The fear of the French Revolution in Malta

Publié le 27/04/2014


Malta was not gripped by such universal fear. The people did not start to arm themselves in self-defence and no agrarian revolts are recorded; nor did châteaux go up in flames. But all the same, as can be fully documented by a group of dispatches at the Archivio di Stato of Naples, fear was in the air – fear of rebellion or invasion

Part I

On 11 August 1789 the French national assembly shook the Order of the Knights of St John to its very foundations, when it abolished the tithes. (2) The dîmes had formed the greater part of the revenues from the commanderies or estates in France. In these calamitous circumstances Grand Master de Rohan, on 25 September, impressed upon the Neapolitan king the Order’s services to all Christendom as a secure refuge to navigators and asked him for assistance. (3) Ferdinand realised the utility his kingdom derived from its commerce with Malta and ordered Pignatelli, his minister, to observe vigilantly events on the island. (4)

The Order’s existence hang in the balance and M. Camus clamoured for its abolition ‘with much enthusiasm and zeal’. (5) But the chambers of commerce of Marseilles and Bordeaux both showed the advantages that France derived from Malta. (6) Mayer made the same point in the National Assembly – even though he claimed that the Order was subject to the pope only in spiritual matters. (7) Bailli de Virieu, the Order’s chargé d’affaires in Paris, was desperate. To ingratiate themselves with the revolutionaries the French langues contributed their share to the don patriotique and offered a quarter of their revenues. (8) De Rohan dispatched letters to Louis XVI, as well as to all the Catholic kings of Europe, especially the pope, asking for their mediation (9). He also issued an order prohibiting knights from taking any part in the counter-revolution (10). Nor did he allow the treasury to lend 200,000 scudi to Marquis de la Lare. This knight of the Order of St Louis from Aix was a sworn enemy of the revolution and a supporter of Count d’Artois, the king’s younger brother. He was also a great antagonist of Mirabeau, for which he had run the risk of being lynched by the people (11).

The revolution was befriended and anti-revolutionary propaganda suppressed. On the last day of carnival 1790 two masked Italian knights satirised the national (p.139) assembly and the French nation. The Sienese Sansedoni dressed as a demon with a long tail and with a placard across his shoulders showing ‘the devil of liberty’. He rode on a crowned donkey decorated with several white, red and blue ribbons, which also carried a poster: ‘donkey am I but not a savage beast. The devil of liberty has enslaved me’. Another Italian knight, the Florentine Bonsignori, who wore a torn under-dress, held the tail of the devil, while telling him, ‘My friend, give me my dress’, to which the devil answered, ‘You never had one’. The two Hospitallers were both arrested. (12)

However, foreign circumstances proved greater than the interests of tiny Malta. With the attempted escape of the royal family to Varennes the Order, whose revenues had subsidised the enterprise, lost its one sure supporter. And with the invasion of France by enemy forces the Order’s chances of survival were annihilated. The deadly blow fell on 19 September 1792, when the Order’s lands were confiscated. Bailli de Foresta, the Order’s ricevitore at Marseilles, was dispatched to Paris to protest against this decree. (13) He came back empty handed but the grand master was still conciliatory. On 22 February 1793 some forty French Hospitallers gathered in the principal square at Valletta in the morning. They intended to go to the house of M. Comeau, the former minister of the French king, (14) to remove the royal coat-of-arms from atop the door of his residence. Once the monarch was dead, they argued, and a republican constitution was in existence the minister could no longer exhibit the royal insignia. The commissioner of police (maestro scudiere) persuaded them to return to their homes (15) but the grand master, in compliance with the complaints of the Convention, did remove the disputed coat-of-arms. (16) Nor did de Rohan allow pictures depicting the ‘barbarous execution of the unfortunate Louis XVI’ be sold to the public (17) – even though he and his council did attend a mass for the soul of Marie-Antoinette. (18)

