May 1814: Napoleon arrives on Elba
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Next June will see the bicentenary of a certain battle on a plain near Brussels. But in the year before that climactic event, Napoleon was dispatched by his enemies to the Mediterranean island of Elba, 20 km off the Tuscan coast. According to the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau drawn up by his Prussian, Russian and Austrian opponents (Britain refused to sign on the grounds that he was a usurper and it didn’t want to grant him legitimacy), Napoleon signed a letter of abdication on April 6, 1814. Alan Forrest writes in his Napoleon (2011) that he received “in return the right to retain his imperial title, sovereignty over the tiny island of Elba, . . . and an income of two million francs a year, to be paid to him by the French government”.
Insisting on travelling on a British rather than a French vessel, on April 28 Napoleon boarded the HMS Undaunted at Fréjus on the French coast, and arrived off Elba’s main harbour Portoferraio, on May 3. The captive chose to stay on board until the next day, meeting political and religious representatives before disembarking – a “political” gesture in the words of Gloria Peria, a local historian quoted by Le Monde’s Italian correspondent Philippe Ridet who recently visited the island to witness the bicentennial celebrations. Napoleon remained there for ten months: the Hundred Days were therefore preceded by the 300 days on Elba.
Ridet points out that whereas Napoleon is regarded on the Italian mainland as a tyrant and pillager of art treasures, on the island he is remembered with “affection, compassion even”. As one would expect, he wasn’t idle. According to Antonella Giuzio, “one of the island’s cultural officials”, “he didn’t make war with anyone, he developed the economy of the island, and he left us an important legacy: his library and the houses he had restored to live in”. Ridet writes that no sooner landed, he designed a new flag, toured the island, visited the iron mines that drove its economy (hence, presumably, the name Portoferraio, a ferraio being a blacksmith), reformed the administration (something of a speciality), merged the civilian and the military hospital, signed commercial treaties with Livorno and Genoa. And, for good measure, he appointed three generals who had chosen to travel with him (as well as a thousand men), Bertrand, Drouot and Cambronne, as interior and war ministers and commander of the Imperial Guard, respectively. “Napoleon did what he was born to do” – even if in this case he was dealing with a population of 13,700 islanders.
But, Forrest writes, Napoleon soon became "both bored and frustrated with what life could offer on a small Mediterranean island . . . . As a ruler, albeit of a tiny state, he had set about providing for its defence, against both an Allied attack – never a likely occurrence – and the more likely incursions of pirates from the Barbary coast. To this end he raised an army of just under two thousand men, which included more than six hundred former members of his Imperial Guard who elected to follow him out from France”. And there was also a small navy, which would prove handy for escape. Sudhir Hazareesingh writes in The Legend of Napoleon (2004), that “From the moment Napoleon left France for Elba in 1814, many of his soldiers had begun to predict that he would return ‘when the next violets bloomed; hence his popular nickname of Père La Violette”.
Interestingly, Ridet reveals that the island was a “nest of spies”: “English, Russians, Austrians, French in the pay of Louis XVIII [the Bourbon king] walked up and down the quays after the slightest bit of information”. But how vigilant were they? Napoleon took advantage of the absence of Neil Campbell, the “unofficial British representative” on the island, to slip away on a frigate (adding a "handful of Corsican and Elban volunteers to his party", according to Forrest) on February 26, 1815. He landed near Antibes on March 1 with an army of 900 men and thus began the Hundred Days.
Meanwhile, actors have been re-enacting Napoleon’s arrival on the island (Franco Giannoni in the lead role above). Its tourist website quotes the words of the deputy at the time, Jean-Toussaint Arrighi: “L’isola d’Elba, già celebre per le produzioni della natura, diviene oggi più illustre nella storia dei popoli perché rende omaggio al suo novello Principe di fama immortale.” (The island of Elba, already celebrated for its natural resources, today becomes even more illustrious in the history of peoples because it is paying homage to its new Prince of immortal fame.)
In one little Mediterranean outpost the Corsican ogre's influence appears to have been entirely benevolent. And anyone visiting the island this summer might find themselves taken two centuries back in time.