May 13, 2008 cameron

The Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast #40 – The Road to St Helena

Hey folks – do you think we can make David’s new book, THE ROAD TO ST HELENA, the #1 History book on Amazon? Buy five copies today, give them to your friends, and make Napoleon NUMBER ONE!

On today’s show, David examines the political machinations the British went through to make sure Napoleon never set foot on British soil. According to the British law of ‘habeas corpus’, Napoleon should have been given a fair trial, but of course several people in England didn’t want that to happen. Did all of the British feel the same way? What were the reasons for denying Napoleon the right to justice?

Listen to today’s show to find out!

This show is based on David’s book “Napoleon For Dummies”.


Comments (30)

  1. Great podcast once again guys. Although we all know what is coming next, I am still on the edge of my chair to know what happens next.

  2. Michael

    Any idea why this episode hasn’t uploaded on my iTunes subscription yet? Not on iTunes store either right now…is it just me??

  3. Michael, yeah we upgraded the site to the latest version of wordpress and it seems to have borked the feed. My techs will look into it shortly. Apologies.

  4. To chime in on the opium comment, I heard that possibility too. I don’t remember where Dan said he got that info, but it wouldn’t be an impossibility. I’ve heard that opium used as medication was somewhat common in Napoleon’s day.

    By the way Gentlemen, I have been enjoying the podcast thoroughly for the past 2 months or so and have finally caught up. I found the podcast through Carlin’s Hardcore History and have been hooked ever since. I HAD NO IDEA just what an amazing character Napoleon was. I’m new to loving history in general (really a jazz musician and music prof.) and Napoleon is my new role model.

    One question…Does anyone have any idea what Napoleon’s favorite music was. A student asked me that the other day and it killed me that I couldn’t answer. I know that Beethoven supposedly composed his 3rd symphony for Napoleon (but scratched out the dedication when N. disappointed him.

    Thanks for such an excellent and informative podcast!

    Jeremy Brown

  5. Michael

    From what I’ve read & movies I’ve seen, Napoleon was much more of a fan of military music of the day than anything else.

  6. Austin

    Theres still no way to download this on iTunes. Is it just me? I looked on the store and it didn’t appear.

  7. Agkistrodon

    I’ve been trying to download or stream the podcast but it doesn’t seem to be there. Any technowonks who can fix it?


  8. Cameron

    Agki, the show streams and downloads fine from the site for me. What happens when you try?

  9. Cameron

    Re iTunes – Feedvalidator tells me the RSS feed is fine. but iTunes doesnt like it. Still trying to figure out why. Sorry folks.

  10. Mutatis Mutandis

    Great show, as always. For a while I thought that the image of the Emperor reviewing the Marines and exchanging fatherly concern and soldiery banter with them, is a bit too romantic: After all Napoleon did not speak English, and did not even understand much of it (or pretended not to understand it, which might be useful). But on the other hand, Napoleon’s army was a polyglot one, and even in the Guards not all soldiers were Frenchmen. He had probably learnt to sidestep the difficulties of translation with some ease.

    Napoleon’s attitude at the end of his career is puzzling. I wonder whether we should recognize a semi-subconscious longing, if not for a prison, then at least for an enforced retirement. At the end of his career he was like a compulsive gambler who had already bet and lost the house, the horses and carriage, his wife and son, and finally the garden shed (Elba). Perhaps he felt, like many people with addictive disorders, that it was better for everyone if he was forced to stop. For nearly twenty years he had been playing for the highest possible stakes, at first taking calculated risks, and then more and more wildly.

    Perhaps his choice to put himself in British hands was more deliberate than it appears. The British were less likely than the other powers to execute him, but they were more likely to keep him strictly confined. The possibilities of emigration to America, however great and attractive, did hardly include a quiet retirement.

  11. Cameron Reilly

    Excellent points, Mutatis! I’d never thought about it like that before. One of Napoleon’s definite personality traits was that once he made a decision, he threw himself into it 110%. So perhaps once he decided his “star” had descended, he knew it was all over.

    Let’s keep in mind though that the evidence seems to support that he was bring poisoned for many years during the end of his life – perhaps only while on St Helena, perhaps even earlier – and so he wasn’t his normal self for a whole bunch of reasons.

