The American ambassador in Paris (and future President) James Monroe took his time to digest the proposal made in 1794 by the Knights of Malta to the US government – probably to consult his superiors in Washington and obtain their instructions.

The Order should not imagine that the US would consider enclaves ruled autocratically- Giovanni Bonello

His reply proved to be a fine, sophisticated exercise in diplomacy – not conceding much but not slamming the door either and always dangling in front of his interlocutor the expectations of future adjustments. He is courteous, not condescending, patriotic but without swagger, curious but not overtly eager.

“I have received with the greatest pleasure,” he wrote back on November 22, 1794, “the considerations you were pleased to present to me, pointing out the mode by which the United States of America and the Isle of Malta may be serviceable to each other.

“It is the duty of nations to cultivate by every means in their power those relations subsisting between them which admit of reciprocal good offices and I am persuaded that the United States will omit no opportunity which may occur to testify that disposition towards the Island of Malta.”

The ambassador then acknowledges the advantages of the Maltese proposal and the potential latent in it: “The Americans have, it is true, received already great injury from the Algerines and it is their intention to adopt such measures as shall prevent the like in future. The Island of Malta, by its situation and maritime strength, possesses the means of yielding that protection, and your suggestion on that subject merits, in my opinion, the serious consideration of our government, to whom I have already transmitted it.” So far it is about what the US would gain. And what were they prepared to pay in return?

“The United States possess at present extensive and very valuable territory. It is their intention to dispose of it by sale; by which however the right of soil only will be conveyed, the jurisdiction still remaining with them. The government too of such territory is already prescribed: it must be elective or republican and forming part of the existing national system.

“I have thought proper to add this information that you may know the powers of our government in relation to this object. Permit me to assure you that as soon as I shall be instructed thereon, I will immediately communicate the same to you.”

This appears to be by far the most important part of Monroe’s answer.

In substance he lays down for the Order of Malta a number of quite unpalatable preconditions: we are ready to consider making available territories in the United States to the Knights, but by title of civil ownership only and not by title of sovereignty. Jurisdiction over those territories will always remain with the United States and a democratic system of government in them will be a prerequisite.

The Order of Malta should not imagine for an instant that the USA would consider enclaves within its own territory ruled autocratically and not on a truly democratic basis. Was that a cold shower for the Order, or would Grand Master de Rohan be pragmatic enough to weigh the Order’s survival in times of great adversity against (seemingly scandalous) democratic and republican concessions overseas, however distasteful they appeared to his autocratic visions of power?

The published Monroe papers do not indicate if, and what, instructions the Paris ambassador eventually received from Washington, or if Monroe had further exchanges with the Maltese envoy. Quite possibly evidence of more discussions survives somewhere in the US State Department archives, in the correspondence volumes with ambassadors overseas, and it may well be worth having a go at unearthing it.

The editor of the Monroe documents attributes the apparently abrupt termination of negotiations with Malta to the successful conclusion of what came to be known as the Jay Treaty between the US and Great Britain. This ironed out the last territorial, military and commercial issues between the London monarch and his former colonies.

The French saw this treaty, re-establishing a closer friendship between Britain and the US, as a prelude to Britain being able to concentrate its forces on an imminent war with France. Monroe was too busy in Paris placating the French to have much time left for working out designs of alliances with a small island which may have been perceived as disruptive to the grander design.

It is legitimate (though not all that fruitful) to speculate what different directions the history of these islands would have taken had the Americans established in Malta (in conjunction with the Order of St John) their only formal naval base in the Mediterranean.

Would Napoleon have attacked the Knights all the same then? With the collapse of the Order, would Malta have fallen in the American, rather than the French or British, sphere of influence?

With the Americans as major stakeholders in the harbours of Malta, would the British have dared to usurp the sovereignty of the King of Sicily over the Maltese Islands? Would that have been the spark for yet another war between the US and Britain?

The American navy did not acquire a formal foothold in Malta then, as Cibon and Monroe may have planned, but shortly afterwards, in the early part of the 19th century, with the connivance of Great Britain, the US fleet regularly and profitably made use of Malta’s harbours, provisions and amenities.

In substance, Malta and Sicily became the US navy’s unofficial bases in the Mediterranean. Virtually all its exploits that made history were conceived and launched from Malta, including the legendary 1804 Tripoli expedition that found itself immortalised in the anthem of the American Marines: “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”.

M. Cibon persevered in manning the embassy of the Knights of Malta in Paris for a considerable time. He was entrusted with the secret code to encipher outgoing messages and decipher incoming ones, with instructions to update the Grand Master in Malta at least once a week. His surviving dispatches show an analytical mind and, most of all, a compulsion to be accurate and realistic; certainly not an envoy to write to a Grand Master in denial what he would have liked to hear. He sometimes sounds brutally blunt, preferring desolate truth to raising false hopes. I feel I have quote one example of his undoubtedly hurtful realism.

“The Order’s properties will never be returned, as almost all of them have been sold. Even the ones that have not yet been sold will never be returned for they are considered state property as they have been pledged as securities for the assignats (paper promissory notes issued by the Revolution after the treasury went bankrupt). Any attempt to have them returned is certain to be highly frowned upon by the Directory. Now that Prussia has made peace (with France) and Spain is about to do the same, other powers are likely to follow suit and unless there is a collapse of the coalition, we must consider the Republic as unconquerable and the counter-revolution as a mere illusion.

