Go to WTJ Information Page Go to WTJ Portal Go to WTJ War Series Go to WTJ Archives Go to WTJ Articles Go to WTJ Gaming Go to WTJ Store Go to WTJ Home Page
Savary: Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo
Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 3a
Arrival before Malta—Junction of the Fleet—Arrival at Alexandria—Landing—Our first march through the desert—Meeting with an Arabian woman.

WE arrived before Malta at the beginning of May neither the main squadron nor the other convoys had yet made their appearance; and in obedience to the instructions given by General Bonaparte to General Desaix, our convoy kept cruising before the harbour.

We next had to encounter calms, in consequence of which, the currents which prevailed in that quarter dispersed the ships of the convoy to a considerable distance from one another.

Our arrival was on a morning: in the evening of the same day, the grand-master of the Order of Malta, seeing a large fleet, consisting of vessels of all nations, under the protection of a frigate, which not only avoided entering the harbour, but did not even allow the smallest sail to approach it, began to entertain some uneasiness, or felt his curiosity awakened.

He sent a sloop, commanded by one of the grand bailifs of the Order, as a flag of truce, to learn our destination.

This sloop proceeded towards the frigate on board of which was General Desaix; and under presence of the quarantine laws, the bailif would not come on board, though repeatedly urged to do so: he hailed us from his sloop, which sailed past the frigate's stern.

His mission was one of pure curiosity; and as he saw on board the vessels a great number of soldiers, who had climbed upon each others' shoulders to obtain a sight of him, he was hastening back with an account of what he had seen. He was about to take leave, after a broken conversation carried on in monosyllables, when, with the view of reviving it, General Desaix asked to be allowed to enter the harbour for the purpose of watering. The bailif drew off with the promise of sending an answer.

He returned accordingly the same night, to say that the grand-master could only allow the entrance of the harbour to four vessels at a time. A very ingenious mode of evasion, truly ! It did not require any great effort of calculation on his part to discover that we had upwards of eighty sail, and that twenty-days would have been consumed in watering the convoy. Assuredly we could not lose so much time before this nest of gentlemen. Nevertheless we pretended to view the matter in a serious light, and in politely refusing the bailif's offer, briefly hinted at the dangers we should be incurring if the English were to make their appearance. This consideration did not appear to create much impression upon him, and he sailed off, informing us that the Order could make no further concession.

Night approached, and the flag of truce was gone, when our signal-man descried two sail to the eastward, bearing down upon us.

They soon neared us sufficiently to enable us to ascertain that they were a ship of the line and a frigate: we became rather uneasy ; and still more so, when within two gun-shots of us they omitted to hoist their colours, until at the moment of passing us they both hoisted the Maltese flag: they proved to be the line-of-battle ship and frigate belonging to the Order, and were returning into port from a cruise. The sailors were taken out the same night, for the purpose of manning the galleys that were preparing to fight us the following day.

The next morning at daybreak our signal-man descried several sail to the north-west, and soon afterwards apprised us that they were in considerable numbers: they proved to be our squadron and its convoys, just arriving from the Bay of St. Florente.

General Desaix and M. Monge proceeded from the ship to one of the pope's small galleys which we had brought with us, and sailed to meet the squadron, and pay their respects to General Bonaparte.

In the course of the morning, the entire squadron and the army were reunited before the mouth of the harbour. Every thing then assumed a new appearance. Preparations were every where made for a landing.

General Bonaparte ordered the troops of General Bon's division to land on the right ; and the division of General Desaix to land at the same time on the left: we disembarked in the Bay of Maira-Sirocco.

