So Raffles’ scientific curiosity was piqued when the cannonlike explosions from the southeast continued throughout the night of April 5 and into the morning hours. Shortly after dawn, a light rain of ash provided evidence that a volcano somewhere in the region had erupted. Few suspected Mount Tambora. It was generally believed that Tambora was extinct, although natives living in the nearest village had reported rumblings from deep inside the mountain during the past year. Besides, few on Java believed that such powerful sounds could have come from a volcano several hundred miles away. As Raffles subsequently noted, “the sound appeared to be so close, that in each district it seemed near at hand, and was generally attributed to an eruption either from the mountains Merapi, Klut, or Bromo.”
As a fog of ash drifted across Java, the sun faded; the warm, humid air grew stifling, and everything seemed unnaturally still. The oppressive pressure, Raffles noted, “seemed to forbode an earthquake.” Over the next several days, however, the explosions gradually subsided. Volcanic ash continued to fall, but in diminishing quantities. Relieved, Raffles returned to his routine administrative duties.
* * *
FAR from Tambora and the island of Java, a different sort of shock greeted the rulers and citizens of Europe in April 1815: Napoléon had returned to Paris.
The Emperor had spent the past year ruling the island of Elba, a rocky, desolate piece of real estate of no discernible strategic importance off the coast of Italy. Sixteen miles long and only seven miles across at its widest point, Elba in the early nineteenth century was home mainly to goats, deserted ruins, a variety of vines and scraggly shrubs on arid hillsides, and approximately twelve thousand impoverished peasants with a well-deserved reputation for being “extremely irritable” and “almost universally ignorant.” Its primary natural resource was rocks. One French observer who visited Elba shortly before Napoléon’s arrival warned that the island’s unremittingly inhospitable topography was likely to “fatigue the senses and impart sensations of sorrow to the soul.”
Napoléon had been consigned to Elba by the victorious allied coalition of Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia shortly after abdicating the French throne on April 6, 1814. (Perhaps as an ironic jest, they allowed him to retain the title of “Emperor.”) But the Allied statesmen who gathered at Vienna to sort out the consequences of nearly two decades of war neglected to provide a jailer, or even an effective network of informants to keep them apprised of Napoléon’s movements. Encouraged by press reports of widespread popular disaffection with the restored Bourbon monarchy in Paris, Napoléon decided that his former subjects would welcome him back. And so on February 25, 1815, accompanied by slightly more than a thousand troops, forty horses, and four cannon, Napoléon sailed away from Elba unopposed.
Six days later he landed at Golfe Juan, about a mile west of Cannes. “Frenchmen! In my exile I have heard your complaints and your wishes,” he exclaimed. “I have arrived in spite of every obstacle, and every danger.” Napoléon marched north rapidly, opposition crumbling as his entourage expanded at every town. “Taking towns at his liking and crowns at his leisure / From Elba to Lyons and Paris he goes,” crowed Lord Byron, who admired Napoléon and fancied himself an English counterpart of the Eagle. Although many of Napoléon’s former subjects—particularly his troops—greeted him enthusiastically, others responded more warily. Their caution reflected the heavy costs of Napoléon’s previous quest for glory: more than 900,000 French soldiers dead, and a depleted national treasury now saddled with millions of francs of reparations due the Allies. Napoléon attempted to allay their anxieties by publicly disavowing any new imperial ambitions. “I want less to be sovereign of France,” he told the people of Grenoble, “than the first of her citizens.”