The Emperor's New Digs

An Interview with Mark Braude

Octavian Report: How and why does Napoleon ends up on Elba?

Mark Braude: This begins in 1814. We've had about a quarter century of nearly perpetual war in Europe, and eventually Napoleon gets defeated by an allied coalition. Great Britain, Russia, and Prussia are the main actors here. At the height of his empire, Napoleon had ruled directly or indirectly some 80 million people. After his defeat, there was some debate about what to do with him. Nobody wanted to execute him. The idea of the French Revolution and the guillotine still loomed in peoples' minds. And we're talking about a lot of other monarchs here in charge, and nobody wants to set the precedent like that: let's chop someone's head off if they're defeated.

The allies working with the new French government said, "Let's shuffle him off stage," and they chose a place that was deemed insignificant and yet close enough that they could keep an eye on him: the Island of Elba, just off the Italian coast, close to Pisa up in the north. It's part of Tuscany. It's a beautiful place, about 100 square miles. Napoleon and a small entourage of people who are still loyal to him — a few dozen officers and soldiers and household staff — travel to Elba under the watch of the British. He is allowed to set up there as Emperor of Elba, he's allowed to maintain a title. He's an officially recognized sovereign and that's it. It's a very informal ad hoc solution.

They place him on this island and they expect him to retire. He has been lucky to escape with his life and now the message to him is: you can defend yourself on this island and make sure that you are safe, but there's no expectation that you will return and stir up trouble. It seems to be a workable solution for everyone, until that of course ends up not being the case.

OR: How does Napoleon respond to this directive hammered out in the wake of his defeat?

Braude: You have to imagine somebody going from ruling 80 million people to now, on this obscure island, a population of about 12,000. It was a blow to say the least, and he is trying to negotiate and beg and borrow and steal his way out of this for as long as he can while in France. He keeps trying every excuse that he can, sending written requests and saying this or that protocol hasn't been answered. Could he abdicate in favor of his son, or could there be some other solution? Eventually, he realizes that there is no way out. On the night before he's supposed to leave his palace in France, he takes a combination of belladonna and hellebore and hemlock — poisonous herbs that his physician had given him for the Russian campaign. Whether it's a very conscious suicide attempt or whether it's a gesture (because he knows that this little concoction is not quite strong enough to kill him) is still up for debate. But he does swallow it and then the physician comes in and makes him swallow ashes from the fire so that he vomits. It's a whole dramatic scene.

He rebounds and actually says that he's in great health on his sail over there and seems quite chipper to the people who are observing him and transporting him. There's an officer named Neil Campbell who figures pretty prominently in the story. He is the de facto warden of Elba, who is watching Napoleon and keeping a diary. He's amazed. He says, "The energies of this man are fantastic and incredible." So Napoleon, at least in public, he shows himself in the early days of this exile as being gung-ho: It's my time to exit the stage of European politics and I will be happy here on my little island (as he calls it).

OR: What was his day-to-day like life on Elba?

Braude: What does Napoleon do on an island the size of Staten Island? It turns out he did quite a bit. His energies were quite legendary, even in his own day. And regardless of what we think of Napoleon today, we can't help admiring that this was somebody who was really indefatigable and knew and saw as much of the world as anybody else in the age that bears his name. He’s really a dynamo.

He took that energy for good or ill and then channeled it into his little island empire. The first thing he did was make sure that he was safe, make sure that he was well fed, make sure that his little army — he was allowed to keep a tiny little army and navy — were accounted for. Then he starts building a society without regard to who was there before and what they were doing. He shows up and the people are of course amazed at this situation. He starts writing laws. He says, "This is when the army will parade in the main square, this is what we're going to feed the dogs, this is how many little plots of land I'm going to allocate to the soldiers." There is a litany of bizarre and minute laws that he decrees in the first couple of weeks.

OR: What is the strangest one, as you see it?

Braude: Just as the solution to send him to Elba was ad hoc, he too is of course adapting to the situation and his main concern is money. One thing that happens a few months in is that some of the flour he’s allotted goes rotten, flour intended for soldiers’ bread. There was an idea then current that if you mix regular flour that hasn't gone off with rotten flour at a certain ratio, the soldiers will be fine.

But the soldiers refused to eat it and then the bread went to some miners. Mining is the big industry on Elba. He sends it to the miners. They all get sick. Then there's the threat of actual general revolution because of this action. There was a lot of tension between the Elbans and Napoleon.