Book Notes: Vienna, 1812

I'm not great on European history between 1700 and 1900. In particular, my knowledge of Napoleon has always been very fuzzy. The story I learned in school took about two paragraphs and ended something like:
"After the collapse of his army in Russia, the Allied nations invaded France and forced Napoleon into exile. He was sent to Elba and Louis XVIII was placed on the throne. Napoleon escaped Elba, returned to France, and raised another army. But then the English got the cane out of the cupboard and gave him a damn good thrashing at Waterloo. The Allies sent him off to St. Helena where he lived out the rest of his days."
So like many things - the order blood is pumped around the heart, where Jakarta, etc. - I filed it under "Things I Vaguely Know But Will Look Up As Needed" and thought no more about it.

But last week on a whim I picked up Vienna, 1814 by David King and it turns out my mental picture of events is entirely wrong. In case this is news to you too, I figured I'd put the most interesting bits in a blog posts. If its not news to you, feel free to marvel at the state of North American education.

What To Do With An Emperor: Napoleon in Elba

Elba is a small island off the coast of Italy. I thought - based on the story I'd been told,  not any actual facts - that Napoleon had been shipped off to a sort of sunny Mediterranean prison. Sure, he could walk on the beach and stare at the far-off coast of France, but he was still a prisoner on a small bit of rock, guarded and blockaded and watched day and night.

Turns out Elba's not that small and, by any definition of the word, Napoleon wasn't a prisoner. It's arguable he wasn't even exiled.

The Treaty of Fontainbleu (1814) set the terms of Napoleon's abdication. Despite the grand-sounding introduction with its long list of titles, the treaty was primarily the creation of Tsar Alexander I. He'd promised Napoleon very generous terms and Napoleon had agreed; the rest of the Grand Alliance would  have to live with it.
  • ART. III. The island of Elba, adopted by his Majesty the Emperor Napoleon, for the place of his residence, shall form, during his life, a separate principality, which shall be possessed by him in all sovereignty and property.
  • ART. XVI. There shall be furnished an armed corvette and the vessels of transport necessary to conduct to the place of his destination his Majesty the Emperor Napoleon, as well as his household. The corvette shall remain the full property of his majesty.
  • ART. XVII. His Majesty the Emperor Napoleon can take with him, and keep for his guard, 400 men, volunteers, officers, subofficers, and soldiers.
Elba wasn't even the Tsar's to give away. A 20-year-old Elban would had already lived under Neapolitan, French Royalist (arguable, but 4,000 armed French royalists living on an island of 12,000 certainly affects the balance of power), English, French, and Hapsburg rule. In 1814 the island belonged to the restored duchy of Tuscany; the Hapsburgs didn't appreciate putting Napoleon, who was sure to be a magnet for trouble, on their undefended southern border.

While Britain refused to sign the treaty, none of the Great Powers were in a position to refuse the Tsar. Napoleon went to Elba and immediately started ruling the place with his characteristic energy. The Elbans seemed to like him; he was naturally charismatic, didn't mind the cobbled-together throne room they'd built, and brought a surprising amount of money to the island.

I get the sense, reading over contemporary accounts, that Napoleon behaved like an energetic dad who'd just retired from leading a huge multinational corporation. Renovations, projects, meddling, and improvements abounded. The treaty had allotted him 400 guards but, soon after arrival, he'd acquired at least 1,000 soldiers. Compared to his invincible Grande Armée it was nothing, but it hardly fits the image of a deserted, exiled Emperor. He had a handful of generals and a proper Navy -  a 16 gun brig, a three-masted corvette, and a tiny 6-ton light boat of some sort.

If Louis XVIII had been more popular, if things hadn't gone the way they did, Napoleon might have remained on Elba forever, turning it into a sort of pocket kingdom with an eccentric but lovable dictator, forever fighting pirates and issuing demands and getting up to hare-brained schemes. He'd already "conquered" the tiny unihnabited islands of Pianosa and Palmaiola. Who knows? Maybe he'd have taken Montecristo from the Hapsburgs.

France had, at least, stripped Elba's meager arsenal and treasury before turning the island over to its new ruler. The new government also refused to pay Napoleon the vast sums specified in the treaty or income from his "personal property" in France and elsewhere.

Ooh, One More Time, I'm Back With A New Rhyme: Napoleon Returns

Nothing in the Treaty of Fontainbleu prevented Napoleon from returning to France. The Inconstant, his brig, needed repairs. Conveniently, these includes strengthening the masts and adding a new coat of paint that, from a distance, made her resemble a British ship. She probably couldn't outrun a proper warship but she probably wouldn't need to; no one was blockading Elba.

Britain, Austria, and France had all expressed alarm at leaving Napoleon so close to Europe and had several times suggested moving him somewhere more remote. Nothing had been done. And now, as pretty much everyone had predicted, he was back.

I'd always imagined Napoleon slinking down to a small ship in the dead of night, assisted by a few loyal soldiers and secret agents, and slipping away before anyone noticed. Instead...

Joseph Beaume
Anyway, the Hundred Days happened, and after a few hundred thousand more casualties, Napoleon abdicated, boarded the HMS Bellerophon, and surrendered. The British shipped him to St. Helena where he was more-or-less properly placed under house arrest. Though he still seemed to have a surprising number of friends, visitors, and servants, he was no longer ruler of anything.

Le Rivage Fatal

St. Helena was, in many ways, the obvious choice. Literally in the middle of nowhere, any further attempts to escape or stir up trouble would be more or less impossible.

