1798 and 1800

The island of Malta was an important strategic stronghold in the Mediterraenean Sea and Napoleon Bonaparte knew that controlling it would boost France's naval capacity in the region.

It would also help secure the supply lines of his expedition to Egypt and so when the French fleet arrived off Malta on 9 June, Napoleon's plan was to find an excuse to wrest it from the control of the Order of St John.

The religious order's leader, the Grand Master Baron Hompesch, was leery of a request to sail the entire French fleet into Malta's Grand Harbour and refused Napoleon's approach to take on new water supplies unless the French limited their operations to four vessels at a time.

The French commander used the rejection as an excuse for hostilities and sent armed forces in to occupy key military positions and isolate the fortress of Valetta.

Hompesch proved too indecisive to take on the determined Napoleon and while local Maltese forces offered to resist the occupation the Grand Master lacked resolve and submitted with little resistance.

Only three Frenchmen lost their lives in the takeover.

For the next five days Napoleon reorganised Malta's administration, inaugurated a new education system, abolished slavery and gave religious freedom to the island's Jewish community. He also looted some six million francs from the Maltese treasury.

When he set sail for Egypt he left a 4000-man garrison behind to secure it the island.

Unfortunately, for the French, Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile ripped the naval balance into British hands and a blockade cut the French occupants of Malta off from reinforcements.

The British blockade proved to be unsustainable and when a strong French naval force moved into the Mediterraenean the garrison was strengthened by 1500 troops and command handed over to General Pigot.

By mid-1800, the British landed 2500 troops and together with some 4000 local militia they increased pressure on the French.

With his supply position worsening, the new French Commander held out for three months before agreeing to surrender the island in exchange for free evacuation to France.

Victory over the French forces did not immediately secure Malta for Britain as the Order of St John and Russia both made determined efforts to control the island.

Eventually, neither succeeded.


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