The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 25
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Chapter 25. The order of release
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THE ORDER OF RELEASE
The several representations concerning the case of Flinders that were made in France, the attention drawn to it in English newspapers, and the lively interest of learned men of both nations, produced a moving effect upon Napoleon's Government. Distinguished Frenchmen did not hesitate to speak plainly. Fleurieu, whose voice was attentively heard on all matters touching geography and discovery, declared publicly that "the indignities imposed upon Captain Flinders were without example in the nautical history of civilised nations. Malte-Brun, a savant of the first rank, expressed himself so boldly as to incur the displeasure of the authorities. Bougainville, himself a famous navigator, made personal appeals to the Government. Sir Joseph Banks, whose friendly relations with French men of science were not broken by the war, used all the influence he could command. He had already, "from the gracious condescension of the Emperor," obtained the release of five persons who had been imprisoned in France, and had no doubt that if he could get Napoleon's ear he could bring about the liberation of his protégé.
At last, in March, 1806, the affair came before the Council of State in Paris, mainly through the instrumentality of Bougainville. Banks wrote to Mrs. Flinders: "After many refusals on the part of Bonaparte to applications made to him from different quarters, he at last consented to order Captain Flinders' case to be laid before the Council of State."
On the first of March an order was directed to be sent to Decaen, approving his previous conduct, but informing him that, moved "by a sentiment of generosity, the Government accord to Captain Flinders his liberty and the restoration of his ship." Accompanying the despatch was an extract from the minutes of the Council of State, dated March 1st, 1806, recording that: "The Council of State, which, after the return of His Majesty the Emperor and King, has considered the report of its Marine section on that of the Minister of Marine and the Colonies concerning the detention of the English schooner Cumberland and of Captain Flinders at Ile-de-France (see the documents appended to the report), is of opinion that the Captain-General of Ile-de-France had sufficient reason for detaining there Captain Flinders and his schooner; but by reason of the interest that the misfortunes of Captain Flinders has inspired, he seems to deserve that His Majesty should authorise the Minister of Marine and the Colonies to restore to him his liberty and his ship." This document was endorsed: "Approuve au Palais des Tuileries, le onze Mars, 1806. Napoleon."
The terms of the despatch with which the order was transmitted contained a remarkable statement. Decrès informed Decaen that he, as Minister, had on the 30th July, 1804—nearly one year and nine months before the order of release—brought Flinders' case under the notice of the Council of State. But nothing was done: the Emperor had to be consulted, and at that date Napoleon was not accessible. He was superintending the army encamped at Boulogne, preparing for that projected descent upon England which even his magnificent audacity never dared to make. He did not return to St. Cloud, within hail of Paris, till October 12th.) Then the officials surrounding him were kept busy with preparations for crowning himself and the Empress Josephine, a ceremony performed by Pope Pius VII, at Notre Dame, on December 2nd. The consequence was that this piece of business about an unfortunate English captain in Ile-de-France—like nearly all other business concerned with the same colony at the time—got covered up beneath a mass of more urgent affairs, and remained in abeyance until the agitation stimulated by Banks, Fleurieu, Bougainville, Malte-Brun and others forced the case under the attention of the Emperor and his ministers.
Even then the despatch did not reach Ile-de-France till July, 1807, sixteen months after the date upon it; and it was then transmitted, not by a French ship, but by an English frigate, the Greyhound, under a flag of truce. The reason for that was unfortunate for Flinders as an individual, but entirely due to the efficiency of the navy of which he was an officer. In 1805 the British fleet had demolished the French at Trafalgar, and from that time forward until the end of the war, Great Britain was mistress of the ocean in full potency. Her frigates patrolled the highways of the sea with a vigilance that never relaxed. In January, 1806, she took possession of the Cape of Good Hope for the second time, and has held it ever since. The consequences to Decaen and his garrison were very serious. With the British in force at the Cape, how could supplies, reinforcements and despatches get through to him in Ile-de-France? He saw the danger clearly, but was powerless to avert it. Of this particular despatch four copies were sent from France on as many ships. One copy was borne by a French vessel which was promptly captured by the British; and on its contents becoming known the Admiralty sent it out to Admiral Pellew, in order that he might send a ship under a flag of truce to take it to Decaen. The Secretary to the Admiralty, Marsden, wrote to Pellew (December, 1806) that the despatch "has already been transmitted to the Isle of France in triplicate, but as it may be hoped that the vessels have been all captured you had better take an opportunity of sending this copy by a flag of truce, provided you have not heard in the meantime of Flinders being at liberty." As a fact, one other copy did get through, on a French vessel.
