Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Betsy Boffo in Britain

On May 18, 1805, the ship Erin--with Betsy Bonaparte and the rest of her party aboard--dropped anchor off the coast of Dover and apparently sent someone ashore to procure passports. In a sign of how slowly news traveled in the early 19th century, that same day the London Morning Courier reported--in an item dated "Madrid, April 10"--that Betsy had just embarked from Lisbon on her way to Holland.

Betsy's reception in England was considerably warmer than what she had met with in Amsterdam. Her fame, already widespread in the United States, had preceded her, and her rough treatment at Napoleon's hands apparently trumped her familial connection to the Bonapartes and stirred British sympathies. Not that they would have needed much stirring, given that Britain was at war with France and Napoleon was roundly despised.

On May 20, the Morning Courier--now fully apprised of Betsy's whereabouts--heaped scorn on "the French, who boast so much of their gallantry to females" but had prevented the pregnant Betsy from landing. Here in England, the Courier added, Betsy "knew she would be hospitably entertained." A few days later the paper again took up the theme: "In [her] distress she turned her thoughts towards England, a country where neither enmity, politics, or warfare, ever yet extinguished the feelings of humanity and the spirit of gallantry. In England she found an asylum."

According to newspaper reports, when Betsy landed at Dover, she was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd whose numbers the Courier described as "almost past calculation." Another report said that the man escorting Betsy from the ship was able to get her to her waiting carriage only "with the greatest exertions" because of the pressure of the crowd. The reports noted that Betsy seemed pleased by the attention.

No doubt she was also gratified to read the many encomiums to her beauty. "The personal attraction[s] of Madame Jerome Bonaparte have been reported through every part in Europe," remarked the Courier (which was on this story like a glove). "Nor has her elegance been too much celebrated. Her figure is about the middle size; her countenance sweet and expressive; and her general deportment such as must interest and engage the heart of every beholder."

Poor Eliza. Initial reports described her as simply "a female," although a later one reported her name and called her one of Betsy's "beautiful countrywomen." Still, I can't help wondering if the imbalance in attention might not have caused some friction between the two women--as a comment by Betsy a few months later suggests.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Napoleon Wins Round One

It was now clear to Betsy Bonaparte and her traveling companions--which included her friend Eliza Anderson--that, despite the fact that Betsy was pregnant with his niece or nephew, Napoleon wasn't going to let them land in any port that he controlled. That would include Amsterdam, where they were currently moored, under armed guard. The same day that the ship Erin finally received fresh provisions from the Dutch Admiral, the ship's captain also received a written order to leave the port--as though, after they'd almost come under fire from the Dutch, there could possibly be any doubt about whether they were welcome.

So, where to go next? At this point Napoleon controlled enough European territory that there weren't many options. Of course, one possibility would have been to turn around and sail back to the United States. And Betsy's husband Jerome had been ordered by Napoleon to tell her to do just that (although there's no evidence he had sent her such a message at this point). But--given that Betsy was due in only two months, and sea voyages could easily take six weeks--an Atlantic crossing was risky. Besides, Captain Stephenson apparently had other cargo to deliver to Amsterdam and needed to return, once he had rid himself of his problematic human cargo. Nor was Betsy ready to give up on her hopes that Jerome would convince his brother to recognize the marriage.

Betsy's own brother Robert, who was in Holland on business and had heard of the stand-off in Amsterdam harbor, desperately tried to get a message to her telling her to proceed to Emden, in Germany. But apparently that message never got through.

It's not clear exactly how the discussion unfolded, because Captain Stephenson reports rather laconically that "when the wind came fair we put to sea and after we were outside debated where we should go[.] [W]hen it being determined for England, we made for that country and next afternoon anchored off Dover." (Betsy, alas, was even more laconic, reducing the whole episode to the comment, "not being permitted to land in Holland obliged to go to England." It's really too bad we don't have Eliza's impressions of the Amsterdam adventure. Judging from what I've read of her letters, she would have provided quite a vivid account.)

