The Malta Independent 28 September 2020, Monday

Heritage Malta purchases Napoleon Bonaparte letter detailing plans for Malta invasion

Albert Galea Sunday, 19 July 2020, 09:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

The Government has succeeded in purchasing an extraordinary letter which Napoleon Bonaparte sent to one of his top generals, Louis Charles Desaix, detailing preparations for the French invasion of Malta.

The three-page letter, signed and inscribed by Napoleon himself, the then Commander in Chief of the French Army of the Orient and a young, rising star in the midst of the turbulent French Revolution, instructs General Desaix, one of his most trusted men, to “assemble the armies, impound ships, arm them, and meet off Syracuse,” so as to eventually inch closer to the island fortress of Malta.

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In the letter, dated 4 May – or 15 Floreal on the French Republican calendar – 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”.

Desaix was a good friend of Napoleon’s and fought with distinction in the Egyptian campaign, before being killed at the Battle of Marengo in Italy in 1800. News of Desaix’s death was passed on to Napoleon on the same day of the news of the death of another great friend of his, Jean-Baptiste Kleber, leading to the grief-stricken Napoleon to cry out “Why am I not allowed to weep?”  Two monuments of Desaix were erected in Paris after he was killed.

The letter was put up for auction by the well-known British auction house Sotheby’s, and Heritage Malta eventually succeeded in winning the bidding, with a €60,000 bid.

The letter was acquired through national funds and is currently making its way to Malta, where it will form part of the collection of the Maritime Museum in Birgu.

​Bonaparte’s stop in Malta on his way to Egypt was no incident. The young soldier had read about Malta and its strategic importance. He also knew that the once steadfast Knights had begun to lose favour with the Maltese, and they were unprepared for any kind of attack or invasion. In short, the important island was ripe for the taking.

​In the ambitious Commander’s mind, a plan had begun to form for Malta. It was to be part of the great French Republican Empire, upholding the new values of equality and freedom, and the sweeping away of the oppressive ancien regime – which the Knights of St. John were seen to be part of.

​Within days from his setting foot on the island, the Knights had surrendered with little to no resistance, and Malta and its people were about to take their first steps into a new, modern age.

​Almost immediately, the French Commander abolished nobility and slavery, as well as the Inquisition. He set in motion wide-ranging legal and social reforms to truly implement the Revolution’s principles in practice for the Maltese, which were now also French citizens. While of course, these actions were short-lived due to the eventual uprising of the Maltese, aided by the British, Napoleon’s arrival signified a new chapter for Malta after centuries of the Knights’ rule.

“This document forms a crucial part of the Maltese tale, which is why we deemed its acquisition to be paramount,” José Herrera, Minister for Cultural Heritage, the Arts, and Local Government said.

“Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign brought together the largest expeditionary fleet ever assembled in the Mediterranean,” Mario Cutajar, Heritage Malta’s Executive Director, explained. “This letter will therefore be displayed within the context of the Maritime Museum, once restoration works are completed.”

Noel Zammit, Heritage Malta’s CEO said that the purchase of this document is a statement of intent by the national agency of a continued commitment of purchasing unique artefacts for the nation emphasised. “Napoleon’s 1798 letter represents a milestone in our nation’s modern history, and it is the perfect companion to the extraordinary memoirs of Censu Borg Brared, purchased last year,” claimed Mr Zammit.                                                                                                

Liam Gauci, the Maritime Museum’s principal curator emphasised that this letter has great significance for Maltese history. “In it, one can also observe Bonaparte’s strategic military mind at his peak, just prior to his Egyptian campaign.

“Heritage Malta’s recent acquisition, therefore, is yet another gem in our National Collection, for it is a key cog in the story of our nation. While the French period in Malta was brief and turbulent, artefacts such as this letter stimulate research and a deeper, more nuanced insight into the significance of Napoleon’s arrival in Malta,” the government said.

This letter, bearing even Napoleon’s own handwritten notes to his trusted General, was a witness to the plan of one man which changed the course of an entire people’s history.

 

 

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