Lessons from history: Napoleon’s escape from Elba (1815)

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Able was I ere I saw Elba’ – little if any evidence is there to commend the claim that these are the words of a certain Napoleon Bonaparte, reminiscing with his personal physician. Indeed, that the famed Corsican – barely literate in French – fancied himself an English raconteur and master of the palindrome is, at best, doubtful. But the question remains: did such a thought cross his mind?

Following the Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1814 the First French Empire had collapsed, and Napoleon had been exiled to Elba – an island off the coast of Tuscany. Humiliated, stripped of cities and kingdoms, forced to settle for a few square miles in the Mediterranean, Napoleon was determined to achieve the unthinkable: restoration. And, in defiance of fate, he almost did just that. Within the year, he had escaped, marching through Golfe-Juan, for Grenoble, for Paris.

Je suis votre empereur; s’il est parmi vous un soldat qui veuille tuer son général, son empereur, il le peut, me voilà!”

But of course, we all know how the story ends, in defeat. Tragic defeat. Yet it would take more than a far-flung expulsion to St Helena’s to expunge Napoleon, and his legacy, from the history books. Scarcely need I even try to make l’Empereur of interest to you, the modern reader. Figures as diverse as Abba and Dostoyevsky have seen to that: Raskolnikov nonetheless ‘meeting his Waterloo’ in the seminal work, Crime and Punishment. In short, failure is not always ‘failure’. Look to the realm of political comebacks; think de Gaulle, Nixon, Buhari and – dare I say – Hillary Clinton, Napoleon is a standardbearer. But more generally, he speaks to our resolve, our grit and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds.

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