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S04 E01 Principality of Elba transcript

Listen along to our episode on the Principality of Elba.


Today, we’re covering the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba when it was briefly ruled by perhaps the most famous Frenchman in history.


Gerard Depardiu?




Antoine de Caunes? Joey Barton?

*Clip of Joey Barton speaking French.*


Nope. It’s Napoleon Bonaparte.

Steven Toast:

Who?/ Never heard of him etc.


This is the story of what happens when you run a country and lose a major war and then what happens to you because it’s the nineteenth century.


You’re put on trial for war crimes? You’re imprisoned? Executed?


No. They just give you another country to run. It’s the gentlemanly thing to do. Welcome to the Principality of Elba and welcome to….


What was the Principality of Elba?

It was the personal principality of Napoleon Bonaparte, with his 12,000 citizens on the 18-mile long island of Elba in the Mediterranean.

It was given to Napoleon Bonaparte as the runner up prize for losing the Battle of Paris in 1814 at the end of the First Napoleonic War. That’s a pretty great runner up prize, since these days you’d probably get a keyring.

But why did Napoleon Bonaparte get his own country?

Yes. This is a weird one. The restored Bourbon Monarchy in France would have liked a much harsher punishment for old Boney. Preferably exile to a much further away place like St Helena in the Atlantic - where he eventually ended his days.


Not execution?

Not execution. While there was no love for Bonaparte, it was felt by the European powers that promoting the murder of a head of state was definitely out. Old regicide already had a pretty bad rap thanks to the recent French Revolution. And if European monarchs started saying that killing an emperor or king was ok, it might encourage revolutionaries in their own countries to oil up the guillotines and start splitting some divinely ordained heads from their respective body politiques.

Instead Napoleon was sent to Elba with a personal guard of between 400-600 men, some of his fave generals and a healthy pension of 2 million francs a year from the French government. It was a pretty competitive retirement package.

He lived in a palace, held balls, did doughnuts in a fancy coach and horses, and enjoyed all the formalities, pomp and ceremony of a nineteenth century monarch. A guard of honour would fire a cannon every time the emperor did a successful number 2. Probably.

He played cards with the local elite, had a horse race, a public dance and fireworks. It was like a really cushy house arrest.


But isn’t Elba really close to France and Italy and wouldn’t having a well-funded, quite popular emperor so close seem like a…. bad idea?

Yes. The idea of such a lenient punishment was the brainchild of the Russian Czar Alexander, who knew that Napoleon needed to have a slap on the wrist. But, the Czar also figured that having to keep half an eye on the former French emperor would keep western powers distracted, leaving Russia to get busy dominating Eastern Europe.


Russia. Destabilising the west so they could dominate Eastern Europe. Where have I seen that?

Yes. There are no new ideas. Just old ideas and new people taking credit for them. These days we call that marketing.

So Napoleon was totally chuffed about being the Emperor of Elba or what?

Well, not initially. In fact he tried to poison himself. Bonaparte had actually carried a vial of poison around his neck as a kind of Plan Q for years. So he summoned his closest advisors to bid them farewell, took the poison and then….vomited a lot.

We don’t know why the poison didn’t do the job, but one plausible theory is that Bony N had been carrying it around for so long that it had lost its potency.


You know, Mon Emperor, you shouldn’t take zat poison. The sell by date on the bottle says 3rd April 1811. You could get really sick!


No one takes any notice of sell-by dates! That’s just for legal reasons - it’ll be fine. [Drink, stomach gurgling.] Excuse moi. [Footsteps, door slam, puking]

And after failing to kill himself, he had a decent night’s sleep and felt much better about things in the morning. Having cheated death (sort of) he then enthusiastically threw himself into the job of being emperor of Elba.

Elba was very much a backward place and Nappy took the job of dragging it kicking and screaming into the 19th century. Despite complaints from his own staff that it wasn’t very emperor-like of him, Napoleon was determined to take every detail in hand and sort it out himself. Classic micromanager.

A surviving report recounts a time when Napoloen disagreed with his closest General Bertand on the always controversial issue of how many bread rolls should be fed to the hunting dogs. Bertrand presented a written report to Napoleon requesting one bread roll per dog. Napoleon initialled the request in the margin of the document, but changed the bread to bran bread and worked out how the imperial budget would pay for it.

And while on a roll, he set out a large programme of public works - building roads and bridges, draining marshes, boosting agriculture and developing mines, as well as overhauling the island’s schools and its entire legal system.

