‘Better in my hands than in anyone else’s’ : Napoleon’s Invasion of Malta

On the fourth of May 1798, 15 Floreal on the French Republican Calendar – a 28-year old young man on the rise dictated a letter to his secretary that was to change the course of local history forever and ignite the very concept of Maltese nationhood.

The man of course was Napoleon Bonaparte, who was then Commander in Chief of the French Army of the Orient. Paris had sneezed and Europe had caught a cold. Napoleon riding the crest of fomentation and opportunity in the aftermath of the French revolution, was cutting a swathe through the continent. ‘Le Petit Caporal’ had set ablaze the city states of Italy and now most of them flew the tricolor.

In 1797, the French directorate, uneasy with the meteoric ascent of this ambitious general, and desperate for cash to fund its military campaigns, hatched a plan in the Marseille Chamber of Commerce to wrestle away Britain’s monopoly of the lucrative Indian trade routes. Killing two birds with one stone, it would keep Napoleon away from the seat of power in Paris.

A child of the enlightenment, Napoleon, who had self-styled his Egyptian campaign as a ‘scientific expedition’, cast his eye on Malta. The island’s strategic importance as a spring board to either Africa or Europe had been recognized by Piali Pasha, Queen Elizabeth I, and in more recent times by Eisenhower. Malta would serve as a military logistical base for his campaign. With an armoury, dockyards and a monastic Order full of treasures, Malta presented an ideal maritime station for any superpower wishing to not just repair but also supply and arm its ships. There was also the question of Nelson laying his hands on the coveted island first.  “Better the English in a suburb of Paris than on Malta,” Napoleon is accredited with having uttered.

He had done his research well. Napoleon found a country ripe for the taking. The Order of St. John had been impoverished financially and maybe more so politically by the revolution and was infiltrated with French spies. The Maltese were disenchanted with the ancient regime and sympathetic to these new ideals of liberty and equality, while French knights were ready to defect.

Napoleon began planning the invasion of Malta. In the letter signed and annotated by himself, he ordered General Desaix, a man he trusted implicitly and a close friend, “to assemble the armies, impound ships, arm them” and then pass along the coast of Naples, through the straights by the lighthouse at Messina, and to drop anchor at Syracuse or somewhere close by that affords “the best approach to Malta”. Napoleon also instructed Desaix to prepare two grills for red-hot bullets with two or three-hundred shots apiece”. Warming a cannon ball – known as a hot shot- was a common practice at the time. Heated until they were red hot, they were then fired to ignite the wooden ships and sails of enemy vessels.

Using the element of surprise, Napoleon captured the island in just three days. Landing some 14,000 troops in three separate locations on the islands at 4am, before Grandmaster Hompesch had even been informed that the French had declared war on the Order of St. John, he thereby forced the order to disperse its army.

Contrary to popular belief the Maltese -despite numbering less than half the invading army- put up a spirited resistance.

Disembarking howitzer canons, specialized for use in indirect fire on strategic positions, in St. Julians, the French launched three separate attacks each on Fort Tigne and Fort Manoel which they did not manage to capture. Meanwhile the Zebbug regiment of 160 Maltese militia and their officer were given full military honours by General Desaix for bravely defending the Tower of San Lucian and its entrenchments until their artillery ran out. Allowed to exit the fort with upright rifles, flapping banners and beating drums, the regiment most likely sang the ‘Marseillaise’  since according to Major John Stroud of the Armed Forces of Malta, “it was a common custom for defeated soldiers to sing an anthem or popular song associated with the enemy.”

222 years after being signed , a limited amount of replicas of Napoleon’s letter are available on sale to the general public. The letters can be purchased online and also at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta and the Ġgantija Temples in Gozo.

Heritage Malta’s acquisition of this letter, via an auction organised by Sotheby, is part of the agency’s commitment not only towards accessibility and conservation, but also to significantly increase the national collection. Recent prestigious additions to the collection have included Melchiorre Cafa’s sculpture St. Rose of Lima and Mattia Preti’s painting ‘Boethius and Philosophy’

“The letter has intrinsic and exponential cultural value in itself but as we don’t have many artefacts relating to French period, this letter will enhance that part of our collection.” Noel Zammit Heritage Malta CEO emphasises.

For more details and to purchase a copy of this historic document click HERE

By Warren Joseph Bugeja, Heritage Malta

As featured in Encore Magazine Dec-Feb 2021