On one thing though the Order stood firm. On 7 March 1793 the Comité de Salut Public of the national convention devised a plan for Malta to abandon its ‘sterile neutrality’ and participate instead in French commerce. By means of this plan, approved by the Commission des Subsistances et Approvisionnements, the island was to become a depôt for French grain in return for a French pledge of defence. (19) The Maltese were to be paid within eight days by a French agent but they could also be paid in kind, for instance, fine cloth, colonial products, porcelain, glass, precious stones and other objects. Accompanied by a merchant and two Frenchmen, members of the Club of Marseilles and Nice, (20) Foresta arrived at Genoa. (21) The grand master rejected the plan and issued orders that if the three representatives of the commission, among whose possessions a guillotine was allegedly found, were to come to Malta they would not be allowed to land. (22)

But if the Order would not become an ally of France nor would it give open help to its adversaries. (23) In 1795 the knight Ferret arrived in Malta to raise a cavalry regiment for the army of the Prince de Condé. De Rohan and the Congregazione di Stato disapproved and those who were enlisted were not allowed to leave the island. One Reno, therefore, a Maltese, was threatened with death if he continued engaging more men; and ships in harbour were prohibited from taking on board more than two (p.141) Maltese. (24) The grand master’s good will was also shown the next year when a French frigate was driven into Marsamxett harbour by contrary winds. Against the advice of some knights de Rohan gave the captain all the help he needed to continue his way to Marseilles. (25)

But the passing of time made the Order’s cause hopeless. On 13 July 1796 the Council appointed Fra Giuseppe d’Hannoville as ambassador extraordinary to negotiate with the French the restitution of its property through the mediation of the Spanish monarch. (26) Negotiations failed, under the pretext that before reaching some form of agreement with the Order, the Directory had first to make peace with the other powers. (27)

It was not only the loss of its landed estates (28) however that impoverished the Order. In those calamitous circumstances several knights returned to Malta, which increased the Treasury’s difficulties. (29) These émigrés included people like Filippe Marie de Andlau who appealed to the pope for help in his extreme misery. He was assured that in Malta he would not lack ‘a table and a house’. (30) To raise money the tax on wine was increased in 1793 (31) but something more substantial was needed. For this purpose the council, on Tuesday, 3 November 1795 nominated four grand crosses who, together with the procurators and the secretary of the treasury, were to suggest the means to improve the financial situation. One of those measures was that postage (p.142) was to be paid irrespectively by all, (32) the only exception being the inquisitor. (33) The Order tried to economise as much as it could. By 1 September 1796 it had succeeded to diminish its annual expenses by 240,000 Maltese scudi but this was short by 160,000 scudi. It was decided then to increase the responsions of the commanderies of every langue. (34)

Part II

When the revolution broke out the government took the necessary military measures to defend the island, especially when it was rumoured, in November 1792, that La Touche was approaching Malta with the navy. Bailli du Tillet, who had served in France, and knight commander Thurn were the two generals appointed to direct the defence. The Corpo dei Cacciatori was doubled from 500 to 1000; its members made frequent military exercises and were placed along the shore. Soldiers of the galere and the vascelli were sent to protect castles St Angelo and Ricasoli and the Reggimenti della Campagna as well as the milizie of the cities were put on the alert. The vascello San Zaccaria and the frigate Santa Elisabetta supervised the bays and did not let anyone lend before being given libera pratica. In this way it was possible to keep the country clean of those impious spies who tried to enter stealthily to seduce and plot against public peace. The shipyard, the polverista and other strategic places were also kept under close supervision, (35) as well as the main doors of the city. (36)

But, much more than that, steps were taken against ‘individuals obsessed with the spirit of dizziness which then reigned in France and neighbouring lands’. (37) The chief judge, Grimaldi, was made head of a Congregazione Criminale di Stato to (p.143) proceed against those tainted with French maxims. (38) He was helped by the public prosecutor (promotor fiscale) and the commissioner of police (39) while De Rohan took him into his confidence and showed him the secret correspondence from Paris. (40)

‘Challengers of the peace’ were dealt with summarily (41) and exiled. (42) This applied especially to Frenchmen, even if they had been here for a long time exercising some craft or commerce. (43) Three French sergeants of the Reggimento di Malta were also deported on 17 August 1794 for the secret meetings they held among themselves. There were no other Frenchmen left except two, who had served in the counter-revolution and were well known as trustworthy persons. (44) Guillaume Laurier arrived in Malta in July 1794 on a Venetian vessel. He had been expelled from the kingdom of the Two Sicilies on suspicion of being a member of those who had caused turbulence in that kingdom. He was not even allowed to land. (45)

