Two hundred years ago today, on July 16, 1815, William Owston (1778-1857), the patriarch of the first permanent settlement of Owstons or Oustons in North America, was presented to the French emperor Napoleon aboard the HMS Superb. While details are sketchy, our first hint of this meeting came from an undated letter written by William C. Sutherland to his great nephew, Herman Robert Sutherland, about William’s grandfather and namesake.
Probably penned in the early 1920s, Sutherland wrote, “During his [William Owston’s] incarceration in the French prison [at Auxonne, but commonly thought to be Verdun, in 1810] . . . he acquired a knowledge of the French language, which became useful to him as an interpreter when Napoleon surrendered to the English, he acting in that capacity between the great Emperor and his captors.” Although it is possible that Owston spoke French to Napoleon, it appears that other officers in the fleet served as his official interpreters. When receiving this information in 1993, I was curious to know whether this was fact or family fiction. So I began searching for records of this meeting which eventually included the official ship’s log, which was penned by William Owston.
On the previous day Bonaparte had surrendered to Captain Frederick L. Maitland aboard the HMS Bellerophon. The ship, part of the Channel Fleet of the Royal Navy, flew under the flag of Admiral Sir Henry Hotham – his flagship being the HMS Superb. On the July 15th, Hotham and Humphrey F. Senshouse, captain of the Superb, boarded the Bellerophon to meet Bonaparte for dinner.
Lt. John Bowerbank of the Bellerophon, who observed Napoleon on the quarterdeck, described him in the following manner:
Napoleon Bonaparte is about five feet, seven inches high, rather corpulent, but remarkably well made. His hair is very black, cut close; whiskers shaved off; large eyebrows; gray eyes (the most piercing I’ve ever saw); rather full face; dark, but peculiar complexion; his nose and mouth proportionate, broad shoulders, and apparently strongly built. Upon the whole, he is a good looking man, and, when young, must have been handsome . . . His walk is a march, or . . . very like one; and to complete the portrait, I must add that in walking, he carries his hands in the pockets of his pantaloons, or folded behind his back.
At about 10 AM on the 16th, Napoleon, his companions, and Captain Maitland were shuttled to the Superb for breakfast. The skies were cloudy that morning with moderate breezes as Napoleon made his way from the Bellerophon to the Superb. While he was piped aboard the flagship and was received ceremonially, he did not receive the customary gun salute one would expect of a dignitary; however, one must remember that, although treated with much respect, Napoleon was still an enemy of Great Britain. As all hands were mustered by division, the Royal Marines aboard the Superb were assembled and presented to the Emperor for inspection (Maitland, 2009, Owston, 1815, Senhouse, 2015, & Unwin, 2013).
According to Captain Senhouse, “As usual, he [Napoleon] immediately went into the after-cabin and requested that the officers of the ship might be presented to him. He had many little remarks to make during the presentation.” William Owston, who was in command of the ship that day, and the master of the flagship, no doubt was presented at this time. Owston was a wardroom officer, and although held his position by warrant and not commission, was equal in status to the lieutenants on board the Superb, but better paid (Lavery, 1997; “Service Records,” 1816).
While some of the officers may have had the pleasure of dining with Napoleon, his companions, Admiral Hotham, and Captains Senhouse and Maitland; a total census of those present is not available. Since William Owston was a wardroom officer, this is entirely possible, but unlikely, as a large crowd accompanying the French leader took part in this breakfast of the English style. At noon, Napoleon returned to the Bellerophon where he would travel to England to await his fate (Maitland, 2009 & Senhouse, 2015).
William Owston would leave the service in 1816 due to downsizing of the military following the ending of hostilities with France. He remained on half-pay for the rest of his life and ready to serve his country if necessary. It was not. Owston and his family moved to Upper Canada in 1820 where they received a land grant. Five sons (Thomas; William, Jr.; James Wilson; Charles Paget Herbert; and John Gillon) and three daughters (Frances Janet; Mary Ann Margaret; and Euphemia) were born to Owston and his wife Frances Wilson. All but one child, William, eventually immigrated to the United States. William Owston, Jr. remained in Canada where a number of descendents still live.
Bowerbeck, J. (1815). Personal journal entry for 15 July 1815. Reprinted in the American Monthly Magazine, June 1817.
Lavery, B. (1997). Nelson’s navy: Its ships, men, and organisation, 1793-1815. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
Maitland, F. L. (2009) The surrender of Napoleon being the narrative of the surrender of Buonaparte, and of his residence on board H.M.S. Bellerophon, with a detail of the principal … the 24th of May and the 8th of August 1815. Gutenberg Ebook #28934.
Owston, W. (1815). Log of the proceedings of His Majesty’s Ship Superb, from the 1st January 1815 & ending 3rd April 1815 [actually September 6, 1815]. Records of the Admiralty ADM 52/4624, Ref. 20661. Kew, London, England: The National Archives. Copies in the possession of the author.
Service records of William Owston, Royal Navy (1816). Records of the Admiralty ADM 6/157, Ref. 145387. Kew, London, England: The National Archives. Copies in the possession of the author.
Senhouse, H.F. (1815). Letter to his wife. Reprinted in C. Pengally (2014), HMS Bellerophon. Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword Books, Ltd.
Sutherland, William O. (n.d.). Notes concerning William Owston. A copy was sent to the author in a letter from Herman Robert Sutherland dated 4 August 1993.
Unwin, B. (2013). Terrible exile: The last days of Napoleon on St. Helena. London, England: I. B. Taurus & Co., Ltd.