Reviews: Military Books


The Prisoners of Cabrera

Smith, Denis. The Prisoners of Cabrera: Napoleon's Forgotten Soldiers, 1809-1814 New York : Four Wall Eight Windows, 2001. 224 Pages. ISBN# 1568582129. Hardcover. $24.

For five years, from 1809 to 1814, a tiny sun-baked rock in the Balearic islands off Spain served as a prisoner of war camp for some 9,000 French (and allied) soldiers.  The soldiers had surrendered to a Spanish army in one of the more humiliating French defeats of the Napoleonic wars.  While the incident has received little attention in English-language accounts of the Peninsular war—this is the first, full-length account of the dramatic story of Cabrera in English—a number of the survivors left memoirs of their internment on this desolate islet. Now Canadian author Denis Smith tells the story of the prisoners who lived and died on this dry, barren rock.

The French invasion led to General Pierre Dupont de l'Étang (1765-1840) being sent deep into the south of Spain to capture the port of Cadiz and complete the occupation of the Peninsula.  Made up of marines of the Imperial Guard (to serve on the French fleet bottled up at Cadiz), men of the Paris Guard, Swiss veterans and recent conscripts, Dupont's army found itself cut off as province after province rose up against the French occupation.  Strangely inert, Dupont, a hero of Ulm and Friedland, loaded down with Spanish plunder, was eventually forced to surrender at Bailén. The terms of Dupont's surrender on 26 July 1808, which included the troops of Gen. Vedel who were undefeated and still under arms, called for the French to be repatriated to France on Spanish transports.

When Napoleon heard of the surrender he was enraged at the blow to France's aura of invincibility and wrote, "I do not suppose that it is necessary to make great preparations at Rochefort, because the British will surely not let these imbeciles pass, and the Spaniards will not give back their weapons to those who have not fought."  Napoleon was right.  The captured army was marched to Cadiz, harassed and murdered by Spanish peasants along the route, where neither the local junta nor British Admiral Collingwood let them go.  The French prisoners were first dispersed in villages in Andalusia and then concentrated at Cadiz where they joined several thousand French sailors who had been trapped in the harbor when the Spanish rose.  The prisoners were crowded aboard dismasted warships—the dreaded hulks or pontons. There fetid air and worse food brought on diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid fever and scurvy.  The Spanish referred to the Vieille Castille, a hulk reserved for French officers, as "the ship of the dead."  The prisoners died at a rate of fifteen to twenty a day.  Bodies were at first unceremoniously dumped in the harbor creating potential health problems for the citizens of Cadiz.

The local British naval commander, on orders from London, blocked the initial attempts by the Spanish to repatriate the French.  The controversy in Britain over the Convention of Cintra, which had had similar provisions for repatriation, made it impossible for British military and political officials to cooperate in fulfilling the conditions of the Bailén agreement.  In the end the British and Spanish came to a joint decision, based on military considerations, to transport the bulk of Dupont's soldiers to the Balearic islands and the French sailors to the Canary Islands, rather than back to France.  In the Balearics the French would come under the authority of yet another local junta, no less pleased to house the prisoners than the Cadiz junta had been—and of the Royal Naval.  Five to six thousand POWs in the first group were transported by convoy, guarded by British warships, to the archipelago.

 The original intention was to spread the French over the islands of Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza and Formentera. Unprepared to receive such a large number of prisoners, the junta of Majorca dithered.  The British did not want the POWs in the vicinity of their important naval base at Port Mahon on Minorca.  No one on the islands wanted the French and allied prisoners who could spread contagions of both disease and politics.  In the end the expedient decision was made—to strand the prisoners on the small island of Cabrera.  In return for caring for the prisoners (it was estimated that the monthly cost of feeding the prisoners was 400,000 reales) the Majorca junta would receive substantial tax relief, cash subsidies and exemptions from mainland military service.  Adm. Collingwood nixed the suggestion of an exchange of an equal number of Spanish prisoners and French prisoners. Collingwood also agreed to provide a Royal Navy warship to guard the prisoners on Cabrera if one was available.

On landing on Cabrera, most of the prisoners were stepping foot on solid land for the first time in four months.  There they found no buildings except for an abandoned fort, no sign of human habitation and little more than scrub brush, lizards and rocks. 4500 French, Polish, Swiss and Italian conscripts were left to largely fend for themselves.  Their officers were imprisoned elsewhere.  The following day a ship arrived with provisions: ship's biscuit, beans, lard, salt and bread.  On another trip the supply ship dropped off tents for the junior officers and the sick.  Supplies arrived, in theory, every four days, while Spanish and British warships stood guard.  There was a single spring of fresh water that dried up in the height of summer.  The few goats and rabbits which shared the rocky islet with the French were quickly hunted down and eaten.  By the end of the first month 62 men had perished (an annual equivalent death rate of 20%).  Between May 1809 and Dec. 1809 approximately 1700 soldiers had died.  By 1810 only 17 men from an Imperial Guard unit that had numbered 75 still lived.  The unit's highest-ranking officer wrote that "they were all virtually naked, pale, and gaunt: left so long without provisions, they resembled skeletons."  During one four-day period when food supplies were cut off more than 400 men died.

