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Coleridge’s Laws

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Barry Hough
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Howard Davis

Appendix 2. The British Occupation of Malta

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The French Invasion

  • 1 The expedition was precipitate because the French had not first established maritime supremacy. Th (...)

1In June 1798, during the course of the ill-fated expedition to Egypt,1 French forces invaded Malta. These were met with only limited resistance and the Order quickly surrendered.

  • 2 At the outbreak of the Revolution the Order had supported King Louis XVI.

2By the time of the invasion, the Order had been in serious decline. Firstly, the Maltese regarded it as autocratic and oppressive, not least because it refused to share political power with them. Secondly, in 1792, the French had confiscated its assets, in France, from which it derived significant revenue. This meant that the Island was almost bankrupt.2 The paternalist welfare policies that we considered, in Chapter 2, were no longer affordable. Within Malta, political support for the continued rule of the Order was in doubt.

  • 3 CN 2, 2138.

3On its arrival in Malta, the army of Revolutionary France was seen by many of the Maltese as an army of liberation and they looked forward to enhanced civil and political rights under French government. Many of the knights fled to St Petersburg others, presumably French, accompanied Napoleon to Egypt. After electing the Russian Emperor, Paul I, to be their Grandmaster, the Order came under his protection in the hope that under his influence they could, eventually, be restored to power in Malta. The actions of the occupying French forces soon caused considerable discontent amongst the Maltese people. Their commander, General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois, ordered the confiscation of church plate; money was removed from the Maltese treasury and public bank (the Università); the Islanders were taxed. Coleridge reported that men of the Maltese regiments were forced to serve in the French forces in Egypt. He had been informed that they were placed in front of French troops and used as cannon fodder.3

The Insurrection

  • 4 Ball to Dundas, 6 March 1801, Kew, CO 158/10/15.

4On 2 September 1798, the Maltese, numbering only about three thousand ”badly armed” men,4 rose up against the occupiers. The immediate cause of the revolt may have been the attempted seizure of church property at Rabat. The timing of the popular uprising probably had more to do with the news, which had reached the Island a few days earlier, of the destruction of the French fleet by Lord Nelson’s forces at the Battle of Aboukir Bay. The Maltese must now have realised that the British had naval supremacy, and, with the French expeditionary forces stranded in Egypt, the local garrison could not easily be assisted and reinforced – it was, in effect, cut off.

  • 5 Ibid. There are doubts concerning the accuracy of Ball’s account because, on 21 December 1798, Gen (...)

5When the uprising broke out, French forces, possibly comprising about seven thousand troops under Vaubois,5 withdrew into the fortress of Valletta. The fortress was impregnable to attack from the available land forces of their enemies so the withdrawal was consistent with military logic. Safe inside their walls, the French garrison could either make sorties or await relief. The strategy also meant that the burden of feeding the rural population was imposed upon the insurgents.

  • 6 Proclama, 15 December 1798, NLM LIBR/MS 430 1 Bandi 1790 AL 1805.
  • 7 According to Bosredon Ransijat, President of the French Commission of Government, who was besieged (...)

6The Maltese adopted the strategy of siege, placing their forces around the fortress of Valletta on the landward side. However, in the short term, that tactic resulted in a stalemate since they lacked the strength to storm the fortifications, and possessed no heavy weapons with which to demolish the walls. But that was not all. By abandoning the greater part of the Island and its population, the French commander had also reduced the demands upon his food stores. He also removed the Maltese population from Valletta, and the three cities, in order to eke out the food stores available to his forces.6 The siege, then, could be endured for much longer than had the French attempted to retain control of the whole Island. It was an astute tactic. In one sense, the Maltese revolt had been counter-productive because, in its absence, the Royal Navy blockade would probably have succeeded in forcing a capitulation by March 1799.7 This question of tactical effectiveness would have lasting consequences because it was to influence how the narrative of the liberation would be constructed. Whether the British were merely ”auxiliaries” to a Maltese effort (and, thus, later wronged the Maltese by excluding them from the articles of surrender), or whether the effective military efforts were exclusively those of the British was a lingering and bitter controversy.

