The Malta Independent 4 August 2020, Tuesday

Letter from Napoleon Bonaparte to top general about Malta invasion up for auction

Albert Galea Tuesday, 14 July 2020, 15:03 Last update: about 21 days ago

An extraordinary letter from Napoleon Bonaparte to one of his top generals, Louis Charles Desaix, detailing preparations for the French invasion of Malta is up for auction in the United Kingdom.

The letter, which is signed by the later legendary French Emperor, is written in French and in it, Bonaparte commands Desaix to assemble ships and armaments to sail towards Malta on 4th May 1798 as part of the Egyptian campaign.


Desaix was told to pass along the coast of Naples, through the straights by the lighthouse at Messina, and to drop anchor at Syracuse or somewhere nearby that affords “the best approach to Malta”- “la plus favourable pour se rendre á Malte”, as Napoleon himself hand-wrote onto the paper.

The three-page letter instructs Desaix to take Commander Ménard with him and to procure a fleet made up of a frigate, two brigs, two dispatch-boats, and two royal galleys.

They are told to sail in close formation in case the English pass through the straits and, for the same reason, are also advised to arm the convoy with “four pieces of 24 [ostensibly referring to 24-pounder cannons], two mortars, two grills for red-hot bullets with two- or three-hundred shots apiece”.

The letter is dated 19 April 1798 and hand-signed by ‘Bonaparte’.

It is being put up for auction by the well-known British auction house Sotheby’s, with an estimated value of £2,000 to £3,000.

However, as of Tuesday afternoon the highest bid stood above that estimate, at £3,800.

The bidding closes in on 15 July.

Napoleon Bonaparte, who at the time was still a general in the French army did invade Malta, with his fleet departing from Toulon exactly a month after this letter was sent.

The French fleet arrived on Malta on 9 June, and when the Grandmaster of the Order of the Knights of St. John Ferdinand von Hompesch refused to allow the whole fleet into the Grand Harbour, an amphibious operation was launched and the island was taken over with little to no resistance.

The soon-to-be Emperor spent a few days in Malta, staying at Palazzo Parisio in Valletta, before continuing on to Egypt. He left a 4,000 strong garrison under the command of General Vabois.

The French occupation of Malta would officially last little more than two years, with the Maltese rising against the French, who eventually surrendered to the British in September 1800.

Desaix, a good friend of Napoleon’s, meanwhile fought with distinction in the Egyptian campaign, before being killed at the Battle of Marengo in Italy in 1800. Two monuments of him were erected in Paris after he was killed.

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