It had been three months since they arrived on the island, it rained almost daily. It was the last day of March and the clouds, thick and black, covered the sky like a cobbled vault.
He stopped seeing the sea horizon from the boardwalk, walked slowly to his hut, located at the end of Napoleonville, the furthest from the beach. He was more tired than usual and, according to Loreto, feverish. She begged him to rest, to lie on the cot until he recovered. He was concerned about the dirty golden color that had begun to tint his skin and the white membrane of his eyes was yellowish. But Jacques refused to lie in that nest of lice and flies for longer than necessary. When night came he did not rest worried about Loreto, who would get up in his sleep and go out to wander. At dawn, asleep, but with her eyes open, she left the cabin aimlessly. Sometimes following the broom trails, others crossing brambles and bushes without feeling the thorns and stones digging into his bare feet. Jacques looked for her when he noticed her absence, trying to take her to the hut. He took her gently by the shoulders, whispered tenderly until they reached the pallet. Loreto, submissive, was carried away … almost always. One night, suddenly, she began to scream in terror and to gesticulate compulsively, as if attacked by invisible monsters. Despite the fact that the hut was far from the rest of Napoleonville, those nocturnal attacks were heard and seen by more than one islander. Since then she has gained a reputation as a madwoman. So much so that Jacques feared that she would be deported to the Grotto of the Tartars. To avoid this, he stayed awake almost every night, watching over her. With his consent, he tied a brass bell around his ankle to warn him if he got up.
Why was he the only officer sent to that cursed island? It was the question they asked themselves. It must be a mistake. You have to protest, “Loreto repeated. Jacques complained to the governor of the island, but could not give an explanation and did not bother to find out why a prisoner with the rank of captain had been brought in.
After the Spanish occupied Denia, the one hundred and forty-one French soldiers who surrendered were embarked on two ships bound for the Balearic archipelago. One of the ships was directed to the port of Palma de Mallorca, on board were Commander Brin with the officers, as well as eight dozen soldiers. In the other were the other prisoners, including him and Loreto, he left for Cabrera.
Walking in the drizzle, Jacques recalled the bewilderment and grief they felt the first days after their arrival, when they discovered the hell to which they had been sent. An inferno that stretched the length and breadth of that island with a steep and sinuous coast, surrounded by islets, with mountainous terrain covered with brush and a beach, where lizards and scorpions survived. Near the port stood a small fort, inhabited by the governor, the commissioner, a platoon of soldiers and the priest.
Upon their arrival they were impressed by the way of life adopted by the thousands of prisoners who inhabited the island. Greater was the amazement when they learned that those men, similar to ghosts or human shadows, survived as animals.
The history of the most veteran was learned by Massac, the French officer who had been on the island since Cabrera became the largest open-air prison in the world.
–After the defeat in the battle of Bailén, some eighteen thousand were taken prisoner. General Dupont and the highest ranking officers were sent to France, but the rest were piled on old pontoons in the port of Cádiz, awaiting a possible exchange for Spanish prisoners. This exchange did not take place. About four thousand were shipped to the Canary Islands; another seven thousand were sent here.
–And what did you find? –Asked Loreto, who still believed he was living one of his nightmares.
“Nothing,” said Massac, a tough Parisian in his forties with scars on a lean body. The fort was half demolished –he said pointing to the small castle, bathed by the sea.
–We were only the prisoners, guarded by several ships that circled the island. The crew of one of those English ships brought us tinder and flint to light the firewood, tools, and seeds. With these materials and others that we procure, the officers organized the construction of the first cabins next to the beach. At the top of one of the hills we built the largest of the huts, dedicated to a hospital. The streets and the square, known as Palais Royal, were being configured and we began to meet to trade through barter: beans for bread, bacon for rice, salty meat for stale wine … Many of the merchandise came from the rations that the boat brought us from groceries, others were grown in the gardens. Swallows hunted with clubs, rats and mice reared by some to avoid their extinction were offered. Later the crafts appeared. One of the things of greatest value, because of its scarcity, was salt. An Englishman came up with the idea of calling this barracks village Napoleonville.
Jacques found Loreto sitting on a rock, writing in pencil on old paper. From the first days in that hell, around Christmas, he had written three letters to his father, delivered to Mosén Estelrich, to send to Denia. In the first, he told her where they were, and in the following (melancholy retained by the sieve of filial love) he let her know that they were well and with the hope of leaving for France. Jacques also wrote to his family. The letter was delivered to an English officer, along with a gold coin, with the promise that it would reach Bordeaux. They never received a reply.
“Has the supply boat come?” –Asked Loreto, who interrupted the writing to touch Jacques’s forehead.
