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.

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