(c) 2017, Alex Colvin*
There has been no shortage over the years of tales of daring-do regarding the various rescue attempts of former Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, from his prison exile on the Isle of St. Helena. Among those anecdotes recently found, is one involving a “Captain” Humphrey Hughes of Cape May, New Jersey who, so the legend goes, failed in his attempt and was imprisoned. While incarcerated his portrait was purportedly sketch and said portraiture has been passed down among his descendants. What validity there is to firstly, his rescue attempt, thence secondly whether the provenance of the portrait itself is valid are both the subjects of this essay.
To begin our query, it’s instructive to start with some preliminary background information regarding who Capt. Humphrey Hughes was.
Among the earliest attempts to sort out the Hughes of Cape May and their connection to Mayflower Pilgrim, John Howland, was theologian and genealogist, Rev. Paul Sturtevant Howe, in his 1921 monograph, Mayflower Pilgrim Descendants in Cape May County, New Jersey, 1620-1920. Using primary sources, Howe laid out the case of Cape May’s 18th century settlers and their familial connection to their Mayflower ancestors, while correcting and refining earlier sources as he went. As for the Hughes, they were among the earliest landholders as well as whalers. The progenitor of his Cape May line, according to sources Howe reviewed, was an earlier Humphrey Hughes, quite likely the same Humphrey who owned the 206 acres of land, according to Dr. Maurice Beasley’s Sketch of the Early History of the County of Cape May, which Howe consulted.
However, there were other early Cape May Hughes, those from whom Rev. Daniel Lawrence Hughes (1820-1902) descended and who’s own great-grandfather, Jacob Hughes (1711-1772), had settled in Cape May as early as 1711, reportedly from Wales, according to the genealogy he published in 1891 which Howe likewise heavily consulted.  These two Hughes lines converged with the marriage of Rev. D.L. Hughes to Elmira William Hughes, in Cape May in 1843, she, the granddaughter of Captain Humphrey Hughes (1775-1858). The Jacob Hughes, already noted, married in 1743 in Cape May to Pricilla Leaming (1710-1758), although for Priscilla, Jacob was her second marriage.
There are two known 19th century sources for the Capt. Humphrey Hughes-Bonaparte rescue story – each suffering from inherent weaknesses which we’ll examine in detail. The first of these is the two-volume compendium, published in 1897 for members of the New Jersey bar, The Judicial and Civil History of New Jersey.
Captain Humphrey Hughes, who during the war of 1812 sailed under letters of marque issued by the French government and gained considerable fame for his attempt to rescue Bonaparte from his imprisonment at St. Helena—an attempt which, but for the premature discharge of a weapon caused by the fall of a sailor. would undoubtedly have been successful.
Typical of such hagiographic works of the period, no source citation is given for this account. It has ever since simply been taken prima facie and passed along unquestioned and cited often whenever Capt. Humphrey Hughes is mentioned biographically. There is much in the historical record to show that Privateering, as legal piracy was termed during both the American Revolution and the War of 1812, was an attractive and sometimes profitable undertaking to adventurous seamen. However, whether Capt. Hughes participated to the degree family lore claims, is another question entirely.
The second account is a verbatim repetition of the first published in 1900 in Volume Two of the two-volume set, Biographical, Genealogical and Descriptive History of the First Congressional District of New Jersey Illustrated published in 1900 by New York-based Lewis Publishing Company.
A careful analysis of the claim, however, reveals its several fault lines. Firstly, there is the matter of the “…letters of marque issued by the French government…”
That’s incorrect because it was not the French government from whom Hughes received his letter of marque, but from his own. On April 3, 1776, the Continental Congress provided its seaman a means by which to aid the Independence movement that was both profitable (albeit dangerously so,) for them and greatly aided Revolution’s naval forces: it created letters of marque in an instrument known today by its lengthy title:
Instructions to the commanders of private ships or vessels of war, which shall have commissions or letters of marque and reprisal, authorising [sic] them to make captures of British vessels and cargoes.
As William Young, a Juris Doctorate candidate at the Washington & Lee University School of Law explained in his 2009 essay, “A Check on Faint-hearted Presidents: Letters of Marque and Reprisal”:
In stark contrast to the wealth and military power of Europe during the eighteenth century, America’s thirteen colonies possessed little in the way of financial resources or naval might during the Revolutionary War. The use of privateers allowed the fledgling nation to supplement its small navy and do a great deal of harm to British commerce. During the Revolutionary War, America had just sixty-four ships in its official navy and commissioned only twenty-two “men of war” during the conflict. In contrast, the federal and state governments commissioned around 2,000 privateers during the War.
