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Escape of the Corsican Monster

On this day in 1815, Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba, where he’d been exiled for just under a year, set sail for France, and in one of those unexpected twists of history, returned to power. No one’s quite sure how he managed to escape, but Napoleon was a man of great energy and industry, and although contemporary cartoons depict him as a disconsolate exile on a rocky island, that was artistic license. His exile gave rise to this palidrome–able was I ere I saw Elba.

Now one of the many differences between the rest of us and the Corsican Monster is that if we were living in a castle in this sort of scenery, we’d grit our teeth and stay put. But not Napoleon. Apart from plotting his escape, he was quite busy as Emperor of Elba, carrying out social and economic reforms. He had a personal escort of 1,000 men, a household staff, and 110,000 subjects.

It was a time of great misery for Napoleon, the man who’d once had almost all of Europe at his feet. The Treaty of Fontainbleu, which appointed him Emperor of Elba, also sent his wife and son to Vienna. Napoloen was so distraught he attempted to commit suicide with a vial of poison he carried, but the poison was old and only made him sick. Shortly after his arrival, he learned of the death of the former Empress Josephine.

It’s possible his English guardians on the island aided, or at least turned a blind eye to, Napoleon’s escape plans. The restored French monarchy was proving unsatisfactory, which meant that once again the balance of power in Europe was threatened. This is discussed in this fascinating article, A Sympathetic Ear: Napoleon, Elba, and the British, which also explores the phenomenon of Napoleon as tourist trap.

British seamen proved to be keen visitors. Indeed, Napoleon had embarked for Elba on April 28th, aboard the frigate HMS Undaunted, whose captain, Thomas Ussher, wrote home on May 1st: ‘It has fallen to my extraordinary lot to be the gaolor of the instrument of the misery Europe has so long endured’. By the end of the month, the man whom Ussher could not even bring himself to name had become his ‘bon ami’, and had given him 2,000 bottles of wine, and a diamond encrusted snuffbox. In return Ussher presented Napoleon with a barge, which he flatteringly reserved for his own exclusive use.

Napoleon landed in Cannes on March 1 and declared:

I am the sovereign of the Island of Elba, and have come with six hundred men to attack the King of France and his six hundred thousand soldiers. I shall conquer this kingdom.

As he progressed through France, soldiers sent to attack him instead joined him, so that he made a triumphant return into Paris on March 20. There’s a great first-hand account of his arrival here.

I’m over at the History Hoydens today talking about the French invasion of Fishguard in Wales, a fascinating but fairly obscure event, and it brings to mind similar thoughts. We have the popular image of Napoleon brooding alone on his rocky island, when in fact he was as busy as ever, planning his escape and probably with British collusion.

So why do you think some historical legends persist and others are forgotten?

Would you have gone to visit Napoleon on Elba?

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Delle Jacobs
13 years ago

Thanks for reminding us, Janet. This was a formidable day in 1815.

I think we remember what we want to remember, and we remark on what we want others to remember.

In the years following Waterloo, the shape of the Napoleonic Wars slowly and subtly shifted, gradually showing the British Empire and Wellington as more and more competent and successful than they actually had been in that time.

Just a few days ago in reading William Napier’s account of the Battle of Salamanca, I was struck by the subtle differences between his account and later ones. He was much more frank about Wellington’s mistakes and weaknesses, and he mentioned the French strengths and successes, all fairly objectively. Later, though, many accounts took to making the French look like idiots, and Wellington the genius.

I’ll be blogging on this curious phenonemon later in March, on In Search of Heroes.

M.
M.
13 years ago

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that this staggeringly brilliant and ruthless man was so apparently tenderhearted as a husband. And wow, talk about making use of every possible moment of one’s time – he squeezed half a dozen lifetimes worth of experiences into a single one. I read a really interesting article once about ‘what if?’ having to do with the role that communicable disease played in expansion in Africa (I think) and how things could have turned out much differently but for mass infection of his troops (rather than effective military counter strategy).

learnonline
13 years ago

I’d like to recommend a beautiful film about Napoleon’s exile in the Island of Elba but … it is an Italian movie…I don’t know if it has been released elsewhere. Anyway, it’s titled “N – Io e Napoleone” (2006 ) and for those who might be interested here’s the link to the official site http://www.medusa.it/nioenapoleone/

MG – Italy

Lois
13 years ago

I think there is also some of we tell stories of people the way they were thought of, and how they supposed to be that way (though I don’t know if I can explain that better to have it make sense! LOL). Also though, the victor writes the history. The people who put Napoleon on that island sure didn’t want to think of him as anything but acting defeated — definitely not plotting a return!

Lois

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

Great post, Janet! A momentous day in history, for sure.

I recently saw a whimsical movie with Ian Holm called “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” where Napoleon escapes by switching places with a lookalike–but then finds it’s not so easy to switch back once he gets back to Paris…

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that this staggeringly brilliant and ruthless man was so apparently tenderhearted as a husband.