  12. Drew Davis

    It appears that all empires seem to make rules and then break them whenever it feels the need. As I listened to the podcast it sounded like a current event. It is so striking to me that after 200 years the US is emulating the British behavior with it’s rendition programs etc…

    In the podcast it seems there is an ever so slight bias towards Napoleon and that England had no reason to treat him the way that they did. True they made war against France unjustly, broke a number of their own laws, broke international agreements but… is he not a threat to them or at least wouldn’t they feel threatened by him?

    Didn’t the Emperor did leave Elba and not on a trip to visit friends but to reinstate himself as the leader of France. If your sole purpose is to keep him out of power they must have thought that they could not have him anywhere near Europe.

    David kept bringing up the USA option but the US had not that long ago separated from England. Even more recently they had started a war against the British in North America. (The very first war that the US lost by the way.) Is it a good idea from the British perspective to have the greatest general of the time living in a country that was fairly hostile to them?

    Maybe Australia, India or even better Canada with a large French speaking population would have been more fitting choices but again the British would have worried Napoleon could cause insurrection in those places?

    I’m not justifying England’s decision frankly I think they were exceptionally callus to the great man.


    (David before you launch into the mistaken US position that the war of 1812 was a draw I have to remind you that the US invaded Canada with the sole purpose to take it over. Funnily enough they thought they would be greeted as liberators. The fact that I’m a Canadian clearly demonstrates that the US lost that war.)

  13. Cameron


    How was Napoleon a threat to England?

    Napoleon signed a peace treaty with England, the Treaty of Amiens, in 1802. It broke down in May 1803 when British PM Addington strengthened the Royal Navy and imposed a blockade of France.

    Even when he was Emperor, England was safe from Napoleon, thanks to their superior navy.

    After he abdicated, what harm could he have brought upon them? Attacked the Palace with his Royal Silverware, perhaps?

    He left Elba to re-take FRANCE, not England. He wasn’t stopped by the French, so obviously they were happy about it. What right did the British have to interfere?

    I’m accused often of having a Napoleonic bias, and that’s fine, but really, what other bias is there to have once the facts are examined?

    After Waterloo, Napoleon was a Head Of State who had abdicated. He deserved the same rights and justice as anyone else. It’s obvious from the facts discussed in the show (their avoidance of the writ, their changing the laws) that the British government was totally corrupt and out to protect their own asses. They knew a trial would showcase their own actions during the French Revolutionary Wars and as a result they would lose power.

    What other bias is there to have? What is the alternative position on this that I’m missing?

  14. Mutatis Mutandis


    I seem to remember something about a huge army gathered on the French coast for the express purpose of invading Britain…

    Napoleon also famously described the port of Antwerp as “a pistol aimed at the heart of England”. (The oldest dock of the new port is still known as the Bonaparte Dock, in honour of the man who ordered its construction.) Realistically, Britain was vulnerable to invasion, although it had not been successfully invaded since 1688, and despite the strength of the Navy, had legitimate reasons for concern.

    On a longer term perspective, Britain has always regarded it as essential for its safety and trade that the Low Countries were not under control of one of the major European powers. It had backed the Burgundian dukes against France, the protestant rebels against Spain, and then again the Dutch and the Holy Roman Empire against France under Louis XIV. Its political gaols were consistent, and irreconcilable with the French ambition to control the whole left bank of the Rhine.

    During the Peace of Amiens, Napoleon by methods “short of war” greatly extended his influence into Italy, Switzerland, and Holland. The latter must have been particularly grating as under the treaty, the English returned a number of islands and strategic outposts to Dutch control. Therefore it is somewhat understandable that they refused to hand back Malta. And he started a number of colonial ventures, which were sufficient to cause friction by themselves.

    That’s not to argue that Napoleon was solely to blame for the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens; but neither was Britain. In fact the two sides had irreconcilable differences, and the Peace was just an armistice — both sides continued to manoeuvre for the best position to fight the next war from.

    As for a possible trial of Napoleon, perhaps we should remember Saint-Just’s comment on Louis XVI that “one cannot reign innocently”. Napoleon was involved in a fair number of dubious events, from the execution of the Duc d’Enghien over the imprisonment of British civilians to the looting of European museums on a grand scale. I have no doubt that a trial would have been most unpleasant for the British government, and probably even more for the French government (as it included a number of people who had served under Napoleon). But let us not try to pretend that “general Bonaparte” would have emerged from this ordeal with an unstained reputation.

