The Malta Independent 3 August 2020, Monday

Britain's first steps in Malta – Part 2

Noel Grima Tuesday, 16 June 2020, 12:49 Last update: about 2 months ago

Blue-water Empire: The British in the Mediterranean since 1800. Author: Robert Holland. Publisher: Allen Lane / 2012. Pages: 439pp

On the outbreak of war with revolutionary France in February 1793, Royal Navy warships in the Mediterranean were both depleted and dispersed.

The key concern was how to bottle up the French fleet in. A major opportunity soon arrived following a French royalist revolt. British troops were put ashore to take control, especially of the dockyard. Surrounded by high ground and a partly hostile population, Toulon was difficult to hold.

It became impossible when a French republican militia arrived with a young officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, in its ranks. It was in Toulon that Napoleon and Nelson came so near each other.


A hasty exit by British forces and thousands of destitute royalist refugees followed in mid-December 1793. The British Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, Admiral Samuel Hood, fell back on Corsica as an alternative base. The fortresses of Bastia and Calvi were successfully besieged and conquered. It was while assaulting the latter on 12 July 1794 that Nelson lost the sight of one eye.

Soon, a French expeditionary from Leghorn dislodged the British from Corsica. The government of William Pitt felt under so much pressure it had to pull British warships out of the Mediterranean altogether during October 1796. The West Indies suddenly seemed to promise easier and safer acquisitions. The little Italian island of Elba briefly remained under British occupation, but once that feeble was given up, only the guard-post of Gibraltar remained.

In May 1798, however, it was decided to send a British squadron under Nelson's command back into the Mediterranean. This was not so as to counter the preparation at Toulon for Napoleon's forthcoming invasion of Egypt two months later (about which the British knew nothing) but rather to meet the urgent plea of Britain's ally, Austria, to protect the Neapolitan kingdom of the Two Sicilies from the rapidly spreading French domination of Italy.

After chasing the French fleet back and forth around Sardinia and Sicily, Nelson found his prey at anchor in Aboukir Bay off Alexandria. In one brutal assault on 1 August 1798, the British ships destroyed the French formation.

The shocking violence of the explosion that tore apart the French flagship, L'Orient, provided a talking point all over Europe and was graphically portrayed in innumerable journals. Seven years later, Nelson's own was to be made from the shattered mast of L'Orient.

When news of the triumph reached Gibraltar, the Governor ordered a 21-gun salute and when the news reached London, theatres in celebration added Rule Britannia to their nightly performance.

Although the Battle of Aboukir Bay was fundamental, in the short-term its effects quickly wore off. Nelson went off to Naples, where he renewed a previously passing acquaintance with the British Minister, Sir William Hamilton, his much younger wife, Emma and with Emma's patron, Maria Carolina, Queen of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily). With Nelson's encouragement, the Neapolitan army was sent to stop the French republican advance on Rome but was soundly defeated. The Bourbon court, including Emma, was forced to retreat to Sicily. One of the Queen's young sons died in Emma's arms during this voyage.

At this point, the British military presence in the Mediterranean was still thinly scattered between Gibraltar, Sicily and Malta. When the Royal Navy took over Malta's Grand Harbour, it was in some degree a compensation for the difficulties and defeats elsewhere.

Pitt's wartime government was split between those who held that the British aim in the region was simply to restore the status quo antebellum, as Pitt himself preferred or whether a more lasting commitment was being hammered into place.

The British seizure of Malta did not resolve the issue. In raising the British flag on the island, General Pigot made no explicit claim to British sovereignty. He was punctilious in confirming the Maltese, and not least the Catholic Church, in all their ancient privileges, while outside Valletta itself the Sicilian flag flew on the island, since King Ferdinand of Naples had provided the Maltese rebels with money and arms.

Nor was the military value all that apparent. For Napoleon it had just been a convenient stop on the way to Alexandria, with the added bonus of booty. Nelson considered Malta "a useless and enormous expense and his successor as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Lord Collingwood called Malta "the most gossiping, gourmandising place I ever heard of".

Pitt believed that hanging on to Malta risked undermining peace negotiations to end an exhausting war. At the Treaty of Amiens (25 March 1802) the British government agreed to withdraw from the island and to give it back to the Knights - the last thing the Maltese wanted.

The fierce reaction to the decision in influential British circles, however, indicated that the parameters of Mediterranean policy were moving. This reaction was political as much as naval, despite the clear advantages of Malta as a centre for ship repair and refitting.

When Nelson himself spoke in the Lords, he gave no indication that he wanted to keep Malta or Minorca. But many politicians, mostly Tories, attacked the giving up of Malta as "disgraceful, humiliating and pregnant with danger".