Moreover, although letters of marque were issued to seaman during the War of 1812, there is no record of them having ever been issued to a Humphrey Hughes, born in 1775. Instead, the record shows they were issued to who was likely his father, Humphrey Hughes, born in Cape May in 1752. The entry from the “Letters of Marque,(1778-1782)” section in Volume 1 of Thomas L. Montgomery’s, Pennsylvania Archives, lists Humphrey Hughes as the captain of a twenty-ton sloop named New Comet owned by Thomas Leaming & Co. It carried a crew of twenty-five and six gun carriages. Hughes’ letter of marque was issued November 9, 1778 by the Continental Congress. We can tell because he and Leaming jointly paid for a $5,000 bond. That surety was part of the requirement per the act already noted which both codified privateering and set forth its rules of conduct. Bonds were required to assure seamen holding Letters of Marque would not be putting their vessels to any illegal use. Moreover, there is the faithfully transcribed bond itself recorded by Raymond Finley Hughes, a mid-20th century genealogist claiming descendancy from Humphrey Hughes. The bond not only clearly identified the bond holders but also their intended purpose of the vessel. There is also the rather obvious fact that, if born in 1775, the younger Hughes would have only been three years old in 1778.
According to several vague accounts Hughes the elder “died at sea”. However, there is more satisfying evidence that he died during his seafaring adventure as a privateer in 1778 — the same year he purchased the bond and acquired his letter of marque. For example, Jane Williden, (1756-1790) wife of Hughes the elder married the next year to Jeremiah Edmonds on July 1, 1779 in Cape May. She was Edmond’s second wife. Unfortunately, the marriage ended tragically with Jane’s death in 1790 leaving the Edmonds a widower to raise his step-son, Humphrey the younger. One document which seems to bear this out is the will of Humphrey’s maternal grandfather, James Williden, executed a decade earlier on October 11, 1780. In his will he explicitly directs Edmonds to, ”take care and educate and maintain the son of my daughter Jane [Williden] commonly known by the name of Humphrey Hughes, until he shall attain the age of 14, etc.,”  In 1780, Humphrey Hughes the younger was only five years old; but in 1790, he would have been fifteen.
From a closer analysis of the extant records, we can begin to understand that part of the problem for later day researchers and their descendants appears to be their reliance upon 19th century writers like Whitehead who managed to conflated the two Hughes men by attributing to Hughes the younger a letter of marque issued to his father; such early writers further complicated the confusion by misidentifying another document issued to Hughes the younger some years later. That second instrument was not a privateering document at all but rather a Certificate of Protection. One way we know which document Hughes the younger had was by his own sworn affidavit which he gave to Richard Palmer, a Philadelphia County Justice of the Peace in 1806. He explained to Palmer that:
on or about the month of April last he…received from the Custom House of the Port of Philadelphia a certificate of protection as an American seaman…
Hughes further explained he’d managed to lose his certificate and would return it if ever he found it again.
Unlike letters of marque, a seaman’s letter of protection could be had cheaply at a local Custom’s House and were issued to nearly any seaman applying for one for as little as twenty-five cents, or roughly the equivalent of $5 U.S. dollars today. This, at a time when British impressment (forced military service,) of Americans captured on the high seas was a serious problem. Certificates of Protection thus were granted to American seamen as a means by which to prevent their being made slaves of British military servitude. Replacing one, such as in the Hughes case, was a matter of re-applying via documents establishing one’s identity or, barring that, a sworn statement. Ergo, the deposition. A more in-depth overview of the historical significance and context of these certificates and why they were issued to seamen plying their trade along America’s eastern seaboard is available from the National Archives here.
Thus far, the first part of the claim has been addressed and it’s fair to conclude the Humphrey Hughes named is probably Humphrey Hughes the elder, but as a privateer he was conflated with his son insofar as who had a letter of marque and what it was reportedly for. It’s also been shown why letters of marque and certificates of protection were two different instruments, issued at two separate times to two different people: very likely father and son.
