Past Events: Lecture 21 February 2017

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The Demise of the French and the Arrival of the British


Joseph Borg




IMG 8984The president of the MHA, Joseph Borg, gave our first talk for 2017 at 7:30 pm on 21st February at the Maltese Community Centre in Parkville.  His topic was The Demise of the French and the Arrival of the British (1798 – 1815).


Touched on by Robert Blythe in his October 2016 lecture on Sir Alexander Ball, this was a particularly turbulent period in Maltese History.  In 1798, the Knights under Grandmaster Hompesch surrendered to Napoleon, who left a strong garrison of 3000 men on Malta. Napoleon went on to conquer Egypt but his fleet, including his flagship, L’Orient, carrying looted Maltese treasure, was destroyed by the British under Nelson and Ball in the Battle of the Nile at Aboukir Bay. 


Meanwhile the Maltese soon rebelled against the French and, declaring allegiance to the King of the Two Sicilies, eventually forced them to retreat to Valletta. The French were blockaded there, with the help of the Portuguese and the British.  A plot to open the gates of Valletta from the inside was thwarted and over 40 insurgents, including Dun Michael Xerri, were executed in the palace square.  The Portuguese and the British left, the latter being preoccupied with other sea battles in the Mediterranean, and it was left to the Maltese to maintain the blockade. 


IMG 8989Starvation set in on the island, both for the Maltese and the besieged French. French relief forces were mostly unsuccessful but Alexander Ball organised food and troops from Sicily to support the Maltese.  Eventually the starving French were forced to surrender but key players, including Ball, representing the King of Sicily, and the Maltese were excluded from the negotiations.  However, Ball did secure a share of the prize money for the Maltese who had served on the blockade. 


Russia also had designs on Malta and had formed an alliance with Napoleon.  Now the Tsar tried to lay a claim under a pre-existing Convention with the British and the Two Sicilies.  He was unsuccessful. A stalemate between the British and French led to the Preliminary Treaty of Peace, which included returning Malta to the Knights. 


IMG 8986The Maltese objected strongly, prepared to submit only to the British or demand independence, even if it meant death!  Smaller groups of Maltese favoured the Knights, some even the French.  The tenth article of the Treaty of Amiens included a compromise offer.  Both the French and British would withdraw from Malta and it would become neutral, guaranteed by the signatories of the treaty.  The Knights would be restored but without the British or French langues and with the creation of a Maltese langue.  The Maltese felt betrayed and they drew up a “Declaration of Rights of the Inhabitants of the Islands of Malta and Gozo”


Meanwhile Britain, realising Malta’s strategic importance, secretly halted her withdrawal, facilitated by the breakdown of the Treaty of Amiens by the French, objections from Russia, and the delay in appointing a Grandmaster of the Order.  The Maltese demonstrated their objections to the Knights so strongly that a visiting representative of the Order left in disgust.  A number of different proposals, including independence, were put forward but Britain had made up her mind to possess Malta and ensure British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean. 


The defeat of the French by Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Treaty of Paris, and the Congress of Vienna ensured that Malta would become an important part of the British Empire, and commit her to the roles she would play in world history over the next 150 years.


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