October 2016 Lecture

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 Sir Alexander Ball and the Part of Malta that Almost Was


Robert Blythe


On Tuesday 18th October 2016, Robert Blythe gave a lecture to the MHA about Sir Alexander Ball.  Ball was a British Navy Admiral who played a key role against the French in Malta and also at the Battle of the Nile. Popular with the Maltese, he helped bring Malta under British rule. He also tried to annex the Island of Lampadusa to British Malta, which could have altered the course of Maltese history. 


Sir Alexander Ball was born in 1757 in Gloucestershire, England.  He joined the British Navy and was promoted to lieutenant in 1778.  In 1782 he joined the British fleet under Admiral Sir George Rodney.  They saved Jamaica and its valuable British sugar plantations by destroying the French fleet at the famous Battle of the Saintes.  This restored British prestige, which was in tatters after their defeat the previous year at the Siege of Yorktown during the American Revolution.  Two days later, Ball received his commander's commission and the next year he became a captain.


In 1796, Captain Alexander Ball was appointed to the HMS Alexander and joined Sir Horatio Nelson in the Mediterranean.  Nelson initially disliked Ball’s “intellectualism" but when Nelson’s  flagship was demasted in a violent gale, Ball towed the stricken vessel to port, and a lifelong friendship ensued.  In 1798, they learned that Napoleon had taken Malta and was headed towards Egypt.  The fleet set sail and engaged the French in the famous Battle of the Nile on 1st August.  The Alexander blew up the French flag-ship L'Orient.  France suffered heavy losses and the British gained control of the Mediterranean.


Meanwhile in Malta, Napoleon had left a garrison of 4,000 men under the command of General Vaubois.  The new regime quickly set about dismantling the institutions of the church and of the Knights of St. John. The local nobility was abolished.  The French refused to meet the debts of the Order and suppliers were left unpaid for goods. Churches were looted, and Church property was confiscated to finance Napoleon’s wars.  This angered the deeply religious Maltese.  On 2nd September 1798, during an auction of church property in Mdina, tensions finally hit breaking point.  The Maltese attacked the French soldiers, who fell back to Valletta, which was then sieged by approximately 10,000 Maltese militiamen, led by Emmanuele Vitale, Vincenzo Borg and Canon Francesco Saverio Caruana. 


Nelson and Ball joined the blockade with a number of ships and Nelson put Ball in charge.  The Militia leaders were immediately attracted by Alexander’s charisma and the sympathy he showed for the plight of the Maltese people.  Despite their success, the Maltese leaders had found it difficult to co-operate. Alexander smoothed over many of the troubles and quickly earned the respect and admiration of the men.  He was recognized as Civil Commissioner and secured food supplies for Malta.  He organised a Congress of 25 representatives from the major towns, with a bishop and judges.  He retained the power to approve decisions but rarely needed to veto them.  The Congress became an invaluable aid to government. 


Several unsuccessful assaults were made on the walls of Valletta.  Ball’s pleas for a force adequate to breach the walls of the city were rejected due to ongoing wars in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the French in Valletta gained knowledge of a plot by the Maltese inhabitants to open the gates after dark.  In January 1799, forty or so conspirators, including Father Michele Xerri and Guglielmo Lorenzi, were shot in the square outside the former Grandmaster’s Palace. 


Food in the fortress city was running low.  The French forced most of the civilian population out of the city but during the summer of 1800 the French rations ran out and a hundred men were dying a day.  On the 5th of September 1800, General Vaubois surrendered to the British General Pigot.  Ball and the Maltese, however, were excluded from negotiations.


The British decided to make the island a de facto protectorate. Ball was placed in charge of civil administration but ultimate authority lay with General Pigot.  Ball sent a number of documents to London, suggesting that Malta could act as a Mediterranean trade centre for the British, with the Grand Harbour providing a secure naval base.  In 1801, Ball was transferred back to active duty with the Royal Navy.  Control of Malta was passed to Charles Cameron and Major General Henry Pigot, whose tyrannical administration angered the Maltese to the point of rebellion had Ball not intervened.


The Treaty of Amiens of 1802 placed Malta again under the rule of the Knights of St. John, despite a Maltese request that they remain attached to Britain.  In June, the recently knighted Sir Alexander Ball returned to Malta to help arrange the handover to the Order.  However, the Treaty broke down and orders came from London to stop preparing for departure.  Ball was once more given charge of civil administration.  This pleased many of the Maltese, as he was a supporter of the Maltese cause and a strong advocate for Malta to remain attached to Britain.  However, Ball supported ambitions that would see a greater Malta with the incorporation of the island of Lampedusa.


Lampedusa lies to the south west of Malta and has an area of 21 square km, less than a third than that of Gozo.  It belonged to the King of the Two Sicilies.  Being so close to North Africa, it was prone to raids by pirates and therefore remained largely uninhabited.   The island was well known to Maltese sailors.  The harbour of Lampedusa served as a shelter from bad weather and from the Barbary corsairs and Ottoman vessels.  The Order of St John even kept a small establishment consisting of a priest and six Maltese men on the island. 


