Napoléon Makes His Prison Break

Ajman - Michel #692 (1970)
Ajman – Michel #692 (1970)

On February 26, 1815, Napoléon Bonaparte escaped from the island of Elba. The French emperor had been exiled there after his forced abdication following the Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1814. He arrived at Portoferraio on May 30, 1814, and was allowed to keep a personal guard of 600 men. Napoléon was nominally sovereign of Elba, although the nearby sea was patrolled by the French and British navies. During the months that he stayed on the island, Napoleon carried out a series of economic and social reforms to improve the quality of life. After staying on Elba for 300 days, he escaped to France.

Napoléon Bonaparte rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars. He was Emperor of the French from 1804 until 1814 and again briefly in 1815 during the Hundred Days (les Cent-Jours in French) — the period between his return to Paris on March 20, 1815, and the second restoration of King Louis XVIII on July 8 (actually 111 days).. Napoléon dominated European and global affairs for more than a decade while leading France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. He won most of these wars and the vast majority of his battles, building a large empire that ruled over continental Europe before its final collapse in 1815. He is considered one of the greatest commanders in history, and his wars and campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. Napoleon’s political and cultural legacy has endured as one of the most celebrated and controversial leaders in human history.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David, oil on canvas 1812. Currently in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

He was born Napoleone di Buonaparte in Corsica on August 15, 1769, to a relatively modest family of Italian origin from minor nobility. He was serving as an artillery officer in the French army when the French Revolution erupted in 1789. Napoléon rapidly rose through the ranks of the military, seizing the new opportunities presented by the Revolution and becoming a general at age 24. The French Directory eventually gave him command of the Army of Italy after he suppressed a revolt against the government from royalist insurgents. At age 26, he began his first military campaign against the Austrians and the Italian monarchs aligned with the Habsburgs — winning virtually every battle, conquering the Italian Peninsula in a year while establishing “sister republics” with local support, and becoming a war hero in France.

In 1798, Napoléon led a military expedition to Egypt that served as a springboard to political power. He orchestrated a coup in November 1799 and became First Consul of the Republic. His ambition and public approval inspired him to go further, and he became the first Emperor of the French in 1804. Intractable differences with the British meant that the French were facing a Third Coalition by 1805. Napoléon shattered this coalition with decisive victories in the Ulm Campaign and a historic triumph over the Russian Empire and Austrian Empire at the Battle of Austerlitz which led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire.

Sacre de l’empereur Napoléon Ier et couronnement de l’impératrice Joséphine dans la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, le 2 décembre 1804 (Coronation of Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in Notre-Dame de Paris, December 2, 1804) oil on canvas by Jacques-Louis David and Georges Rouget, between 1805 and 1807. Currently displayed in Room 75 (Denon Wing, 1st floor) at the Louvre Museum, Paris.

In 1806, the Fourth Coalition took up arms against him because Prussia became worried about growing French influence on the continent. Napoléon quickly defeated Prussia at the battles of Jena and Auerstedt, then marched his Grande Armée deep into Eastern Europe and annihilated the Russians in June 1807 at the Battle of Friedland. France then forced the defeated nations of the Fourth Coalition to sign the Treaties of Tilsit in July 1807, bringing an uneasy peace to the continent. Tilsit signified the high-water mark of the French Empire. In 1809, the Austrians and the British challenged the French again during the War of the Fifth Coalition, but Napoléon solidified his grip over Europe after triumphing at the Battle of Wagram in July.

Napoléon then invaded the Iberian Peninsula, hoping to extend the Continental System and choke off British trade with the European mainland, and declared his brother Joseph Bonaparte the King of Spain in 1808. The Spanish and the Portuguese revolted with British support. The Peninsular War lasted six years, featured extensive guerrilla warfare, and ended in victory for the Allies against Napoléon. The Continental System caused recurring diplomatic conflicts between France and its client states, especially Russia. The Russians were unwilling to bear the economic consequences of reduced trade and routinely violated the Continental System, enticing Napoleon into another war. The French launched a major invasion of Russia in the summer of 1812. The campaign destroyed Russian cities, but did not yield the decisive victory Napoléon wanted. It resulted in the collapse of the Grande Armée and inspired a renewed push against Napoleon by his enemies.

