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The Conflict for Malta, 1798 – 1802

The Conflict for Malta, 1798 – 1802

By Dale Pappas

The Knights of St. John in Malta 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 to the island of Cyprus in 1291 and later Rhodes in 1309.  The hospitallers were once mounted knights, but turned to the sea when they arrived in the island of Rhodes.[1]  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 Mediterranean island of Malta to the Order.[2]  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.[3]  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 France was confiscated by the revolutionary government, which caused financial trouble for the knights.[4]  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, Paul I.

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 Russia enjoyed improved relations from 1796.  On 10 December 1797 the Russian Tsar became “Protector of the Order of Malta .”[5]  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 Malta 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 Egypt from a weakened Ottoman empire and also threaten Britain ’s hold on India .  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 Malta 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 Malta ’s strategic importance, as it made for an ideal post in which to conduct operations against the British navy in the Mediterranean.

A force of over 30,000 Frenchman which had sailed from Toulon, Corsica, Genoa, and Civitta Vecchia arrived off of Malta on 9 June.[6]  The majority of the roughly 300 knights were elderly, which resulted in a poor defense of the island.[7]  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 island of Gozo after he promised to do the locals no harm.[8]

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.[9]  Finally, the knights came to terms on 11 June, surrendering the island to the French.[10]  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 Malta ; however, the treasure would be lost during the disastrous battle of the Nile.  Vaubois was left in command of the island when the force departed for Egypt 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 the Nile.  Shortly afterward, Naples stopped all trade with Malta , 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.[11]  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 Britain , Naples, and Russia began to consider who would control Malta once the French were expelled. The British were opposed to Russia ’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 Malta as commander of the forces besieging Valetta.[12]  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 Malta . While the allies quarreled over Malta , 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 Malta .

British-Controlled Malta , 1800 – 1802

After their exile from Malta , many of the knights once again turned to Russia for protection.  Paul was quick to welcome those who wished to stay in Russia while examining the situation in Malta .  Russia entered into an alliance with the Ottomans in 1798 and captured the Greek island of Corfu from the French in November.  Despite the presence of a Russo-Turkish fleet in the Mediterranean, Paul made no effort to seize Malta .  The Tsar planned to withdraw from the Second Coalition after a dispute with the allies. 

Fortunately for the British, Russia ’s withdrawal from the Mediterranean and the Second Coalition opened the door for the conquest of Malta .  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.[13]  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.  Russia began to negotiate with the French, especially after Napoleon’s victory at Marengo in June of 1800.  Tsar Paul closed Russia ’s ports to British merchants in protest over the administration of Malta .  The tsar had become so disgusted with Britain that shortly before his murder in March of 1801, the Russians had contacted Napoleon with plans of a Franco-Russian invasion of the Middle East.[14]

Despite the fact that Tsar Alexander I declared to protect the knights, Russia had lost interest in their restoration in Malta .[15]  Britain and Russia came to terms concerning the island and agreed that Malta would remain a British naval base.  The peace of Amiens in 1802 called for the knights’ restoration in Malta and neighboring Gozo but the British and the Russians argued that Napoleon’s appointment as president of a new Italian Republic among other things violated the terms of the agreement.  The British resolved to retain Malta , which was one of the factors that led to war with France in the spring of 1803.  Malta 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 Malta 1523-1798.  London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920.

Gregory, Desmond. Malta, Britain , and the European Powers 1793-1815.  Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson 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 Malta.  London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1883.

Ryan, Frederick W.  The House of the Temple.  London: Burns Oates and Washbourne Limited, 1930.

Vella, Andrew P.  Malta and the Czars.  Valletta, Malta :  Royal University of Malta , 1972.


[1] Cohen, Reuben.  Knights of Malta 1523-1798.  London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920. Pg. 6

[2] Bradford, Ernle.  The Shield and the Sword. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973. Pgs. 122-123.

[3] Porter, Whitworth. A History of the Knights of Malta.  London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1883. Pg. 647.

[4] Ryan, Frederick W. The House of the Temple. London: Burns Oates and Washbourne Limited, 1930. Pg. 208.

[5] Vella, Andrew P.  Malta and the Czars.  Valletta, Malta : Royal University of Malta , 1972. Pg. 26.

[6] Marshall-Cornwall, James.  Napoleon as Military Commander. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. Pg. 82.

[7] Porter; Pg. 648.

[8] Cavaliero, Roderick.  The Last of the Crusaders.  London: Hollis and Carter, 1960. Pgs. 224-225.

[9] Cohen; Pg. 55.

[10]Bradford; Pg. 214.

[11] Cavaliero; Pg. 246.

[12] Ibid; Pg. 253.

[13] Gregory, Desmond.  Malta, Britain, and the European Powers 1793-1815.  Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh   Dickinson University Press, 1996. Pgs. 13-14.

[14] Herold, J. Christopher.  The Age of Napoleon.  New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1963. Pg. 317.

[15] Bradford;  Pg. 218.