Cover image for The prisoners of Cabrera : Napoleon's forgotten soldiers, 1809-1814
The prisoners of Cabrera : Napoleon's forgotten soldiers, 1809-1814
Smith, Denis, 1932-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Four Walls Eight Windows, [2001]

Physical Description:
xviii, 219 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DC231 .S53 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



After their surrender at the Battle of Bailen, 12,000 French prisoners of war were exiled to the bleak island of Cabrera in the Mediterranean, eight miles from Majorca, with only the clothes on their backs, no shelter, insufficient fresh water, and no food supply other than the meager rations dropped off intermittently by the Spanish. By the time they were repatriated to France after Napoleon's defeat five years later, their number had dwindled to 2,500. Never before told in English, the story of Cabrera is not only a riveting account of survival and the community formed by these men, but also an intriguing look at the politics of divided Spain during this period.

Author Notes

Denis Smith is a Canadian professor emeritus of political science and former university dean of social science.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Relying on prisoners' memoirs and their captors' documents, Canadian scholar Smith (Rogue Tory; etc.) tells a rather uninspired tale of French soldiers imprisoned on Cabrera, a Spanish island. After Napoleon deposed Spain's Charles IV in 1808, he made his own brother Joseph the new king. A grassroots Spanish rebellion ensued, aided by Napoleon's mortal enemy, Britain. The so-called Peninsular War started badly for Napoleon: a large French army was defeated at the Battle of Bailin in southern Spain. The postbattle terms of surrender included the repatriation of the French army back to France. Arguing that a repatriated French army would simply be marched back into Spain to fight again, the British convinced Spain to renege on its promise. At first, the French POWs were kept on ships anchored in Cadiz harbor. Later, they were shipped to the Spanish island of Majorca, but the Majorcans refused to allow the enemy soldiers on their island. Desperate, the Spaniards dumped the POWs on the deserted island of Cabrera, which had insufficient food, water, shelter and medical facilities. Thousands of POWs died from malnutrition and disease. Smith recounts the prisoners' pastimes: building shelter and waiting for the next food shipment. They established a newspaper, filling it with fictitious stories of French glory, and a theater company devoted to French classics. Some POWs, such as the memoirist Henri Ducor, planned escapes. In 1814, after Napoleon was imprisoned on Elba, the Cabrera prisoners were sent home. Despite the potential of this material, Smith shapes a prosaic, unsatisfying narrative devoid of the drama of individual portraits. Photos and illus. (Nov. 15) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A former professor of political science and author of Diplomacy of Fear, Canadian author Smith tells of the war prisoners exiled on Cabrera, a small island off the coast of Majorca. Here 12,000 French soldiers (survivors of the Battle of Bailen in the Napoleonic Wars) lived as captives from 1809 to 1814. Many thousands perished. Utilizing memoirs of survivors, manuscript records from the British Foreign Office, and Spanish and Swiss archives, Smith offers a harrowing account of bare survival. There were no supplies or clothing and only a sporadic food supply. Smith writes, "On all sides there were instances of grace, decency, courage, stoicism, anguish, folly, cowardice, betrayal, cruelty, and greed. The contradictory staples of human behavior." Little has been published on Napoleon's peninsular campaign and practically nothing in English on Cabrera, which make this thoughtful study a recommended purchase for public and university libraries.-Richard Nowicki, Emerson Vocational H.S., Buffalo (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One ANDALUSIA The French revolution of 1789 and the execution of King Louis XVI and his Queen Marie Antoinette in 1793 set the monarchies of Europe against France in their determination to restore the old order and the European balance of power. Two decades of warfare (relieved by brief interludes of peace) were the result, ending only with France's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The first decade of revolutionary tumult and indecisive continental war ended in 1799 with the accession of an extraordinary young Corsican general, Napoleon Bonaparte, as first consul of France under a new constitution. By 1802 he had arranged his own election as first consul for life; and in 1804, standing before Pope Pius VII in the cathedral of Notre Dame, he crowned himself defiantly as hereditary emperor.     Apart from a few months of peace with France in 1802-1803, Britain had for years maintained a punishing commercial blockade of Europe enforced by the Royal Navy, while Napoleon responded with his own continentwide boycott of British goods. To break the British blockade of Europe, the emperor gathered vast conscript armies at training camps near the channel in preparation for an invasion of the British Isles; but they were drawn away to Germany in 1805 to meet fresh threats from the attacking armies of Austria and Russia. At Ulm and Austerlitz, Napoleon shattered the forces of his continental enemies; and when Prussia joined them in the following year, he defeated it too at Jena and Auerstädt. In 1807 his troops fought the Russian army to a blood-soaked draw at Eylau, and a few months later dispersed the Russians at Friedland. The Treaty of Tilsit offered relief to Napoleon's exhausted foes and brought temporary peace for France in the east.     