Sauntering masses of care-free tourists, sun-given light that moves the sea from aquamarine to a translucent, revealing azure, the villas — both modern and ancient, constructed by retiring patricians seeking the salubrious and often licentious air of Capri... it's hard to conceive of anything that would dare interfere with this beautiful, and jealously guarded, haven for pleasure seekers.
1808, though, was way before the age of mass tourism and protective tourist boards, and a decline in the quantity and quality of tourists was far from the minds of those who, in that year, cast their watchful eyes across the sweep of the bay. For them, signs of embarkation in Naples were not a signal to put on clean tablecloths and start up the taxi engines but a sign that the long-awaited invasion by the French was on its way. Since 1806, English and Corsican troops had garrisoned the island; from the date, in fact, when the island had fallen surprisingly quickly to a naval force commanded by Sir Sidney Smith, which had landed at Marina Grande.
Joseph Bonaparte (brother to Emperor Napoleon), appointed to the Throne of Naples on 30th March, 1806, had been forced to sit in Naples irked by the knowledge that across the bay the English and Corsicans, with the aid of some Capresi, were busily fortifying the island against counter-attack. Under the energetic command of Lieutenant-Colonel Hudson Lowe, all the strategic points covering Capri's harbours were bristling with a less-then-welcoming committee for Joseph Bonaparte. But Joseph did not come... And Hudson Lowe carried on fortifying the heights above the coves of Anacapri, where landings were possible, if difficult and improbable.
And still Joseph did not come... And the best part of two years passed, and despite the continued threat of invasion, the state of alert became lax. Even the arrival of the Royal Regiment of Malta to take possession of Anacapri failed to keep the threat of invasion truly alive, although it did take the garrison up to almost 2,000 men. Who knows, perhaps the ghost of the Roman Emperor Tiberius was wandering among the troops, eyeing up the able-bodied sentries and telling everyone to 'Relax. Take it easy. Enjoy the wine, the sun, the sea'.
any rate, Hudson Lowe was busy writing out his order for
the finest of French wines when finally, in 1808, reports
came through that invasion was imminent. Feeling safe in
the knowledge that any landing would have to contend with
the squadron of English ships patrolling those waters,
Lowe must have been greatly dismayed to find that the
ships had reacted to news of the attack by sailing off to
find reinforcements from Ponza, leaving the island's
defences to be put to the test.
But it was not Joseph who came... He had been succeeded by Napoleon's brother-in-law, Joacim Murat (image, above), on August 1st, 1808. On October 4th, 3,000 troops set sail for Capri under the command of General Lamarque. Through feigned attacks on the two marinas, the Capri garrison was kept occupied while the practically inaccessible coast of Anacapri took the brunt of the assault. Such was the surprise that the cliffs were scaled and the Franco-Neapolitan forces grouped before the Maltese defenders could react. Anacapri fell quickly with the majority of the defenders forced to surrender. Corsican Rangers, trying to break through to assist the Maltese were forced to withdraw.
With half the island in French hands, Lamarque expected Lowe to surrender. Lowe, on the contrary decided to fight on, perhaps desperately hoping for the return of the vanished fleet. Resistance was kept up at a great cost in life; the invaders were able to bombard Capri at will from gun emplacements around Anacapri. Pounded relentlessly, the defence held on until, with all hope gone, they surrendered on October 18th. The prisoners were shipped off to Sicily and released under oath not to take up arms against the French for a year and a day.
Lt. Colonel Lowe's 'revenge' on the French came, not in battle, but in April 1816 when he took charge of the defeated Emperor Napoleon in his exile on St. Helena. This choice of gaoler was not a popular one; the Duke of Wellington thought Lowe too punctilious. Indeed, he proved a rigorous gaoler and Napoleon did not fare well under the exacting custody, which Lowe maintained even when Napoleon fell to the illness which would quickly consume this once great leader.
Both St. Helena and Capri live on, mute, uncaring witnesses to the follies and dramas enacted on their soil. Today's visitors to Capri can drop their guard and think of the wine, the sun, the sea... It remains to be seen quite whether this is true for the Capresi, with their ever-growing need to 'manage' the daily invasions embarking from Naples, threatening, or so it seems at times, to sink the island.