  15. Drew Davis

    To suggest that the show has a bias towards Napoleon is to state the obvious. Its not the facts that you and David state its the tone or “the poor friendly former Emperor just wants to retire he has been beaten everyone should take pity on the man.” Imagine you are on the other side, this man has beaten you at every turn for over 20 years and he is finally in your grasp What are you going to do? Give him a big hug and a sloppy kiss and send him on his way? Come on. Napoleon was unlike any of the other heads of states that England had treated with previously.

    All that being said I agree with you completely the English were completely outside the law and morally unjustifiable in their actions. I disagree that they feared a trial I think they feared the man. A trial would have eventually set him free and the last thing they wanted was Napoleon loose with the potential to beat them again as he always had in the past. Granted he had lost the empire but can you imagine what he might of accomplished if he had been set free in the US. I’m sure North America and Europe would have had a radically different history if that had happened.


  16. Cameron Reilly

    Actually Drew, I think if Napoleon would have acted very differently had the shoe been on the other foot. He treated former heads of state, even those he utterly despised, with a sense of dignity and decorum (with the exception of those who were traitors to France and tried to have him assassinated, like Duc D’Enghien).

  17. Mutatis Mutandis

    After his first abdication Napoleon had been treated very well, even for a former head of state. He was after all given a little empire of his own.

    I don’t think the British can be blamed for holding different views after the Hundred Days. This was probably the most hare-brained military undertaking between the years 9 and 2003, and plunged France back into war at a time when Europe was finding some peace at last. It was pointless because France had already been defeated, it clearly lacked the resources and men to fight another large war and hence would be defeated again, and it was obvious that Napoleon would not be tolerated to return to the government of France. Various excuses have been made for Napoleon, such as the failure of the French government to pay his pension, but starting a war because of this was disproportionate to say the least. Anyway, starting a war which you will lose is rarely a good idea.

    It could only do, and only did, harm to what Napoleon pretended to defend. It caused considerable damage to France, for which Louis XVIII and Talleyrand had just negotiated a reasonable deal with the coalition powers, and harmed the interests of Napoleon himself, who only succeeded in confirming his reputation as a dangerous person. From the point of view of the British government, Napoleon had succeeded in destabilizing France, and the continent, merely by setting foot on it. What were they to do with such a man?

    IIRC even before Waterloo the coalition powers issued in declaration which essentially reduced Napoleon’s status to that of an outlaw. Perhaps that went rather far, but it was not unreasonable. The attitude of the British was perfectly in line with that, and perhaps even relatively generous in comparison.

    It is true that other heads of state were given much better treatment — Napoleon’s brothers, for example. But then his brothers took to their retirement much better, and clearly did not intend to cause further trouble. Napoleonic historians have often complained that Napoleon’s family was nothing but a course of problems to him, but in part that was his own fault for the way he bullied them, and perhaps he should have listened to them more. Louis and Joseph were intelligent men and capable, conscientious kings in their own right. They certainly were more realistic than Napoleon. The black sheep Lucien was a skilled politician whose advice could have have save his brother from his imperial aberrations, and even Jerome must have had some merits.

  18. Cameron

    Mutatis, do you even listen to the show??

    I think we explained in great detail that when Napoleon returned to Paris after Elba he desperately tried to keep the peace with the rest of Europe. He implored them to stay out of the affairs of France. Did they listen? Did they even return his letters? No! They declared him an outlaw (what was his crime again?) and sent in the armies.

    And you continue to blame all this on Napoleon???

    I think that’s outrageous.

  19. Maria

    Contratulations for the great show. I can’t remember when I left my last coment here, but I listen the podcast everytime I can.
    Someone asked about Napoleon’s favorite music. I remember his favorite composer was Giovanni Paisiello, you can read about him here:
    Paisiello was one of the composers of the Coronation Mass. Napoleon loved Italian composers; Paisiello, Cherubini, Spontini, all of them were in Paris under his reign. He wasn’t in very good relations with Cherubini, by the way. Paisiello wasn’t in good relations with the Parisian public, so he left Paris soon.

    From Spain, Thanks for the podcast.


  20. Mutatis Mutandis

    Well yes Cameron, I listen and I greatly enjoy it, but that doesn’t mean that I have to adopt your Napoleonic enthusiasm. I’m a bit more cynical.

    It is true that Napoleon started to send out offers and assurances of peace even before he had a firm grip on power. But I am inclined to regard that as a somewhere in between a formality and window dressing. He knew perfectly well that the coalition powers would not simply accept his return to power in France, and his diplomatic gestures were a fight for popular opinion more than anything else. There were too many axes too grind, too many memories of past wars, perhaps too many soldiers who could not even remember a time when they had not been at war with Napoleon.

    War was unavoidable from the moment Napoleon was again Emperor. I very much doubt that when he left the shores of Elba, he expected anything else, and he certainly had no right to expect anything else. Therefore he was under some obligation to rationally consider the consequences and outcome, and evaluate the probable result. Objectively, his was a very bad gamble for far too high stakes.

    And seen from the point of view of the Coalition Powers — He would, wouldn’t he? It was logical for Napoleon to send out peace feelers and try to negotiate as long as his position was weak. But simultaneously he was rapidly mobilizing his armies and gathering a large force in Northern France with impressive speed. They could not trust his peaceful intentions and let themselves be caught unprepared. They had stood down their armies or send them elsewhere — Wellington’s peninsular army was scattered all over the world — and had to assemble a large military force to counter his, and do so immediately. If they did not take the initiative, Napoleon would, and he might attack them one by one and defeat them in detail, as he had so often done in the past.

    And on sober consideration, one reason the French army so readily exchanged Louis XVIII again for Napoleon I was that Louis had drastically cut the military budget. It was a logical thing to do, if France was supposedly at peace again, and necessary after the exhaustion brought about by long years of war. But a return to smaller numbers, lower pay, a boring life in barracks, and little hope for promotion did not appeal to the military, and almost to a man they sided with Napoleon. But large, expensive armies have a logic of their own; when you bring an army to war footing that in itself provides an argument for using it. It needs to be employed, for it is just a gigantic waste of money if it isn’t, and bored soldiers might get ideas.

  21. Cameron

    Sorry Mutatis, your rationale doesn’t make sense to me. I think you’re too apologetic for the European monarchies.

    1. You’re making it sound like Napoleon had a track record of making peace and then breaking it. That just isn’t supported by any evidence that I’m aware of. Napoleon *never* was the one to break a peace treaty. So it’s disingenuous to suggest that’s what they were afraid of. THEY were the ones who constantly broke peace treaties, not Napoleon.

    2. Regarding the army – Napoleon is often criticized (unfairly in my book) for the number of French and allied soldiers who died during the “Napoleonic” wars. His armies were tired. His Marshals were tired. And now you’re suggesting that after 11 months of peace they were itching to go through the horrors of war again? That just defies imagination. Even the Marshals who betrayed Napoleon before the first abdication ran to his side on his return from Elba. Why? Well you can say they were betting on his success and trying to place themselves on the right side of the battle, but you cannot deny that Louis was INCREDIBLY unpopular. He was a total disaster. He was HATED by the people, by the army, by the Allies even! Why would France *not* want the return of a capable leader?

  22. Eric Thorn

    If I take Mutatis’s point, he is suggesting not simply that Napoleon is want to break treaties, but that:

    1) he undertook this highly improbably scheme either knowing or should have known that it would lead to war


    2) France was ill-prepared for a war against allied forces

    Therefore your defense that Napoleon was not the one who broke peace treaties, while true I believe, seems to miss his point. It seems patently obvious after listening to the podcast that the allied powers at no point were willing to accept Napoleon as the leader of France again. They certainly showed no real willingness to do so prior to Elba, according to these podcasts. If that’s true, then we must assume that Napoleon, being no idiot, must have realized that war was likely. His peace letters may have been fully sincere, but in this light must be seen to be a desperate hope, rather than a sure thing.

    France’s military status seems to have similarly been a known variable to Napoleon. Presumably he knows the damage done during the Belgium Campaign, to say nothing of the following years when news of Louis’s failure to build the army must have reached him- the lack of calvary itself would seem to be a continued thorn in the side of any commander.

