Napoleon’s exile to Saint Helena has been a source of debate since 1815, as have theories as to the cause of his death six years later. Equally heated is the question of whether he could have escaped, and if he had, where would he have gone?
His brother Joseph had money enough in North America, the ill-gotten gains from his tenure as King of Spain; veterans of his Grande Armée were gathering there too. There was even the plan to build a new Napoleonic Empire in South America, with Lord Cochrane freeing the Emperor and attacking Spain’s colonial domains, as well as smuggler Thomas Johnstone and the submarine plot (yes, submarine! Fulton’s second Nautilus for those curious).
Though such plans were effectively put to a stop by Napoleon’s death in 1821, it is a fertile ground for writers to weave ‘what if?’ tapestries. Shannon Selin has done so already, with her wonderful novel Napoleon in America, which imagines he escaped and joined his brother. Now Jan Needle has written this thrilling novella, which combines elements from the latter, British-based plots.
At the heart of it we have Samson Armstrong, a down-on-his-luck ship’s captain who had served on East Indiamen during the Napoleonic Wars, and now his ships are rotting at anchor. A chance encounter, overhearing a French spy recruiting newly discharged British Army veterans to the scheme, and the persuasion of Lord Cochrane leads him to aiding the endeavour. Johnstone and his submarines in tow, what follows is the effort to slip past the blockading Royal Navy ships and steal Napoleon away.
Napoleon: The Escape is a thrilling piece of historical fiction. Tightly plotted, laced with fact, skulduggery and high seas adventure alongside a brilliantly conceived cast of characters, Jan Needle’s narrative is well-written and sweeps you along at a rate of knots. Though short, it is immensely satisfying and the final (cruel?) twist at the end is brilliantly executed, offering his take on one of the mysteries of Napoleon’s exile on Saint Helena.
If you hadn’t guessed, I thoroughly enjoyed it…