Salati (Saletti), Giovan Maria

(1796 – 1879)

Aug 16 1815 or 1817

In 1815 following the battle of Waterloo an Italian Soldier, Jean Marie Saletti, in the services of Napoleon, was imprisoned in a Prison Hulk off Dover in Kent. It is claimed by a French author that Saletti jumped from the Prison Hulk on 16 August 1815 , and swam to the Beach at Boulogne, becoming the first person to swim the English Channel. Also recorded in the French Guinness Book of Records (two dates and two names given?). He set up a chimney sweeping business in Paris, where he died in 1879.

The story is almost certainly apocryphal; Dover is not recorded as having a prison hulk during the Napoleonic Wars – these were at Chatham and Portsmouth and most hulk prisoners had been transferred to the new French POW prisons at Norman Cross and Dartmoor by 1815. After Waterloo on 18th June 1815, all foreign prisoners were essentially free and awaiting repatriation, which began in earnest after the Treaty of Paris November 20 1815. It seems strange Saletti would risk his life on a 22 mile swim if he was free and awaiting a boat home and it seems strange he was still prisoner in 1817, two years after the end of the war.

In Italy Giovan Maria Salati is celebrated as the first man to swim the Channel by the Italian Swimming Federation and they give the date as 16 August 1817, 2 years after repatriation began. There is a large plaque to him in his birthplace of Malesco and another plaque to him has been erected by the Federation. According to their biography he enlisted in the Franco-Italian army in 1812 and at Waterloo fought in the Imperial Guard. He was found on the battleground by the British seriously injured four days after the battle and spent months recovering in a field hospital. Later in 1815 he was transferred to a prison hulk at Dover, from which he escaped during a storm on 16 August 1817. He was found exhausted the next day on the French coast by some fisherman. He managed the feat because he had taught himself swimming in the icy Alpine rivers and lakes of his home.

This adds further incredulity to the story – not only did he swim the Channel during a storm, it was after 2 years brutal body-weakening imprisonment in the notorious prison hulks. It is also not likely that the British would have sent him to imprisonment in the UK once he had recovered months after peace; he would just have been sent on his way

Swims by Salati (Saletti), Giovan Maria

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