The Irish woman who became ‘prisoner’ of a Russian princess

Martha Wilmot published the memoirs of Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova

In late 1807, 32-year-old Cork woman Martha Wilmot sat at a writing desk in a Russian palace and declared herself "a Prisoner in the true sense of the word, tho' the Prisoner of Friendship".

Wilmot had travelled to Russia in spring 1803, partly in an attempt to overcome her grief at the death of her younger brother. A cousin, Catherine Hamilton, recommended a journey, and had an old Russian friend who would make a suitable host.

Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova was one of the most important women of the European Enlightenment, and she and Hamilton had been dear friends since first meeting at Spa in 1770. Hamilton had visited Dashkova herself in Russia in 1784.

Russia was also a favourable destination because the ongoing Napoleonic Wars made continental travel relatively risky, but the Baltic Sea was still passable.

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Ireland had its problems, too. Wilmot left Ireland for Russia in April 1803, just before Robert Emmet's failed uprising. When news of this event reached Wilmot in Russia, she wrote to her father:

“To say I am perfectly happy, while war throws random shots I know not where, and my fancy often pictures Irish insurrections and French invasions, while I am far from home, would be to say a little more than the truth.”

Katherine Wilmot, accompanied by her maid, Eleanor Cavanagh, followed Martha to Russia in 1805 to bring her home. They remained together in Russia for two years.

War declared

On July 7th, 1807, Russia and France agreed an alliance, the Treaty of Tilsit. Curiously - as news of the treaty would not reach the palace until July 22nd - Katherine Wilmot returned to Ireland just days afterwards. Martha, however, resolved to remain in Russia for one more year, to comfort Dashkova following the death of her son and estrangement from her daughter.

Four months later, war was declared between Russia and Britain, bringing “a thousand fears” to Martha Wilmot’s mind. She attempted to distract herself by learning Italian and the harp, engaging a Russian singing master, and keeping a “little garden”.

In spring 1808, Wilmot attempted to leave Russia, prompted by deteriorating Anglo-Russian relations, but at the last moment her resolve failed and she returned to Dashkova. The decision probably saved her life - the ship on which she would have travelled was wrecked in the Baltic Sea, leaving few survivors.

Finally, in October 1808, she executed a frantic, hasty departure, motivated by reports that the English were leaving St Petersburg in droves and that any further hesitation would detain her in Russia indefinitely. Sitting in St Petersburg alone for days awaiting a sailing, Wilmot wrote: “My heart is heavy as lead quitting the country of my Russian mother”.

Shipwreck

Martha’s saga was not yet over. She was shipwrecked in the Gulf of Finland and given refuge by Finnish islanders for a month, before finally reaching Britain on December 26th, 1808. She returned laden with Russian books, manuscripts and costumes, priceless jewellery, and most valuable of all, her diaries detailing over five years’ residence in Russia.

When the Wilmots departed Russia, separately, in 1805 and 1808, the full weight of government suspicion fell on them. They were well known as confidantes of Dashkova, whose political influence diminished greatly during the reign of Paul III. Martha and Katherine endured delays at the port, their cases were searched for sensitive papers, and Martha was aggressively interviewed by customs officials. Fortunately, Katherine was able to retain her manuscript copy of Dashkova’s memoirs, which Martha later translated and published.

Martha had vowed to return to her friend, but was unable to do so before the princess’s death in 1810. Martha honoured Dashkova’s memory by publishing her memoirs in 1840. The book is still recognised as one of the most important Russian women’s biographies of the age.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Angela Byrne, DFAT historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum (epicchq.com) in Dublin's Docklands.