He provided towns with water to combat Elba’s brutal summer droughts, created a fire service and provided subsidised corn to the masses to keep them well fed and pliant. He had done the same cheap bread trick whilst ruling France. And it had worked for every leader since Julius Caesar.

Because…everybody wants to be the Romans. (Theme)

Napoleon also tried to set up sculpture workshops and an art school. He had the latrines in Portoferraio rebuilt because he thought they were very smelly. And when a Frenchman is complaining that toilets smell, you know they’re bad.


Ah toilet banter. The acceptable face of xenophobia.

Did the principality of Elba have a flag?

Yep. You've got to have a flag, and this one was designed by the emperor himself. It consisted of a white background with a red stripe, inspired by the Grand Ducal merchant flag, to which were added three golden bees. This flag was even worn by his French veterans.

And Napoleon certainly had an eye for design. So much so that he then set about giving his opinions on what colour the drapes should be in the imperial palaces.

Who was with Napoleon on the island?

As well as his military advisers, soldiers and new subjects, he was also joined by his mother and sister who occupied lavish mansions.

Like all narcissists, Napoleon was very close to his mother, Madame Mere. Apparently during the night she often went to the Palazzina dei Mulini where he lived to make sure her son had gone to bed, tiptoeing into his bedroom to tuck him in and caress him.


Mama, why won't they let me take over Europe?


Hush, my little soldier. Those diplomats and foreign ministers are just very naughty boys.

And he seemed very close with his sister, Paulette.

During one ball, Napoleon was wearing white trousers and a white waistcoat, black tails with Chantilly lace and a black, cocked hat. Hinting he had put on weight, Paulete apparently negged him with:

-This evening you are more of a penguin than ever.-

To which Napoleon suavely replied.


Mamaaaaan, Paulette called me un pinguin.

Despite the family reunion, his wife, the Duchess Marie Louise, stayed away - for some reason preferring European palaces to a dusty island. But he was also visited by his Polish mistress countess. He also romantically pursued a local girl, Sbarra. According to a contemporary he “spent many happy hours eating cherries with her.” Although maybe that’s a mistranslation and it was more about popping cherries.



[also doesn’t make sense]

What kind of government did Elba have?

Not only was it an autocracy under Napoleon but was in fact considered his personal property. But autocrats also need admin. A 3-page written constitution divided the running of the island into five sub-departments.

The civil administration was funded by land taxation.

The communes were funded by various local taxes.

The emperor’s domains were solely for Napoleon and his supporters, i.e. the palaces and their lands, the mines, salt flats, fisheries, and the island of Pianosa and whatever deckchair Napoleon bagsied on any given day out at the beach.

Then the emperor’s household and the army were financed by profits from his domains (which weren’t much) and his from his private piggy bank.

These sub-departments were run by his favourite officers including General Bertrand and General Drouot.


Bit of a come down actually.

Actually, yes. The once mighty General Bertrand, governor of the Illyrian provinces now had been downgraded to other duties, included making sure the gardens were tidy, the servants wore the right kind of uniforms and that the furniture was in a good condition.

And the punishment of Bertrand didn’t stop there. Clearly at a loose end the emperor started playing practical jokes on his hapless general.

One example is how he sneaked a fish into Betrand’s pocket and then asked him for a napkin.

And, get this, when Bertrand put his hand in his pocket, instead of finding a napkin, you’ll never guess what he found.


A sovereign council was also set up - consisting of twelve members including four French military men and important Elbans. But since the Principality of Elba lasted 300 days, it didn’t get round to doing all that much.

And what about the Elban military?

All told the military - both army and navy - ended up adding up to 1,000.

The army was commanded by one General Cambronne and it had a staff headquarters, the grenadier “Bataillon de l’île d’Elbe”, a free battalion of about 300 hundred men, the Chasseurs Corses, a military band and a group of local gendarmes.

And its crowning glory - throw in 566 loyal soldiers of the elite Garde impériale (both infantry and cavalry) coming from France who represented by far the biggest expense on the island.

The navy was another story - consisting of one very well armed French ship, called the Inconstant, with its six officers and sixty-man crew. Plus, there were a few dinghies to make the navy look formidable.

And it wasn’t all plain sailing.

Navy commander Taillade nearly lost the flagship during a bit of a breeze and was replaced on charges of cowardice by Lieutenant J. Chautard, the naval man who would eventually ferry Napoleon back to France from Elba in 1815.