In 1813, Prussia and Austria joined Russian forces in the War of the Sixth Coalition against France. A lengthy military campaign culminated in a large Allied army defeating Napoléon at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, but his tactical victory at the minor Battle of Hanau allowed retreat onto French soil. The Allies then invaded France and captured Paris in the spring of 1814, forcing Napoléon to abdicate in April. He was exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany, and the Bourbon dynasty was restored to power.

A map of the Tuscan archipelago, including the islands Elba, Capraia, Giglio, Montecristo, Pianosa, Gorgona, and Giannutri.

Elba (isola d’Elba in Italian) is the largest remaining stretch of land from the ancient tract that once connected the Italian peninsula to Corsica. The northern coast faces the Ligurian Sea, the eastern coast the Piombino Channel, the southern coast the Tyrrhenian Sea, and the Corsica Channel divides the western tip of the island from neighboring Corsica. The Mediterranean island in present-day Tuscany, Italy, is 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) from the coastal town of Piombino, and the largest island of the Tuscan Archipelago. It is also part of the Arcipelago Toscano National Park, and the third largest island in Italy, after Sicily and Sardinia. Elba is located in the Tyrrhenian Sea about 30 miles (50 km) east of the French island of Corsica.

Today, the island is part of the province of Livorno and is divided into seven municipalities, with a total population of about 30,000 inhabitants which increases considerably during the summer. The municipalities are Portoferraio (which is also the island’s principal town), Campo nell’Elba, Capoliveri, Marciana, Marciana Marina, Porto Azzurro, and Rio.

The island was originally inhabited by Ligures Ilvates, who gave it the ancient name Ilva. It was well known from very ancient times for its iron resources and valued mines. The Greeks called it Aethalia (Αιθαλία, “fume”), after the fumes of the metal producing furnaces. Apollonius of Rhodes mentions it in his epic poem Argonautica, describing that the Argonauts rested here during their travels. He writes that signs of their visit were still visible in his day, including skin-colored pebbles that they dried their hands on and large stones which they used at discus. Strabo presents a slightly different account: “because the scrapings, which the Argonauts formed when they used their strigils, became congealed, the pebbles on the shore remain variegated still to this day.”

Mount Capanne of Elba, Italy. Mount Capanne is the highest mountain of Elba, Photo taken by Contradictus on June 3, 2005. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The island was invaded by the Etruscans and later (after 480 BC) by the Romans. In the Middle Ages, it was invaded by the Ostrogoths and the Lombards, and then it became a possession of the Republic of Pisa. After the battle of Meloria, the Republic of Genova took possession of Elba, but it was regained by Pisa in 1292. The island was retained for two centuries by the Appiani family, Lords of Piombino, when they sold Pisa to the house of Visconti of Milan in 1399.

In 1544, the Barbary pirates from North Africa devastated Elba and the coasts of Tuscany. In 1546, part of the island was handed over to Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who fortified Portoferraio and renamed it Cosmopoli, while the rest of the island was returned to the Appiani in 1577. In 1596, Philip II of Spain captured Porto Azzurro and had two fortresses built there. A part of Elba came into the power of the Kingdom of Naples through the State of the Presidi, including Porto Longone. In 1736, the whole of Elba, with the principality of Piombino, passed under the jurisdiction of Kingdom of Naples.

The British landed on the Island of Elba in 1796, after the occupation of Livorno by the French Republican troops, to protect the 4,000 French royalists who had found asylum in Portoferraio two years earlier. In 1801, the Peace of Luneville gave Elba to the Kingdom of Etruria, and it was transferred to France in 1802 by the Peace of Amiens.