The second part of the same claim, however, implies Hughes (with his letter of marque) attempted to rescue the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte from his imprisonment on the mid-Atlantic isle of St. Helena and that his failure to do so resulted in his capture and imprisonment there and that during said incarceration his portrait was done. We’ll address this claim next. The claim, as already noted, bears no citation to any known authority or documented evidence. But there is plenty of documentation and historical accounts we can assess to get at what likely happened and then see how that comports with the claim.
As already noted, Humphrey Hughes’s portraiture provenance is likely based on the dubious claims by 19th century writers such as Whitehead, whose account has gone untested against available evidence. That leaves us to examine what the records surrounding these events might tell us. First, we have to understand something about Napoleon’s exile to such a remote island. It was more than a thousand miles from the nearest land mass, a location so remote and so well guarded, Napoleon’s escape was never achieved; it was here that he died in 1821 after six years of banishment. For a sense of its remoteness, here’s a description from Norwood Young’s 1915 monograph, “Napoleon in Exile”:
[St. Helena] is 1140 miles from the nearest land in South Africa, 1800 miles from South America, 700 from the island of Ascension,1750 from Capetown, and 4400 from England.
The trip aboard the British naval vessel, Northumberland, with his entourage took more than two months; they finally dropped anchor October 15, 1815. It was not a deserted wasteland; it was a rocky, remote, volcanic island and British outpost which at the time was administered exclusively as a kind of fiefdom by the East Indian Company, though used extensively as a way station for ships along trade routes. It was inhabited by a colony known as Jamestown of some 600 “whites” and others and there were more than 1,000 slaves in use according to records.
Moreover, fearful of another Alba-like escape, the coming and going of every ship arriving and departing the island was strictly monitored by the British which heavily garrisoned and fortified the island during Napoleon’s exile. The contents of those lists are now housed with the British Library ‘Western Manuscripts Collection,” among the Sir Hudson Lowe Papers, (Add.MS 20161) and nowhere do they list prisoner ships or prisoners among their manifests as being bound for St. Helena. Of those vessels which did drop anchor at St. Helena, such as the convict transport ship, Friendship, in October, 1817, (which stayed long enough to drop off a few well-vetted Napoleon visitors,) its 101 women and four grown children convicts were bound for the British penal colony, New South Wales, Australia. Also, it’s worth noting, Napoleon’s exile did not begin on St. Helena until 1815 – some thirty-seven years after Hughes the elder — who had a letter of marque — had died. This is not to say St. Helena had no incarceration facilities; it is to say, the island was not in the habit of accepting convicts shipped in from elsewhere.
Further, while there is a rich history of Napoleonic rescue plots, only one may have caught the ex-emperor’s interest and it involved a kind of proto-submarine. Mike Dash explored this fascinating tale for the Smithsonian Institute’s blog in 2013 with his essay, The Secret Plot to Rescue Napoleon by Submarine.
If we accept that it may have been Hughes the younger who attempted the rescue, it had to have occurred while the Northumberland was enroute, but there are no records of any such rescue attempt, and no mention of any in the numerous accounts of life aboard the vessel during its voyage; there certainly was none made while Napoleon was alive on St. Helena. The island’s location gave it’s lofty, cliff-positioned garrisons unobscured views of the Atlantic for miles in every direction. And any approaching vessel was spotted long before it ever reached the island’s few places to land. Visitors likewise were carefully vetted requiring passes and escorts. And there was no getting anywhere near Longwood, Napoleon’s prison home, after sunset.
Thus, if there was no realistic way for Hughes to have hatched a plot to rescue Napoleon, there would have been no incarceration for doing so. In short, no prison, no prison portrait.
This essay has explored the tale involving a family anecdote passed along to modern descendants connecting their ancestor to what appears to be an untested claim regarding how a portrait of Captain Humphrey Hughes came to be. It has assessed how 19th century writers likely conflated two men for one and ascribed to one of them documents a father and son likely possessed separately and in so doing attached to one of them perilous and valorous actions for which there is no actual evidence. The claims defy both known records as well as the space-time continuum, not to mention basic biology. (Dead people do not go on voyages of daring-do with letters of marque to rescue exiled fallen emperors.) How then to explain the Humphrey Hughes portrait? It’s a good question which certainly should be of interest to those who own it, rather than a fiction which does not hold up under careful scrutiny.