The emperor was now at the peak of his power on the continent, and apparently invincible. Whole states were his playthings, their peoples and riches at his command, their institutions transfigured under his reforming will. But Napoleon remained annoyingly hemmed in by his last enemy Britain, which held decisive control of the seas after its defeat of the French and Spanish navies at Trafalgar in 1805. An invasion of Britain had become impossible. To confront that enemy by indirection, Bonaparte now turned his attentions southwards to the Iberian Peninsula. There, in 1808, he broke the regime of his ally Spain and the patience of its subjects.     In the early years of the nineteenth century the Spaniards, ruled by the inept Bourbon king, Charles IV, and his chief minister, Manuel de Godoy, were divided by factional conflict at court. The country was paralyzed by bureaucratic inertia, litigiousness, and punishing commercial taxes. Spain's old religious absolutism--which had allowed for substantial individual and regional liberty--was being transformed into a system of French despotism. The architect of change, Godoy, was a centralizer and army reformer whose scheming personal ambition kept him close to the king and in bed with the queen. Godoy drove out rivals and antagonized both conservatives and progressives. His foreign policies brought constant war and defeat for the nation--but for himself, a favorite's privileges and royal designation as Spain's Prince of the Peace. By 1807 Godoy's many opponents placed their hopes in Charles IV's heir, his son Ferdinand--who was, for most Spaniards, a man of unknown character.     Spain's alliance with Bonapartist France was an unequal partnership. Napoleon had made it for his own imperial purposes, and gradually reinforced his armies in the Iberian Peninsula until they reached one hundred thousand men by the spring of 1808. The French soldiers came, ostensibly, as friendly forces preparing an invasion of Portugal that was intended to end that nation's long association with Britain, and to halt Lisbon's vast smuggling trade into Europe. That trade had grown after the Royal Navy shattered the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar (off the Spanish port of Cádiz) in the autumn of 1805. Napoleon's sole remaining means of pressure on the British enemy was to extend the continental boycott of her goods and impoverish the nation. The Continental System extended from France to Denmark to Russia and Austria; Portugal (and to some extent Spain) were the only weak points in the system. In December 1807, the gap seemed about to close when a French army under the command of General Jean Andoche Junot marched from Madrid, occupied Lisbon, and drove the Portuguese royal family into exile in Brazil under the protection of the Royal Navy.     After Trafalgar, the remnants of Napoleon's fleet had escaped capture and taken refuge far from home in the Spanish port of Cádiz, where they remained under British blockade three years later. But by 1808, French soldiers and sailors in Spain--while officially welcome as guests of an ally--were regarded with mounting suspicion by the local population. Napoleon's army now garrisoned many towns and fortresses in the center and north of the country. In an instant, by Napoleonic whim, they could be transformed into an occupation force.     The French emperor had no respect for the monarchy of Spain; but until the Spanish Bourbons brought their domestic battles home to him, he had no explicit plans to depose them. In the autumn of 1807 King Charles and his son Ferdinand (who were by now deadly rivals) both appealed to the emperor for protection against each other. Napoleon ignored them, while reflecting on the benefits of installing his own regime in the peninsula. He sent more troops across the frontier. In March 1808, while French reinforcements made their way to Madrid, the Spanish monarch and his son confronted one another in person at the royal town of Aranjuez just to the south. A mob directed by Ferdinand's faction seized the chief minister, Godoy, and delivered him as a prisoner to Ferdinand. King Charles, in panic, abdicated in favor of his son. Ferdinand VII was proclaimed king on a wave of popular enthusiasm as Godoy's detested regime was swept from power. Across Spain, Godoy's political prisoners were released from their cells and liberals rejoiced.     