Elba has been inhabited since the Iron Age and the extraction of iron ore and metallurgy were the island's principal sources of economic wellbeing until well into the second half of the 20th century. In 1917 some 840,000 tonnes of iron were produced, but in WWII the Allies bombed the industry to bits.
Ligurian tribespeople were the island's first inhabitants, followed by Etruscans and Greeks. Centuries of peace under the Pax Romana gave way to more uncertain times during the barbarian invasions, when Elba became a refuge for those fleeing mainland marauders. By the 11th century, Pisa (and later Piombino) was in control and built fortresses to help ward off attacks by Muslim raiders and pirates operating out of North Africa.
In the 16th century, Cosimo I de' Medici grabbed territory in the north of the island, where he founded the port town of Cosmopolis, today's Portoferraio.
At precisely 6pm on 3 May 1814, the English frigate Undaunted dropped anchor in the harbour of Portoferraio on Elba. It bore an unusual cargo. Under the Treaty of Fontainebleau, the emperor Napoleon was exiled to this seemingly safe open prison, some 15km from the Tuscan coast.
It could have been so much worse, but the irony for the conqueror who strode across all Europe and took Egypt must have been bitter.
Napoleon, ever hyperactive, threw himself into frenetic activity in his new domain. He prescribed a mass of public works, including improving the island's iron-ore mines – whose revenue, it is pertinent to note, now went his way. He also boosted agriculture, built roads, drained marshes and overhauled the legal and education systems.
Some weeks after his arrival, his mother Letizia and sister Paolina rolled up. But he remained separated from his wife, Maria Luisa, and was visited for just two days by his lover, Maria Walewska.
At the Congress of Vienna, the new regime in France called for Napoleon's removal to a more distant location. Some favoured a shift to Malta, but Britain objected and suggested the remote South Atlantic islet of St Helena. The Congress broke up with no agreed decision.
Napoleon was well aware of the debate. A lifelong risk taker, he decided to have another roll of the dice. For months he had sent out on 'routine' trips around the Mediterranean a couple of vessels flying the flag of his little empire, Elba. When one, the Incostante, set sail early in the morning of 26 February 1815, no one suspected that the conqueror of Europe was stowed away on board.
Napoleon made his way to France, re-assumed power and embarked on the Hundred Days, the last of his expansionist campaigns that would culminate in defeat at Waterloo, after which he got his Atlantic exile after all, dying on St Helena in 1821, from arsenic poisoning – contracted, many believe, from the hair tonic he applied to keep that famous quiff glistening.