The Bellerophon, Plymouth Sound (Vignette), engraved by E. Goodall published 1836
HMS Bellerophon was a 74-gun ship of the line built by the Royal Navy during the late 18th Century. Launched in 1786, and first commissioned in 1790, the ship would go on to see extensive service during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, taking part in four major engagements, the Glorious First of June, “Cornwallis’s Retreat,” the Battle of the Nile, and Trafalgar, as well as the escort and blockade duties that most British warships of this era participated in.
In 1815, during Napoleon’s brief return to power, Bellerophon was part of the force blockading the port of Rochefort. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, he, along with a number of close associates planned to leave France for exile in America in order to avoid being captured by vengeful Austrians, Prussians, and Russians, sailing for the US aboard a pair of frigates docked at Rochefort. However, after finding his way blocked by the British and rejecting a proposal from the captain of one of the frigates where he would engage Bellerophon at close range in order to buy enough time for the other frigate, carrying Napoleon and his party, to escape to the open sea as a suicide mission that would be a needless sacrifice, decided to negotiate with Capt. Fredrick Maitland of the Bellerophon, the senior British officer present, in the hopes of finding a way out of his predicament.
Although Capt. Maitland refused to permit Napoleon to sail to America, he did offer to take him to Britain where he could plead his case to the British government were he to surrender himself to the Royal Navy. Napoleon agreed, hoping that he could persuade the British government to grant him asylum and allow him to retire to a small estate in the English countryside, and therefore, on the morning of July 15, 1815, Napoleon, along with his entourage, boarded Bellerophon and surrendered themselves to Maitland. Later that day, Maitland’s immediate superior, Vice Admiral Hotham, approved of the arrangements Maitland had made, and ordered him to sail to Britain with Napoleon. Bellerophon arrived at Plymouth Sound on July 24, and soon attracted a crowd of onlookers, but the admiral in charge there, Lord Keith, ordered that nobody that he did not personally authorize was to board or leave the ship while the British cabinet decided Napoleon’s fate over the next couple weeks.
Napoleon’s hopes of retiring in Britain were dashed, as the British cabinet felt that it would be unwise to allow Napoleon to retire to a remote estate, as it believed that even if he were kept under virtual house arrest, the risk that he could escape with the help of British sympathizers and die-hard loyalists and again destabilize Europe was too great, while imprisoning him in Britain would have raised awkward legal questions, as he had violated no British laws. Instead, the British government ordered that Napoleon be exiled and confined to the remote island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. However, the Admirality was concerned that the ageing Bellerophon was not up to such a voyage, and ordered him to be transferred to another ship-of-the-line, Northumberland, which would take Napoleon and a small party to St. Helena, the transfer taking place at sea on August 7.
With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Bellerophon became one of many warships that were no longer needed by a rapidly downsizing Royal Navy, and at the beginning of September, the ship arrived at the Sheerness Dockyard to be stripped in preparation for being laid up in reserve, with the crew being paid off and the ship decommissioned on September 13, 1815.
However, Bellerophon’s fate was not to linger in reserve until being sold for scrap, but something rather more ignominious for a ship with a record like hers. In December, 1815, the Admiralty loaned the ship to the Home Office for use as a prison hulk, housing convicts sentenced to hard labor involving maintaining harbors and various unpleasant tasks in naval bases, the work needed to convert the ship into a floating jail taking until September, 1816. For the next two decades, Bellerophon was used as a prison first at the mouth of the Thames, and later at Plymouth, being renamed Captivity in 1824 to free her name for a new ship-of-the-line, until deporting convicts to Australia replaced the use of prison ships and hard labor in the ports as the preferred method of dealing with criminals. With no further need of the ship, she was returned to the Admiralty, who promptly disposed of the hulk, which was sold for scrap in January, 1836.