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Napoleon in Exile

He’d already escaped one island internment, but this time Napoleon’s banishment was permanent. All at sea in the Atlantic, the fallen French ruler’s final years were a battle of a different kind, writes Julian Humphrys
St Helena was a different prospect to Elba – where before he had the run of the island, here Napoleon was watched at all times

The miles 1,200 was the isle place once from miles of St described “further England Helena, from West away 4,500 as and Africa, being from anywhere else in all the world”. So when, in 1815, the British government was looking for somewhere secure to house Napoleon Bonaparte – who not long before had abdicated as Emperor of France and surrendered to them – St Helena seemed the ideal place.

This was the second time Napoleon had abdicated. He did so for the first on 6 April 1814; Paris had fallen to the European coalition formed against him, the Duke of Wellington had crossed the Pyrenees and invaded the south of France, and Napoleon’s marshals were no longer prepared to fight on.

The defeated emperor was treated relatively generously by the victorious allies. They sent him to rule the Mediterranean island of Elba and even allowed him to take a tiny army with him, chiefly drawn from his Imperial Guard. Energetic as ever, Napoleon busied himself with a series of improvements to the island’s infrastructure, but he always kept a close eye on European affairs. Aware of the growing unpopularity of the restored French monarchy he soon decided to take a gamble.

The French monarchy sent troops to arrest Napoleon after his escape from Elba; instead, they turned coat and joined him


Slipping away from Elba with a small force, he landed in France near Antibes on 1 March 1815. As he headed north, the troops sent to intercept him came over to his side in droves and – on 20 March – he was back in the Tuileries Palace in Paris, which had been hastily abandoned by Louis XVIII.

The nations of Europe began mobilising once more, but Napoleon struck first, attacking an allied army under Wellington and a Prussian army under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher in what is now Belgium. Napoleon initially caught his enemies on the hop, but on 18 June he was crushingly defeated at Waterloo. Four days later, he abdicated for a second time.

Napoleon’s immediate plan was to try and escape to America. He made for Rochefort on the west coast of France, where he hoped a frigate would transport him across the Atlantic. But there was a major flaw – the port was blockaded by the Royal Navy in the form of the 74-gun HMS Bellerophon, a veteran of Britain’s wars against the French.

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About BBC History Revealed

Fifty years ago, astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell became the first men to escape the clutches of Earth's gravity and journey to the Moon - and in doing so, stole a march on the Soviets in the Space Race. Discover how this mission, hatched amid setbacks and failures, and shaped by the wider tensions of the Cold War, gave the US something to hope for after the trauma of 1968. Plus: History's greatest coincidences, what happened to fallen French emperor Napoleon after the Battle of Waterloo, the value of Britain's battlefields, why King James VI and I was obsessed with witch hunting, and more.