  • 8 After defeating the French at Aboukir Bay Nelson had returned to Sicilian waters to defend the Kin (...)

7In order to achieve the complete capture of the Island, the Maltese insurgents needed military assistance. This aid was obtained from King Ferdinand IV of the Two Sicilies who had allied himself with Russia, Austria and Great Britain against the French. On 9 September 1798 Maltese deputies also applied to Nelson for his assistance.8 Nelson responded by ordering four ships of the line, under Portuguese command, to assist the Maltese. He also directed that arms be landed from the British ships ”crippled” after sea battle at Aboukir Bay. On 19 February 1799 the Sicilian King formally expressed his agreement that British forces should protect Malta.

  • 9 Terpsichore, Bonne Citoyenne and Incendiary.
  • 10 See generally, The Friend, 1; also Kooy, 2003, 441; Kooy, 1999.

8Early in the campaign Nelson had replaced the Portuguese naval commander with Captain Alexander Ball (as he then was) of the Alexander, a 74 gun ship of the line. Ball was ordered to pursue the blockade with three other vessels.9 Nelson later informed the Emperor of Russia that Ball was ”an officer not only of the greatest merit, but of the most conciliating manners” and well suited to the task of commanding the squadron of British and Portuguese ships and liaising with the insurgents. Ball, of course, became a significant figure in the early history of British possession of the Island and in Coleridge’s accounts of his time on Malta.10

9Ball was later required to organise the civil government for that part of the Island liberated from the French. Thus, September 1799 saw the beginning of Ball’s first period of government of the Island. However, it must be emphasised that in his governmental capacity, he was a representative of the Neapolitan Court, not the British Crown.

  • 11 The Friend, 1, 561.

10Apart from ensuring the administration of civil government in the liberated part of the Island, Ball had to organise the military effort and resolve disputes between the Maltese and their allies. During the prolonged stalemate morale fell, and it was Ball’s responsibility to keep up flagging spirits. Ball recounted to Coleridge how onerous he found his diverse and difficult roles.11

11Nelson’s correspondence with Paul I of Russia offered assurances that Britain would make no claim to the Island. British presence on the Island, at this time, always acknowledged King Ferdinand as the legitimate sovereign. Neapolitan troops were deployed against the French during the siege and the Neapolitan flag was ordered to be hoisted on the Island.

12By June 1800 the blockade of the Island was causing difficulties for the French garrison. At this crucial moment, Major-General Pigot arrived with two further British regiments. Napoleon must have believed that capitulation was inevitable so he played an astute hand. He seized the opportunity offered to cede Malta to Russia, calculating that this would cause tension between the allies, giving Russia a legitimate claim to Malta vis-à-vis Great Britain. This act affected British colonial policy in Malta after 1800 because Britain was forced to regard the governmental arrangements as temporary, pending a final settlement at international level. Formal recognition of this emerged, for example, in the administration of justice that would not be formally vested in His Majesty. No public statements were made asserting that the sovereignty of Malta was vested in Britain. It was only when Russia gave up its claim in 1812 that this policy changed. However, in private and even in some diplomatic exchanges, British officials regarded the Crown as sovereign in Malta after 1800.

The French Surrender

  • 12 Probably because General Vaubois would not have recognised the Maltese in-surgents. Moreover, Ball (...)
  • 13 Article 11 of the Articles of Capitulation which explicitly excluded other troops (Appendix to Sto (...)

13The fortress of Valletta, faced with famine, eventually offered terms of capitulation which were agreed by the British alone and signed on 5 September 1800. It followed negotiations conducted by the English Commanding Officer, Major-General Pigot, without reference either to the Maltese or to the Civil Governor, Captain Ball.12 Pigot did not sign the articles offered on behalf of His Britannic Majesty and his allies.13 This was a surrender to Britain alone – the Maltese were treated a third parties.

  • 14 According to Coleridge, their feelings had been ”insulted”, and this ”alienated their affections. (...)
  • 15 Kew, CO 158/19; also Marchese di Testaferrata to Earl Bathurst, January 1812, Hardman, 512.
  • 16 Article 12 did not require the French to furnish compensation. The British agreed to uphold lawful (...)

