The Conflict for
Malta, 1798 – 1802
The Knights of
St. John in
and Tsar Paul I
The Order of St. John of Jerusalem was established in roughly 1070
to protect Christians in the
Holy Land. The Knights Hospitallers, as they are known, moved
Cyprus in 1291 and later
Rhodes in 1309. The hospitallers were once mounted knights, but
turned to the sea when they arrived in the
Rhodes. However, after repeated attacks,
Rhodes fell to the Ottomans. The knights found a more permanent
home in 1530 when the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, bestowed the southern
Malta to the Order. The knights’ maritime prowess led to a period
of economic prosperity. Thirty-five years later, the knights
repulsed invading Turkish forces in what would become known as the
Great Siege of Malta. The island emerged as a well-fortified
stronghold which would remain in the hands of the knights until the
French invasion in 1798.
The power of the knights had declined significantly by the dawn of
the eighteenth century. The majority of the members by this time
were French, although there were also Spanish, Portuguese, Italian,
German, and Anglo-Bavarian knights under the leadership of a Grand
Master. The final Grand Master of Malta, Ferdinand von Hompesch
was elected in 1797. Unfortunately for Grand Master von Hompesch, the
Order was in a difficult situation when he took his post. During
the French Revolution in 1792, the Order’s property in
was confiscated by the revolutionary government, which caused financial
trouble for the knights. The
Maltese people also became weary of the Order’s rule of the island. Desperate
for assistance, the knights looked to the Russian empire and the tsar,
While Grand Duke, Tsar Paul I had developed an interest in the Catholic
Church and also the Order of St. John. He was greatly intrigued
by the knights and entertained the idea of becoming the Grand Master
himself. Fortunately for Paul, the Order and
enjoyed improved relations from 1796. On 10 December 1797 the
Russian Tsar became “Protector of the Order of
.” The Tsar would later be awarded the title of Grand
Master. In the end, the knights’
decision to accept the Tsar’s patronage ended badly for both
sides. The French used the Russian alliance as cause to invade
and end the Order’s tenure on the island. Tsar Paul’s
unstable and often confusing foreign policy contributed to his downfall
and murder in 1801.
The French Period 1798 – 1800
Napoleon devised an expedition to seize
from a weakened Ottoman empire and also threaten
’s hold on
. The French foreign minister, Talleyrand, supported the idea
of a Middle Eastern campaign, which began in the spring of 1798. Napoleon
decided to send spies to
to report the condition of the knights. Reports from these spies
led Napoleon to reason that the knights would not put up a great resistance
in the event of an attack. The French also realized
’s strategic importance, as it made for an ideal post in which to conduct
operations against the British navy in the
A force of over 30,000 Frenchman which had sailed from
Genoa, and Civitta Vecchia arrived off of
on 9 June. The majority of the roughly 300 knights were elderly,
which resulted in a poor defense of the island. Also, the local militias were poorly trained and
terrified at the prospect of engaging the French. Napoleon wasted
little time once his fleet arrived off of the island. Two brigades
commanded by future marshals Marmont and Lannes under General Charles
Henri Vaubois landed near Valetta, the capital of the island. Vaubois’ column
quickly dispersed the Regiment of Malta, who retreated towards Valetta. Meanwhile,
General Louis Charles Desaix landed and defeated another body of Maltese
troops. A third column under General Jean Louis Ebénézer
Reynier captured the neighboring
Gozo after he promised to do the locals no harm.
The arrival of the French caused widespread panic in the streets of
Valetta. Several knights were killed by a mob after rumors had
spread of the island’s surrender. As all of this chaos
raged within the walls of the city, the Grand Master remained indecisively
in his palace. Finally, the knights came to terms on 11 June,
surrendering the island to the French. The Order’s tenure on the island had met
a dishonorable end.
Grand Master von Hompesch was exiled to
Trieste, while the other knights were ordered to abandon the island
shortly after. The French would gain considerable wealth from
their expedition to
; however, the treasure would be lost during the disastrous battle
Nile. Vaubois was left in command of the island when the force
several days later.
Vaubois was uncertain if his position on the island was tenable because
of the lack of necessities. A British fleet also loomed after
Nelson’s annihilation of the French frigates in the battle of
Nile. Shortly afterward,
Naples stopped all trade with
, seriously limiting the possibilities of receiving provisions. The
Maltese themselves were beginning to pose a threat to French control
of the island.
The local population voiced their anger on several matters, including
some religious reforms brought by the French. The attempted seizure
of a convent in the town of
Notabile by the French led to an uprising. The French garrison
in Notabile attempted to hold off the mob but it was soon overrun. The
mob slaughtered the entire garrison after the town fell in their hands. Vaubois
answered by reinforcing the garrisons of several important cities on
the island but the Maltese insurrection had begun.