When the British dragged their feet over leaving Malta, Napoleon strongly objected, stating (according to one of London's negotiators in Paris) that "he (Napoleon) would rather see us in possession of the Faubourg St Antoine" than remaining in Malta.

And when opposition leader Charles James Fox complained that the fresh conflict for "plain, bare, wretched Malta" was unconnected with any real British interest, a government defender sprung up and declaimed: "We are at war for Malta, but not for Malta only, but for Egypt, and not for Egypt only, but for India, but not for India only, but for the integrity of the British empire."

Before the Treaty of Amiens the French army had been finally prised from Egypt, when a British expedition was landed under General Sir Ralph Abercromby close to Aboukir Bay in March 1801. Abercromby himself was soon killed and his body was taken for burial in Fort St Elmo in Malta.

Having got the French out, British officers scarcely had time to play tourist at the Pyramids before they had to be evacuated themselves, with some 7,000 troops coming to Malta.

Malta, helped by having the best lazaretto or place of quarantine, in the Mediterranean, offered the most striking example of a bubble of war-driven commercialism under British auspices. Respectable English merchants flocked to Valletta to establish branches, encouraged by administrative and legal stability (including an Admiralty Prize Court) presided over by Sir Alexander Ball, who had returned to the island knighted as Civil Commissioner in 1803.

In 1808, 12.2 per cent of all British exports went to the island, most for onward transmission. What this meant in terms of employment and cash circulation in a desperately poor and overpopulated island can easily be imagined.

"In the poorest home of the most distant casale," wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet, who in an opium-filled interlude served as Public Secretary in the administration of Malta, "two rude paintings were sure to be found: a picture of the Virgin and Child and a portrait of Sir Alexander Ball."

But when Ball died in harness at San Anton Palace on 25 October 1809 the public mourning touched some kind of popular chord, despite criticisms - for example, of corrupt appointments - occasionally levelled at him by some on the island. Open subscription paid for his imposing neoclassical memorial in the Lower Barrakka Garden.

Ball had executed an essential aim of British policy, which was to give the Maltese themselves a vested interest in the new regime.

The wartime prosperity easing Ball's administration in Malta, however, had an underside from the start. Local traders felt threatened by newcomers attracted to such a honey pot. Besides the English, these included an influx of allegedly "bad characters", including rowdy Sicilians, Albanians, Genoese and Jews from Gibraltar.

Local reactions to Greeks were most hostile, because the interaction between Roman Catholicism (so dominant in Malta) and those practising Eastern Orthodoxy was sometimes fraught.

In 1805, the first "popular" demonstrations by a Maltese crowd hinged on protests against undesirable immigrants.

Simultaneously, inflation eroded the salaries of public officials, who became conscious of the growing number and higher remuneration of their British counterparts. Ball clashed with his superiors in London on the use of Malta as "a nest for home patronage" though this was not easily stemmed.

Although the old nobility had hoped that they would come into their own after both the Knights and the French had been got rid of, they found that they began to lose their footing in this brave, brash and materialistic world.

The British were often welcomed during the revolutionary and Napoleonic struggles because they were seen as providing protection in a predatory age.

The ecstatic crowds who greeted the British when they arrived to annex Corsica in 1793 set a pattern later repeated in other places.

"Viva Nelson!" a heaving mass of Neapolitans - aware that the English victory at Aboukir Bay made them safe from French invasion for a while at least - shouted in September 1798 as the triumphant Admiral was paraded with Lady Hamilton around the city in a carriage.

But not all Neapolitans felt the same about the English hero with his Bourbon friends after June 1799 when, with the city split by civil conflict, he cancelled a safe conduct given to local Jacobins.

Some were imprisoned and tried on Nelson's flagship, HMS Foudroyant before being hauled off for execution. One British officer present confirmed that Emma Hamilton's hand, guided by Queen Maria Carolina, added names to the condemned list.

First and most eminent of these was Admiral Prince Francesco Caracciolo, head of the small Neapolitan navy, who was liked even in local British circles. Like many of the aristocratic intelligentsia in Naples, the Admiral had given up on the corrupt Court and supported the French.

Brought aboard in chains, his plea to be shot rather than hanged was denied. Accusations that Lady Hamilton was rowed around the Foudroyant to gloat over Caracciolo's body hanging from the yardarm are unlikely to be true, but their circulation shows how quickly anything British could become absorbed into the pattern of Neapolitan life.

The affair, in the estimation of one British diplomat, left "a stain upon our character" that took years to fade.

Part 1 was published last Sunday

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