And when these soldiers weren’t soldiering they appeared in plays with accompanying music provided by the military band - all put on for the Emperor’s amusement in a converted church.

The problem with having a 1,000 strong military, imperial palaces with all the fittings, a household staff on a dirt poor island of only 12,000 reluctant tax payers meant that it got pretty expensive.

Song: (Be Our Guest)

Ma chère Mademoiselle, it is with modest pride

And so me concern about portion control that we welcome you to Napoleon's palace.

And now we invite you to lower your expectations.

Let us pull up a chair as the dining room proudly presents

Your complimentary buffet….bring your own booze.

Be our guest! Be our guest!

Put our budget to the test

Bring your own fork and plate, cherie

And we'll provide the rest

Cuppa soup

Pot noodle

Round here we're frugal

Still hungry? Here's a pop tart.

And our table comes from K-mart

Watch your manners, mind your elbows

After all, Miss, this is Elba

And a dinner here is always fifteenth best

Go on, unfold your menu

Take a jacket potato

Be our guest.

Oui, our guest, be our guest.

Yes, finances were stretched. When Napoleon sent out his tax collectors to gather revenues from the island, the populace often refused to pay. The locals actually owed tax in arrears but they claimed that since they had had a change of government, these taxes no longer counted.

The situation got so bad that some Elbans contacted the British asking them to intervene.

Pretty soon it became apparent that this setup was so expensive that Napoleon could soon not afford his island empire.


But what about those 2 million francs?

While the pension had been agreed, the French government had no intention of actually paying up.

For one thing, they didn’t see why they should be funding Napoleon’s toy empire. The restored Louis XVIII suggested to save money, Bonaparte should be stuck on a more remote island where he wouldn’t require palaces and household staff.

And for another thing, it’s doubtful that a cash strapped France could really afford the annual pay out even if it had wanted to pay it - which it didn’t.

France was in major economic turmoil after a ruinous war and hefty reparations. Not only was it penniless but there was major social unrest.

While the rest of Europe thought the restored monarchy was definitely a great idea, a lot of the French people didn’t agree. Particularly as that same monarchy had agreed to the French Empire returning to its old borders, thus stripping the French people of the national glory they’d grown accustomed to.

Unemployment in France was also rife. Returning soldiers of Napoleon’s war of conquest found themselves in penury and unemployable and everybody looked back with wine goggles to the golden days of cheap bread and French pride under their Emperor.

And when news of this reached the ears of Napoleon, he probably thought “bugger Elba” and returned to France on the Elban navy’s flagship.

And with Napoleon fleeing the island on April 28th, 1814, so ended the Principality of Elba.

Could Napoleon have stayed on Elba?

Yes and no. The chief expenses of his rule were 1) his courtly practices and 2) his outside military.

But in the first place, Napoleon (even as emperor of France) obsessed about his legitimacy. Yes, he made sure to hold a popular vote every time he gave himself a promotion - from consul to consul for life to emperor - but he also envied the legitimacy of the old monarchs of Europe.

Apparently, Napoleon would constantly compare himself to glorious emperors of the past who did a bit of European expansion in their own right, like Julius Ceaser and Charlemagne. Not only do we see Napoleon in artworks in Roman garb, but accounts of Austrian ambassador and later Chancellor Metternich seems to back this up.


His heroes were Alexander, Caesar and above all Charlemagne. He was strangely obsessed with the pretension that he was de facto and de jure the latter’s successor. I have seen him many times lose himself in interminable discussions with me, supporting this strange paradox with some of the feeblest arguments.


And actually I’m just like Charlemagne because I have the same hair colour and I’m thinking of growing a beard just like him. And did you know that Napoleon Bonaparte is actually an anagram of Charlemagne, as long as you replace some of the letters with other letters?


Wait. Did you hear that? I think someone said there’s a telegram for me?


But they won’t be invented for another 20 years.


Right. But I think I should go outside and check, just in case there was a telegram.

So Napoleon's whole insistence on courtly ceremony, whether in Paris or Elba, was about giving his government the ancient character which it lacked. And that wasn’t cheap.

And that elite military? Sure, it gave his tours of Elba the right level of pomp and circumstance but without allies (save for a capricious Czar) it wasn’t total paranoia that Emperor Napoleon's island would need defending.