    So it seems that you two are ships passing, here. Let’s say Napoleon was going to break a treaty; let’s say that France’s military was indeed tired after the horrors of war. It might follow, then, to say that it was a Bad Idea to return to France knowing it would result in a war that would be difficult if not impossible to win.

    Anyway, to take the opposite view for a moment, one must assume that Napoleon believed he had at least SOME chance at either peace or a victory (I don’t believe he was only in it for a glorious defeat). Therefore the question ends up being whether it was worth it to get rid of the corpulent monarch… and what the chances were of a different result being rendered.

  23. Eric Thorn

    * typo: So it seems that you two are ships passing, here. Let’s say Napoleon was NOT going to break a treaty;

  24. Michael Dib

    WE NEED A NEW 4 HOUR MOVIE “WATERLOO” TO BE MADE SOON, with worldwide petiton!

    Great work by you two, Cameron and the honourable J. David Markam!!!!!.
    l’m a Melbourne born bred aussie, and want to say how much l am enjoying this wonderful important part of history, and it’s delight to listen to you both. This is especially great for my elimaniting my boredom, being unemployed for around 3 years, although l am about to find work in the security field hopefully soon.

    Just like you both, l’m a huge napoleon fan particularly facinated by the “battle of Waterloo” in which l have numerous books and dvds on this famous battle. And l have always wondered whether any large hollywood directors (James Cameron, Ridley Scott, etc) would ever make another ‘new’ WATERLOO movie this time leaving it UN-EDITED to a full 4 hour movie!!! That would be a huge EPIC with 3 hours devoted to making the BATTLE the star attraction! Can you imagine the publicity this type of epic movie would generate to the world with a possibility of new napoleon enthusiats in millions worldwide…

    Viva la emperour!!

    Michael of Down Under Aussieland

  25. Jason

    My apologies if this has already been covered, but I wanted to comment on the last couple of episodes. David has expressed disgust with the way the British treated Napoleon and made many comments about how the British did not follow every letter of their laws in dealing with him. But there was virtually no criticism from him of Napoleon for not giving the Duc D’Enghien a trial before his execution in episode 11. I’m aware of the bias in this show, but two hours of covering which British laws were not followed to the letter with Napoleon seemed a bit extreme considering how the Duc D’Enghien incident was dismissed after a few minutes of discussion. Despite what anyone might think about the British or Napoleon, both seem to have brushed aside laws when it suited them.

    Aside from this criticism, I think the show is great!

  26. Jason

    After listening to the final ten minutes of this episode and hearing Cameron’s comments about Britain’s true colours in changing laws and dealing with Napoleon, I have to ask why the execution of Duc D’Enghien is not representative of Napoleon?

    I don’t consider myself particularly biased towards either Britain or Napoleon, but the double standard seems to be screaming for attention.

  27. Cameron Reilly

    Jason, let me quote from an excellent paper written on the Napoleon Series site:

    On Tuesday, 20 March, the following resolution was made: “The ci-devant duc d’Enghien, accused of bearing arms against the republic, of having been and being still in the pay of England and of being a party to conspiracies directed against the internal and external security of the republic, will be brought before a military commission composed of seven members, appointed by the governor-general of Paris, Murat, which will meet in Vincennes.” The Senate had previously suspended trial by jury in cases of assassination attempts against the First Consul. The law of 25 Brumaire, an III, tit. 5, sect. 1, art. 7, also provided that “émigrés who have borne arms against France shall be arrested, whether in France or in any hostile or conquered country, and judged within twenty-four hours…” In any case, the standard procedure in the case of death sentences by court martial was, according to de Polnay again, that the sentence would be carried out within twenty-four hours.


    d’Enghien was a traitor who had taken up arms against his own country, was tried by a military commission, found guilty, and executed.

    How is that relevant to Napoleon’s treatment by the British?

    Napoleon wasn’t given a trial. In fact, the British broke their own laws in order to avoid him being served with papers.

  28. Jon

    Loving the show guys. Made my way through the first 39 episodes over the past 5 months on my commute to work. Unfortunately it seems that #40 here is no longer available. Is that something you can sort out?

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