“You have a fever and you are shaking.” You should go to bed.
He looked into the concerned eyes of his wife, who seemed more beautiful every day, despite the hardships they suffered. It no longer smelled like cinnamon, but neither did it smell like sweat and dirt like the others. Many afternoons he bathed in the sea. She was wearing a blanket over what had been a pretty turquoise blue dress, now reduced to rags that covered her from shoulder to waist, she was barefoot. At the neckline hung a silver cross that would end up at the Palais Royal to buy something to ease their stomachs.
“I don’t want to go to bed.” I prefer to rest here, taking advantage of the fact that it has stopped raining.
“The priest has come.”
According to Massac, the Mallorcan priest Damián Estelrich arrived in Cabrera in 1809. At first he visited the hospital with a donkey he called Martín, loaded with bread and medicine.
–As we did not have shovels to bury the dead, we burned them, until the priest had them bring us the material with which we built the cemetery. In general, the decisions he made were good. But there were also others that bothered and there were protests. Like repatriating women. Many were pregnant and some were prostitutes, which caused fights. To avoid sin and strife, he promoted the mandatory repatriation of all women, including married ones. They were shipped before the furious gaze of the men who, helplessly, saw themselves separated from their wives and bribes. Some rebelled and fled to the caves. With the arrival of new prisoners, more women arrived; Enraged, Mosén Estelrich once again organized new women’s levies. Some gave birth in the caves, but most accepted the offer of the priest, who provided them with a passport and some reales to leave.
“What did the priest want?” Jacques asked, shivering.
Loreto looked at the sky, it was overcast. She went into the hut, picked up an old blanket, and went out to put it on her husband’s shoulders.
– He wants the usual, that I go away. He says it’s the best for you and me. He fears that some unscrupulous assault and outrage me, or that, because of a storm, the provisions will stop coming, we will go hungry and you will force me to prostitute myself to eat.
“Did he tell you that?” He was scandalized.
“He says some husbands do.”
-Hunger is very bad and when it squeezes … But it is not our case, I have assured you.
-And what did he say?
“That the other couples didn’t think they would either, that they were Christian marriages …” He sighed. He has been very understanding and has used good words: That the amancebadas and the prostitutes are being taken to Palma, to a House of Mercy, until they repent and are willing to change their lives. When I showed him the certificate and he saw that I am a legitimate wife, he told me that I would be sent to Denia, to my father’s house, where I can wait for the end of the war and then meet with you… ”He smiled sadly.
“This is not a crazy idea,” said Jacques.
-No way. I’m not leaving here without you, ”Loreto declared. He seemed to see a fleeting glow on the mole on her forehead.
That night the island was hit by a fierce storm. The wind threatened to tear away the branches that formed the roof of Jacques and Loreto’s hut, who stayed awake all night, enduring the jets that came in from the rain. That served to fill the pots, bowls and demijohns with a water that was very good for quenching their thirst. The storm reminded them of that tremendous storm suffered by the islanders at the end of the summer of 1809, as Massac told them:
-More than a storm it was a gale that lasted eight days. The weakest died, a large part of the huts were destroyed, like the hospital. The dead buried in the cemetery were torn from their graves by the water, which swept them away and scattered them down the side of the hill. The storm delayed the arrival of food and the hunger became unbearable. Some men took refuge in the bush. They are still around there: lonely as hermits. They are called robinsones, they only go down to the port to receive their food ration when the supply boat arrives. Surely you have already seen some: they are walking skeletons. Then we set out to rebuild Napoleonville, building new huts, digging a new cemetery, building another hospital on top of the hill, which was filled with the sick. At last the ship with the victuals arrived. Our Mallorcan jailers took pity on us and granted the priest the request that some patients be transferred to a hospital in Palma. Days later, one of the patients returned, completely recovered, with new clothes, speaking wonders of the treatment he had received, of what he had eaten … This caused many men to voluntarily injure themselves, even mutilating their fingers so that they were transferred to Mallorcan hospitals. They were soon overcrowded, and almost all of them were sent back afterwards. Some of them begged not to be brought back: “Bitter is death, but three times as bitter is having to go to Cabrera,” they said between sobs.
The first of April dawned clear, a radiant sun illuminated the island like a longed-for god. Jacques was still feverish, sweaty, shivering, but decided to go to the boardwalk. He sighted the bay with the hope of seeing the boat that was supposed to bring the provisions. He hadn’t been here for six days and the rations were gone. Massac told them that the current supplier, Bertomeu Valentí Corteza, was the best, did not speculate on prices and made an effort to ensure that supplies arrived on time. It must be true because, since they had been on the island, the supply ship had not been delayed. Strangely, Valentí’s boat did not arrive.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.