I was entrusted with the command of the troops which took the lead on this occasion ; marched straight up to the redoubts that protected the landing-place, and thence to the fort. We encountered very little resistance ; every thing seemed left to itself. The grand-master had scarcely been able to collect a few detachments for the purpose of defending the advanced works. There was no emulation amongst the knights. The population, accustomed to the idea that it was never to be called upon to man the batteries except in the event of an invasion from the Turks, refused to carry arms against us, All those splendid fortifications, that indicated the power of the Order and the strength of the place, became useless. We pushed our advances, on this day, to the very foot of the ramparts on the land side. We were amazed at the weakness of the defence, and at a loss to account for the circumstance of a place, which appeared perfectly unassailable, presenting so easy a conquest to our arms; the mystery, however, was soon unravelled.

General Bonaparte had remained on board L'Orient during the whole day: he had ordered the Maltese galleys to be attacked, and compelled them to return to port. There was an end of the Maltese cross. The general landed the same night; and we could then discover, from the acts of indiscretion committed around us, that the members of the Order were not all strangers to the success which had just crowned our efforts.

Ever since the commencement of the French Revolution, and especially since the breaking up of the corps of emigrants, the rock of Malta had become the place of refuge for a multitude of young noblemen, who enlisted under the banners of the Order. These knights of recent creation had not all the ardour of the old Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. Their worldly education made them averse to a monastic life ; and the malady peculiar to the country increased their anxiety to quit the rock upon which they had found an asylum.

The appearance of our fleet before Malta afforded them an opportunity of breaking engagements, which they began to consider in the light of fetters, and of commencing a new existence. Should they be considered as objects of pity or censure ?

Be this as it may, a communication was soon opened between our head-quarters and the government of Malta. The grand-master of the Order, too late, indeed, persuaded of the impossibility of preserving the place, and of the futility of a resistance which had no longer any object, consented to capitulate.

The principal conditions were, the surrender of the forts to our troops; the personal liberty of himself and his followers; and leave for all the knights to withdraw to any place they thought proper.

We accordingly took possession of the place.

M. de Hompesch, the grand-master, embarked on board a neutral vessel, which was placed at his disposal, and was escorted by one of our frigates as far as Trieste. Nearly all the French knights entered the ranks of our army.

The organization of the island immediately engaged General Bonaparte's attention. The national guard; the administration; the means of attack and defence; every thing was planned and completed in less than eight days. The Maltese garrison was incorporated with the semi-brigades, and was replaced by a part of Vaubois' division; and the fleet was ordered to set sail.

General Desaix remained some days longer at Malta, because his frigate was to take on board the Intendant of finances, who had yet some matters to arrange. We employed this short delay in visiting a rock so celebrated in history. I felt a lively curiosity in going over the island, which had always been represented to us as unassailable, and yet, had so quickly fallen into our power.

Civita Vecchia, situated on an eminence in the centre of the island, and the only point which the knights had fortified upon their first arrival, was the first object of our visit: we then proceeded to examine the works in the order in which they had been constructed. It is well known that, upon the fall of the Island of Rhodes, the knights bestowed all their attention on the fortifying of Malta.

Every grand-master of the Order, since that period, seemed to have had no other ambition than that of adding some new work to the harbour or the town. This was the only object of the government. Ostentation, at last, came in for its share; and fortifications were constructed at Malta just in the same manner as palaces were built at Rome, since the throne of the Cæsars had made way for the Holy See. Malta has thus grown into a prodigious heap of fortifications; and we were at a loss what to admire most, the perseverance required in their construction, or the genius that called them into existence. What mostly raised our astonishment was the work of nature—the harbour itself: it is of such extent, that the naval army, and the six hundred vessels of the convoy, only covered a very small part of it. It affords so easy and safe an anchorage, that the largest ships of war may be moored close to the quay.

In the midst of so many wonders, we felt again the distress of beholding a sight such as that which had excited our indignation at Civita Vecchia. The galleys of the Order were manned by galley-slaves, composed of prisoners taken on board Turkish vessels. We could hardly credit the assertion that, often, when there was a dearth of these slaves, free men consented to engage themselves, for money, on board the galleys, in the above capacity. We were, however, compelled to yield to the evidence of facts, and believe what we were eye-witnesses of. We saw some of those wretches, who go by the name of bonovollio, ,serving on the same benches with the slaves, in chains like the latter, and taking a part in their painful labours, as they shared in their disgrace.