When the feckless King Charles changed his mind and called on Napoleon to aid in his restoration, the emperor undertook an audacious act of perfidy. He summoned father and son to meet him inside the French border at Bayonne, and the Spanish royal family dutifully trekked northwards in their carriages. There a farce was played out, and the last pretence of Spanish independence was destroyed. Once in France, the royal family were the emperor's prisoners. Napoleon induced Ferdinand's abdication under threat, restored Charles to his throne, and instantly deposed him in favor of his own brother Joseph Bonaparte (who was at that moment king of Naples by right of an earlier imperial edict). In the following month, a new Spanish constitution on the French model was decreed by a rump constituent assembly meeting under the emperor's eyes in Bayonne. Ferdinand was taken into comfortable French custody, a prisoner with his brothers at Viscount Talleyrand's estate of Valençay, where he would remain until Napoleon's downfall in 1814. King Charles and Queen Maria Luisa were rewarded for the loss of their kingdom with residence at the palace of Compiègne, where they were soon joined by the favorite Godoy.     Spain, like Portugal, had become a pawn in the emperor's global schemes. With British trade now excluded from Portugal and the last continental doorway shut, the rest of the Iberian Peninsula seemed an easy conquest: in the emperor's eyes it would be a fresh source of conscripts, cash, and a rebuilt navy; and it offered a gateway to Africa on the way to India, where Bonaparte dreamed of destroying Britain's trading empire through the back door. This was megalomania on a global scale; and in the peninsula its consequences were chaotic. Under the rule of the Bonapartes, Napoleon promised Spain reform and regeneration. Instead, the emperor was infected with his "Spanish ulcer," a wasting disease that finally proved fatal to the whole Napoleonic empire. In Spain, France bled to death.     The Spaniards--whose unified realm and empire had been a creation of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella three hundred years before--could tolerate an inept monarchy of their own. They could tolerate French armies camped on their soil. But they would not abide this Corsican coup. Discontent and suspicion against the French military presence had been growing for months. News of the royal family's departure for France, and rumors of its humiliation in Bayonne, fuelled popular anger during April. In early May 1808 there were spontaneous, violent risings in Madrid and across the provinces of Spain, put down ruthlessly by French armies under the command of Bonaparte's marshal and brother-in-law Joachim Murat (whom Napoleon had named "Lieutenant-General of the Realm" and effective head of government after the arrest of Manuel de Godoy). A toothless central administration, left in nominal power by Ferdinand on his departure for Bayonne, failed to challenge Murat and gave its allegiance to the new regime of Joseph Bonaparte. But the puppet government could not sustain its authority against the anarchic fury of the masses, and in the following weeks its power drained away to the regions. On May 25 Asturias became the first province to declare war on France, and called up eighteen thousand troops. Centralized Spain disintegrated as conservative provincial juntas (or governing councils) emerged on the shoulders of the mob to declare their independence, reassert their ancient liberties, and proclaim loyalty to the exiled Spanish king, Ferdinand VII. "The monarchy had fallen and broken itself to pieces," wrote Salvador de Madariaga, "and in Madrid and Coruña, Asturias and Valencia, these broken pieces of the monarchy were taking in hand the affairs of the nation." Alongside the juntas, local Spanish garrisons and the church joined the revolt against Madrid and the French. By midsummer, Napoleon's regime found itself besieged throughout the peninsula. The emperor was committed to a war of attrition he could not escape. For Spaniards, the popular struggle became known as the War of Independence; for Frenchmen, it was the War in Spain; and for Britons, the Peninsular War.     In London, the British government welcomed the Spanish insurrection, made contact with the new provincial juntas, and quickly prepared to dispatch forces to Portugal to assist in the defeat of Napoleon's armies. "One month would probably be sufficient to ascertain the chances of advantage to be derived from the temper of the people in Spain," wrote Arthur Wellesley (later Lord Wellington) from Cork, where he commanded a British expeditionary force of nine thousand men destined for the peninsula. That month stretched into seven years of war.     Almost half of Marshal Murat's French peninsular troops were stationed in Madrid; the remainder were scattered thinly at provincial outposts, mostly in the center of Spain, too dispersed to control the country as the regions declared their independence from Madrid. Suddenly the French forces faced hostile local citizens, rebellious Spanish garrisons, new provincial armies, and rogue brigades of peasants organized into terrifying guerrilla bands. French troops were generally better trained and equipped than the Spanish--and still buoyed, in 1808, by the powerful myth of Napoleonic invincibility. They easily triumphed in most direct encounters during the early days of war, at Torquemada, Cabezón, Santander, Logroño, Tudela, Mallén, and Alagón. But the territory of the Iberian Peninsula could not be easily--or permanently--pacified. It was too vast for that.     