September 2013 05:41

The 74-gun ship of the line, the Bellerophon, was launched into a stormy and turbulent river Medway in the early afternoon of Saturday 7 October 1786. That same October, a brilliant young second lieutenant in the French army, just 17 years old, was home on leave in Ajaccio, Corsica, having completed in one year the artillery training which took most of his peers two or three. He spent his evenings poring over Plato, Buffon, and tomes such as The Art of Judging Character from Men's Faces. The lad certainly had ambition.

David Cordingly is particularly deft at telling parallel stories, showing how the destinies of Napoleon and the Bellerophon crossed again and again, until finally the disgraced Emperor would stand a prisoner on her decks anchored in Torbay, while boatloads of trippers came out to view him: not so much the Bogey Man of all Europe as a jolly tourist attraction.

This richly entertaining and informative book follows in the tempestuous wake of the Bellerophon from slipway to scrapyard, from 1782 to 1836. The author eschews any imaginative input, preferring a careful use of the fabulous collection of Admiralty documents held in the Public Records Office. These resurrected log books, captains' letters and court martial reports give us a thrillingly up-close feeling for what it was like to live and fight through those tumultuous best of times and worst of times.

A vessel the size of the Bellerophon took an awesome 3,000 mature oak trees to build. But this being England, no one dreamed of cultivating efficient navy-owned oak plantations over several decades. Instead, government officials simply rode around the lanes of Surrey, Sussex and Kent, looking for suitable oaks already growing in woods and hedgerows, and buying them off the local farmer.

Just as amateurish was the procedure for naming the ship. This consisted of Lord Sandwich, the large, shambling First Lord of the Admiralty, reaching for the copy of Lemprière's Classical Dictionary that sat on his desk, and picking any name that struck him as suitably euphonious. In April 1782, he chose "Bellerophon" for the new 74-gunner being built down near Chatham. The classically uneducated crew renamed her "Billy Ruffian".

For a few years there was peace, and she rode at anchor in the Medway as part of a formidable five-mile line of ships stretching from Rochester Bridge almost to Gillingham. And then on 14 July 1789, the Paris mob stormed a prison called La Bastille and "gloriously" liberated the prisoners. (There were seven of them: five forgers, the incestuous Comte de Solages, and a mad Irishman who thought he was Julius Caesar.) By 1792, all Europe was at war.

The Bellerophon's first major engagement was the Battle of the Glorious First of June, in 1794. Sea battles, as Cordingly makes clear, were brutal, deafeningly noisy and appallingly destructive. Before an engagement, decks would be strewn with sand to soak up the blood that would inevitably be sloshing around before long. Then the ships simply came alongside each other and opened fire with all guns. The First of June was a marginal British victory, despite the fact that the Bellerophon's first captain, Thomas Pasley, laid down his leg for his country. In compensation he was given a baronetcy and a pension of £1,000 a year.

She was in the thick of things again at the Battle of the Nile, which left Napoleon stranded in Egypt with 30,000 troops. A man who hated wasting time, however, he was soon building windmills, setting up a postal service, and erecting Cairo's first street lamps. Finally there was Trafalgar, and with this final victory, Britain's global naval supremacy was assured for a century or more.

After Waterloo, the Bellerophon had one final role to play, as the ship that picked up Napoleon as he fled France and put himself into the hands of the British: "the greatest, the most constant and the most generous of my enemies". (He would say that, wouldn't he?) And after some weeks anchored off Torbay, he was shipped off to remote and melancholy exile on St Helena, never to return. Admire his energy and vision as we might, a contemporary letter to The Times estimated that every minute of his reign had cost a human life.

The Bellerophon ended her days back on the Medway as a rotting hulk, at one point housing nearly 400 prisoners, most of them boys under 14, before being finally towed in and dismantled for scrapwood. It was a squalid and ignominious end for one of Britain's greatest fighting ships, which was there, as Cordingly says in an envoi of uncharacteristic lyricism, "in the darkness of the Egyptian night off the mouth of the Nile, and in the glare of the midday sun off the shoals of Cape Trafalgar".

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