Map of the island of Elba. Included in Notice sur l’île d’Elbe (…) published in Paris by J. B. Tardieu soon after Napoleon landed at Elba after his abdication. Although the Treaty of Fontainebleau of April 1814 allowed Napoleon to retain his title of emperor, he is referred to merely as Buonaparte on the map, as well as in the book. The map was also sold separately from the book.

In the War of the Sixth Coalition (1812–1814), a coalition of Austria, Prussia, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and a number of German states drove Napoléon out of Germany in 1813. In 1814, while the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal invaded France across the Pyrenees, the Russians, Austrians and their allies invaded France across the Rhine and, after the Battle of Paris, entered into negotiations with members of the French government for the abdication of Napoléon.

On March 31, 1814, the Coalition issued a declaration to the French nation:

The allied powers having occupied Paris, they are ready to receive the declaration of the French nation. They declare, that if it was indispensable that the conditions of peace should contain stronger guarantees when it was necessary to enchain the ambition of Napoleon, they would become more favourable when, by a return to a wiser government, France itself offers the assurance of repose. The allied sovereigns declare, in consequence, that they will no longer treat with Napoleon nor with any of his family; that they respect the integrity of old France, as it existed under its legitimate kings—they may even go further, for they always profess the principle, that for the happiness of Europe it is necessary that France should be great and powerful; that they recognise and will guarantee such a constitution as the French nation may give itself. They invite, consequently, the senate to appoint a provisional government, which may provide for the necessities of administration, and establish such a constitution as may be fitting for the French people. The intentions which I have just expressed are common to me with all the allied powers.
—Alexander, Paris, 31st March 1814 : Three P.M.

On April 1, Russian Emperor Alexander I addressed the French Sénat conservateur in person and laid out similar terms as were in the previous day’s declaration. As a gesture of good will, he announced that 150,000 French prisoners of war who had been held by the Russians since the French invasion of Russia, two years earlier, would be released immediately. The next day, the Senate agreed to the Coalition’s terms and passed a resolution deposing Napoléon. They also passed a decree dated April 5, justifying their actions, and ending:

…the senate declares and decrees as follows :—1. Napoléon Buonaparte is cast down from the throne, and the right of succession in his family is abolished. 2. The French people and army are absolved from their oath of fidelity to him. 3. The present decree shall be transmitted to the departments and armies, and proclaimed immediately in all the quarters of the capital.

On April 3, 1814, word reached Napoléon, who was at the Palace of Fontainebleau, that the French Senate had dethroned him. As the Coalition forces had made public their position that their quarrel was with Napoléon and not the French people, he called their bluff and abdicated in favor of his son, with the Empress Marie-Louise as regent.

Room at the Fontainebleau where the April 1814 Treaty was signed. Photo taken on December 26, 2007.

Three plenipotentiaries took this conditional abdication to the Coalition sovereigns:

The allied powers having proclaimed that the Emperor Napoléon is the sole obstacle to the re-establishment of peace in Europe, – the Emperor Napoléon, faithful to his oath, declares that he is ready to descend from the throne, to quit France, and even life itself, for the good of the country, which is inseparable from the rights of his son, of the regency of the Empress, and of the maintenance of the laws of the empire.
— Napoléon: Fontainebleau, 4 April 1814

Napoleon signs the abdication papers at Fontainebleau on April 4, 1814.

While the plenipotentiaries were traveling to deliver their message, Napoleon heard that Auguste Marmont had placed his corps in a hopeless position and that their surrender was inevitable. The Coalition sovereigns were in no mood to compromise and rejected Napoleon’s offer.Over the next few days, with Napoleon’s reign over France now at an end, the formal treaty was negotiated and signed by the plenipotentiaries in Paris on April 11 and ratified by Napoléon on April 13.