England was, in some ways, a logical choice: it was close by, and--given that England and France were at war--Napoleon certainly wasn't going to be able to prevent them from landing there. But, if Betsy was still hoping to curry favor with her putative brother-in-law, choosing to have her baby in the land of his sworn enemies, the British, probably wasn't the smartest move.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Betsy and Eliza vs. Napoleon, Part III

So, back to Betsy and Eliza and their party, hovering near the mouth of the Amsterdam harbor in May of 1805...

According to the captain of the ship, Stephenson (whose journal is transcribed in a 1953 article in Maryland Historical Magazine by Dorthy Quynn and Frank White), a few hours after the incident with the confused pilot, the Erin was forcibly put under guard between two armed warships. And, "by way of doubly securing us if it was not already done," two additional boats rowed around the Erin all night.

The next day, buffeted by strong winds, the passengers on the Erin began to feel the want of food: a month had now transpired since their last stop, in Lisbon, and they had expected to land in Amsterdam some days before. "Our fresh provisions were all consumed," Captain Stephenson recorded, "and we found ourselves reduced to salt Beef and Biscuit, fare not very well relished by passengers particularly ladies." And of course, at this point Betsy--seven months pregnant--was eating for two.

The captain tried to communicate the problem to the armed sloop hovering nearby--many times. "To all of which someone on board with true Dutch Sang-froid answered Yaw, Yaw, and paid us no further attention."

Then, for some reason, the Dutch ordered the Erin to unmoor, despite the strong winds--which resulted in the ship being blown too close to the armed sloop. At that point, someone on the sloop "told us that if we came near enough to touch him, they would fire into us, and send us to the Bottom, and that we might fully comprehend the force of his generous offer, he repeated it in very good English."

It's clear from the journal that Stephenson himself had more than a little sang froid, or at least a dry sense of humor. He follows this report with the comment that "we could not reconcile ourselves [to the] thought of drowning, especially in a climate as cold as Holland is, where to drown is a double death, as you are sure of being half frozen before you get comfortably full of Water..."

He goes on to say that no one "but the principal officers" knew why armed force was being used to prevent the Erin from landing. He later found out that various rumors were circulating: the ship was carrying yellow fever, or "combustibles to destroy the Dutch fleet." Some even thought the Erin--an unarmed merchant ship--had "some designs of taking Holland." The captain added, "It never once entered the heads of those poor people that all this stir was only to prevent a man and wife coming together."

Stephenson then came under pressure from the passengers--particularly Betsy's brother William--to send out one of the Erin's lifeboats in an attempt to procure some food. The captain strongly urged against this plan, saying it was too risky, but at length was obliged to give in. William Patterson, accompanied by "the surgeon" (a Dr. Garnier, who presumably was around to attend to the pregnant Betsy), and some seamen set off in the boat, but there was an immediate outcry from the warships. The captain called to "Mr. P.--told him it would be madness to push the business any farther as the guns were pointed and matches holding over them."

The sight of guns pointed at them seemed at last to have a discouraging effect on the boating party, and they turned back. The captain remarked that "the surgeon who was warm for going appeared to be in full as great a hurry to get back, as he did not take time to step into the ship but rolled over the ship's side in on deck."

The whole abortive incident at least caught the attention of the Dutch admiral--who apparently hadn't understood the situation--and the next day "brought a full supply of everything, an assortment of wines and liquors, and a very polite message from the Admiral."

At least Betsy and Eliza and the rest had something decent to eat and drink. Now--since it was pretty clear they weren't going to be landing in Amsterdam--the only question was where to go next.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Betsy and Eliza vs. Napoleon, Part II

After the elderly pilot scampered off into the Amsterdam harbor--fearing for his life because he had almost disobeyed Napoleon's orders to prevent the ship Erin from landing--Betsy Bonaparte and her little traveling party (including her friend Eliza Anderson) were somewhat demoralized, to say the least. When the circumstances were explained to Betsy, the ship's captain said, "they afflicted her very much, as it at once proved to her, she would not be received by the French government."