Pellew lost no time in informing Flinders of the news, and the captive wrote to Decaen in the following terms:
"July 24, 1807.
"By letters from Rear-Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, transmitted to me yesterday by Colonel Monistrol, I am informed that orders relating to me have at length arrived from His Excellency the Marine Minister of France, which orders are supposed to authorize my being set at liberty.
"Your Excellency will doubtless be able to figure to yourself the sensations such a communication must have excited in me, after a detention of three years and a half, and my anxiety to have such agreeable intelligence confirmed by some information of the steps it is in Your Excellency's contemplation to take in consequence. If these letters have flattered me in vain with the hopes of returning to my country and my family, I beg of you, General, to inform me; if they are correct, you will complete my happiness by confirming their contents. The state of incertitude in which I have so long remained will, I trust, be admitted as a sufficient excuse for my anxiety to be delivered from it."I have the honour to be, Your Excellency's most obedient humble servant,
In reply Decaen transmitted to Flinders a copy of the despatch of the Minister of Marine, and informed him through Colonel Monistrol "that, so soon as circumstances will permit, you will fully enjoy the favour which has been granted you by His Majesty the Emperor and King."
But now, having at length received orders, countersigned by Napoleon himself, that Flinders should be liberated, Decaen came to a decision that on the face of it seems extremely perplexing. We have seen that in August, 1805, Flinders, well informed by persons who had conversed with Decaen, believed that the General "would be very glad to get handsomely clear of me," and that in November of the same year he made the assertion that Decaen "would have gladly suffered me to depart long since" but for the reference of the case to Paris. We have direct evidence to the same effect in a letter from Colonel Monistrol regarding Lord Wellesley's application for Flinders' release. The Colonel desired "with all my heart" that the request could be acceded to, but the Captain-General could not comply until he had received a response to his despatch. Yet, when the response was received, and Flinders might have been liberated with the full approbation of the French Government, Decaen replied to the Minister's despatch in the following terms (August 20th, 1807):
"I have the honour to inform Your Excellency that by the English frigate Greyhound, which arrived here on July 21st under a flag of truce, in the hope of gathering information concerning His British Majesty's ships Blenheim and Java, I have received the fourth copy of Your Excellency's despatch of March 21st, 1806, no. 8, relative to Captain Flinders. Having thought that the favourable decision that it contains regarding that officer had been determined at a time when the possibility of some renewal of friendliness with England was perceived, I did not consider that the present moment was favourable for putting into operation that act of indulgence on the part of His Majesty. I have since received the second copy of the same despatch; but, the circumstances having become still more difficult, and that officer appearing to me to be always dangerous, I await a more propitious time for putting into execution the intentions of His Majesty. My zeal for his service has induced me to suspend the operations of his command. I trust, Monsieur, that that measure of prudence will obtain your Excellency's approbation. I have the honour to be, etc., etc., etc., Decaen."
It will be observed that in this despatch Decaen describes the circumstances of the colony he governed as having become "more difficult," and Flinders as appearing to him to be "always dangerous." We must, then, examine the circumstances to ascertain why they had become so difficult, and why he considered that it would now be dangerous to let Flinders go.
It is easy enough to attribute the General's refusal to obstinacy or malignity. But his anger had cooled down by 1807; his prisoner was a charge on the establishment to the extent of 5400 francs a year, and Decaen was a thrifty administrator; why, then, should he apparently have hardened his heart to the extent of disobeying the Emperor's command? The explanation is not to be found in his temper, but in the military situation of Ile-de-France, and his belief that Flinders was accurately informed about it; as was, indeed, the case.