It was not only Frenchmen who were banished, but also any foreigner suspected of being an adherent to revolutionary maxims. Carolina Giardinelli was a perfidious Jacobine (46) , who told some French knights: ‘The Neapolitans are no longer bound to obey their king’s authority, as it is abusive’. (47) A Sicilian merchant, Zappalà by name, had the audacity to tell a man, whom he thought harboured revolutionary ideas like him:

Europe is in turmoil and as long as there remains a single king it cannot be at peace because it is and harmful to submit to a single person. (48)

Expulsion was also the fate of a German lady, Elisabetta Dalmazzo, who wore a hair band displaying the French colours. (49)

Fear gripped the nation. According to Elizabeth Schermerhorn, who gives a vivid description of these suspicions and whispering, every stranger was a spy and stores and houses were searched for hidden arms or documents.

The Auberges, where of old the most incendiary themes had been of booty and pre-eminence and inquisitors and elections, now echoed to heated arguments about the privileged classes and the rights of man; and apoplectic old Balìs waxed wroth over the preposterous theorising of youth, and the presumption of youngsters, who had not yet won their Crosses and Commanderies, trying to prove that the Sovereign Military Order was incompatible with the progress of humanity. When a dozen or more French Knights suddenly left the Convent, it was whispered that they had gone to join the Revolutionists. (50)

In 1791 some French Hospitallers came to blows with a group of Italian sailors. It soon started being rumoured that the principal object of the knights was to plunder the public treasury and the houses of the wealthiest Maltese and leave the island. Others believed that, in conjunction with several dissatisfied inhabitants, the French intended to start a revolt.

The same suspicion arose later that year, when in June, Naples sent two warships to guard the central Mediterranean. This event, coupled with an order by the Maltese government to place guns on the forts, made the inhabitants suspect that the island was not fully secure. Perhaps a foreign army would attack it, or it could be a local revolt. (51) And the fear increased in July when a list was made of those persons liable (p.145) for conscription. An invasion by the English or the Turks was imminent; others imagined ‘more deadly events’. (52)

It was reported in 1794 that revolutionary songs translated from the French into Maltese were being sung in one of the villages. People were arrested but following the most rigorous research and cross-examination it was found that it was no more than a false rumour. (53) A little later a peasant of Zebbug accused secretly a good family of the same village of sedition. But after the most diligent researches it was found that the charge was false, and the delator confessed his calumny. He was exiled to Gozo; and though his protectors tried to have him sent to some other village the grand master remained firm in his resolve to remove from Malta that ‘deadly seed of calumny’. (54)

Part III

According to Grimaldi the Maltese joyfully welcomed the opportunity to prove their unvaried loyalty to the Religion. (55) Ever grateful to His Eminence and zealous to be always faithful to the government they offered great sums of money for the defence of the state. (56) But traitors were not lacking.

When he came to know, therefore, of the ‘scandalous conduct’ of two Dominicans, Fra Alessandro Grech and Fra Tommaso Vassallo, both resident at the convent of Rabat, he urged the grand master send them to Sicily as punishment. These followers of padre Levante, the well-known pernicious subject, had tried to spread their ‘impious maxims’ to their compatriots. They repeatedly talked against the government of the Order and often predicted the revolt of the Maltese nation, under the pretext of being very vexed and oppressed by the shortage of foodstuffs and free trade (scala franca). It would be to the relief and advantage of the Maltese, the two religious claimed, if (p.146) some other country were to intervene on their behalf. Another undesirable religious was the capuchin, fra Giovanni Carlo Rochemont, who was expelled to Rome as a pernicious subject. (57)