In the late 18th century, the Prince of Lampedusa sub-let the island to Salvatore Gatt, a Maltese entrepreneur.  Gatt and a few Maltese workers worked the land and collected firewood to trade with Malta. They were occasionally visited by Algerian or Moroccan corsairs – fortunately however only to buy food and fill up with water for which they would pay cash. 


Initially the British considered Lampedusa as an alternative marine-military base to Malta, in case they would have to vacate Malta, as stipulated in the Treaty of Amiens.  The idea was soon dropped, as surveys of the island confirmed that Lampedusa was not remotely comparable to Malta on many counts, especially as it lacked a safe and deep sea harbour. 


With the British firmly established in Malta, the role of Lampedusa as an adjunct to Malta took an entirely different dimension.   Correspondence between Malta and London shows Ball pleading with London to consider taking over Lampedusa.  If Bonaparte took Sicily, Malta would lose its main source of essential foodstuffs.  Lampedusa, once in British hands, could be developed as a base for the provision of food for Malta.  Ball argued that taking over Lampedusa should pose no problems, as the stakeholders, Salvatore Gatt, The Prince of Lampedusa, and the King of Sicily, were all expected to co-operate.


In May 1800, Ball had instructed Alexander Fernandez, a British citizen and an employee with the Army Commissariat in the Mediterranean, stationed in Malta, to report on the feasibility of Lampedusa forming part of the Maltese Islands.  Fernandez reported favourably that the island could stock more than enough cattle and sheep for Malta’s needs.  Only a small number of Maltese farm hands would be required and running expenses would be retrieved from the financial returns.


By 1803, a number of Maltese farmers had returned to Lampedusa, engaged by the Commissariat, presumably on a trial basis.  Wild cattle and sheep, the successful growing of barley, and abundant olive trees and firewood were reported.  However, the British government, in spite of all the reports and pressure from Malta, did not commit itself and preferred the waiting game. There were political as well as financial implications to be considered.


In 1809, the most influential supporter of the incorporation of Lampedusa into Malta, Sir Alexander Ball, died in San Anton Palace and was buried in Fort Saint Elmo. 


In 1810 Salvatore Gatt transferred the lease of Lampedusa to Alexander Fernandez for 3,000 scudi per annum. Fernandez wanted to carry out his project of building a large farm for the breeding and fattening of cattle, to grow corn and other vegetables for the Maltese market.  A development on this scale, however, required a measure of security. He requested military protection against hostile incursions which only the British government could provide.  Fernandez was planning to build a fort on the island and for it be occupied by a detachment of British troops. The Treasury found the whole situation disconcerting.


In 1811, the Secretary of State, Lord Liverpool, instructed Governor Oakes to materially support the Fernandez project but insisted no families were to be allowed to settle on the island.  In 1812 a Royal Commission was appointed to report on “Lampedusa, Pantelleria and Linosa as possible sources of supply of food for the Maltese Islands”.  The resulting report was a blow to Fernandez.  The commission considered his project purely as a business venture and wholly speculative. They could not recommend the government to “incur the heavy expense which would naturally attend the occupation of the island”.


Problems for Fernandez accumulated rapidly. In May 1813, there was an outbreak of plague in Malta. The crew of HMS Partridge went down with yellow fever.  The ship was directed to spend a period of quarantine in Lampedusa. The local inhabitants panicked and over 120 fled the island on two small boats, leaving behind a small number of farmhands.


In early 1813, the King of Naples informed the British government of his intention to let Lampedusa stay under British protection “at least during the war”.  Indeed, the British flag was hoisted and a small detachment was posted there but British interest in linking the two islands was waning. 


Following the appointment of Sir Thomas Maitland as the new Governor of Malta, the matter came to a head.  Fernandez was investigated, as it was deemed not proper for an officer in HM Government service to become the sole proprietor of an island and his pay was suspended.  In 1814 Maitland closed the Malta-Lampedusa question by telling London that “Lampedusa never can be of any real use or service to us; the sooner we withdraw the better”. 


Fernandez was still the leaseholder up to 1818. On March 1, he petitioned London for compensation amounting to £44,000, a huge sum at the time, to cover losses incurred in the Lampedusa project, which he considered as “a tale of official encouragement, official letdowns and eventually of sheer bad luck”.  The petition was turned down. The final straw for Fernandez came when he lost the lease of Lampedusa by a decree of the Sicilian courts, at the insistence of Salvatore Gatt, on the grounds that he failed to pay the 3,000 scudi per annum he had contracted in 1810 for the lease.  Gatt returned to live in Lampedusa with his family and was still residing there up to 1824. 


Had Sir Alexander Ball lived a few more years, perhaps the incorporation of Lampedusa would have taken place.  He was possibly the British leader most loved by the Maltese population.  His affectionate care of the Maltese was considered by many of the English settlers and place-seekers to be impolitic and unjust, but he maintained throughout that Britain had won the island largely with the aid of the Maltese and that it was held by their free-will, as fellow-subjects and fellow-citizens.  The year after Ball’s death, the Maltese built a monument in the Lower Barrakka Gardens dedicated to his memory, and it is still there today.


Monument to Sir Alexander Ball in the Lower Barrakka Gardens                                                        Souce: Wikipedia


Further information:


Lecture Recording




The Orient


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