When we beheld this state of degradation, we no longer felt such surprise at the little resistance opposed to us. It is quite natural that a call to arms should be listened to with indifference by men disposed to obey the voice which summoned them to their own dishonour.

M. Monge had parted from us at Malta, and embarked on board L'Orient, because General Bonaparte was desirous of having him near his person.

General Desaix, with whom I was, could not sail until eight days after the army. On leaving the harbour, we met a fine French frigate arriving from Italy: her boat brought us M. Julien, an aide-de-camp of General Bonaparte's.

Subsequently to falling in with the Spanish frigates, General Bonaparte had ordered this French frigate to be dispatched to General Desaix, and to apprise him of there being two English ships of war at St. Peter's, near the island of Sardinia, from which place they had sailed immediately upon the receipt of intelligence that the Toulon squadron had put to sea.

This frigate (La Diane) proceeded as far as Civita Vecchia, without entering the port ; M. Julien had landed in order to ascertain the day of our departure ; and whilst he was on shore, the English squadron passed at a great distance in the offing. As La Diane was close in shore, she was not perceived, or at least was not recognised by the English squadron, which was sailing in the clearest part of the horizon ; in consequence of which she escaped, and continued her course to overtake the army.

A few days afterwards we met the frigate which was returning from conveying the grand-master of the Order of Malta to Trieste ; she was also endeavouring to overtake the army ; and such was our good fortune, that this frigate, both upon entering the Adriatic Sea, and quitting it, had repeatedly crossed the track of the English squadron, which was not aware of her proximity.

What were the objects that engaged the attention of the English squadron whilst we were taking every advantage of fortune's favours ?—A part of it was at Naples, and the remainder at Syracuse or Palermo, where its admiral, the celebrated Nelson, had found the delights of Capua at the feet of Lady Hamilton.

The two ships that had left St. Peter's on our approach had hastened to give the alarm, and he immediately set sail for Toulon, steering his way along the coast of Italy.

From Toulon he proceeded to St. Florente, afterwards directing his course to the Levant, without stopping at, or reconnoitring Malta on his way.

We had but just overtaken the army when General Bonaparte gave the signal for the whole fleet to alter its course, and to make for the island of Candia, which was not yet descried, though at a short distance on our larboard.

The order was punctually attended to. At nightfall the entire fleet had collected under the coast of Candia, with the squadron of men of war ranged in two lines on its right.

We repeatedly heard that night the reports of guns on our starboard side ; and as they were not fired by our fleet, the circumstance created great alarm. After the loss of our squadron at the battle of Aboukir, the English compared the logbooks of our squadron with their own, and it was discovered that the two fleets had sailed several hours that night at the distance of four or five leagues from each other. The reports of firing which had reached our ears arose from signals made by the admiral to his fleet ; and had not General Bonaparte ordered his own to steer for Candia on the preceding day, we must inevitably have found ourselves at daybreak in presence of the British fleet.

We made the land of Egypt a few days after. Alexandria was in front of us, though, near as we were, we could only discover its minarets, owing to the extreme lowness of the coast.

General Bonaparte had sent forward a frigate to bring on the French consul residing in that city. The consul had just arrived on board L'Orient, when a signal was made for the whole army to prepare for landing.

He had informed General Bonaparte that the English squadron, consisting of thirteen sail, had appeared off Alexandria forty-eight hours before, and had made inquiries about the French fleet, which it was chasing, under the impression of its being ahead ; but that, on failing to come up with it, the squadron had continued its course for the coast of Syria, conceiving it, no doubt, impossible that the French should be behind them.

¹ They left as soon as our fleet had set sail, and went to join Admiral Nelson at Syracuse.

  Copyright © 1996-2003 by The War Times Journal at www.wtj.com. All rights reserved.