At this time Decaen was holding Ile-de-France by a policy fairly describable as one of "bluff." The British could have taken it by throwing upon it a comparatively small force, had they known how weak its defences were. But they did not know; and Decaen, whose duty it was to defend the place to the utmost, did not intend that they should if he could prevent information reaching them. After the crushing of French naval power at Trafalgar and the British occupation of the Cape, Decaen's position became untenable, though a capitulation was not forced upon him till four years later. He constantly demanded reinforcements and money, which never came to hand. The military and financial resources of France were being strained to prosecute Napoleon's wars in Europe. There were neither men nor funds to spare for the colony in the Indian Ocean. Decaen felt that his position was compromised. He addressed the Emperor personally "with all the sadness of a wounded soul," but nothing was done for Ile-de-France. There was not enough money to repair public buildings and quays, which fell into ruins. There was no timber, no sail-cloth to re-fit ships. Even nails were lacking. A little later (1809) he complained in despatches of the shortness of flour and food. There was little revenue, no credit. Now that the British had asserted their strength, and held the Cape, prizes were few. Above all he represented "the urgent need for soldiers." He felt himself abandoned. But still, with a resolute tenacity that one cannot but admire, he hung on to his post, and maintained a bold front to the enemy.
Did Flinders know of this state of things? Unquestionably he did; and Decaen knew that he knew. He could have informed the British Government, had he chosen to violate his parole; but he was in all things a scrupulously honourable man, and, as he said, "an absolute silence was maintained in my letters." He was constantly hoping that an attack would be made upon the island, and "if attacked with judgment it appeared to me that a moderate force would carry it.") But all this while the British believed that Ile-de-France was strong, and that a successful assault upon it would require a larger force than they could spare at the time. Even after Flinders had returned to England, when he was asked at the Admiralty whether he thought that a contemplated attack would succeed, his confident assurance that it would was received with doubt. Decaen's "bluff" was superb.
On one point, if we may believe St. Elme le Duc, Decaen did Flinders a grave injustice. It was believed, says that writer's manuscript, that Flinders had several times managed to go out at night, that he had made soundings along the coast, and had transmitted information to Bengal which was of use when ultimately the colony was taken by the English. For that charge there is not a shadow of warrant. There is not the faintest ground for supposing that he did not observe his parole with the utmost strictness. Had he supplied information, Ile-de-France would have passed under British rule long before 1810.
A few passages written for inclusion in the Voyage to Terra Australis, but for some reason omitted, may be quoted to show how rigorously visiting ships were treated lest information should leak out.
"It may not be amiss to mention the rules which a ship is obliged to observe on arriving at Port North-West, since it will of itself give some idea of the nature of the Government. The ship is boarded by a pilot one or two miles from the entrance to the port, who informs the commander that no person must go on shore, or any one be suffered to come on board until the ship has been visited by the officer of health, who comes soon after the ship has arrived at anchor in the mouth of the port, accompanied with an officer from the captain of the port, and, if it is a foreign ship, by an interpreter. If the health of the crew presents no objection, and after answering the questions put to him concerning the object of his coming to the island, the commander goes on shore in the French boat, and is desired to take with him all papers containing political information, and all letters, whether public or private, that are on board the vessel; and although there should be several parcels of newspapers of the same date, they must all go. On arriving at the Government House, to which he is accompanied by the officer and interpreter, and frequently by a guard, he sooner or later sees the Governor, or one of his aides-de-camp, who questions him upon his voyage, upon political intelligence, the vessels he has met at sea, his intentions in touching at the island, etc.; after which he is desired to leave his letters, packets, and newspapers, no matter to whom they are addressed. If he refuse this, or to give all the information he knows, however detrimental it may be to his own affairs, or appears to equivocate, if he escapes being imprisoned in the town he is sent back to his ship under a guard, and forbidden all communication with the shore. If he gives satisfaction, he is conducted from the General to the Prefect, to answer his questions, and if he satisfies him also, is then left at liberty to go to his consul and transact his business. The letters and packets left with the General, if not addressed to persons obnoxious to the Government, are sent unopened, according to their direction. I will not venture to say that the others are opened and afterwards destroyed, but it is much suspected. If the newspapers contain no intelligence but what is permitted to be known, they are also sent to their address. The others are retained; and for this reason it is that all the copies of the same paper are demanded, for the intention is not merely to gain intelligence, but to prevent what is disagreeable from being circulated."