The Treaty of Fontainebleau contained a total of 21 articles. Based on the most significant terms of the accord, Napoléon was stripped of his powers as ruler of the French Empire, but both Napoléon and Marie-Louise were permitted to preserve their respective titles as emperor and empress. Moreover, all of Napoléon’s successors and family members were prohibited from attaining power in France. The treaty also established the island of Elba as a separate principality to be ruled by Napoléon. Elba’s sovereignty and flag were guaranteed recognition by foreign powers in the accord, but only France was allowed to assimilate the island.

The journey of a modern hero, to the island of Elba. Print shows Napoleon seated backwards on a donkey on the road “to Elba” from Fontainebleau; he holds a broken sword in one hand and the donkey’s tail in the other while two drummers follow him playing a farewell(?) march. Hand-colored engraving on paper, May 1814. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Accession number LC-DIG-ppmsca-04308

Article 3 of the treaty stipulated that Elba, which until then had been part of the French département of Méditerranée, was to be “an independent principality possessed by [Napoléon] in complete sovereignty and as personal property”. His rule was to persist until his death, at which point control of the Principality of Elba (Principato d’Elba) would return to Tuscany. The principality lasted less than a year, and its only head was Napoléon. The former emperor was also granted a stipend of two million francs per year to be paid by France.

Upon Napoléon’s landing on the island, the Mayor of Portoferraio, Pietro Traditi, presented the keys to the city to the Emperor. Napoléon then began work as sovereign of the island, starting by writing a small, three-paged constitution, outlining five government departments: the departments of civil administration, the communes, the domains reserved for the emperor, the imperial palace, and the army. General Henri Bertrand was appointed grand marshal of the palace, a post he held during Napoleon’s reign in France, and was in charge of the civil administration. General Drouot was appointed Governor of the island and charged with military matters, Giuseppe Balbiani was named Intendant General of police, and Guillaume-Joseph Roux was made treasurer.

Napoléon created a conseil souverain (Sovereign’s Council), seating on the council was twelve members: four Frenchmen and eight Elbans. Five councillors were made members of the court of first instance, with Balbiani as President. The remaining members of the Sovereign’s Council were placed on the court of appeal, without any presiding head. However, despite the power held by the council, most government power was vested in the four French ministers brought from the former regime, and Napoléon himself who took an extremely active role in governing the principality.

“The Rise and Fall of Napoleon”, a cartoon drawn by Johann Michael Voltz following the Treaty of Fontainebleau; on the lower side is seen the map of Elba. Currently in the collections of Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin.

As allowed by the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Napoléon brought 870 men to the island with him from France. The army was made up of 566 from the elite Garde impériale (both infantry and cavalry) and the remaining 300 were from a small battalion of grenadiers. The army was under the supervision of General Drouot and commanded by General Cambronne and the staff headquarters. The Navy consisted of 66 men and one ship: the double-masted, 18-gunned brig, Inconstant. A small flotilla of two other sloops also accompanied Inconstant. The fleet was first commanded by Lieutenant Taillade; however, after nearly losing Inconstant in a storm, Taillade was replaced by lieutenant J. Chautard, who would later ferry Napoléon back from Elba in 1815. Paoli Filidoro was appointed Captain of the Gendarmerie and operated under Giuseppe Balbiani as Intendant General. The combined armed forces by 1815 on Elba numbered about 1,000 men, costing over half of the treasury to pay, equip, and feed.

Elba meant exile for Napoléon, but it was no prison. Napoléon specifically chose it because it had good weather and defences. He took up residence in a villa with harbor views built by the Medicis in the 1700s. He also had a summer residence. Both buildings were outfitted with lavish furnishings and designed for parties and visitors, including his official babysitter, a British officer named Neil Campbell who watched his comings and goings.

Though Napoléon’s wife, Josephine, didn’t join him on the island, his mistress, the Polish countess Marie Walewska, did. Her brief visit was purposely shrouded in secrecy but islanders soon learned of it. They eagerly followed the movements and excesses of the miniature court Napoléon built on the island. Soon, however, they realized they were expected to pay for those expenses through taxes, and became more suspicious of the exiled emperor.