Admiral De Grasse was instrumental in defeating the British in the Battle of Chesapeake- Giovanni Bonello

“The Order of Malta made the mistake of allowing its knights to mock the French, their flag and their cockade and of sending artisans and sailors with arms and ammunition to fight side by side with the English.

“The Directorate did not appreciate such an infringement of the Order’s much-prided neutral policy. Neither did they appreciate that Malta offered refuge to the deadly enemies of the Republic, the émigrés. This kind of behaviour is what brought the animosity of the French government and that is why it is rejecting any form of favour to the Order and may even go as far as seeking to avenge itself.” Hard to imagine words harsher than these from a lowly employee to his sovereign lord.

Our good Monsieur Cibon still had a minor role to play in the far more significant Franco-American picture, this time in connection with a French hero of the American war of independence. François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse and Marquis of Tilly (1722-1788) already had a strong Malta connection. Destined from a very early age to become a knight of St John, when only 11 years old his parents had sent him to Malta where he joined the Order as a page in the extravagantly baroque court of Grand Master Pinto.

De Grasse later served for six years on vessels of the Knights’ navy, performing diligently all the prescribed ‘caravans’ and learning the secrets of navigation and naval warfare. He then became a Knight of Malta, a distinction of which he remained proud till the end of his life (he regularly wore the eight-pointed cross on important occasions), though he claims he did not make the solemn profession which included taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

De Grasse left Malta in 1740 and launched into an outstanding, though troubled, career in the French navy, which targeted and cherished knights and seamen trained on the vessels of the Order of Malta above all others (many in the French navy considered the Order’s maritime tradition and know-how as the supreme model on which any efficient fleet should mould itself).

When the American colonists rebelled against Britain, France at first remained officially neutral, though unofficially it encouraged any assistance directed at ensuring the success of the revolt and the defeat of the old colonial power. Eventually, by 1778, the rebels and the French government negotiated and ratified a formal treaty, and France entered the war against Britain.

De Grasse, with a French naval squadron, took an extremely prominent part in the American hostilities, and was instrumental in defeating the British fleet in the Battle of the Chesapeake in September 1781. He then blockaded the coast until Lord Cornwallis found he had no option but to surrender. This brought about the final, irreversible assertion of the independence of the United States of America.

And De Grasse today counts among the major heroes of that struggle and of that unlikely triumph. George Washington wanted to be the first to acknowledge this Knight of Malta’s determining input towards the very existence of an independent US.

De Grasse proved himself noticeably less of a fortunate strategist insofar as his later family life was concerned – and this is where our Cibon comes in again. The admiral’s first two wives had died before him, the first one leaving him with six young orphans. At the age of 60 he fell in love with Cibon’s daughter, who was only 24 when they met. They got married four years later, on February 11, 1786.

The relatively young Christine-Marie Delphine Lazare de Cibon, daughter of the chargé d’affaires at the Maltese embassy in Paris and of his wife Anne-Therese David, had met the renowned hero De Grasse at her parents’ home, as the great seaman Knight of Malta had been a close friend of the De Cibon family.

It turned out to be a marriage made in hell, and Washington himself later dismissed Cibon’s daughter as “an unworthy woman” responsible to a major extent for the misery in which De Grasse spent his last days. Why unworthy the sources do not specify, but the marked difference in age between the spouses seems to suggest the reasons for this marital fiasco.

“His death is not so much to be deplored,” Washington wrote, “as his latter days were to be pitied. It seems as if an unfortunate and unrelenting destiny pursued him, to destroy the enjoyment of all earthly comfort.” His ruinous marriage, the US President added, was “sufficient to have made him weary of the burden of life”. (Yes, that was Washington’s implacable judgment, but we never got to hear Christine-Marie’s side of the story).

Both France and the United States mourned and commemorated De Grasse’s passing away on January 14, 1788, just before the outbreak of the French Revolution. His body was buried in the church of Saint-Roche in Paris, where a memorial extols his achievements, and these include the fact that he had been a Knight of Malta.

His heirs placed his heart (technically, his precordia) in an urn in the choir of the church of the Château de Tilly, the admiral’s beloved estate outside Paris on the road to Rouen. Warships, both American and French, carry his name, and his face appears on US stamps together with that of his admirer, George Washington.

His wife, the justly or unfairly reviled Christine-Marie de Cibon, outlived De Grasse for many years, and only died on April 1, 1833. Her mourners buried her mortal remains in her husband’s estate, the Château de Tilly. Maybe it could be considered ironic that when the urn containing the heart of the great admiral was dug up in 1923, the authorities could think of nothing better than to rebury it in the same tomb that contained the remains of his estranged wife in the Tilly church. Today a marble slab with a double inscription, decorated with the eight-pointed cross, unites in death those who the tragedy of life had so acrimoniously set apart.

History nowadays mostly remembers the good and peace-loving President James Monroe for his promotion of the Monroe Doctrine, which predicates that no European political influence or intervention would henceforth be tolerated in North and South America; in fact, it would be treated as an act of aggression.

Strange that had his discreet negotiations with the Knights of Malta come to fruition, a sovereign European state would have acquired a physical presence in the very heart of the United States.

Acknowledgements

The author thanks Judge Prof. David Attard, Theresa Vella and the staff at the National Library, who have been particularly supportive.

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