Here we might pause to consider what had happened to Betsy's errant husband Jerome, who had parted from her in Lisbon with the promise that he would see his brother Napoleon and convince him to recognize the marriage. Jerome has taken something of a beating from historians and commentators in light of what later transpired, but all the evidence from 1805 indicates that, (a) he really did love Betsy, and (b) he did try, sort of, to get Napoleon's approval.

Shortly after they parted in Lisbon, Jerome wrote to Betsy: "Don’t cry because tears do no good and may do you much harm... Take care not to receive visitors or to make visits and to have someone always with you either Mrs. Anderson, the doctor, or William... I embrace you as I love you, and you know that I love you very much..." A few days later, Jerome ran into some old friends on the road--the Duchesse d'Abrantes and her husband, who had just been appointed Napoleon's ambassador to Portugal. Jerome eagerly showed the couple a portrait of Betsy, according to the Duchesse, and then said, "Judge, then, whether I can abandon a being like her; especially when I assure you that to a person so exquisitely beautiful are united every quality that can render a woman amiable." The Duchesse, who had known Jerome in his black sheep youth, "could not help remarking a wonderful alteration in his manners. He was sedate--nay, almost serious."

On May 3--almost a month after he'd left Betsy in Lisbon, and only a few days before Betsy tried unsuccessfully to land in Amsterdam--Jerome wrote to her from Italy, where Napoleon was then ensconced. He was clearly optimistic, telling Betsy that he would be meeting with the Emperor the next day and that he and Betsy would be reunited (he doesn't specify where) during the first half of June. But a few days later Napoleon sent word to Jerome that he would meet with him only if he renounced Betsy and ordered her to go home.

Jerome had previously assured Betsy that if he failed in his mission he would simply withdraw "with my little family in no matter what corner of the world." But when push came to shove, he gave in to Napoleon's demand--perhaps by a return letter of the very same day. Why? He later told Betsy that his plan was to prove himself valiant in battle and then ask for Betsy as his reward. It's also possible that Napoleon wasn't about to let him leave quietly--he'd already threatened Jerome with arrest if he deviated from the route prescribed for him from Lisbon to Italy. And it's possible that Jerome suspected that his charming but ambitious little wife wouldn't have lived too happily ever after in obscurity in "no matter what corner of the world."

Here's one thing that puzzles me, though: Napoleon apparently sent word to Jerome in Lisbon, before he left, that Betsy would be prevented from landing in Amsterdam. So why didn't Jerome warn her, and tell her to go somewhere else? It's possible that Jerome never got, or didn't understand, that part of Napoleon's orders. When he wrote to Betsy in April, shortly after they parted, he addressed his letter to her in Amsterdam (under the pseudonym they'd adopted in Lisbon, d'Albert). So he must have thought she'd be able to land there.

In any event, Betsy and Eliza and the rest of the party knew nothing of what was transpiring in Italy, and they were clearly unprepared for the hostile reception they had gotten in Holland--which, though technically not part of Napoleon's empire, was ruled by a puppet government. And things were about to get even more hostile...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Betsy and Eliza vs. Napoleon

So: On April 9, 1805, Jerome Bonaparte went off to see his brother Napoleon, who was then in Northern Italy, leaving his wife Betsy and her companion Eliza Anderson behind in Lisbon. "Mon mari est parti," Betsy wrote in her notebook, adopting the language of what she hoped would soon become her adoptive country.

At this point Betsy was 5 or 6 months pregnant. Originally the young couple may have set off for Europe in hopes that their baby would be born on French soil, thus perhaps strengthening the validity of their marriage in Napoleon's eyes. Napoleon himself had no heir yet, and presumably another Bonaparte -- a little boy Bonaparte, that is -- would have been a welcome addition to the family.

