Tomorrow, 4 July, the United States of America marks Independence Day but few here in Malta are perhaps aware of the fact that the Knights of the Order of St John and a number of Maltese had played a concerted role in the American Revolutionary War − on the American side of the equation.
It is a little known fact that some 1,800 Maltese and Knights of the Order had enlisted in the French Navy to help the fledgling United States in its War of Independence.
And, thanks to their seafaring acumen, the Maltese and the Knights, in fact, proved to be a critical element in ending the war with an American victory.
In 1781, with the help of the Maltese sailors, the French Navy defeated the British in the Battle of the Chesapeake. With the defeat, the British were unable to regroup or supply their troops. Consequently, and as a result of the victory at Chesapeake Bay, the American army forced the British surrender and the end of the war.
This and other priceless lore on the early relationship between the United States and Malta had been extensively researched by the late Dr Paul Cassar who, in 1976 on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of American Independence, had published his findings in the book Early Relations between Malta and the United States of America.
Such was America’s gratitude toward Malta for its assistance in its fight for freedom that American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin himself reserved a special award of America’s first medal, the Libertas Americana, to Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan. In 1783, in his capacity as Ambassador to France, Franklin designed and minted the medal and gave all but one medal to French officials and members of the US Congress.
The only Libertas Americana medal given to another foreign official was that presented by Franklin to Grand Master de Rohan.
Franklin had sent the medal to Grand Master de Rohan to specifically thank him for his support in the revolution and, in the accompanying letter, Franklin had written, “I have the honour to address to Your Eminent Highness the medal which I have lately had struck. It is an Homage of gratitude, my Lord, which is due to the interest you have taken in our cause; and we no less owe it to your virtues and to your eminent highness wise administration of government.”
Franklin had also asked that the Grand Master allow American ships to come to Maltese ports.
Grand Master de Rohan had replied positively to the effect that, “This monument of American liberty has a distinguished place in my cabinet. Whenever chance or commerce shall lead any of your citizens or their vessels into the ports of my island, I shall receive them with the greatest welcome.”
The correspondence marked the beginning of US-Maltese diplomatic relations, and an American diplomatic presence in Malta was established in 1796.
Unfortunately, Franklin’s original letter and the Libertas Americana medal awarded to Grand Master de Rohan have both been lost, despite a number of thorough searches made in the National Archives in Valletta. Luckily, the original letter from Grand Master de Rohan to Franklin still exists and is located at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.