April 2016 Event

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George Portelli: Grandmaster Hompesch:  Villian or Victim?

Summary: Charles Gatt


In his lecture on 19 April, George Portelli spoke on the topic: Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch: Villain or Victim?  He began by giving the background to Ferdinand von Hompesch born in 1744 into an ancient noble family from Germany.  In Malta, the Hompesch Gate and a monument that bears his name can be found in Zabbar (Città Hompesch). 

Siġġiewi (Città Ferdinando) recalls his name, and Żejtun (Città Beland) was named after his mother, who was a Bylandt.



George Portelli speaking to the MHA          Photo:  C. Gatt  

Hompesch Gate

 After an illustrious career from a young age, Hompesch was appointed Grandmaster of the Order in 1797, at a critical time. The previous Grandmaster, De Rohan, had been incapacitated by a stroke for a number of years. The French Revolution was in full swing.  It had cost the Knights a great source of revenue but was supported by the many French and Spanish Knights of the Order. It was considered expedient to appoint a neutral German and ambitious Hompesch accepted.  Meanwhile 29 year old Napoleon was sweeping through Austria and Italy. 




Although he disliked Malta’s isolation and climate, Hompesch ingratiated himself with the Maltese by learning the language and distributing money.  These actions alienated the knights.  The three French Langues occupied many of the top positions of the Order and supported Napoleon, as did some 4000 Maltese, including intellectuals and dispossessed nobility.  The French knights were reluctant to fight their compatriots and, besides, the Knights’ charter did not allow them to fight other Christians. 

At the time, the Order’s strength was reduced to some 15 antiquated ships and 13,000 men; 200 men in the Grand Master's body guard, and 332 Knights, 50 of whom were old or sick. Hompesch asked for help from Britain, Spain, Vienna, and Russia but none was forthcoming.

On the morning of Saturday 9 June 1798, Napoleon’s armada of warships flying the tricolor dotted the horizon from Gozo to Marsaxlokk Bay.  In the afternoon, they requested permission
for the fleet to enter harbour to take water.  Hompesch pointed out a treaty that allowed only a few ships at a time. Napoleon then ordered the disembarkation of some 40,000 men. By 12 June Napoleon had taken over Malta.    The Knights only offered token resistance and their ammunition and powder had been tampered with.  Vastly outnumbered and without support, von Hompesch capitulated on 17 June, 1798.

Hompesch left for Trieste with three ancient artefacts of the Order, stripped of their jewels. On 6 July, 1799, he abdicated as Head of the Order.  Disgraced by his opponents, he died of Asthma in Montpelier in 1805 aged 61. 

Following the lecture, a heated discussion took place on issues of bravery, cowardice and diplomacy.  Hompesch was more of a diplomat than a soldier; the consequences of resistance to Napoleon would have been bloody and futile; he was outnumbered and his men could not be relied on.  Ultimately, Hompesch had no choice.  His main shortcoming was his failure to engender loyalty amongst his own men. Napoleon himself said in later years, "The Knights did nothing shameful; no one is obliged to perform impossibilities".

George Portelli’s PowerPoint and lecture recording can be found here.  A detailed article on Hompesch by Joseph Borg of the MHA can be found here:

 Napoleon 1801                                                

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