But by the time Jerome and Betsy left Baltimore, the plan had apparently been amended: after Jerome was let off the boat in Lisbon, the rest of the party would proceed to Amsterdam, where they assumed Betsy would be allowed to land and have her baby. A letter to Betsy from her father, addressing her as "My Dear Daughter" and dated the day before her departure from Baltimore, instructs her to proceed to Amsterdam and await word from Jerome that he'd arranged for her to be received by the Bonaparte family. Her brother Robert was in Holland attending to business and would be able to provide for her needs until word arrived. If Jerome proved unsuccessful, Betsy was to return home as soon as possible. (A later note written on the document in Betsy's hand -- she apparently loved to annotate her correspondence in her declining years -- says, "He never addressed me as his dear daughter after the day of my destiny was over & the Star of my fate had declined." Indeed, the relationship between father and daughter was soon to deteriorate dramatically.)

And so the ship Erin set off from Lisbon for Amsterdam--its passengers apparently unaware that Napoleon had decreed that Betsy would not be allowed to land there. The journey was much rougher than the trip across the Atlantic had been -- "a very tedious and uncomfortable passage," according to the captain, that took 26 days, longer than the transatlantic voyage.

When they got near the Amsterdam harbor, they waited two or three days for a pilot to guide them in. When none appeared, the captain determined, "with no little Risk and Anxiety," to bring the ship into harbor without one. As they neared the harbor an elderly pilot appeared and began to guide the ship in. But within a few minutes a shot was fired as a signal for them to halt. "I asked the pilot if this was customary," the captain recorded. "He told me it was not. Yet no one suspected anything uncommon from it."

A few minutes later, another pilot boat came along and asked "if we belonged to Baltimore" and if they had come from Lisbon. When the captain answered in the affirmative, this second pilot told them they couldn't land, and left. "Our old pilot," the captain related, "now seemed to awaken as from a dream and was excessively frightened." He had suddenly recalled that pilots had been forbidden from bringing in this very ship, and "concluded by assuring us that if his age did not protect him he would be hung and would no doubt as it was get a severe flogging and imprisonment."

The pilot was in fact imprisoned. But the little party out of Lisbon hadn't yet felt the full strength of Napoleon's wrath.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Eliza and the Bonapartes Land in Lisbon

I was regaling friends at a dinner party last night with tales of Betsy and Eliza -- and it reminded me that I've left my readers (whoever you may be) hanging. So, what kinds of adventures did Eliza encounter when she sailed across the Atlantic with Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte?

They left Baltimore in a merchant ship called the Erin, apparently chartered by Betsy's wealthy father. As I've mentioned, keeping their departure a secret was of the utmost importance, given that the British were at war with France and would have liked nothing better than to capture Napoleon's youngest brother. The captain of the Erin acknowledged in his journal that "The Embarkation of these persons on board the Erin was intended to be kept a secret, yet nothing was less so, each of the ladies protested their Innocence of divulging the Voyage, and one of them it is very possible may not have spoken of it. But certain it is the great secret was known in my family indirectly from the other one."

Despite the lack of discretion, the ship somehow didn't come under fire from the British, and the little party--which consisted of Betsy, Jerome, Eliza, Betsy's brother William, and several other servants and hangers-on--made their way safely across the Atlantic in a mere three weeks. The only difficulty they encountered was seasickness. (Jerome, in his charmingly fractured English, wrote to Betsy's father that Betsy had been "been very sick, but you know as well as anybody that seasick never has killed no body." Jerome may have sounded like the old salt he affected to be, but, according to the captain, Jerome himself had been plenty seasick as well.) The captain reported that the ladies amused themselves by gossiping about people back in Baltimore: "The subjects of it could not had they known all that passed been the least offended, for ... no one was spared."

Their destination was Lisbon, presumably since it was technically not under Napoleon's control. They had every reason to believe that Napoleon wouldn't be exactly welcoming to Betsy, since he'd expressly forbidden Jerome from bringing her back to Europe with him. Still, even at Lisbon the Bonapartes used an assumed name. It apparently fooled no one (aside from the benighted Portuguese, who, according to the ship's captain, were kept in "such a state of Ignorance that Napoleon himself might have been with us, without their knowing or caring about it, providing he had no troops with him"). Various "distinguished personages" came to call on the Bonapartes at their hotel, including the Spanish ambassador and the Papal Nuncio--who was described by the ship's captain, apparently no lover of Catholics, as "a canting, whining priest."

