Napoleon Bonaparte caused so much damage – and roused so much fear – during his extraordinary career that only the most extreme of measures were considered sufficient when he was finally captured. Exile to St Helena, in the South Atlantic–in those days the remotest inhabited island in the world–was intended to put an end to the threat he posed to Europe’s ruling elites. Yet even the emperor’s incarceration at Longwood House was not quite the end of his remarkable story, for a whole series of more or less fantastical plots were hatched by Bonapartist loyalists to rescue his from his island fastness.
These madcap schemes, which included efforts to obtain Napoleon’s liberty by fast yacht, new-fangled steamboat, and even by balloon, never amounted to much, but among them is a still more bizarre story that turns out to have its foundations in remarkable fact. in 1820, Tom Johnson, one of the most famous and romantic criminals of his day – a notorious smuggler and prison-breaker who had earned a richly-deserved reputation for extreme daring – claimed to have been offered £40,000 (about $3 million now) to rescue the emperor from St Helena. And he came up with a scheme to do it… one that involved the use of submarines eight decades before the invention of the first practical underwater boats.
The story has lodged firmly in the margins of history, dismissed by the few who heard of it as nothing but a fantasy. This week’s Smithsonian essay explores it – and finds archival evidence to suggest that Johnson’s elaborate plot was a good deal more real than has ever been acknowledged.