Napoleon had had a rollercoaster eighteen months. First he had been forced to abdicate as Emperor of France and exiled to the island of Elba. Then he had managed to escape, march on Paris, and retake the throne. Finally a crushing loss at Waterloo had led to exile once again, this time to a far more remote island called Saint Helena. The watery walls of his new South Atlantic prison were at least a thousand miles thick in every direction.
The British had agreed to provide Le Petit Caporal with plentiful wine, meat, and musical instruments, but he could not have what he most craved — family, power, Europe. To make matters worse, he had virtually nothing to read. Newspapers were banned, and those he did manage to get his hands on were nearly all in English. That was the main reason why, on January 16, 1816, three months after landing on the island, he decided to learn the language of his captors. For the following three months he studied nearly every afternoon. The daily labour produced a mixed bag of verbal fruit; a sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet taste of his time on the island where he would end his days, six years later, aged 51.
Far more than rote learning conjugations, declensions, and articles, Napoleon enjoyed scribbling his thoughts in French and then translating them into English. The results were often wistful: