The swift capitulation of the Maltese islands – considered as fortified to the point of being impregnable – has been the subject of a myriad of studies which have delved into the variety of causes that, in combination, led to that momentous event.
Detailed accounts compiled by contemporary eye-witnesses of the Order of St John’s debacle include those by such familiar names as Bosredon Ransijat, de Mayer, Jean-Ovide Doublet, Baron Azopardi and Felice Cutajar.
There are other less known but equally revealing accounts, such as that by François-Marie de Corbeau-Vaulserre, a French knight present in Malta during the event. Doubtlessly others as yet unknown and that have remained unpublished still await discovery.
One document that was recently discovered assumes added significance as it written by a contemporary eyewitness who happened to be a Maltese – and a very prominent one at that in the person of Dr Giovanni Nicolò Muscat. Muscat’s description and discussion of the events taking place between the sighting of the awe-inspiring French fleet on the Maltese horizon on June 8 to the signing of the Convention on June 12 were, he unequivocally declared, motivated by one objective: that of defending the national honour of his countrymen against accusations of betrayal and cowardice. Muscat was a signatory of the Convention, so his role as a Maltese during those momentous June days could hardly have been more central. The aim of this short article is to provide a brief description of this document and its significance.
The Muscat account was kindly brought to the present author’s attention by Dr Daniel K. Gullo, Joseph S. Micallef curator of the Malta Study Centre at St John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota. It consists of a holograph manuscript of 22 leaves folded to form roughly A4-size folios, later folioed as 319 to 340. Folios 319 to 335v contain the main text of Muscat’s description in 48 numbered paragraphs. The remaining folios, 336 to 339v reproduce the text of the Convention, and ff. 339v and 340 are blank and unfoliated.
The Convention as reproduced by Muscat is identical to the one printed at the time, except for the latter’s improved French spelling and differences in the sequential order of the signatories’ names.
At some point the manuscript ended up being bound with other material, forming Manuscript 42 from the Saliba Bequest to the Catholic University of America (CUA), under the curatorship of Lenore Rouse. The description bears the title: Istoria apologetica di quanto avvenne nelle due isole di Malta e Gozo, cominicando dal giorno VIII sino il XII Giugno 1798, inclusivamente, scritta dal Dottor di Legge Gio. Nicolò Muscat, Cittadino Maltese.
More than providing any dramatic new factual details as to the fall of the Maltese islands, the real importance of Muscat’s apologia stems from two other considerations, namely the status of its author and the selection and interpretation of the events he describes.
His defence of the Maltese was required, Muscat states, given the malicious accusations of cowardice and treachery circulated against them
Extensive research on Muscat has been carried out by Prof. Frans Ciappara. Muscat belonged to a group of Maltese who were imbued with ideas of the Enlightenment. He managed to rise to the highest political position allowed to a Maltese under the Order’s rule, that of the most influential uditore (chief minister cum adviser) and advocate-general under Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan. In these roles he had abetted and championed the secular struggle against the ecclesiastical and inquisitorial set-ups in an attempt to free the Grand Master’s secular rule on the island from any controls by Rome.
In late 1793, following years-long and sustained pressure by the Holy See, de Rohan was forced to dismiss him from office. Whether Muscat’s struggle with the ecclesiastical establishment would have led to a better situation where the Maltese were concerned is debatable, while his credentials as a selfless enlightened patriot have recently been put under the scrutiny by Giovanni Bonello. It is thus in this light that Muscat’s apologia has to be analysed and interpreted.
Muscat’s eyewitness account can conveniently be divided in two parts. The bulk (paragraphs 1-35) consists of his factual description of the invasion and rapid takeover of the islands by the French forces. The rather minutely detailed account more or less confirms the story as recounted in other published and manuscript narratives. Emphasis is, however, placed on two main aspects, namely the treachery of many of the knights (particularly French ones) in charge of key points of defence and the heroic attempts at resistance by the Maltese, even in the face of such blatant betrayal on the part of their commanders.
From “our most Christian Bishop” Labini and the Birkirkara archpriest down to the humblest Maltese soldier, the Maltese and their spiritual leaders were described by Muscat “not the traitors, but the ones betrayed”. His defence of the Maltese was required, Muscat states, given the malicious accusations of cowardice and treachery that were being circulated against them by those who knew better, in order to conceal the real reasons for the Order’s ignominious defeat: the weakness and the treachery that had corrupted the core of that institution.
The second part (paragraphs 36-48) constitutes the main thrust of Muscat’s defence of Maltese honour. not only did the Maltese troops have no choice but to withdraw, given the lack of leadership and of ammunition, but those Maltese citizens (including Muscat himself) who petitioned the Grand Master to ask for an armistice were motivated only by the realisation that the Order was in no position to defend Malta and that a negotiated surrender would avoid the ignomy of armed defeat and the consequent harsher reprisals by the victors.
Particularly interesting is Muscat’s reference to “those few Maltese in favour of democracy” and who were being accused of being a main cause of defeat. Those “philosophers imbued with the spirit of democracy”, remarks Muscat, were too few and too powerless to sabotage in any way the Order’s defence of the islands.
When and why did Muscat write his apologia? The two questions are inextricably tied together, since the first may well answer the second. Internal evidence points out towards the description being written while the French were still in Malta. Thus, Muscat refers to the Capitano della Verga Gregorio Bonnici as “ex barone”, indicating that the French suppression of noble titles was still in force. Muscat also does not speak in adulatory terms where the French invaders are concerned: he thus refers to pillage and rape following the invasion.
While Muscat was initially in the good books of the new French administration, being appointed judge and president of the Civil Court, during the blockade of the French in Valletta he seems to have had a serious fallout with General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois, with the latter threatening Muscat that he would punish him in an exemplary way if he persisted in his ways. In mid-November 1799, Muscat, together with members of his family and other Maltese, left Valletta only to be immediately arrested and detained, first in Comino and then in Gozo.
Given Muscat’s pre-1798 background and his position within the French administration in Malta after June, it is little wonder that he was arrested following his exit from Valletta. Did Muscat write his apologia during those sombre days in blockaded Valletta or following his exit from the city in order to ingratiate himself with the Maltese and British blockading forces?
Was it, conversely, one motivated by patriotic feelings and a sense of national pride? Could it have been a mix of both?
Further study of the document and its corroboration with other sources may well hold the definite answer to these questions.
Prof. William Zammit is head of the University of Malta’s Department of Library Information & Archive Sciences.
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