A passage from the Memoirs of Manuel (or Manus) McNeill, agent in the Secret Service of Great Britain during the campaigns of the Peninsula (1808-1813). A Spanish subject by birth, and a Spaniard in all his up-bringing, he traces in the first chapter of his Memoirs his descent from an old Highland family through one Mantis McNeill, a Jacobite agent in the Court of Madrid at the time of the War of Succession, who married and settled at Aranjuez. The second chapter he devotes to his youthful adventures in the contraband trade on the Biscayan Coast and the French frontier, his capture and imprisonment at Bilbao under a two years’ sentence, which was remitted on the discovery of his familiar and inherited conversance with the English tongue, and his imprisonment exchanged for a secret mission to Corsica (1794). The following extract tells of this, his first essay in the calling in which he afterwards rendered signal service to the Allies under Lord Wellington.–Q.
If I take small pleasure in remembering this youthful expedition it is not because I failed of success. It was a fool’s errand from start to finish; and the Minister, Don Manuel Godoy, never meant or expected it to succeed, but furthered it only to keep his master in humour. You must know that just at this time, May, 1794, the English troops and Paoli’s native patriots were between them dislodging the French from the last few towns to which they yet clung on the Corsican coast. Paoli held all the interior: the British fleet commanded the sea and from it hammered the garrisons; and, in short, the French game was up. But now came the question, What would happen when they evacuated the island? Some believed that Paoli would continue in command of his little republic, others that the crown would be offered to King George of England, or that it might go a-begging as the patriots were left to discover their weakness. I understand that, on the chance of this, two or three claimants had begun to look up their titles; and at this juncture our own Most Catholic King bethought him that once upon a time the island had actually been granted to Aragon by a certain Pope Boniface–with what right nobody could tell; but a very little right might suffice to admit Spain’s hand into the lucky bag. In brief, my business was to reach the island, find Paoli (already by shabby treatment incensed against the English, as Godoy assured me), and sound him on my master’s chances. Among the islanders I could pass myself off as a British agent, and some likely falsehood would have to serve me if by ill-luck I fell foul of the British soldiery. The King, who–saving his majesty–had turned the least bit childish in his old age, actually clapped his hands once or twice while his Minister gave me my instructions, which he did with a face as wooden as a grenadier’s. I would give something, even at this distance of time, to know what Godoy’s real thoughts were. Likely enough he and the Queen had invented this toy to amuse the husband they were both deceiving. Or Godoy may have wanted my information for his own purpose, to sell it to the French, with whom–though our armies were fighting them–he had begun to treat in private for the peace and the alliance which soon followed, and still move good Spaniards to spit at the mention of his name. But, whatever the farce was, he played it solemnly, and I took his instructions respectfully, as became me.
No: my mission was never meant to succeed: and if in my later professional pride I now think shame of it–if to this day I wince at the remembrance of Corsica–the shame comes simply from this, that I began my career as a scout by losing my way like any schoolboy. But, after all, even genius must make a beginning; and I was fated to make mine in the Corsican macchia.