A few months into his exile, Napoléon learned that Josephine had died in France. He was devastated by the news, locking himself in his room and refusing to leave for two days. Campbell followed Napoléon’s growing lack of interest in the fate of the islanders, and soon learned that the emperor feared insolvency, especially when the money promised to him under the treaty did not materialize. Napoléon claimed he was a “dead man” and that his time of greatness had passed. In reality, he was biding his time. Campbell didn’t realize the Emperor of Elba had begun to make plans to leave the island.

Napoleon on Elba, an early 19th-century painting of the French dictator in exile.

Ruling Elba gave Napoléon an excuse to build a military force: an army of 2,000, a 600-man Imperial Guard, and a small navy. His frequent communications with France and his continual stream of visitors concerned the British. Until February 26, 1815, they didn’t realize how dangerous those communications had been. Through these visits, Napoléon learned that the British had begun to formulate plans to move him further away from France to St. Helena, an island in the South Atlantic. He also heard that, back in France, his supporters had begun to foment rebellion against the new king, Louis XVIII.

Characteristically, the power-hungry Napoléon had begun to worry that he was going to die in obscurity. Technically, he reasoned, he wasn’t required to stay on Elba, as he felt the terms of the treaty had been broken. Besides, he was needed in France. He consulted with his mother, who stayed with him on the island. “Go, my son!” she reportedly said. “Fulfill your destiny!”

He didn’t need much encouragement. When Campbell headed to England with a note saying Napoléon was becoming restless, the emperor saw his chance. He put together a small fleet of ships, including the brig Inconstant, which he painted like a British vessel and filled with an army of loyalists.

Napoleon leaving the island of Elba at the port of Portoferraio on February 26, 1815. Oil on canvas by Joseph Beaume, 1836. Currently located at Musée naval et napoléonien du Cap d’Antibes.

On February 26, the flotilla left the island with about 1,150 people aboard. Napoléon had given Elba and the English the slip without really bothering to hide his intentions or his preparations. He even met with officials in Elba to tell them he was leaving.

“A thousand ideas and projects are formed; resistance is nowhere decided,” he told an associate. “I shall arrive before any plan has been organized against me.”

The brig Inconstant, under Captain Taillade and ferrying Napoleon to France, crosses the path of the brig Zéphir, under Captain Andrieux. Inconstant flies the tricolour of the Empire, while Zéphir flies the white ensign of the Monarchy. Soldiers of the Imperial Guard are crouching on deck while Napoleon stands fore of the main mast. Oil on canvas painting Return from Elba, 28th of February 1815 was painted by Ambroise Louis Garneray, oordered by Napoleon. Captain Taillade was instructed to provide Garneray with all necessary information. On display at the Paris Salon of 1831 and currently at Porte de l’Arsenal in the Musée de la Marine, Toulon.

Two days later, Napoléon landed on the French mainland at Golfe-Juan and started heading north. The 5th Regiment was sent to intercept him and made contact just south of Grenoble on March 7. Napoléon approached the regiment alone, dismounted his horse and, when he was within gunshot range, shouted to the soldiers, “Here I am. Kill your Emperor, if you wish”. The soldiers quickly responded with, “Vive L’Empereur!” Ney, who had boasted to the restored Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, that he would bring Napoléon to Paris in an iron cage, affectionately kissed his former emperor and forgot his oath of allegiance to the Bourbon monarch. The two then marched together towards Paris with a growing army.

The unpopular Louis XVIII fled to Belgium after realizing he had little political support. On March 13, the powers at the Congress of Vienna declared Napoleon an outlaw. Four days later, Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia each pledged to put 150,000 men into the field to end his rule.

