Able were they ere they saw Cabrera: a fascinating exploration of an all-but-forgotten footnote in French history.
Though books devoted to Napoleon Bonaparte make up a vast library—it’s been said that only Jesus and Hitler have earned more ink—few explore the bloody campaigns waged in Spain and Portugal. Canadian historian Smith examines the waning days of the French attempt to seize Iberia, when the Spanish government quit the Bonapartist cause and, in essence, put its forces under British command. Most of the defeated Napoleonic army was allowed to return on parole to France, but, at British orders, 12,000 troops who had surrendered to the Spanish after the Battle of Bailen were packed off to a desolate island off the coast of Majorca and abandoned to live as “Gallic Robinson Crusoes.” Many thousands of them died. Others formed guerrilla bands and plotted elaborate plans for escape that, with one or two exceptions, failed. Smith looks in particular at one effort by members of the elite Imperial Guard to build a boat out of scrap and odd materials, some supplied by crewmen from an English brigantine “in a clandestine gesture of sympathy for the exiles.” Still others went off to live as hermits with the wild goats in the hills. Finally returned to France after five years, many of the surviving prisoners experienced what would today be classified as post-traumatic stress disorder, “manifested in anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, or similar complaints.” Scarcely any of them are known to history, and the whole Cabrera incident, Smith points out, was reduced to a single paragraph in a standard British history of the war—which lay the entire blame on the Spanish government for its “indefensible treatment” of the French prisoners.
Ably explored and told, The Prisoners of Cabrera will be of considerable interest to students of the Napoleonic era and of issues of military justice.