Well, sorta. He was very jealous and possessive toward Josephine, but then let her go easily enough when she didn’t produce a child.

No doubt he had a brilliant mind and massive energy and a charisma that made other people do what he wanted, but I think if I had to have lunch with Napoleon or Wellington, I’d pick Wellington.

Delle Jacobs
13 years ago

I would too, Diane. I think Wellington’s mind is fascinating. I propose that you and I make a date with the fellow and see what he has to say.

Louisa Cornell
13 years ago

Let us not forget that history, more often than not, is written by the victors.

Napoleon was in possession of one of the most brilliant military and manipulative minds in history. Most men of his ilk do. (I’m thinking combination narcissist / sociopath.)He was definitely a wheels within wheels turning sort of intelligence.

And the battles against him were conducted by the British, et al with equal parts military acumen, sheer stubborn bravery and accidents of man and nature that just happened to fall on the weak side of Nappy’s ego. All of the worst wars happen that way.

I would like to have visited him on Elba just to watch the man work. I think it would be a bit like watching a stalking leopard and a volcano.

Ultimately he and Wellington both made mistakes. The difference was – Wellington’s efforts were entirely devoted to victory for his cause. In the end I fear Napoleon’s efforts were devoted to bolstering his own ego and victory for his self. Fortune tends to favor the former.

I would want to spend maybe a day or two with Napoleon, studying him. Wellington, I could spend months with just talking.

Santa
13 years ago

Is it wrong for me to be upset that they made him Emperor of Elba. Were they afraid of insulting the Corsican monster? I don’t get it.

When any event becomes a distant memory, it takes on a life of its own. The battles are more glorious, the victories sweeter and the riches beyond measure.

I would have loved to visit Napolean on Elba and Wellington when he first returned to England victorious.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Hey, Delle, I never said I wanted to SHARE Wellington!

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

“if I had to have lunch with Napoleon or Wellington, I’d pick Wellington”

Or both! THAT would be interesting. 🙂

Delle, maybe at the next RWA we should get out a Ouija board and see if we can summon up Wellington…. 🙂

Susan Wilbanks
13 years ago

Hey, Delle, I never said I wanted to SHARE Wellington!

I’ll fight you both for him! And I can fence, a little.

::Susan strikes a menacing pose, brandishing an epee::

Ultimately he and Wellington both made mistakes. The difference was – Wellington’s efforts were entirely devoted to victory for his cause. In the end I fear Napoleon’s efforts were devoted to bolstering his own ego and victory for his self. Fortune tends to favor the former.

This is my take, too. Not that Wellington wasn’t an ambitious man, but he believed in a cause larger than himself.

janegeorge
13 years ago

What I know about Napoleon I learned from Time Bandits. “I like leetle things, hitting each other!”

Time for a bio.

Evangeline
13 years ago

I’d visit Napoleon. I’m not ashamed to admit that I love he and his dynasty to death and wish he wasn’t cast as the villain of so many Regency historicals. *g*

Cara King
13 years ago

I think I’d skip visiting Napoleon — he’d give me wine, and wine always makes my head ache terribly… I think I need a teetotalling sort of dictator instead…

Janet Mullany
13 years ago

Amanda, I was trying to remember the name of that movie about Napoleon becoming the emperor of the Parisian vegetable markets–thanks!

FWIW, I think Napoleon would have been much more fun in bed than Wellington.

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

“What I know about Napoleon I learned from Time Bandits.”

And don’t forget “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”! I’m certain if Napoleon was here now he WOULD go to a water park called Waterloo. 🙂

Susan Wilbanks
13 years ago

FWIW, I think Napoleon would have been much more fun in bed than Wellington.

Believe it or not, there’s actual data to the contrary. Anecdata, but that’s more than the historical record usually offers us on the relative sexual prowess of military rivals. (Now, that was a fun sentence to type!)

When Wellington was in Paris in 1814, he was associated with two women who had formerly been among Napoleon’s mistresses, the singer Mme. Grassini and the actress Mlle. Georges. Years later, Mlle. Georges was asked if she had any shall-we-say unique insights into the men in question, and she said the duke was the better lover.

(The things you discover in research!)

I’m pretty sure I’d prefer Wellington–if, you know, I were by some freak occurrence flung back in time and given the opportunity to compare! But that would have at least as much to do with my preexisting attitudes toward the men in question and the fact that Wellington was far more my type physically as with their actual skills.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Mlle. Georges was asked if she had any shall-we-say unique insights into the men in question, and she said the duke was the better lover.

I knew it!

Now you really have a fight on your hands, Susan!

kate tremayne
13 years ago

Since reputedly Napoleon gulped down his meals leaving his entourage with half eaten plates of food when he stalked out and they had to follow him, also he was said to dictate two or three letters at once to different scribes, and he dashed round Europe at double quick time, one is left to consider that as a lover he may been a two minute less than wonder.

Janet Mullany
13 years ago

But Kate, it would have been an excellent two minutes…
And I think Mlle. George was saying what she thought the questioner wanted to hear–consider her profession.

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