A letter dated 19 May 1792 informed the Maltese government that a conspiracy was being hatched in Malta. It was financed by the rich merchants of Burmola and Zejtun who carried on their trade with Barcellona. It was the ‘worthy Charles Zammit’ who divulged it to de Virieu; and it had been allegedly revealed to him by one Buhagiar, a Maltese merchant from Burmula. The leaders were supposed to be Samuel Caruana, a former public prosecutor dismissed from his post for venality and one Dr Gatt, a lawyer. For the last year the two had exchanged their correspondence with Bazire, vice-president of the Comité de Surveillance in Paris every twenty days. In one of these dispatches, dated 25 May 1792, they boasted that soon they would lie down in the shadow of the tree of liberty. The rights of man would establish equality while destroying the Order, the grand master and its council, to the great benefit of the Maltese people who suffered slavery, tyranny and poverty at the hands of their government. The revolutionary song Ça ira had been sung under the bastions of St Elmo. The adherents to the revolution increased every day and some 250 people had already joined. These included Paolo Manduca, who lived at the house of Baroness Vincenza, Fournier and all his family, the two patentees of the inquisition, Giorgio Portelli and Giovanni Gatt. Other alleged conspirators were Giorgio Olivier, nephew of the assessor of Bishop Pellerano, one Mallia, printer and canon of Birchircara, Emanuele Carbone, Giovanni Maria Vella from the parish of St George’s, Gozo, Paolo Vella, attuario of Bishop Pellerano and Bishop Labini, as well as Giovanni Maria Deguara, captain of the ecclesiastical court.

The inhabitants of casal Zebbug were to be particularly kept in check, as they were almost all adherents of the revolution; and one of them was mentioned by name, a certain Dimech, even he in correspondence with Bazire. The Mannarinos had always been enemies of the state. In the house of Bartolomeo, brother of the ‘infamous’ Don Gaetano, were found documents ‘scandalously referring to the madness of the French’. He had sent his three sons to serve on French ships at Toulon, under the direction of father Dimech (Testaferrata), chaplain on board Le Tonnant. (58) Another adherent of (p.147) the revolution was Grognet, who wore the French cockade in his hat; he escaped to Corfu (59) on two French frigates, together with other Maltese. (60)

Some twenty knights were supposed to be involved. For this purpose the village of Birkirkara was to be kept under watch, where several of the Hospitallers had their residences. The knights were divided into two parties. The aristocratic party sustained vigorously the Order, which they claimed was so necessary to France, especially because of its commerce. An influential member of the party, besides Pignatelli, was bailli de Loras, who struggled daily to increase the number of his followers. On the other hand, the democrats, loving liberty beyond all bounds, cold not realise that equality between the classes was incompatible with the existence of the Religion. They had within their ranks ‘turbulent spirits who enchanted their hearers with their words’ and preferred insipid arguments to sound judgement.

Among these was the revolutionary bailli de Resséquer. On 1 August 1789 he wrote a letter to his friend abbé de Beausset, count of St Victor. He congratulated him for having participated in the most beautiful revolution that has ever been enacted on the world’s theatre. The people won again their liberty and were integrated in their rights of which they had been inhumanely deprived.

He desired nothing more than to spend a few days at Marseilles to witness the triumphs that its inhabitants had achieved.

St Priest, another implacable partisan of the national assembly, was ‘a most deceitful person, venal, discredited, intimate confidant of Dolomieu’. (61) Latour-Maubourg had served as aide de campe of Marquis de La Fayette. His elder brother (p.148) had been one of three deputies sent by the assembly to bring Louis XVI back from Varennes in June 1791. (62) As soon therefore as this member of a family inimical to its king arrived in Malta from Leghorn, in August 1794, the knights of the three French langues not only claimed that he should no longer be a member of the Order but they also presented a petition to the grand master to expel him at once from Malta. (63) De Rohan ordered his uncle, bailli de Belmont, with whom Maubourg had taken up residence at Floriana, to send him away. (64) This supporter of a ‘blind and silly nation’ (65) left Malta on 17 August 1794. (66)

Another adherent of the pernicious French maxims was Scaruffi, a Modenese novice knight. (67) According to Inquisitor Carpegna he was a wicked man and a believer in democratic ideas. (68) When he was in Catania in 1793 he had the temerity to speak against kings. The Viceroy of Sicily reported the matter to his sovereign so that when Scaruffi arrived in Naples he was at once expelled and came to Malta. He left the island on 23 April 1794 after the captain, who had refused to embark him, did so on orders from the grand master. However, the knights on board refused to have anything to do with him during the voyage. (69)