As planned, Jerome bade his wife farewell after a few days and set out overland to find his brother the Emperor and plead with him to recognize the marriage. The ship's captain thought Jerome was headed to Paris, and it's possible Betsy and the others thought so as well. But in fact, Jerome had found orders from Napoleon awaiting him in Lisbon: he was to go meet Napoleon in northern Italy, according to a specified route. If he deviated from it he would be arrested. The orders also said that Betsy would not be allowed to land in France or Holland, and that she should return to America immediately. It's not clear that Jerome passed this information along either -- in fact, given what happened next, it seems that he didn't.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Eliza, Betsy, and Napoleon--Part 2

So, as I was saying, Betsy and her husband Jerome Bonaparte decided to try once more to sail from Baltimore to Europe to try to convince Jerome's brother--the Emperor Napoleon--to recognize the validity of their marriage.

On at least one of the previous abortive attempts at crossing the Atlantic--the one that ended in a shipwreck--Betsy had brought along an unmarried female relative of hers, Nancy Spear, as a companion. There's no explanation of exactly why she brought Miss Spear along, but the couple may have anticipated some difficulty that would require them to be separated.

But when Jerome and Betsy decided, in March 1805, to attempt the voyage yet again, Betsy brought along not Miss Spear (who may have been reluctant to go to sea again after that shipwreck) but her brother William and her friend Eliza Anderson. At this point Betsy was several months pregnant, so a female companion who could hold her hand during a possible delivery may have seemed like a good idea.

The mention of a "Mrs. Anderson" on this voyage has led some of the many historical novelists who have taken a crack at Betsy's story to conclude that she was an older "family friend"--"sour and efficient" as one author characterized her--with experience as a sort of midwife.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Eliza Anderson was 25 at the time, only five years older than Betsy, and the two had been friends from their youth. Although no letters between them survive from this time, later letters suggest that Eliza felt a partly maternal, partly sisterly interest in Betsy--sometimes urging her to read the "metaphysical writers" that Eliza herself found consoling in times of despair (she mentions works such as William Paley's Moral Philosophy and Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments), sometimes chiding her to curb her notoriously acid tongue.

We don't know exactly why Betsy chose Eliza to accompany on her voyage, but at this point both of them held a somewhat marginal position in Baltimore's elite society, which may have strengthened their bond. Betsy was the daughter of one of the state's wealthiest men, William Patterson (second in wealth only to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, according to Thomas Jefferson). But her reputation had suffered as a result of her controversial marriage, her air of superiority, and her scandalous manner of dress (she favored the new French neoclassical style--no corset, thin material--leading Americans to complain that she was appearing in public nearly naked). Basically, a lot of people in Baltimore couldn't stand her--just as she couldn't stand them.

As for Eliza, her father was a respected, but far from wealthy, doctor. Probably as a result of family connections and her father's eminence, Eliza was friendly with the daughters of Baltimore's leading families, including not only Betsy but the three Caton sisters, granddaughters of Charles Carroll. But her position in society was even more precarious than Betsy's. At the age of 19 she had made an ill-advised marriage of her own, to a Henry Anderson. After about a year, during which he fathered a daughter, Henry abandoned his family, apparently after going bankrupt.

So in 1805, when Betsy asked Eliza to accompany her to Europe, Eliza was essentially a single mother, living a life of genteel poverty in the shadow of far wealthier friends and relatives. We can safely assume that her life lacked glamor and adventure. How could she resist Betsy's invitation to sail to Europe and possibly be received at the court of the Emperor Napoleon, even if it meant leaving behind her four-year-old daughter and risking her life on the high seas, where there lurked not only natural disasters but also the British navy, on high alert for Jerome's rumored crossing?

Well, actually, I probably would have said no myself. But Eliza was apparently made of stronger, and more adventurous, stuff.

And as we shall see, she got plenty of adventure.