Anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Malta in 1798
June 14, 2021|
8 min read
Bonaparte Landing on Malta, a painting found at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.
We ought not to stick to a history that we have transformed into a romance. A history transformed into a romantic account can easily be fossilised. On the contrary, history is dynamic: it evolves and develops into changing situations.
Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Troubridge, portrayed by Sir William Beechey in 1804-5.
The recent acquisition by Heritage Malta of a document related to Bonaparte’s acquisition of Malta points to continued interest in the period which many of us consider as a catalyst for the development of our island.
The breakthrough for Malta was the arrival of the Order of St John in 1530. Not convinced of their stay on the island, the Order finally accepted Charles V’s offer of Malta, provided the ancient privilege of the islanders to import grain and all their victuals from Sicily and Naples free of taxes and dues would apply. The population of Malta was about 20,000 at the time, which is about what the island could cope with.
The building of a new fortified city following the siege of 1565 entailed a huge influx of workers from Sicily and Calabria and also of troops to garrison the island. Christian Europe contributed financially for Malta to be well prepared if the Turks returned.
Marie Antoinette with the Rose, 1783, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun
On May 7, 1566, 300 top soldiers from France arrived, followed by large numbers of men from various Christian countries. On June 22, 8,000 Spanish and German soldiers arrived. A total of 18,000 men were ready to meet the threat of a Turkish invasion. Provision for six months was stocked. Sicily and Naples supplied the island with grain and victuals, since Malta could not provide them.
This arrangement worked well until June 12, 1798. That is when the Order ceded the island to Napoleon. France now assumed responsibility of feeding a population of 100,000. Bonaparte just assumed that French Malta would continue to be supplied by Sicily. Queen Maria Carolina had other ideas.
Bonaparte was the product of the French revolution of 1789 that rocked the world, during which the king and queen of France were both executed: King Louis on January 21, 1793 and Queen Marie Antoinette on October 16, 1793. Marie Antoinette’s death would determine the destiny of our country.
The capitulation of Malta to Napoleon on June 12, 1798, was signed by Bosredon Ransijat, representing the Order, four popular Maltese pretending to represent Malta and Bali di Torino Frisari, representing King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies, of which Malta formed part. Thus, Bonaparte could rightly claim that Malta was now French territory. The question is why the ambassador of Naples felt in duty bound to voluntarily cede Malta to Napoleon. This would place Malta on a very different historical trajectory.
The Emperor Napoleon in his study at the Tilieries. Author unknown.
As the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was ultimately the owner of Malta, its ambassador in Malta was empowered to ensure that the rights of the alto dominio of his king over Malta and Gozo were not infringed by the Order. And from his abode at Villa Bichi, Frisari had the ideal view from where to observe all movements in and out of the Grand Harbour. Frisari must have been obeying orders when he voluntarily signed away Malta to Bonaparte.
France had taken over responsibility of an overpopulated island in the centre of the Mediterranean, which for ages relied on Sicily and Naples for its needs. When Napoleon left Malta six days later together with his fleet and 40,000 soldiers on board, he passed on that responsibility to poor General Vaubois, who soon found himself at the mercy of the Maltese insurgents on the land front, blockaded all the way down from Naples to Malta from the sea, and a queen with an axe to grind.
Queen Maria Carolina was de facto ruler of Naples; her husband King Ferdinand cared very little about his role. He is described as “the weakest of reeds to rely on; he was indolent, weak, corrupt”. Maria Carolina was viewed as power-hungry and ruled the kingdom. She never forgave the French for assassinating her sister, Marie Antoinette.
Ferdinand I, king of Naples, in a 1783 family portrait by Angelica Kauffmann. On the right is his wife, Maria Carolina of Austria.
Marie Antoinette and Maria Carolina were very close from birth. In childhood, the sisters spent all their time together. After her sister’s death, Carolina wrote: “I am not and never shall be on good terms with the French… I shall always regard them as the slayers of my sister and the royal family.” She was determined to avenge her sister’s death if the opportunity arose.
At that time, Britain and France were at war with each other. When the news reached England that Bonaparte was gathering a huge army at Toulon, Admiral Nelson was detailed to the Mediterranean to keep a watchful eye on the general. Nelson made Naples his port of call where Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British ambassador (the first woman to receive the Maltese Cross), had a very close relationship with Queen Carolina. In time, Nelson would fall madly in love with Emma. Carolina and Nelson were in cahoots when Bonaparte invaded Malta.
