On the 18th of July 1815, two plays, The Poor Gentleman by George Colman the Younger (1802) and Raising the Wind by James Kenney (1803), were performed before Napoleon Buonaparte on board HMS Bellerophon.
After his defeat at Waterloo, the former Emperor had decided that his best course of action was to ask “generous” England to provide him with land so that he might retire to the countryside and become a gentleman farmer. In pursuit of that plan, Napoleon had surrendered his sword three days earlier on the 15th of July, to Frederick Lewis Maitland, Captain of Bellerophon. It is against a setting of the back and forth of urgent signals from sea and pressing messages to London requesting orders as to how to proceed that these plays were staged.
The reasons for the discrepancy in dates
Readers will note that the date on the playbill reads, “On Evening, the of September, 1815, will be presented the Comedy of ”. From this we may surmise that the event on July 18th was performed without any playbill at all, there being no printing press aboard, no time and probably no necessity, for this was an “in-house” occasion. What is clear is that the same actors (the part of Richard in Raising the Wind yet unallocated) performed these plays later (the spaces suggesting time and date yet to be decided) to the general public. Such a performance would have occurred during the decommissioning of Bellerophon at HM Dockyard Chatham. This took place immediately after her last service as interim transport for Napoleon and prior to her final service as a prison ship.
The playbill, apart from being material evidence of the civil behaviour extended to Napoleon even in defeat, stands as a robust reminder of the great attention the Royal Navy has always paid to the maintenance of good public relations when in port.
For more on the discovery of the playbill, see Further Information
The discovery of this unique event
Of the four Justice relatives who served (and survived) as officers in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars, it is Francis Wall Justice to whom we owe the discovery of this heretofore unknown episode in the story of Napoleon’s final journey to St. Helena.
Although much of the Justice family’s archival materials were lost in the bombing of Portsmouth in late 1940, the midshipman’s journals of F. W. Justice, then just 19 years old and serving aboard HMS Bellerophon, survived. Leafed into the journal that describes that period, was a playbill headed “Theatre-Royal, H.M.S. Bellerophon”. On it is listed the characters and cast for each play with Mr. Justice playing “Doctor Ollapod” in the Colman and “Plainway” in the Kenney.
Written by hand above the heading is “Performed before Bonaparte on board-----------” and on the reverse, “Bill of the Play performed before Bonaparte on board the Belleophon”; under the last word, the date “1815”. The ink used has been examined and found to be of the same kind as that used by Mr. Justice for his journal entries and certainly, the handwriting is identical to the writing in the journal.
It may be of interest that Francis Wall Justice after joining the navy at age 13 was one of a select few who remained with the Royal Navy after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He served with the South Atlantic Squadron working as a cartographer for those sea roads and coasts and retiring into Somerset with the rank of Commander.