Napoleon later said:

“My existence on Elba was still very enviable, very pleasant. I was soon going to create there a new sort of sovereignty. I would have offered the world a spectacle never before seen. People might object, it is true, that the allies would have taken my island away from me, and I agree that this circumstance hastened my return. But if France had been well governed, if the French had been content, my influence would have been at an end, I was history, and no one in Vienna would have dreamed of moving me on.”

And while we could argue about whether Napoleon wanted to stay and rule 12,000 people (when he’d had to give up an empire of 70 million subjects), there was another reason why Napoleon’s time on Elba was doomed.


Through his agents, Bonaparte learned that the British, who were never super keen on the Czar’s plan to make him a distraction to western powers, wanted to move him further away from France to St. Helena, the island in the South Atlantic where he would end up anyway.

So gathering up his small army and his navy, disguised as British ships, he slipped away and made a break for France - where he was at first hailed as a returning hero and then lost the Battle of Waterloo 100 days later.


Could’t stay on Elba if I wanted to…


How did Elbans feel about having Napoleon as emperor?

They actually didn’t hear about it until the day before Bonaparte rocked up. Elba had been in lockdown because the plague was raging around the rest of Europe so Elbans had had no news.


Pandemic? Russian invasion? (Sings) it's all just a little bit of history repeating.


Don't do that.

And actually, when he did turn up, they were quite pleased with the news.


Napoleon Bonaparte, our emperor? Well, this will put Elba on the map and no mistake. Certainly, when I emigrated here from Plymouth, everyone said to me “Silas, you’re making a mistake. It doesn’t matter whether you open that coffee shop with the experimental milky foam toppings or not. You’ll never gentrify Elba.” But now look at us. Any day now, we can expect boatloads of courtly hipsters who ironically support Napoleon Bonaparte. I’m turning my fields to the planting of avocados.


People of Elba, I bring you roads, drinking water, grand buildings, a shiny new toilet and even a school of sketching… [and an ironic cereal cafe?]




And best of all… taxes!



In fact, even today Napoleon is remembered fondly on Elba. That flag designed by Napoleon? Still in use today.

And Napoleon merch does well, there are two museums dedicated to him in his former residences, and every year they have a parade to mark the anniversary of his death on May 5, 1821. During these festivities, they dress a short man in a big hat and parade him around.


Oh come on guys. Not again. Look, I have more to offer than just the world than just being a short guy in a stupid hat.


If you don’t do it, Guiseppe, we’ll no longer pay for your Netflix subscription.


Ok. Give me the hat.

So, the problem with the Principality of Elba as a country was two-fold.

  1. Its entire existence had to be funded by externalrevenue. And when that failed to materialise, it was an unsustainable prospect.

  2. Arguably, Napoleon could have downgraded from a palace, cancelled the expensive public works projects and continued as a pauper king…but that wasn’t Napoleon Bonaparte. There’s a reason it’s called a Napoleon complex.

As much as the Treaty of Fontainebleau set up a country for Napoleon to rule over, it was really more just a very fancy form of exile. Certainly, NB could play at government - set himself up a council, appoint ministers of this and that and have all the official receptions he wanted - but he also couldn’t have a foreign policy. He couldn’t create treaties or develop relationships.

He wasn’t even allowed a foreign minister.

The Principality of Elba was as much an independent country as an ocean cruise. Yes, it looked like a proper little nation out on the sea and had all the bells and whistles of luxury - but in reality it was nothing more than a very expensive and ultimately unsustainable prison.

And in case you can’t tell. I’m not a fan of cruises.


Elb-a need somebody.

Elba, not just anybody

Elba! You know I need Paris


When I was younger so much younger than today.

I con-que-red Europe and just threw it all away.

But now that Empire’s gone, I'm not so self assured

I’ve gone and built some shiny bogs but now I’m getting bored.

Elp me if you can, I'm feeling down

And I do appreciate the Elban crown

But my tax increase is getting frowns

Won't you please, please elp me?

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways

My independence seemed to vanish in the haze

But ev'ry now and then I want to conquer France

I’ve eaten all the cherries, done all the fish-based pranks.

Elp me if you can, I'm feeling bleu

Ever since defeat and zen Fontainbleu

And I can’t afford the reforms I wanna do

Won't you please, please elp me?


On the next episode of Countries That Don’t Exist Anymore, we’ll be talking to presenter of the Age of Napoleon podcast, Everett Rummage.

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