Part IV

Grimaldi did not believe Zammit’s revelations, which he claimed to be neither true nor probable. Having made, on orders from the grand master, the most diligent and secret researches he found that the persons mentioned in the letters were either dead (p.149) or else fell under no suspicions at all, being either minors or else of an advanced age. With this invention Zammit perhaps wanted to gain some personal benefit or else distress maliciously the government. (70) All the same those he mentioned were all kept under close observation. (71) Inquisitor Scotti was not impressed, either by this ‘unjust gossip’. He believed there were no grounds for this ‘mere invention’, which he considered false and unfounded. (72)   His successor Mgr Giulio Carpegna was of the same mind even though:

There are not lacking here, both among the Maltese and the Hospitallers those who look with a  favourable eye on the French and their detestable maxims.

So did he write to the cardinal secretary of state on 30 March 1797. (73) However, only in June a revolt was discovered (74) and a year later the great Napoleon made clean sweep of these hated masters of the Maltese and their ‘despotic government’. (75)

  1. G. Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789. Rural Panic in Revolutionary France (London, 1973).
  2. J. M.Thompson, The French Revolution (Oxford, 1966), 160.
  3. A(rchivio) di S(tato), N(apoli), Affari Esteri, fasc. 739 (25 Sept. 1789).
  4. ASN, Affari Esteri, fasc. 729 (28 Dec. 1789).
  5. E. Schermerhorn, Malta of the Knights (London, 1929), 292.
  6. A(rchive) of the I(nquisition), M(alta), Correspondence (Corr.) 101, f. 276r.
  7. See his Considérations Politiques et Commerciales sur la necessité de maintenir l’Ordre de Malte tel qu’il est (1790). Suite aux Considérations Politqtues et Commerciales sur la necessité de maintenir l’Ordre de Malte tel qu’il est. Second Memoire (1790). Répons à la Motion de M. Camus (1790); Les Intérêts de la France liés à l’Existence de l’Ordre de Malta (s.d.); Considérations Politiques et Commerciales sur la necessité de maintenir l’Ordre Souverain de Malte (1797).
  8. AIM Corr. 101, ff. 272v, 273v-74r. F. Panzavecchia, L’Ultimo Periodo della Storia di Malta (Malta, 1835), 302-09.  R. Cavaliero, The Last of the Crusaders (London, 1960), 181-204.
  9. AIM Corr. 101, ff. 280v, 283r.
  10. Ibid., f. 322r.
  11. Ibid., ff. 287r, 288r.
  12. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 729 (20 Feb. 1790); AIM Corr. 101, ff. 278r-79r, 282v.
  13. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 6832 (7 Feb. 1793). Corr. 102, ff. 142v-143r.
  14. Ibid., ff. 93v,150v-51r, 156r.
  15. Ibid., ff. 61r-v.
  16. Ibid., ff. 150v-51r, 156r.
  17. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 6833, Grimaldi to Acton (15 May 1794).
  18. Ibid., Grimaldi to Acton (31 Jan. 1794).
  19. ‘… il piano ultimamente risoluto in Francia dalla iniqua Convenzione di rimpiazzarsi il Foresta coi tre agenti detenuti in Genova, e ordinarsi agli agenti del Comitato nel Levante di comprare a qualunque prezzo i grani della Morea, e dell’Egitto, e di procurarne anche nell’Adriatico, e in Trieste, e depositarli tutti in quest’Isola; mettere a prezzo la vita di tutti i Cavalieri attualmente residenti in Francia, e offrire a Malta ogni sorta di concessione, pegni, e sicurezze per deciderla ad accorciare questo favore alla Repubblica’ – Ibid., 10 July 1794 (Grimaldi to Acton). This plan is also recorded by Pierre-Jean-Louis-Ovide Doublet, Mémoires Historiques sur l’Invasion et l’Occupation de Malte par une Armèe Française, 129-130 (Paris, 1883) and by R. Cavaliero (1960), 202.
  20. Ibid. (3 July 1794), Grimaldi to Acton. AIM, Corr. 102, f.114r.
