The forgotten 8th September anniversary

The two-year war against the French was the one and only exception when the Maltese fought a war for their country – even if misguidedly – and not on behalf of those who colonised us

It is, perhaps, a sad irony in the history of this small island of ours that we celebrate the 8th September of 1565 when the Ottomans lost the Great Siege and the 8th September 1943 when Italy surrendered to the allies, while we never hear anything about the 8th September 1800.

This was the day when the French general, Vaubois, left Malta for good after surrendering the island to General Pigot, a British general, and Captain Martin of the Royal Navy following a siege of two years that led to the starvation of the French garrison in Valletta and their forced surrender.

Our history is littered with all sorts of wars fought by and on behalf of those foreign powers who colonised the islands during the last 2000 years. But the two-year war against the French was the one and only exception when the Maltese fought a war for their country – even if misguidedly – and not on behalf of those who colonised us. It was the Maltese who rose in rebellion against the French after they had taken the island without a fight from the Knights of Malta, who were predominantly French anyway.

In the first six days in Malta, Napoleon introduced a raft of liberal reforms that included the abolition of slavery, the introduction of public education, and divorce. Malta had to wait another 214 years to reintroduce divorce.

There is undoubtedly an irony of fate evident in our history. The rebellion against the Republican French was instigated by the Maltese Catholic Church that saw its long-held privileges being abolished. Under the Knights, the Church was the ‘de facto’ civil government – the only authority registering births, marriages and deaths – while the Order of the Knights was the ‘de jure’ government of the island.

The Maltese of those years, blinded by unconditional faith, and quite a dose of ignorance and superstition, rose in revolt against the French occupation at the request of the Church. This revolt was also against the liberal reforms of the enlightened French. When the French allegedly started to pilfer churches, the Maltese took up arms for what they, and not their new colonial masters, believed in.

It was a bloody war, probably the bloodiest in our history. According to Giovanni Segond (possibly a pseudonym) – author of a series of books on Maltese history published in 1930 from which I lifted this information – the Maltese rural regiments lost 20,000 to war and famine. The French Ransejat is quoted as saying that the French shot 52,000 cannon balls and 700,000 musket shots from the impregnable fortifications of Valletta that the Maltese rural regiment assaulted five times at great cost.

Vaubois held his ground bravely but he had to give in as his soldiers started to die of starvation. There was no food left in the besieged three cities and Valletta. Segond states that according to a price order issued by Vaubois, the going price of a rat was the equivalent of one shilling and four pence.

The Royal Navy blockade was tight and when Vaubois lost all hope of help from France, he stared to negotiate with the British General Pigot… even though it was the Maltese who had declared war on the French and did most of the fighting.

The capitulation negotiations started on the 4th of September 1800 with General Grantham and Commander Martin for the British side and General Vaubois and Admiral Villeneuve for the French. Grantham went back to report to Pigot whilst Martin stayed for lunch. Presumably, rats were not on the menu.

Pigot agreed to the terms of capitulation with minor changes. The highlights of the terms were that the French were to leave Malta with full military honours and were to be taken to Marseilles and Toulon at the cost of the British. They were to take their arms and all belongings. This applied also to all foreign French sympathisers, including many Maltese who were in French employment or who sided with them.

The sick and wounded were to stay behind and be repatriated when possible. Any property of the French or their sympathisers had to be sold within six months.

The entrance to Valletta at Port De Bombs was to be guarded by a mixed French/British force and no Maltese soldiers were to be allowed to enter Valletta until all the French had left the Grand Harbour.

Segond speculates that these terms followed secret instructions received by Pigot from Britain. Nevertheless these were never discussed with the representatives of the Maltese, or with Alexander Ball who was trusted by the Maltese after he had – on behalf of the King of Naples – coordinated the Maltese forces on land and the Royal Navy at sea. Segond says that Ball was either tricked or more probably overruled as by the 18th August, Pigot had already stated the there was no need for the Maltese congress to meet any more and all decisions were to be taken by Ball.

The Maltese were livid at these terms. The least they expected was that the French would be asked to give up the treasures that they had pilfered – or appropriated forcibly – from Malta.

Meanwhile General Vaubois and his retinue were invited to a grand lunch at the Palace in San Anton by General Pigot, where they drank to each other’s health whilst the Maltese leaders Caruana, Vitale and others were nowhere to be seen,

On the 5th September, Major General Henry Pigot entered Valletta with flags flying and gun salutes from the fortifications. The Maltese battalions were lined up outside Port De Bombes where they were ordered to lay down their arms. This did not go down well with them, but Alexander Ball carried the day. The Royal Navy entered the Grand Harbour.

On the 8th September at four in the afternoon, General Vaubois sailed for France, never to return again.

When the French ships were over the horizon, Alexander Ball entered Valletta as Governor of Malta – as appointed by the King of Naples. He was accompanied by the Maltese dignitaries and immediately went to the Palace of the Grandmaster. He presented himself to Archbishop Labini and the leading Maltese parish priests and what not. Then he announced that all the property and treasures nationalised by the French were to revert to their previous owners.

Evidently, Ball knew Malta well.

This eventually led to the unholy alliance between the protestant British Crown and the mediaeval Maltese Catholic Church – an alliance to their mutual benefit that was to last 164 years.

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