Murat believed that opposition to the new regime was focused in a few nuisance spots, which could be overcome when necessary with fast-moving French flying columns. For seven months General Junot had pacified Portugal while ruling the land as a reforming dictator. But after the Spanish risings the Portuguese, too, erupted in coordinated revolt, driving the French forces back from their outposts towards Lisbon. In May 1808, while Junot's isolated forces remained in Portugal, Murat dispatched another army south from Toledo, to occupy and secure the strategic port of Cádiz against attack by the Royal Navy. The force was led by General Pierre Dupont de l'Etang, a forty-three-year-old hero of Napoleon's victories at Ulm, Halle, and Friedland, who was in his first independent command. He expected an easy and unopposed march to Cádiz. Apart from five hundred elite seamen of the Imperial Guard, twelve hundred members of the Paris Guard, and thirty-three hundred Swiss mercenaries, Dupont's army was a motley crowd of young and untested conscripts (both French and foreign) led by "any officers who could be found in the depots."     On June 5, after crossing the arid plains of La Mancha and the mountains of the Sierra Morena, Dupont and thirteen thousand troops reached Andújar, a dusty town 215 miles south of Madrid. To his west in the open valley of the Guadalquivir River lay the high road to Córdoba, Seville, and Cádiz. From La Carolina to Andújar on the road south, the towns and villages had been ominously empty of inhabitants as the French columns passed through; and here, in Andújar, Dupont learned that Andalusia too had risen against Napoleon and the new French monarchy. His advance would no longer be peaceful and his lines of communication to the north no longer secure. Three days later, in his first armed encounter at Alcolea bridge on the outskirts of Córdoba, Dupont's army easily routed an equal number of Spanish volunteers in open battle. As the Spaniards fled in disorder, the French general did not wait for an offer of capitulation, but stormed into the undefended city, where his forces engaged in a rampage of looting, killing, and rape lasting nine days. Henceforth, as news of these atrocities spread among Spaniards, French military stragglers and messengers faced brutal murder on the roads of Andalusia.     In Córdoba Dupont soon realized his troops were isolated in a hostile land. For three days in mid-June, while his army waited to advance from the city, the new revolutionary junta in Cádiz bombarded and seized the French naval squadron that had been blockaded in the port since 1805, and imprisoned over three thousand French sailors. Cádiz would no longer be an easy prize for the advancing French army; and the ships of the French navy were already lost. Dupont had also received word that a large Spanish army was gathering to the south and east under General Javier de Castaños. If the French general proceeded further, he knew that his forces would gradually be decimated. The march to Cadiz was abandoned. Dupont might at that moment have moved his troops safely into the mountain passes to the north of Córdoba; but instead he retreated incautiously across the open plain back to Andújar, where he awaited reinforcement from Madrid while venturing no more than a destructive raid south to Jaén. On the road of retreat from Córdoba to Andújar the French were chilled to see dozens of mutilated corpses of their comrades. In Montoro, "they found the remains of more than two hundred men, some of whom had been torn to pieces, others crucified on trees or sawed between boards, and still others had been plunged into boiling oil." Fanatical hatred gripped the people of Spain. From Madrid, King Joseph Bonaparte wrote in pessimism to his brother the emperor: "You are making a mistake, Sire. Your glory will not be enough to subjugate Spain. I shall fail and the limits of your power will be exposed. Fifty thousand more men and fifty million francs are needed to set things right. Only this can save the country."     At Andújar, Dupont waited with his army for a full month. Food supplies were short, the summer heat was growing intense, and many soldiers were ill. But the French officers put up a bold front, lighting up the camp at night, attending musical recitals and the theater. By early July two more French divisions under the command of Generals Vedel and Gobert had arrived in their support from the north. Dupont now had more than twenty thousand men under his charge in Andalusia. But rather than using them to secure his communications and line of retreat back to Madrid, or to take the offensive against Castaños in the plains, Dupont kept his main force idle at Andújar while concentrating the reinforcements separately ten miles to his east at Bailén, on equally open ground. Here he vainly nursed the hope of defeating Castaños or avoiding battle with him, renewing the march south, and winning his coveted promotion to marshal. * * * SIX MONTHS EARLIER, in December 1807, the French quartermaster Louis Gille's Third Battalion of the First Reserve Legion had been issued cartridge boxes and ammunition at Bayonne, departed on foot for the border town of Irún, and crossed into Spain. Here, the eighteen-year-old conscript determined to observe Spanish life as carefully as he could, to record the whole adventure in his notebooks, and to gain from his observations whenever possible. He could not imagine what was to come; but for seven years he kept his journals. Gille was an educated Parisian and a reluctant recruit, called up in the emergency levy of April 1807 to replace those Frenchmen killed at Eylau, where Napoleon had experienced his first great slaughter in indecisive battle with the Russians. Because he could read and write, Louis Gille was named as quartermaster or lodgings officer when his unit reached training camp at Lille, and relieved from regular guard and fatigue duties. He enjoyed the comforts of minor office, including "the most lively interest and desire to entertain me" on the part of his captain's wife. Gille was a handsome charmer who, by his own account, made romantic conquests wherever he found lodgings as the First Reserve Legion marched south.     