Heritage Malta should affix a plaque to the memory of Sir Thomas Troubridge
General Vaubois must have had the shock of his life when he learned that when the Maltese went to Sicily to collect their needs, as was their custom at the time of the Order, they were obliged to observe a 21-day quarantine as the island was no longer part of Sicily. Had Marie Antoinette’s sister outmanoeuvred the great Napoleon Bonaparte?
Lady Emma Hamilton, depicted as Circe, by George Romney in 1782
As time passed, it became clear that the French administration was not in a position to procure food for the island. Our forefathers understood that severe action needed to be taken as famine was looming on the horizon.
The uprising of September 2, 1798, at Rabat, occurred when our forefathers had to face armed soldiers on their own, lacking arms and ammunition. With the French garrison ensconced behind the city walls never to emerge again, the Maltese lost no time in informing Naples of the insurrection. On September 7, the Maltese Congress meeting at Mdina despatched a certain Wiġi Briffa to Naples on a speronara with a letter to King Ferdinand informing him of the Maltese revolt. They urgently requested to be allowed to import food from Sicily on credit (all money having been taken by Napoleon) as well as to be provided with arms and ammunition. The Maltese also declared that they recognise King Ferdinand as their king and that the Neapolitan flag was flying in the countryside. The letter was duly delivered. Help was promised but did not arrive. Further requests for grain proved useless.
The letter dated April 19, 1798, written by Napoleon instructing General Louis Desaix to set sail from Civitavecchia and meet up with him at Malta.. It was purchased by Heritage Malta from Sotheby’s in July 2020. Photo: Matthew Axiak/Wikimedia Commons
In a letter dated February 20, 1799, to Lord Nelson, J. Acton, prime minister for King Ferdinand, wrote: “His Majesty is obliged to provide first for the defence of this kingdom and of Messina especially. When this serious care is completed and the need properly fulfilled, Malta shall and must be completely provided with those wants.”
Painting of Horatio Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott, 1800
King Ferdinand’s priorities regarding food supply was a catalyst for the Maltese to decide their future. In a situation like this, what makes a nation great is the ability of its people to find a way out of a state of affairs that will lead to a total disaster. Starvation was inevitable. French Malta was paying the prize for Antoinette’s death. Thousands were going to die.
A street in Marsa is named Troubridge. It is named after Commodore Sir Thomas Troubridge, who arrived in Malta on December 9, 1799. He was sent by Nelson in command of the English squadron. He would soon report to Nelson that the misery of the Maltese and their suffering was beyond description and unacceptable. The situation was even affecting the mental health of his men. He had to take action as all pleas for food from Naples went unheeded. He ordered his warships to go to the port of Girgenti in Sicily and force any ships loaded with grain to head for Malta.
King Ferdinand and Queen Carolina raised a tempest of protests.
“We did nothing wrong,” retorted Nelson. “We only transported food from one Sicilian kingdom to another.”
Il-ħobża Maltija thus returned on our tables. Our forefathers had suffered the greatest ever disaster in Malta’s history. An estimated 20,000 had died of starvation. That’s a huge price for a population of 100,000.
Heritage Malta should seriously consider affixing a plaque in a prominent position to the memory of Sir Thomas Troubridge. He truly deserves it.
As for Napoleon Bonaparte and the French garrison in Malta, Bonaparte does not seem to have bothered much about their safety. Poor General Vaubois did not deserve the outcome. He had no option but to cede Malta to the British. Keeping the very angry Maltese away from causing harm to the French soldiers compelled the British to transfer the French garrison from Valletta to the safety of Fort Manoel.
These “walking skeletons”, as they have been described, were provided with food transported from Gozo, thanks to Archpriest Saverio Cassar’s cooperation. Some 3,200 sacks of corn were supplied. In due course, the French garrison were taken to their homeland on board British warships, prompting Bosredon Ransijat to write “the way we have been treated by the English has exceeded all our expectations”.
Queen Maria Carolina must have been satisfied that her sister’s death was avenged. But did she sacrifice Malta for it? Writing to her friend, Lady Emma Hamilton in England, she lamented the fact that Naples was not invited to form part of the capitulation of the French.
“The injury is so much painful coming from a friend. We are so much the friends of England that we are pleased that great friendly power should hold a post overlooking Sicily,” she wrote.
The author referred to the following works for his research: Charles Testa’s The French in Malta, William Hardman’s A History of Malta, Joe Scicluna’s Malta Surrendered and Patrick Staines’s Essays on Governing Malta
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