The prisoner population of Cabrera included at least twenty-one women—a few officers' wives and the rest cantiniéres and camp followers. Some of the young and pretty ones (and even those not so young and pretty) turned to prostitution to survive, others continued their trade as wine-merchants on the island.  It was reported that, on the whole, the women, keeping themselves busy, fared better than the men on the island.  Most of the women eventually went to England when the officers were transferred there in 1810.  A small number of babies were born, but what happened to them was not reported.

It was this final departure of the officers to England, as well as the realization that they were going to never be repatriated, which seemed to have led to a decline of morale among the men.  Throughout 1810 to 1812 more prisoners arrived on the island to replace those who died.  More than 9,400 men passed through Cabrera, though the population was always considerably less due to the high death rate. There were only, at most, 100 escapes from the island prison.

Finally in May 1814 word came that the war was at an end and freedom at hand.  "An incomparable happiness seized everyone," wrote one observer.  "Some seemed to lose their minds…Others embraced, crying…" Search parties had to scour the island for hermits who were hold up in caves like troglodytes. Of the almost 12,000 men who had been imprisoned, any where from 4,000 to 10,000 (the later figure including those who had died at Cadiz) had died, their graves unmarked.

On their return to France the liberated prisoners found no bands, any parades; instead they were quarantined.  Their ex-commander who had abandoned them, Gen. Dupont, proposed to send the Bonapartist prisoners to Corsica, into a sort of exile.  Instead Marseille rose up and liberated the Cabrerans again, showering them with food and drink, clothes and money.  For the first time in almost five years these unfortunate men were free.

Spanish prisoners in France were also harshly treated, often forced to work as laborers building canals and draining marshes.  On the Peninsula, especially, brutality followed brutality.  In March 1809 Napoleon wrote to Gen. Clarke, the French Minister of War, of a column of Spanish prisoners: "Twelve thousand prisoners have arrived from Saragossa.  They are dying at the rate of 300 to 400 a day: thus we may calculate that not more than 6000 will reach France…You will order a system of severity—these people are to be made to work, whether they like it or not.  The general number of them are fanatics, who deserve no consideration whatever."  The French held on the hulks in Britain also suffered greatly.  Perhaps placing Cabrera in the context of the treatment of prisoners of war in general during the Napoleonic wars and in other wars would help the reader judge the significance of Cabrera.  While Cabrera doesn't match the genocidal brutality of the Holocaust, it rivals Andersonville or concentration camps of the Boer War.

The Prisoners of Cabrera is written in clear, scholarly prose.  Smith does not overly sensationalize a story that really needs no such embellishments.  Nor does Smith exhibit a false sense of outrage. It is incredible to me that the story of Cabrera has never received full-length treatment before.  Such a dramatic story would seem a natural topic for a book. Denis Smith is to be commended for bringing the story of Cabrera to an English-speaking audience. Smith does a credible job in fully recounting the events of the Spanish "death camp." Even-handed in its treatment, Smith spreads the responsibility for the affair among the Spanish who imprisoned the, the British who aided and abetted but kept their hands clean, and Napoleon who sent the soldiers to Spain in the first place and who could have done more for their relief.

Events elsewhere at the time are only touched upon briefly by Smith, who focuses on the fates of the imprisoned men.  Little space is devoted to the wider conflict in Spain and elsewhere except where it touches upon what was happening on Cabrera.  A detailed understanding of these outside events, while helpful, are not necessary to appreciate Smith's narrative.  The real story of Cabrera is that of the men imprisoned there.  Men like Henri Ducor, the French sailor who scrounged an infantry uniform to be sent to Cabrera in the hopes of being repatriated, and Louis-Joseph Wagré, the "Corporal of the Spring," and Louis Gille, who managed to get himself sent to England along with the officers. As well as, Robert Guillemard, who used the island's theatrical troupe to effect an escape, and Bernard Masson, who escaped twice from Cabrera and even organized a private rescue attempt after his successful escape. The true hero of the book is, perhaps, Don Antonio Desbrull, the liberal Spanish commissioner for Cabrera who almost single-handedly did what he could, often at the risk of his life an fortune, to alleviate the sufferings of the prisoners.

Having first read about the prison camp on Cabrera during a stay on Majorca, Denis Smith sought out further information only to find scanty references to the event in English-language accounts of the Peninsular War.  Smith set out to fully record the story of the unfortunate prisoners for the first time in English.  Research was done in Spain, France and Britain. Smith makes use of French, Spanish and British sources, including archival records.  More than 60 works were consulted.  A "Note on Sources" reviews the historiographical record, evaluating the primary and secondary sources.

Denis Smith is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario and award-winning author of a number of books on Canadian politics and Canadian foreign policy including, Gentle Patriot: A Political Biography of Walter Gordon (1973), Diplomacy of Fear: Canada and the Cold War, 1941-1948 (1988) and Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker (1995).

Illustrations, maps and index were unavailable at the time of this review.  Maps locating Cabrera in relation to Spain and of the island itself will be helpful.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2001

 

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