Thursday, August 12, 2010

On Napoleon and Elba

  The picturesque harbour village of Portoferraio, capital of Elba

Call me easy to please, but personally I would be more than content if the powers that be decided to give me a Mediterranean island, especially one as beautiful as Elba.  But then again, I’ve never tasted the addictive pleasure of power and I’ve never been the ruler of most of Europe. In 1814 Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by a coalition of four great powers and then, as the historians say, he was banished to the island of Elba.  In fact he was allowed to keep his title, given a small army and a tiny navy and was moved, together with a few hundred of his best pals and his mother and his sister, to Elba to become the ruler of this beautiful island, which was raised to the level of an independent state.  Under the circumstances, I'd call him very lucky. True, he now the ruled a state of a mere 11,000 inhabitants, a far cry from being the boss of millions, but to a large extent he got off fairly easy.  After all, his wars had killed millions, making him arguably entitled to the prize Greatest Widow Maker of the 19th Century.  The Bourbon royals, newly returned to France after over 25 years exile, would loved to have seen him strung up, or at least banished to a lonely, far away island in the mid-Atlantic. So, to say that Napoleon was banished, and leave it like that, paints a false picture. Instead, in May 1814, the Emperor of Elba arrived amidst pomp and glory in his new statelet, very much a big fish in a small pond.

To arrive by sea today in his capital city of Portoferraio is a magical experience, for the town comes as a surprise; the old town has hardly changed since the Emperor’s time, only the giant yachts from the Virgin Islands making a significant difference. The old town must be one of the most picturesque harbours on the Mediterranean.  

     View from the old town, Portoferraio 

The rest of the 140 square kilometers island is rugged and mountainous, with spectacular views, beautiful beaches and delightful little coastal villages.  In some ways Napoleon definitely appreciated the beauty of his island kingdom and, with his characteristic capacity for work and organization he immediately set about improving the island and the quality of life for its inhabitants, building roads and hospitals, improving sanitation and housing, introducing street lighting, reforming the fishing fleet and initiating innovations in agriculture. Naturally, he also began to expand his army and navy and he established a court of great pomp and ceremony in his restored villa in Portoferraio. 

   Napoleon's main residence, the Villa Mulini

It would have been better for Napoleon, and the thousands more innocents who were to die in his final battle, had he been able to satisfy himself with such delights as the stunning view from his villa.  Instead, less than 10 months after arriving on Elba, he made his way towards his Waterloo. After the battle the Bourbons finally had their way and he was banished, truly banished, to a lonely, far away island in the mid-Atlantic.

      The view that Napoleon lost


  1. Why do you think he was treated so leniently? After all, he not only destroyed nations' armies, hugely expanded the French Empire and was responsible for the deaths of endless young men. Worse still, he removed the "legitimate" royal families from all the thrones of Europe and substituted his brothers and sisters.

  2. I think it was a mixture of many, complex motives. Firstly I suppose you could say that our idea of punishment is different then in that time, especially among the ancien regime. There was no such thing as crimes against humanity or putting the defeated on trial and executing them - that is a 20th century concept. I cannot recall any deposed sovereign being executed by Napoleon either(though some were assassinated). The English chopped the head off their own king and the French chopped the head off their king, but to execute or jail a defeated ruler who had lost a war - almost unheard of at that time I think. Furthermore, of the four powers who defeated Napoleon, three of them - Russia, Austria and Prussia, had all at one time or other been his ally. Only Britain had never been his ally. In addition to that, lets remember that Napoleon's wife was an Archduchess of Austria and remained in Paris, loyal to Napoleon, until the end. A completely different reason was the fact that the allies distrusted each other - the Tsar did not want the Bourbons back on the throne, Tallyrand wanted them back but under a liberal constitutional monarchy. The Bristish and Austrians wanted a balance of power, the Prussians saw this as an Austrian tool to limit their power in central Europe and the Russians saw it as a British ploy to expand British interests against Russia. All three previous coalitions had collapsed and it was a matter of time before this one would collapse too. Therefore it was necessary to bring the war to an end. Meanwhile, although the Allies were winning the war, Napoleon continued to, incredibly, win battle after battle, right up until the end. It was only the sheer numbers of battles and casualties that was wearing him down. Tsar Alexander was on the verge of accepting a conditional surrender from Napoleon, which would have allowed Napoleon's son to take the throne (he was only three years old) under the regency of his mother. Napoleon would almost certainly have accepted this. But at the last minute the four powers reached an agreement - an unconditional surrender in exchange for favourable peace terms. Those terms included Elba, etc. Napoleon could have faught on, even possibly advancing on Paris. But he accepted this offer. So, ancien regime attitudes, grudging respect for Napoleon, mutual distrust and geopolitical interest were all part of the mix in the decision making.

  3. It is a beautiful place, but if one is not allowed to leave that changes everything.

    Also, did anyone really believe that he would stay there?

  4. The great mystery is, did Napoleon himself intend to stay? I would say yes. For the most part of his sojourn he certainly behaved as if he intended to stay - unless it was all a huge deception. He spent huge amounts of money on public works and improving his living quarters. Although the Bourbons were obligated to pay him an annuity, in fact they never paid a cent, so, due to the expenses of his administartion he was close to bankruptcy by the time he left. Secondly, the Allies had agreed to allow his wife and son to join him, but Metternich deceived him on this crucial point, and it gradually became clear to him that he would never see his son again unless he escaped from Elba. Thirdly, the situation in France under Louis XVIII was becoming desperate as thousands of French prisoners of war were repatriated and quickly encountered homelessness and extreme poverty. The Bourbon government did nothing to help this situation. The many who, in desperation, made their way to Elba instead were given a small house and plot of land. Their stories of great discontent back in France were brought to the Emperor's ear. In short, I believe that people did expect Napoleon to stay and he expected this of himself but it changed due to three big mistakes from the Allies side - not paying him his annuity, seperating him from his wife and son and the increasingly desperate situation within France, partly caused by the Bourbon governments shortsightedness. Regarding the latter, let us bear in mind that when Napoleon arrived by boat in the south of France he marched from there all the way to Paris and the Bourbons fled without firing a single shot in their own defense. When the Bourbon army faced Napoleon's much smaller force, Napoleon walked alone onto the battlefield, stood in front of the Royalist gunners and called out "He who wishes to kill and Emperor, shoot now." The Royalist officer called out the order "Fire", and the soldiers instead, to a man, threw down their guns. This surely speaks volumes regarding the situation in France in the spring of 1815.