14This exclusion from the capitulation caused much bitterness amongst the Maltese.14 It was not simply a matter of pride that their brothers in arms had appointed themselves as the senior partners in a military alliance, prepared to exclude their fellow combatants from the rituals of victory. The Maltese considered that the British bungled the arrangements under which the French left the Island. Not least amongst these injustices was the failure of the British to accept the French offer of hostages15 as a guarantee that assets taken from the Università and other public intuitions such as the Monti di Pietà would be compensated. Moreover, the British did not insert any clause in the articles of capitulation indemnifying the private property rights of the Maltese in this respect.16 Their Maltese allies must have been even more astonished and angry that the British furnished transports to carry the garrison and its spoils to French ports, including money plundered from the Island.

  • 17 Although as we shall see the Bando had other purposes. See taxation theme, Chapter 5.

15As we shall see, the failure to consult the Maltese and act upon their views contributed to certain unnecessary but intractable political and administrative problems that were instrumental in tainting the first decade of the British administration of the Island. As we have seen, one of Coleridge’s most important laws – the Proclamation of 8 March 1805 – was ostensibly introduced to assist those civilians who suffered loss as a result of these events.17

16The revolutionary Congress of the Maltese was dissolved immediately after the surrender. Ball continued for a brief but highly significant period (until February 1801) to act as the Civil Governor of the Island. It was in this six month period that he initiated many of the policies that would characterise British administration of Malta. These were driven by his ambition that the Island should remain in British hands, for which it would be necessary to gain the support of the Maltese.

  • 18 There is a suggestion of tension in Pigot to Sir Ralph Abercromby, 5 September 1800, quoted in Har (...)

17The reasons for Ball’s recall, despite his popularity with the Maltese, need to be explained. His presence on the Island had been under the authority of the Neapolitan Crown and tended to suggest its continuing sovereign rights. His presence was, thus, inconsistent with the policy of the British military authorities that would recognise no foreign power as having a claim to the Island. But, there may have also been a more prosaic reason. It seems that his relationship with Pigot was strained;18 Pigot appears to have wanted to bring the civil administration under his authority and this view was briefly accepted by Whitehall.

Military Government

  • 19 Ball to Dundas, 6 March 1801, Kew, CO 158/10/15.

18Rumours had circulated that the British government would adopt a military government following the capitulation. At the time he was preparing to return to his ship, Ball reported to Dundas that the rumours were causing ”dissatisfaction” amongst the local population whom he represented as being unanimously in favour of the establishment a civil authority distinct from the military. The Maltese were anxious that under a military government they would be vulnerable to the same oppression that had occurred under the Order of St John. Ball’s own opinion, as the former Civil Governor, was that a military governor would not have the opportunity to devote himself properly to civil affairs. Given the strength of feeling locally, Ball urged that the civil and military power be separated.19

19Although a military government, under Major-General Pigot, was at first installed, its tenure was but a brief one. It was terminated when Charles Cameron was appointed Civil Commissioner on 14 May 1801.

The First Civil Administration

  • 20 See Roberts-Wray, 306. The actual power conferred was a matter for the Commission and Instructions (...)
  • 21 Cameron was recalled by a despatch of 9 June 1802: Kew, CO 159/3/84.
  • 22 Ball to Windham, 27th August 1806, Kew, CO 158/12/153. Ball made the case for a pay rise and to ha (...)

20The use of the title ”Civil Commissioner” (as opposed to ”Governor) was symbolic rather than substantive. It was generally reserved for cases where some lesser title than ”Governor” was appropriate. It did not, necessarily, imply that the office-holder would enjoy fewer powers, but rather that political reasons existed for avoiding the use of the alternative title.20 In the case of Malta this choice of title was certainly not unconsidered. When Sir Alexander Ball (who succeeded Charles Cameron)21 requested that he should officially be styled ”Governor”22 his request was denied. It was not until 1813 that a proper, so called, ”Governor” was appointed. For internal political reasons, Ball chose to style himself to as the ”Royal Commissioner” – a title that he considered had more dignity than the title ”Civil Commissioner” and one that emphasised the constitutional relationship between his office and the British Crown.

