"Napoleon was born on an island and died on another one, while some other islands played a part, big or small, in Napoleon’s meteoric and very chequered life".
When Napoleone di Buonaparte was born in Ajaccio, capital of Corsica on 15th August 1769, his native island, fourth in size of the five major Mediterranean islands, had been under French rule for a year.
The French bought sovereign rights over Corsica from the Genoese Republic. Strapped for cash and faced with an irksome pro-independence struggle against the forces of Pasquale Paoli (1725-1807) the Genoese, who had ruled the island for centuries, moved out. The French eventually defeated the Paolisti and drove Paoli into exile.
The Buonapartes were minor Tuscan aristocrats, who had moved to Corsica in the 16th century. They were a highly esteemed and prosperous family. Carlo Buonaparte (1746-85) made a good marriage with Letizia Ramolino (1750-1836), and the future Emperor of the French was their second son.
The house where Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, Corsica (image courtesy of www.travelguide.michelin.com)
Unfortunately Carlo’s bad habits like gambling and drinking left his family in dire straits by the time of his early death.
Not very long before, he had taken his two eldest sons to France, where they went to the Royal Military School of Brienne. The future officer cadets’ education included a solid grounding in French, and the young men’s surname was Gallicised as Bonaparte.
Apart from five brief visits to Corsica between 1787 and 1793, Napoleon was never to return there. He was too engrossed with his military career, and his very fast and well-merited advancement led him to other things.
"The other island which was to play a huge part in Napoleon’s life was Britain".
The prosperous island nation held sway over the seas, and had only lost it temporarily a few years before, when the result was the loss of the American colonies.
The British could hardly forgive their traditional French rivals when the latter helped the Americans to win their independence.
Regarding the Mediterranean, the British had won Gibraltar (1704) and for several decades ruled Minorca (lost in 1782). Things changed radically in 1793 with Britain’s joining Prussia and Austria in the Revolutionary War (1792-1802).
From then on and right up to Napoleon’s final downfall, Britain was to be one of his most relentless enemies. Naval victories over the French and their allied/satellite fleets in 1794 and twice in 1797 put the French in a fix.
The British even set up an Anglo-Corsican kingdom in 1794, but never controlled the whole island.
General Napoleon Bonaparte led a hugely successful anti-Austrian campaign in Italy. Republics fell and others replaced them, princely states were juggled around and maps re-drawn.
The mega corrupt Directoire governing France, wary of his politico-military prowess, gladly sent off Napoleon on his Egyptian expedition.
"On his way there he stopped in Malta, occupied the islands and sent packing the decadent and unpopular Order of St. John".
Valletta and the Three Cities
He also enacted several decrees resulting in some radical reforms, and then moved on to Egypt.
Within less than three months the Maltese were in revolt and the French blockaded behind the Valletta and Cottonera defences, as well as all harbour forts. Shortly after, Nelson’s fleet caught up with the French one in Egypt and destroyed it at Aboukir Bay.
Napoleon managed to evade the British and returned to France in 1799, engineering a coup which left him the dominant force in a newly established Consular triumvirate.
Victorious again on land (at Marengo in 1800), things went badly for the French garrison in Malta, which had to surrender in September of that year.
A degree of war weariness led to the treaty of Amiens in March 1802. According to some of its clauses, Malta was to return under the rule of the widely unpopular Order of St. John.
Britain was to evacuate Malta and the French had to evacuate ports on the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic, which belonged to the Papal States.
"A very powerful and influential local lobby resulted in the Maltese petitioning the British Crown to place the Islands under its protection".
Britain at the time never openly showed any interest in permanently staying here. This played into Britain’s hands and dallied over evacuating the Islands.
Napoleon dallied over the Papal ports and war broke out again in May 1803. Proclaiming himself First Consul, then Consul for life, in 1804 a plebiscite was held and Napoleon became Emperor of the French.
"Militarily, Napoleon remained supreme for several years, making and unmaking kings".
"Napoleon crossing the Alps" by Jacques-Louis David
Britain however was his Nemesis, destroying for good any French and allied naval resurgence at Trafalgar in 1805. The combined French and Spanish fleets were destroyed.
Britain’s ships blockaded continental ports and protected Britain, Ireland, Sicily, Sardinia and Malta from possible invasion. Defeated enemies rose up again, financed by British gold.
A lesson Napoleon taught in defeat was the folly of opening water on two fronts and lack of maritime supremacy. The lesson was lost twice on Germany with disastrous and far-reaching results.
Napoleon over-reached himself when, after the debâcle of the Russian invasion and defeat at Leipzig, he twice refused rather generous peace terms. Instead he gambled on a final victory, which he lost.
"His first fall was in 1814 when he had to abdicate, the exiled Bourbons returned to France and he was exiled to Elba".
Napoleon was allowed to retain the title of Emperor, had a small military detachment at his service, established a little Court and was joined by his mother (Madame Mére), and his sister Pauline (1780-1825).
His second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, and their only son Napoleon (ex-King of Rome), were not allowed to join him. No objection was found to visits by his Polish mistress Maria Waleska (1786-1817) and their son Alexandre (1810-68).
One could imagine how restricted Napoleon felt on his tiny island, a few kilometres off the Tuscan coast, and at 224 square kilometres two-thirds the size of our islands, with a population of just 12,000!
He embarked on a few useful projects for Elba’s development, but soon got bored. So did many in France, bored with Louis XVIII.
"News of this reached Napoleon, and he gambled on one last throw of the die".
After almost ten months in Elba, Napoleon managed to leave unnoticed late in February 1815. He avoided the closely guarded Corsican coast and disembarked safely at Golfe-Juan on the French Provençal coast.
All soldiers sent to arrest him on his way to Paris immediately joined him!
Before he reached the capital, Louis XVIII had fled to Belgium. He resumed control of France on 20th March - the beginning of his Hundred Days.
He said he wanted to live in peace, but the Allied enemies did not fall for this.
The final showdown was at Waterloo on the Belgian plains, (18th June) when an Allied army of British, Dutch and Hanoverians, led by the Duke of Wellington, won a narrow victory enhanced by the late arrival of the Prussian army. It was the end of the road.
In defeat, Napoleon naïvely expected to be allowed to live in England as a retired country gentleman. The Allies would have none of it. They wanted him out of the way, as far away as possible from Europe.
He embarked on HMS Bellorophon, which sailed to the distant South Atlantic British held island of St. Helena, thousands of kilometres from Africa.
"Napoleon on board HMS Bellorophon" by William Quiller Orchardson
Compared to Elba, St. Helena, with its nearly 122 square kilometres, is even more diminutive. Its population then must have been even smaller than the current 6,000 people.
Continuously patrolled by the Royal Navy, the former Emperor lived in Longwood House, a mansion about 6km from the island capital of Jamestown. He lived there from December 1815 until his death on 5th May 1821.
Longwood House in St. Helena
"It was a sorry end for a super ambitious man, and a great achiever in many fields. Perhaps an example of how much the mighty can fall".
Napoleon was buried in St. Helena, but in 1840 the bourgeois monarch Louis-Philippe had his remains transferred to France, where they were laid to rest in a huge porphyry tomb at Les Invalides in Paris.