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Book Review:  The
Prisoners of Cabrera

The Prisoners of Cabrera: Napoleon’s Forgotten Soldiers 1809-1814, by Denis Smith.
2001, Four Walls Eight Windows.

One of the most famous battles of the Peninsular War is the Spanish victory of Bailen. Through a combination of French blunders, good luck, and stout defense, the Spanish army of General Castaņos defeated the army led by General Pierre Dupont, and forced it to surrender. Nearly 20,000 troops became prisoners of the Spanish. Under the terms of the surrender the prisoners were to be returned to France by sea. Neither the Spanish nor the British were in a position to fulfill this promise, and the prisoners were instead sent to a remote and desolate island just south of Mallorca. Originally intended to be a temporary prison, the unfortunate French prisoners were held until the general peace in 1814. The story of the suffering of these prisoners is now told in full by Canadian professor Denis Smith. Drawing on diaries, letters, published accounts and official records, Smith has pieced together the history of these soldiers’ imprisonment.

Cabrera is a small island - about two miles by three - with little water and no food. In 1808 when the Spanish first decided to use the island as a prison it was basically uninhabited. There was no town and only one building, an old castle overlooking the bay. On to this inhospitable piece of rock thousands of the soldiers taken at Bailen were landed with no provisions made for their care. There was no shelter, no hospital, no supplies of any kind. Intended to be temporary until shipping could be arranged to return the troops to France, as was agreed to in the surrender, the island became a permanent prison.

What makes the story remarkable is the society that the prisoners create. There were no guards - only ships patrolling the shores to prevent escape. There were few officers - most were returned to France, while the bulk of the remainder were held elsewhere in towns across the Balearic Islands. Relying on a supply ship which arrived once every four days, the prisoners had to create and maintain order by themselves. A ruling council was created, a police force put in place, and the precious water supply - a small spring - regulated. It was an incredibly harsh prison and perhaps half of the 12,000 prisoners landed on Cabrera died there. Hunger, exposure and disease took an incredible toll.

Smith’s narrative is fast-paced (indeed the book is just 182 pages long) and reads more like a novel than history. It features some remarkable events, such as the numerous escape attempts (several of them successful), the success in creating a primitive outdoor theater, and the interesting market that opened on the island (the prisoners should have received pay from the Spanish government, as was customary at the time). Soldiers became woodcarvers and craftsmen, selling their wares to visiting Mallorcans. In return they bought clothing, wine, and food. There was even an operating tavern established. This primitive economy allowed prisoners to survive periods of starvation when supply ships were unable to land due to weather or lack of wind. Prisoners who had no skills, however, could not purchase extra food in this way, and many died as a result.

In the scope of the Peninsular War, the fate of 12,000 French soldiers taken prisoner may not seem to amount to much. At one point Napoleon’s forces in Spain numbered over 350,000. Yet it is the stories of men like these prisoners that make the horror, waste and brutality of war so very disgusting. This is a very interesting look at one of the more unusual aspects of the Peninsular War.

Review Posted August, 2004

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