While the French emperor seized power in Spain and the masses revolted, Gille's regiment marched deeper into the peninsula to Segovia, Madrid, and Aranjuez. In Aranjuez, on May 1, 1808, Gille and his companions stood by warily as gunfire broke out during the first civil rising. Later they joined Spanish nighttime patrols seeking to restore order. Martial law was imposed, and French soldiers only ventured outside armed with bayonets. For the next few days Gille heard reports of savage carnage on the streets of Madrid, summary executions of hundreds of insurrectionists on the boulevards outside the Prado Museum, and indiscriminate acts of revenge committed throughout the city by undisciplined French soldiers. Soon the Spanish garrison of Aranjuez abandoned the town, marching south into Andalusia, where they intended to join the national armies being gathered for organized war against the French. But the French managed to hold on to the Spaniards' field guns.     In mid-June 1808 Gille's First Reserve Legion joined other French regiments under the command of General Vedel as they, too, departed for Andalusia in support of the increasingly isolated army of General Dupont. When they were joined a few days later by mercenaries of the Third Swiss Regiment, the nervous Frenchmen learned of attacks by bands of armed peasants--brigands, in French eyes, "for what other name can be given to rebels without discipline, without a leader, who rise without orders from their governments?" The country had become too dangerous for the army to send out advance parties, so Gille and the other quartermasters (who normally moved ahead to find quarters and supplies for their units) remained with the main columns.     As they approached Manzanares in the plain of La Mancha, Vedel's men were met by a small French troop who reported that a group of Dupont's sick soldiers, left behind in the local hospital, had all been slaughtered. Louis Gille visited the hospital later in the day, where he saw fifty unburied French bodies, cruelly tortured, some of them plunged in pots of boiling oil. "There was only one cry from all our mouths: `Vengeance! Vengeance!' The feeling seized all our hearts; even the general seemed to share it," Gille recalled. But when General Vedel met the mayor, councillors, and notables of the town, they insisted that the crime had not been committed by citizens but by marauding peasants led by priests. The general promised no reprisals, and held his troops in barracks overnight. The next night, in the deserted town of Valdepeñas just to the south, the soldiers of the French division relieved their frustrations by raiding the wine cellars and drinking themselves into a brandy-soaked stupor.     As General Vedel's force moved on into the deep gorges of the Sierra Morena, the Spaniards who had reluctantly guided the carts and beef cattle of the divisional supply train suddenly disappeared. Before long, the columns of French troops came under fire from artillery and guerrilla sharpshooters on the heights above. They were routed by French riflemen scrambling up the rough slopes, and Spanish prisoners were summarily shot. The march continued. By the end of June, Vedel's units had reached the town of Bailén, already exhausted by the early summer heat, and short of food.     After two nights' rest, General Vedel sent thirteen hundred men of the First Legion (along with a baggage train) across the Guadalquivir River on a long twenty-four-hour march to Jaén, where they were ordered to requisition food supplies for delivery to General Dupont in Andújar. Instead they found thousands of Spanish regular troops and irregulars (or guerrillas) awaiting them on the heights surrounding the town. The two forces met in hand-to-hand combat, the Spaniards retreated in disorder, residents fled in panic, and the French seized the ancient fortress castle set high above the plain. The next day, facing a reinforced Spanish army, Vedel's men were forced to abandon both fort and town. For three days more the battle raged, the ground repeatedly changed hands, and Louis Gille witnessed terrible atrocities committed by both French and Spanish soldiers: a nine-year-old French drummer boy bayoneted to death by his captors; a four- or five-year-old Spanish child shot down by a French soldier as he presented the soldier with a loaf of bread; a group of French prisoners garroted by a Spanish guerrilla unit. (Continues...) Excerpted from THE PRISONERS OF CABRERA by Denis Smith. Copyright © 2001 by Denis Smith. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Dramatis Personaep. viii
Prologuep. xv
1 Andalusiap. 1
2 A Disgraceful and Repulsive Ideap. 43
3 Cabrerap. 61
4 A Remote and Fleeting Hopep. 105
5 Liberationp. 160
6 Memory and Forgettingp. 171
A Note on Sourcesp. 183
Bibliographyp. 190
Notesp. 195
Acknowledgementsp. 211
Indexp. 213