DENIS Smith is professor emeritus of political sciences at the University of Western Ontario.
His book, The Prisoners of Cabrera, has just been translated into Spanish. It deals with the French prisoners, Napoleon's forgotten soldiers who were imprisoned there from 1809 to 1814 after the Battle of Bailen.
Asked how he became interested in an event which occurred in Cabrera, he explained that he had been visiting Majorca periodically for 22 years, and his wife, Dawn, has been coming here since she was 16. She is also a lecturer in Spanish philology, which has given him a greater insight into the reality of the islands. I became interested in the subject after reading an article about it. I have researched in archives in London, Paris, Palma.... it's a chapter in history that has not been divulged very much. Asked why, Smith said it was probably because there was not too much interest on the part of Spain or Great Britain. The powers that be find the historian uncomfortable, and nobody came out well over Cabrera, neither the Spanish nor the British. Between 1809 and 1814, some 12'000 French prisoners, most of them taken in the Battle of Bailen, spent time on Cabrera. At first they were held in Cadiz. But the British and Spanish were afraid of mutinies as they were so close to the French Army. And so it was decided to send them to the Balearics, even though Majorca did not want them. The people were afraid that the French would spread contagious diseases, or that they would break out and loot, or that Napoleon would decide to attack the island to free them. It seems that Lord Collingwood, who commanded the British Navy in the Mediterranean, did not want them in Minorca, either. Finally, it was decided to confine them in Cabrera.
It took them four months to sail to Cabrera by which time they could barely stand, either through inanition or tiredness, or both. At the same time, there was a food shortage in the Balearics, where the population was swollen by French and Spanish refugees, fleeing from the war.
Repatriation was considered in the surrender signed in Bailen. But the Spaniards claimed that they did not have ships to carry them.
Some writers have claimed that Cabrera was an advance of what the Nazi concentration camps would be like. I think that's an exaggeration. There was only one execution in Cabrera, a prisoner who had practiced cannibalism. There was probably more than one who ate human flesh, but the idea was to set an example. On the whole the prisoners were left alone. The death rate was very high, and the prisoners asked for a priest. Fr Damia Estelric of Porreras was sent and he spoke fluent French. But the prisoners didn't like him as he was the only one who bothered them. He was not only priest but also spy, governor, and complained to the commissioner of Cabrera, Antoni Desbrull, of the immorality of the French. The immorality charges stemmed from the presence of women. Smith said that there were 22 but they were not necessarily prostitutes. Some were married to officers, others had been washerwomen or cooks for the Army.
During his research, Smith detected only one birth. Twins were born on the boat to Cabrera. There was an ass on the island, and it was decided to give it to the mother, but they ended up eating it.
It is not known what happened to the twins, but it is unlikely that they survived.
The prisoners' diet comprised bread and beans, but rations were short. The provisions arrived by sea every four days, but if there was a storm the ship did not leave Palma. Water was also scarce. There was only one well and supplies were rationed.
There were doctors among the prisoners, and they set up their own hospital, but I do not want to think about how much they suffered if they needed an operation. If they did not die from pain they would probably have died of infection. Smith describes one of the worst incidents, a storm in 1809. The wind and sea dragged the makeshift hospital down the slope and on the following morning, the patients were found badly injured or dead, lying among the corpses which the sea had washed from the graves.
Some 6'000 prisoners died over the five years. The survivors were taken to Marseilles on board French ships. It was May 1814. They did not even know that Napoleon had surrendered. They had left their homeland at 18 or 20 years old. And they were returning as old men.
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