Malta and the Treaty of Amiens

21In March 1801 the Addington Ministry took office in London. Almost immediately it opened negotiations with France to conclude the war. Central to these negotiations was the question of Malta. It was now seen as a strategically-significant Island controlling access to the Levant, to Egypt and, thus, the overland routes to India.

22France wanted to see the Order of St John restored so as to ensure that Britain did not retain possession of the Island. In turn, Britain wished to deny Malta to France.

  • 23 Cameron to Hobart, 23 October 1801, Kew, CO 158/1/335.
  • 24 Hardman, 410-5.

23The policy of temporary occupation became obvious in the terms of the Preliminary Treaty of Amiens concluded in October 1801. In this agreement the British government undertook to permit the restoration of the Order of St John to Malta under the protection of Russia. This settlement was acutely unpopular in Malta. Cameron reported to Lord Hobart that a mere rumour of the agreement ”has occasioned most violent fermentation” locally.23 The Maltese remonstrated that, as France had confiscated the French property of the Knights in 1792, in effect, France would have an indirect control of Malta.24 They were also concerned about possible reprisals against their people.

  • 25 Hardman, 424-5.
  • 26 Coleridge condemned the Treaty on moral grounds as an unjust and inhumane instrument that disregar (...)

24A deputation was sent to London to remonstrate with the British, but they were arguing against a fait accompli. Lord Hobart replied to them, by a letter dated 20 April 1802, that the abandonment of Malta was ”an indispensable sacrifice” necessary to secure a general peace.25 In return for an assurance that the settlement for Malta would include a guarantee of greater political freedom for the Maltese, the deputies were persuaded to accept the restoration of the Order.26

  • 27 The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had effectively become a vassal sate of France. French forces were (...)

25This undertaking was reflected in the terms of Article X, of the definitive Treaty of Amiens of 27 March 1802, which was intended to deny Malta both to France and Britain and also to confer greater rights upon the Maltese. The Treaty provided for the restoration of the Order, the neutrality of the Island, the withdrawal of British civil and military authorities, the establishment of a Neapolitan garrison (which was intended to be present only until the Order could raise sufficient forces to garrison the islands27) and enhanced political rights for the Maltese, particularly in so far as the Grandmaster of the Order was to be elected from amongst the native Maltese. This was a particularly significant extension of the political rights of the Maltese vis a vis the Order.

  • 28 Hardman, 444-7.

26Russia had not played a part in the negotiation of the Treaty and, subsequently, expressed its discontent at the civil and political guarantees for the Maltese.28

Ball’s Second Administration 1802-1809.

27Ball returned to the islands in July 1802 having succeeded Cameron as Civil Commissioner. He was additionally styled ‘minister plenipotentiary to the Order of St John’. His primary task was to implement the Treaty of Amiens.

  • 29 Cm 9657 Appendix F; see also Frendo.

28The restoration of the Order was still deeply opposed by many, if not all, significant opinion in Malta. On 15 June 1802 a Declaration of Rights29 was issued under the authority of the Congress of the Islands of Malta and Gozo declaring that the ‘King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is our Sovereign Lord, and his lawful successors shall, in all times to come, be acknowledged as our lawful sovereign’.

29The Treaty of Amiens was never implemented (a major dispute was that the British refused to evacuate Malta because of French aggression) and the war with France resumed in May 1803. At that time, Ball was appointed ‘Civil Commissioner’, and he successfully obtained the removal of Neapolitan troops. Ball continued as Civil Commissioner in this, his second administration, until his death in October 1809. Ball’s successor was the military commander, Major-General Hildebrand-Oakes who was himself replaced in 1813 by Sir Thomas Maitland, the first to be described by the British as ‘Governor’. Malta then became a colony of the British Empire.