Decaen's conduct in refusing to liberate Flinders when the order reached him need not be excused, but it should be understood. To impute sheer malignity to him does not help us much, nor does it supply a sufficient motive. What we know of his state of mind, as well as what we know of the financial position of the colony, induce the belief that he would have been quite glad to get rid of Flinders in 1807, had not other and stronger influences intervened. But he was a soldier, placed in an exceedingly precarious situation, which he could only maintain by determining not to lose a single chance. War is an affliction that scourges a larger number of those who do not fight than of those who do; and Flinders, with all his innocence, was one of its victims. He was thought to know too much. That was why he was "dangerous." A learned French historian stigmatises Decaen's conduct as "maladroit and brutal, but not dishonest." Dishonest he never was; as to the other terms we need not dispute so long as we understand the peculiar twist of circumstances that intensified the maladroitness and brutality that marked the man, and without which, indeed, he would not perhaps have been the dogged, tough, hard-fighting, resolute soldier that he was.
Flinders could have escaped from Ile-de-France on several occasions, had he chosen to avail himself of opportunities. He did not, for two reasons, both in the highest degree honourable to him. The first was that he had given his parole, and would not break it; the second that escape would have meant sacrificing some of his precious papers. In May, 1806, an American captain rejoicing in the name of Gamaliel Matthew Ward called at Port Louis, and hearing of Flinders' case, actually made arrangements for removing him. It was Flinders himself who prevented the daring skipper from carrying out his plan. "The dread of dishonouring my parole," he wrote, "made me contemplate this plan with a fearful eye." In December of the same year he wrote to John Aken: "Since I find so much time elapse, and no attention paid to my situation by the French Government, I have been very heartily sorry for having given my parole, as I could otherwise have made my escape long ago." Again, he wrote to his wife: "Great risks must be run and sacrifices made, but my honour shall remain unstained. No captain in His Majesty's Navy shall have cause to blush in calling me a brother officer."
As time went on, and release was not granted, he several times thought of surrendering his parole, which would have involved giving up the pleasant life at Wilhelm's Plains, and being again confined in Port Louis. But escape would have meant the loss of many of his papers, the authentic records of his discoveries; and he could not bring himself to face that.
Consequently the captivity dragged itself wearily out for three years after the order of release was received. The victim chafed, protested, left no stone unturned, but Decaen was not to be moved. Happily depression did not drag illness in its miserable train. "My health sustains itself tolerably well in the midst of all my disappointments," he was able to write to Banks in 1809.
- Banks to Flinders, Historical Records V. 646.
- Flinders' Papers.
- The movements of Napoleon day by day can be followed in Schuerman's Itinéraire Général de Napoleon.
- Decaen Papers.
- Historical Records V., 651.
- This despatch was originally published by M. Albert Pitot, in his Esquisses Historiques de l'Ile-de-France. Port Louis, 1899.
- "Il sentait sa position compromise." Prentout page 521; who gives an excellent account of the situation.
- Voyage to Terra Australis II., 419.
- The belief that Flinders took soundings appears to have been common among the French inhabitants of Port Louis. In the Proceedings of the South Australian Branch of the Royal Geographical Society, 1912-1913 p. 71, is printed a brief account of the detention of Flinders, by a contemporary, D'Epinay, a lawyer of the town. Here it is stated: "It is found out that at night he takes soundings off the coast and has forwarded his notes to India." Those who gave credence to this wild story apparently never reflected that Flinders had no kind of opportunity for taking soundings.
- MS., Mitchell Library.
- Prentout p. 661.