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Mark Braude on Napoleon’s Quarantine on Elba

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.

OR: What is going on within Napoleon as he adjusts to life on Elba? Do we know from his correspondence?

Braude: Over the course of his time there, it does seem like he is settling in and maybe not enjoying himself, but starting to find a purpose. He puts a lot of his energy into building up the society, as I said. He gets into gardening. He creates a giant topiary in the shape of an N. He plays practical jokes on his soldiers. He puts little fish in their pockets and asks if he can borrow a handkerchief. He’s finding ways to while away the time and all the while he’s stating publicly that he is happy, that he has retired, and that he will live out his days on Elba.

Now meanwhile, his second wife Mary Louise and their relatively young son are bouncing between France and Vienna. There’s some question as to when she will join him. That’s the big “what if” of the scenario. She is politically useful and powerful, and of course has her own ambitions and her own desires for what she wants to do that don’t include Napoleon. There’s a lot of back and forth in letters that are interesting to read and see what levels of honesty and deceit are going on between both parties as to when she will come to Elba. In the end, she never does come. That certainly must’ve had a large role to play in his mental state and in his desire to return to France.

OR: How does Napoleon go about effecting his escape? What is it like for him and what is it like for France when he returns?

Braude: We have this wonderful source in Neil Campbell, the Scottish colonel I mentioned earlier — the guy watching over Napoleon in this very unofficial capacity. He’s just there as an observer, he has no real power. But he’s the closest thing to someone in charge (who isn’t Napoleon) and keeps this detailed diary. We see through his conversations with Napoleon that Napoleon is starting to ask more and more about what’s going on in Europe as though he’s just interested in the news. But in fact, he’s trying to find out through Campbell, who is his contact with the mainland, if he would be killed the instant he set foot on French soil.

That’s up in the air. It’s hard for anyone to get a grip on public opinion at this time, just because of the ways that the press and news circulated. Even now we have no real sense of how popular or unpopular he was. There was nothing to guarantee that he should have come back or that he would be embraced. It’s actually one of the most miraculous, or at least unexpected and unlikely events in modern history that he was able to not only escape but for a time be embraced.

The escape plan itself is dumb and obvious. It works, I think, because of its simplicity. He waits for Campbell to go back to the mainland, which Campbell did occasionally. Campbell himself was getting a little bit bored and stifled, especially as the heat started to rise, and felt that he needed some breaks. He may also have had a girlfriend on the mainland that we think he was going to visit. In any case, he, Napoleon waits for Campbell to go back to the mainland and gets the all clear. They take three boats, they paint them in British colors, and they sail toward France.

Meanwhile, there are British ships patrolling the area. There are French ships patrolling the area. In the course of their sailing, these ships pass by Napoleon’s and even communicate and ask how it’s going and they fool everyone. It’s a simple straight-ahead sailing. Eventually, Campbell realizes what’s going on and heads off in hot pursuit, but he actually ends up going the wrong way. Everyone thought Napoleon would be going to Naples where his brother-in-law Murat was also clinging to some power and these two men together would form this army of those disaffected and upset about the changes and then march upwards from the south of Italy. Nobody, really nobody, expected him to land in France as he did.

OR: What are the Hundred Days like for Napoleon?

Braude: He and about 1,000 followers have come from Elba and land on the beach by what is now present-day Antibes and Golfe-Juan and camp out there. The news spreads that it’s actually Napoleon and he’s back. What happens is, I think, that people are so awestruck and dumbfounded by this return that nobody has encountered this before, so they don’t really know what to do. He just passes along with his men for quite a while, moving eastward and northward toward Paris. There’s a quite dramatic scene that’s actually the scene with which I end my book because I’m focused on the Elban exile, where they meet the first Royalist troops in a place called Laffrey.

It’s a big wide open plain, so both sides can see each other very clearly. These are French soldiers who are now sworn, since the defeat of Napoleon and since the negotiations with their former enemies in how France is going to continue, to loyalty to a Bourbon king, Louis. They’ve sworn to protect him with their life and they owe their duty and their livelihood to this new king. By all accounts, they should shoot Napoleon on sight. Napoleon by leaving Elba has become an outlaw. He is beyond the pale of any law as stated by the treaty that sent him to Elba. Anybody is fully in their rights to kill him on sight.

What happens is they meet in this big field and Napoleon has this little ragtag army behind him and here are the Royalist troops on the other side. He walks out in front of his own soldiers, tells them to stay back, and walks up toward the opposing side. He opens his greatcoat and says, “Here I am, it’s me, it’s Napoleon. I’m your emperor, do what you will.” Somebody calls out “fire,” but nobody fires. What happens is that everyone throws their weapons down and both sides get together and embrace and celebrate. They’ve decided now that they’re on Napoleon’s side. From that point on he’s really got the army and public opinion on his side and he does this lightning march. It’s the audacity of it, it’s not the sanity or the rationality of it. Nobody’s thinking that life is necessarily going to be better under Napoleon, but it’s certainly more exciting.

It lasts as long as an infatuation like this might last, in a sense. There’s this honeymoon period and it is all exciting. Then it ultimately comes crashing down at Waterloo. But there is an argument among historians that this is really the founding of the Napoleonic legend as we know it. It is really, really based on this return. As much as his reign was grandiose and impressive and earth-shattering and destructive and violent, this is really the dramatic moment that sealed his legend and his myth because of the sheer unlikeliness of it.

OR: The title of your book is The Invisible Emperor. What does it mean for the French populace that Napoleon is gone, but alive? What does it mean that he is still existent, but invisible?

Braude:  All the different ways of seeing and being seen became really important to the book. I discovered that while on Elba, Napoleon was seen by more people up close than he was at any other point in his life. More people got close to him and saw him firsthand, and they weren’t always impressed by what they saw, but it was certainly a special occasion in their lives.

It’s quite ridiculous that people from the mainland were actually able to come and visit him like he was a tourist site. You just sailed up to Elba and you said, “Could I have coffee with Napoleon?” And most of the time you actually could, bizarrely enough. What else was he going to do? These are mostly British people who come to Elba and see him and write about it. Power at this stage is very visual. There’s a lot of distance and grandeur and pomp and circumstance. Why the invisible emperor? Well, I’m saying this is a different kind of power, which is the power of being unseen.

My implicit argument is that Napoleon unseen, Napoleon out of sight was in fact more powerful than Napoleon still in Paris. Again, it comes down to this idea of storytelling. It was a damn good story. The hero has been brought low, shuffled off stage — what is he doing there? He’s regrouping, he’s plotting. He must be doing something fantastic. Where’s he going to go? What’s going to happen to him? Have they killed him? Is he alive? We don’t know. There were stories that he had been shipped off to America. There were stories that he was living the life of a gentleman in London. They would call him the Robinson Crusoe of Elba.

There were all these great ways of spinning that story. And of course the return itself was the great final act. There’s power in isolation. There’s power in exile, there’s power in being unseen. A little mystery never hurts.