Friday 24 November 2017

Napoleon on Elba

Last week's post was particularly popular (posts about Napoleon always are), so this week we carry the story on to Napoleon's time on Elba.

Able was I ...

When Napoleon accepted his defeat in April 1814, he accepted also the idea that he would go into exile. Exile was to me made a less onerous punishment because the French government promised to pay him six million francs a year as his pension.

It was suggested that he might go to Corfu or Corsica, the country where he was born. However he chose Elba, an island between Corsica and Italy.

Enfola Beach, Elba. Photo: Michael Joachim Lucke

Besides his pension he had been promised that he would retain the status of a sovereign, so the Emperor of France became the absolute ruler of this island of about 85 square miles, and a few smaller islands around it. As the ruler, he was entitled to his own army, although, compared to the armies he had once led, it was little more than an honour guard, with around 700 men.

At first, Napoleon seemed reconciled to exile. The pension, he had observed, was “a great deal for a soldier as I am”. He was to be joined by his sister, Pauline, who was too ill to travel with him when he first left France, and he expected his mother, his wife and his son to move to Elba later.

He threw himself enthusiastically into public works: building new roads, improving the quality of the streets, and making plans for the development of the iron mines that were the country's main industry. To the irritation of the Allied powers, he started to recruit new soldiers from Italy. Arguably, as the recognised ruler of Elba, he had a perfect right to do this. In any case, he pointed out that with Moorish pirates regularly operating in the area he had a duty to maintain an army large enough to garrison the defences of Elba and its surrounding islands.

Flag designed by Napoleon for Elba

Princess Pauline did not arrive until June, but her appearance at Elba substantially improved social life on the island with balls, concerts, and theatrical performances enlivening the place. What had originally been a guardhouse to the mansion that Napoleon had made his home was turned into a theatre, where plays were performed by the princess herself, her ladies and the officers of the guard.
Whether the 700 soldiers of Napoleon's private army were amused by the new social opportunities we do not know, but it is certain that they were bored and Napoleon himself referred to them affectionately as his "grumblers". The soldiers who had accompanied Napoleon to Elba were all volunteers – indeed, some officers had resigned their commissions and enlisted in the ranks so that they could go into exile with their leader. They constituted some of his most loyal troops, many of them battle hardened. Napoleon regularly reviewed them and insisted that they continue to train. Artillery enthusiast that he was, he had them practising regularly with both regular round shot and heated shot. Despite this, though, there is no doubt that they found life on Elba, though comfortable, profoundly dull.

Napoleon's enthusiasm for his new realm gradually waned. To his dismay, the French government reneged on the promise of a pension and the cost of maintaining his court and his army vastly exceeded the revenue that could be extracted from Elba’s iron mining and its other limited revenue-raising opportunities. Servants were let go, building plans were abandoned and Napoleon, from keeping himself busy inspecting his projects around the island, began to sulk around the house, putting on weight.

Napoleon on Elba

The arrival of his mother, to whom he was devoted, improved his mood, but he was genuinely distressed when it became clear that his wife and son were not to join him. His wife was Marie Louise (who had replaced Josephine in 1810). She was the daughter of Emperor Francis II of Austria and the Austrian government was unhappy with the idea of her and her son forming the focus of Napoleon's new court. She was persuaded not to join him and Napoleon seems to have accepted this, but he could not come to terms with the idea that he would never again see his son.

The shortages of money and the absence of his son soured his mood. He regularly received news of the situation in France from his supporters there as well as studying the French and British newspapers. By the spring of 1815, he was convinced that there were plans to force him from Elba – plans which he said he would resist by force. “Avant cela il faut faire une brèche dans mes fortifications, et nous verrons.” He believed that the Allies might send him to St Helena and subsequent events suggest that this may have been in their minds.

Faced with what Napoleon saw as a threat to his future on Elba, the refusal of the French to pay his pension or the Austrians to allow his son to visit the island, he looked at the disenchantment of the French with their restored monarchy and decided that he would be better off returning to Paris.

Napoleon's brief experiment with ruling a small island in the Mediterranean was coming to an end and the events that would lead to Waterloo were being set in motion.

An aside on that palindrome

Napoleon never created the famous palindrome, 'Able was I ere I saw Elba.' The first recorded use of it is from 1848, long after Napoleon's death. It appears in an American publication, Gazette of the Union, Where it is credited to an anonymous Baltimore author, known only as JTR.

Further reading

For a detailed account of Napoleon's time on Elba see The Island Empire by the anonymous ‘author of Blondelle’, published by T Bosworth in 1855 and available in Google Books.

A shorter summary is available in Life and Campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte translated from the French of M A Arnault and CLF Panckoucke, published by Philips Samsung and Company of Boston in 1857 and also available in Google Books.

For a detailed discussion of the origin of the palindrome, see Quote Investigator:

A word from our sponsor

Napoleon was right to believe that there were many people in France who hoped for, and in some cases actively worked for, his return. Amongst other plots, there was one to assassinate Wellington, who was representing British interests in Paris. This period is the background to the beginning of Burke at Waterloo, which is to be republished by Endeavour Press on 2 February. (It should be on pre-order from early in January.)

Of course, Napoleon did leave Elba and eventually met the British at Waterloo were James Burke played a small, but crucial, role. [Spoiler alert: Napoleon lost.]

No comments:

Post a Comment