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.

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