Napoleon with the Elba Squadron of volunteers from the 1st Polish Light Cavalry of his Imperial Guard

Napoléon arrived in Paris on March 20 and governed for a period now called the Hundred Days. By the start of June, the armed forces available to him had reached 200,000, and he decided to go on the offensive to attempt to drive a wedge between the oncoming British and Prussian armies. The French Army of the North crossed the frontier into the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, in modern-day Belgium, beginning the War of the Seventh Coalition.

The Waterloo Campaign was fought between the French Army of the North and two Seventh Coalition armies, an Anglo-allied army and a Prussian army. Napoléon initially commanded the French army, but he left for Paris after the French defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Command then rested on Marshals Soult and Grouchy, who were in turn replaced by Marshal Davout, who took command at the request of the French Provisional Government. The Anglo-allied army was commanded by the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army by Prince Blücher.

Hostilities started on June 15 when the French smashed the Prussian outposts and crossed the river Sambre at Charleroi placing their forces between the cantonment areas of Wellington’s Army (to the west) and Blücher’s army to the east. On June 16, the French prevailed with Marshal Ney commanding the left wing of the French army holding Wellington at the Battle of Quatre Bras and Napoleon defeating Blücher at the Battle of Ligny. On June 17, Napoléon left Grouchy with the right wing of the French army to pursue the Prussians while he took the reserves and command of the left wing of the army to pursue Wellington towards Brussels.

On the night of June 17, the Anglo-allied army turned and prepared for battle on a gentle escarpment, about 1 mile (1.6 km) south of the village of Waterloo. The next day the Battle of Waterloo proved to be the decisive battle of the campaign. The Anglo-allied army stood fast against repeated French attacks, until with the aid of several Prussian corps that arrived at the east side of the battlefield in the early evening they managed to rout the French Army. Grouchy with the right wing of the army engaged a Prussian rearguard at the simultaneous Battle of Wavre, and although he won a tactical victory his failure to prevent the Prussians marching to Waterloo meant that his actions contributed to the French defeat at Waterloo. The next day (June 19), he left Wavre and started a long retreat back to Paris.

The Battle of Waterloo oil on canvas painting by William Sadler II. Currently in the collections of Pyms Gallery, London.

After the defeat at Waterloo, Napoléon chose not to remain with the army and attempt to rally it, but returned to Paris to try to secure political support for further action. He failed to do so, and was forced to abdicate on June 22. Two days later, a Provisional Government took over French politics. Meanwhile, the two Coalition armies hotly pursued the French army to the gates of Paris, during which the French on occasion turned and fought some delaying actions, in which thousands of men were killed.

When the French Provisional Government realised that the French army under Marshal Davout was unable to defend Paris, they authorised delegates to accept capitulation terms which led to the Convention of St. Cloud (the surrender of Paris) which ended hostilities between France and the armies of Blücher and Wellington. The two Coalition armies entered Paris on July 7. The next day, Louis XVIII was restored to the French throne, and a week later on July 15 Napoléon surrendered to Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland of HMS Bellerophon. Napoléon was transported by Britain to the Island of St. Helena where he remained a prisoner until his death on May 5, 1821.

Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon, exhibited in 1880 by Sir William Quiller Orchardson. Orchardson depicts the morning of July 23, 1815, as Napoleon watches the French shoreline recede. Currently in the collections of the Tate Britain (but not on dlsplay).

At the Congress of Vienna, Elba was restored to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. In 1860, it became part of the new unified Kingdom of Italy.

Oddly, I could find nothing at all about today’s featured stamp. Scott only lists the stamps of Ajman up to 1965 and I couldn’t find listings on either Colnect or the online catalogues. However, there are several eBay auctions for the souvenir sheet which mentions Michel catalogue numbers of 692 and BL233. The 10-riyals airmail stamp/souvenir sheet was released in 1970.

Coat of Arms of Napoleon Bonaparte as Sovereign of Elba
Flag of Elba

Ajman - Michel #692 (1970)
Ajman – Michel #692 (1970)

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