But St. Helena wasn't the only option. Shipping Napoleon to Botany Bay was also suggested (though I'm not inclined to dig through the primary source documents to find out by whom).

There's an idea for an alt-history novel. Napoleon and a selection of troublesome generals and appointed kings are shipped to Botany Bay, arriving in 1815. He isn't treated like a typical convict. His English slowly improves. Despite periods of deep depression and lamenting his poor fortune, he throws himself into his work and assists in organizing and improving the penal colony, rapidly becoming indispensable. A route to the interior was only discovered in 1813; most of the region was still unmapped.

If a few die-hard supporters arrived in a ship...

   And Napoleon could gain a reputation among the English colonists (Byron liked him; others might too)...
      And everything went just right...
         Well, he might have thrown the dice again. During his second surrender he'd styled himself as Themistocles; maybe he'd take a turn at playing Spartacus.

No Refunds

I think most people know about the Louisiana Purchase. I didn't know that, in 1814, Spain demanded a refund. They'd ceded Louisiana to France in, oddly enough, another Treaty of Fontainebleau (1762) and France had sold it without letting Spain bid for it first. The Vienna Congress - Britain, in particular - were asked to correct this injustice.

Britain had just ended a war with the United States and had no desire for another one. As part of an agreement to end the slave trade, they offered Spain 400,000 pounds (100,000 pounds over the sale price of Louisiana). Spain accepted. Amusingly, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand was present for the negotiations. He'd pocketed up to one third of the original Louisiana Purchase price.

Plot Seeds from Vienna, 1814

1. A large empire has collapsed and everyone wants their art back. The PCs are hired to transport priceless paintings and statues from one city to another. Will some go "missing" along the way? Will some arrive in an unusual state?

2. A large empire looted the valuable archives of a holy city. The Church wants some books back. Urgently. Really, it's very important that a few books from a very special lead-lined vault are returned immediately.

3. A former tyrant gave one of his hot-headed cavalry commanders a small but strategically placed kingdom. Everyone, including the exiled rules of the kingdom, agree they'd be much happier if the commander went away but he refuses to leave. The PCs are hired to bait him into an ill-advised war or, if that fails, push him off a balcony.

4. The secret service has been opening all diplomatic mail in and out of the city. They accidentally swapped letters and envelopes. The PCs need to break into two embassies and swap the letters before they are opened.

5. The king of a small nation has fallen in love with a flower-stall girl. Something must be done. He keeps missing vital conference meetings.

6. At a masked ball, a PC is seduced by a beautiful woman. Turns out she's a princess (not surprising). But she's also the lover of a very powerful prince from a neighboring kingdom (somewhat worrying). And she's also married to the very powerful prince from this kingdom (alarming). And the PC has left a monogrammed hat/handkerchief in her bedroom.

7. Three thousand silver Imperial teaspoons were stolen from a banquet. The monarch wants them back. There's a bounty on them. The PCs can make some money tracking them down but plenty more money making fake silver spoons from lead and tin.

8. The ambassador insists on driving his carriage from the embassy one or more of the local brothels. More worryingly, he insists on driving it back, usually while blackout drunk and belligerent. The PCs are assigned to keep an eye on him. Hijinks ensue.

9. The crown princes of two neighboring kingdoms have challenged each other to a duel over a botched game of "blindman's bluff". The PCs were present and know that one of the princes really was cheating. Do they reveal this fact (and guarantee a duel and perhaps a war) or lie (and defuse the situation)?

10. A former emperor lives in relative seclusion. Breaking into his castle kidnapping him will be difficult but immensely profitable.

11. The ambassador is not complying with his government's wishes. He will soon be recalled and replaced. The PCs must intercept and destroy any letters from the government to the ambassador.

12. An enormous mansion is on fire. Quick! Help "extinguish the fire" and "rescue valuable treasures". I mean, it's all going to burn anyway, right? One team inside throwing things out the window, one team on the lawn hauling them into the forest.

13. A former emperor needs new furniture. Take this ship and raid the abandoned palaces of a treacherous relative.

14. The PCs are hired to entertain a huge crowd of rulers and their entourages at a semi-formal event. They'd better come up with something impressive. Ghost stories are fashionable right now.

15. There's a new rich young man in town, heir to an enormous fortune. He's got a weakness for cards and the poker face of a comic mime. Can the PCs save him from hordes of ravenous card sharks (and sponge a reward from him) or will they race to fleece him in new and exciting ways?

16. The next ball's theme requires everyone to wear "local peasant costumes" and perform "authentic peasant dances". The PCs are instructed - on pain of death - to round up some local peasants for the local despot to use as models.

17. A powerful ruler is obsessed with a rural prophetess. He reads her letters hundreds of times, dissecting every word and praying well into the night. Her handwriting is... unique, but it might just be possible to forge.

18. Tomorrow evening a gift lottery will be held at the palace. Everyone will bring a suitably valuable gift, then exchange them at random. Someone's slipped a cursed or ill-omened item into the mix. Who, and why?

19. As a joke, the ambassador printed a fake newspaper calling for the "Immediate Assassination" of an underling and promising an enormous reward in the name of a feared tyrant. The underling, always a bit nervous, had a breakdown and fled into the night with a case full of vital documents, the embassy treasury, and six loaded pistols. The PCs need to track  him down.

20. The PCs, survivors of a great battle, are hired by a group of poets to provide a tour of the battlefield. They may need to make up some suitably heroic deeds or reconcile the official accounts with the actual geography.

1 comment:

  1. This is great. I love the contrast between the vast historical forces and very human whimsy.