14. Memorial to Sir Alexander Ball, 1757-1809, Lower Barrakka Gardens, Valletta.

Notes

1 The expedition was precipitate because the French had not first established maritime supremacy. This was to prove their undoing. A British fleet had been dispatched to the Mediterranean, inter alia, to protect Ireland against a French invasion. French forces had landed in Wales in 1797, which caused considerable alarm, including the ”Spy Nosy” affair in which the Home Office placed both Wordsworth and Coleridge under observation. See Holmes, 1989, 159-60.

2 At the outbreak of the Revolution the Order had supported King Louis XVI.

3 CN 2, 2138.

4 Ball to Dundas, 6 March 1801, Kew, CO 158/10/15.

5 Ibid. There are doubts concerning the accuracy of Ball’s account because, on 21 December 1798, General Vaubois claimed to have had a mere 3,822 men under arms excluding the sick: Hardman, xxi.

6 Proclama, 15 December 1798, NLM LIBR/MS 430 1 Bandi 1790 AL 1805.

7 According to Bosredon Ransijat, President of the French Commission of Government, who was besieged in Valletta: B. Ransijat, Journal du Siege et Blocus de Malte. Imp. De Valade, Paris, an. IX, 17 (Journal of the Siege and Blockade of Valletta) quoted in Hardman, 332.

8 After defeating the French at Aboukir Bay Nelson had returned to Sicilian waters to defend the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies against likely French aggression.

9 Terpsichore, Bonne Citoyenne and Incendiary.

10 See generally, The Friend, 1; also Kooy, 2003, 441; Kooy, 1999.

11 The Friend, 1, 561.

12 Probably because General Vaubois would not have recognised the Maltese in-surgents. Moreover, Ball had been appointed by the King of Naples, and the Congress of the Maltese, neither of which were recognised as legitimate by the French.

13 Article 11 of the Articles of Capitulation which explicitly excluded other troops (Appendix to Stoddart CJ’s reports, Kew, CO158/91; see also Hardman, 322.

14 According to Coleridge, their feelings had been ”insulted”, and this ”alienated their affections. He emphasised Ball’s part in arguing that, as a question of ”plain justice”, the Maltese should have been included: The Friend, 1, 563.

15 Kew, CO 158/19; also Marchese di Testaferrata to Earl Bathurst, January 1812, Hardman, 512.

16 Article 12 did not require the French to furnish compensation. The British agreed to uphold lawful property transactions effected during the occupation. The clause does not require restitution for money and goods taken by the French. Article 12 stated: ”All alienations or sales of moveable or immoveable property whatsoever, made by the French government while in possession of Malta, and all transactions between individuals, shall be held inviolable”. Answer Art 12 ”Granted, as far as they shall be just and lawful”.

17 Although as we shall see the Bando had other purposes. See taxation theme, Chapter 5.

18 There is a suggestion of tension in Pigot to Sir Ralph Abercromby, 5 September 1800, quoted in Hardman, 324; see also Pirotta, 53.

19 Ball to Dundas, 6 March 1801, Kew, CO 158/10/15.

20 See Roberts-Wray, 306. The actual power conferred was a matter for the Commission and Instructions under which the Governor/Civil Commissioner acted.

21 Cameron was recalled by a despatch of 9 June 1802: Kew, CO 159/3/84.

22 Ball to Windham, 27th August 1806, Kew, CO 158/12/153. Ball made the case for a pay rise and to have his office entitled ”Civil Governor”.

23 Cameron to Hobart, 23 October 1801, Kew, CO 158/1/335.

24 Hardman, 410-5.

25 Hardman, 424-5.

26 Coleridge condemned the Treaty on moral grounds as an unjust and inhumane instrument that disregarded the national honour of the Maltese: The Friend, 1, 571.

27 The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had effectively become a vassal sate of France. French forces were in central Italy; and there was suspicion that the Neapolitan troops would be indirectly under French control.

28 Hardman, 444-7.

29 Cm 9657 Appendix F; see also Frendo.

Table des illustrations

Légende 14. Memorial to Sir Alexander Ball, 1757-1809, Lower Barrakka Gardens, Valletta.
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