  21. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 6833 (14 April, 1794).
  22. Ibid., (15 May, 1794).
  23. For the charges made later by Napoleon that the Order helped France’s enemies see W. Hardman, A History of Malta during the Period of the French and British Occupations, 1798-1815 (London, 1909), 65-6.
  24. AIM Corr. 102, ff. 144v-45r.
  25. Ibid., ff. 154r-v.
  26. Ibid., ff. 163v-164r, 166r-v.
  27. Ibid., ff. 170v-171v.
  28. Ibid., f. 61v.
  29. Ibid., f. 144v.
  30. Ibid., f. 116r.
  31. Ibid., f. 94v.
  32. Ibid., ff. 149r-v.
  33. Ibid., f. 150r; AIM Corr. 82, ff. 176r-v.
  34. These were a percentage of the commandery’s revenues a knight commander sent to the treasury in   Malta. AIM Corr. 102, f. 166v.
  35. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 6833 (22 May 1794).
  36. Ibid., (11 Sept. 1794).
  37. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 729 (28 Dec. 1789).
  38. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 6833 (2 Oct. 1794).
  39. Ibid., Grimaldi to Acton (10 Oct. 1794).
  40. Ibid., (16 July 1794).
  41. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 6829 (5 Aug. 1792).
  42. Ibid., (11 Oct. 1792).
  43. AS, Affari Esteri, fasc. 6833, Grimaldi to Acton (22 May 1794, 24 July 1794).
  44. Ibid., (21 Aug. 1794).
  45. AIM Corr. 102, f. 116r.
  46. ASN, Affari Esteri, fasc. 6833 (16 July 1794).
  47. Ibid., (3 July 1794).
  48. Ibid., (16 July 1794).
  49. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 6829 (13 Sept 1792).
  50. Schermerhorn, 297-8.
  51. AIM Corr. 101, f. 316r.
  52. Ibid., f. 319r.
  53. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 6833 (4 Sept 1794).
  54. Ibid., (25 Sept. 1794).
  55. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 6829 (15 Nov. 1792).
  56. Ibid., (22 Nov. 1792).
  57. AS, Affari Esteri, fasc. 6833, Grimaldi to Acton (14, 18 August 1794).
  58. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 6829 (15 Nov. 1792). ASN, Affari Esteri, fasc. 6832 (23 Dec. 1792).
  59. AIM Corr. 102, f. 206r.
  60. Ibid., ff. 203r-v. At Marseilles, Gaetano Darmanin and another unknown soldier formed part of the National Guard and were both friends of Jourdan, who had destroyed Arles. Jean Baptiste Serofel, who sold cotton goods along the streets of Marseilles and Almio, a merchant of oranges, were also supposed to be involved in the conspiracy - ASN, Affari Esteri fasc. 6829, Grimaldi to Acton (12 July 1792).
  61. Ibid., (6 April 1792).
  62. Thompson, 210-2, 431.
  63. AIM Corr. 102, ff. 120v-21r. ASN, Affari Esteri, fasc. 6833 (7 Aug. 1794).
  64. Ibid., (14 Aug. 1794).
  65. Ibid., (25 Sept. 1794).
  66. Ibid., (21 Aug. 1794).
  67. Ibid., (15 Feb. 1794).
  68. AIM Corr. 102, f. 111r.
  69. Ibid., ff. 127v-28v.
  70. ASN Affari Esteri, fasc. 6829 (5 Aug. 1792).
  71. ‘… les intrigues des scélèrats qui ont pu facilement sedurre les principaux auteurs des nos anciens troubles à Malte, où les malveillans, comme il existe dans tous les Etats, pour se menager par leur moyen une retraité sure dans notre isle, où ils puissant se mettre a couvert du desordre qu’ils ont mis dans le royaume et don’t ils ne tarderont pas d’être les victimes’, ibid., Segreterie de France, Paris 23 juillet 1792.
  72. AIM Corr. 101, f. 305r.
  73. AIM Corr. 102, f. 178r.
  74. F. Ciappara, ‘Vassalli in the Correspondence of Inquisitor Carpegna’, Journal of Maltese Studies, Essays on Mikiel Anton Vassalli ( O. Friggieri, ed.), nos. 23-24 (1993), 47-8.
  75. ‘Remonstrance by the Maltese Deputies to Lord Hobart, 1802’, in H. Frendo (ed.), Maltese Political Development, 1798-1964: A Documentary History (Malta, 1993), 42

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