Emmanuel Vitale emerged as the leader of the movement. Vitale
established a junta by agreeing to share power with a member of the
current administration named Francesco Saverio Caruana. The
leaders of the insurrection appealed to the King of Naples for aid,
as the irregular Maltese forces could not expect to defeat the French
troops on the island. However, King Ferdinand was hesitant to
send aid while his Neapolitan kingdom was threatened by the French. Despite
the absence of foreign support, the Maltese continued to harass the
French, whose supplies dwindled daily.
Neither the Maltese nor the French could inflict serious damage on
the other for several months. Meanwhile, several members of the
Second Coalition including
began to consider who would control
once the French were expelled. The British were opposed to
’s presence in the
Mediterranean because of Russian Tsar’s hostility. Tsar
Paul was dissatisfied with the British because the knights’
sovereignty on the island was still in question.
In late 1799, Brigadier General Thomas Graham was dispatched to
as commander of the forces besieging Valetta. However, the allied forces in the
Mediterranean were in a state of disarray. The British and the
Russians were still at odds over the administration of
. While the allies quarreled over
, the French under Vaubois remained pinned in their defenses with limited
supplies and little hope of escape as enemy frigates blockaded the
island. Unfortunately for Vaubois, the disorganization of the forces
would not deter his enemies from succeeding in the capture of
, 1800 – 1802
After their exile from
, many of the knights once again turned to
for protection. Paul was quick to welcome those who wished to
while examining the situation in
entered into an alliance with the Ottomans in 1798 and captured the
Corfu from the French in November. Despite the presence of a
Russo-Turkish fleet in the Mediterranean, Paul made no effort to seize
. The Tsar planned to withdraw from the Second Coalition after
a dispute with the allies.
Fortunately for the British,
’s withdrawal from the Mediterranean and the Second Coalition opened
the door for the conquest of
. On 5 September 1800, Vaubois surrendered the island to the
British. The British governed the island through a rear admiral
and later a general until 1813. The military officials were unable
to manage the island effectively and became unpopular with the Maltese. However, the Maltese came to tolerate the British
because of economic improvements during the Napoleonic Wars.
The British lost another ally in the
Mediterranean as the Neapolitans made peace with the French, and by
doing so were forced to close their ports to English goods.
began to negotiate with the French, especially after Napoleon’s
victory at Marengo in June of 1800. Tsar Paul closed
’s ports to British merchants in protest over the administration of
. The tsar had become so disgusted with
that shortly before his murder in March of 1801, the Russians had contacted
Napoleon with plans of a Franco-Russian invasion of the
Despite the fact that Tsar Alexander I declared to protect the knights,
had lost interest in their restoration in
came to terms concerning the island and agreed that
would remain a British naval base. The peace of
Amiens in 1802 called for the knights’ restoration in
and neighboring Gozo but the British and the Russians argued that Napoleon’s
appointment as president of a new
Republic among other things violated the terms of the agreement. The
British resolved to retain
, which was one of the factors that led to war with
in the spring of 1803.
remained in British hands throughout the Napoleonic Wars and continued
to serve as a strategic naval base into the 20th Century
until obtaining independence.
Bradford, Ernle. The Shield and the Sword.
New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973.
Cavaliero, Roderick. The Last of the Crusaders.
London: Hollis and Carter, 1960.
Cohen, Reuben. Knights of
London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920.
, and the European Powers 1793-1815.
University Press, 1996.
Herold, J. Christopher. The Age of Napoleon.
New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1963.
Marshall-Cornwall, James. Napoleon as Military Commander.
New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
Porter, Whitfield. A History of the Knights of
London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1883.
Ryan, Frederick W. The House of the
London: Burns Oates and Washbourne Limited, 1930.
Vella, Andrew P.
and the Czars.
 Cohen, Reuben. Knights
London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920. Pg. 6
 Bradford, Ernle. The
Shield and the Sword.
New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973. Pgs. 122-123.
 Porter, Whitworth. A
History of the Knights of
London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1883. Pg. 647.
 Ryan, Frederick W. The
House of the
London: Burns Oates and Washbourne Limited, 1930. Pg. 208.
 Vella, Andrew P.
Malta and the Czars.
, 1972. Pg. 26.
 Marshall-Cornwall, James. Napoleon
as Military Commander.
New York: Penguin Books, 2002. Pg. 82.
 Porter; Pg. 648.
 Cavaliero, Roderick. The
Last of the Crusaders.
London: Hollis and Carter, 1960. Pgs. 224-225.
 Cohen; Pg. 55.
Bradford; Pg. 214.
 Cavaliero; Pg. 246.
 Ibid; Pg. 253.
 Gregory, Desmond.
Malta, Britain, and the European Powers 1793-1815.
New Jersey: Fairleigh
University Press, 1996. Pgs. 13-14.
 Herold, J. Christopher. The
Age of Napoleon.
New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1963. Pg. 317.
 Bradford; Pg. 218.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2008
Index | Battles