Two years after the surrender of the French garrison commanded by General Belgrand de Vaubois on September 5, 1800, the Treaty of Amiens of 1802 stated that Malta was to be relinquished to the Order of St John but under Sicilian protection. However, Britain was reluctant to leave the island due to its strategic importance in view of its plans to establish itself in the Mediterranean, and to counter and obstruct Russian expansion in the region.
The first British troops to set foot on Maltese soil were Lieutenant Samuel Reynell, two non-commissioned officers and 16 gunners of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, who had arrived on December 27, 1799, on board HMS Culloden. Additional support by a detachment from the Royal Corps of Engineers with members of the Corps of Military Artificers arrived in Malta in December, while on the 10th of the month, the same ship brought over two large contingents and their families from the 30th (Cambridgeshire) Regiment of Foot and of the 89th Regiment of Foot.
The Napoleonic Wars, particularly the Peninsular War, saw Britain forming coalitions with a number of countries and States to fight against the French Republican threat. During these wars, Britain required all the men it could muster to fight the many theatres of war, primarily in the Mediterranean region but also in various outposts throughout the globe.
A number of foreign units, or corps, originating from the coalition countries were raised for service under the British Crown. Others were formed by exiled nobles who had fled the French Revolution and its expansion; these were better known as émigré troops in British service. Since 1792, these nobles became allied to Britain, whom they supported with the hope of regaining land from which they were ousted by Napoleon Bonaparte’s invading French armies.
The nationalities of these troops were diverse, so it was quite common to find more than one nationality among both officers and men. The majority of the regiments comprised one battalion in strength and very rarely surpassed 1,000 men in all ranks. In many cases these regiments did not last more than 10 years and most were reduced in strength through casualties and disease, in particular by the harsh conditions of the Caribbean stations. Others were either reformed or amalgamated as new regiments or absorbed some British regiment or just disbanded.
Britain required all the men it could muster to fight the many theatres of war, primarily in the Mediterranean
Shortly after their arrival in 1899, the British added a group of Maltese men to their list of foreign regiments, titled the Maltese Light Infantry, which local people commonly referred to as Il Cacciatori Maltesi; they were styled and organised like other foreign regiments fighting for King George.
Émigré troops such as the Minorca Regiment, De Roll’s Regiment, Dillon’s Regiment, The King’s Corsican Rangers, Hompesch’s Light Dragoons and De Meuron’s Regiment were in Malta only in transit during 1800, but others like the Chasseurs Britanniques, Watteville’s Regiment, Lowenstein’s Rifle Corps and the Corsican Rangers were stationed on the island from 1801 to 1805.
Some of these émigré troops were to return to Malta in later years until Napoleonic hostilities were over. A similar regiment that was raised and brought to Malta in 1806 was Froberg’s Regiment, which had mutinied at Fort Ricasoli in April 1807.
An émigré regiment that left its mark in Malta but is hardly known, was His Majesty’s Sicilian Light Infantry Regiment, or as better known in Italian, Il Reggimento Siciliano di Fanteria Leggiera. The regiment was raised in 1806 by Count Francesco Rivarola, later replaced by Lieutenant General Sir Ronald Crawford Ferguson, who was appointed colonel on January 25, 1809. Rivarola was previously of the Royal Corsican Rangers and later became Inspector of Police and Foreign Corps in Malta, as well as entrusted with raising the Royal Malta Fencible Regiment in 1815, becoming its commanding officer a year later.
Recruits from among the Italian prisoners in England to serve in the Mediterranean were dispatched to Malta from Portsmouth. It is reputed that on October 7, 1811, Secretary for Foreign Affairs Charles Culling Smith wrote to his colleague Sir Henry Edward Bunbury, Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, stating that the Marquis of Wellesley had asked to take steps to gather as soon as possible a body 1,200 men in Portsmouth, who were fit for service and eager to fight against France, to be taken to Malta.
The Sicilian Regiment was stationed at the Floriana Casemated Barracks, the present Ospizio, just outside Valletta, where it retained its headquarters. The bulk of the regiment encountered its first action in southern Italy, when together with a force comprised of British, Swiss and Corsican troops, it faced a large French force under the command of General Reynier.
Returning to their native Sicily, the troops embarked for Egypt in 1807 where they took part in the capture of Alexandria and Rosetta, but failed to take Rahmanieh due to an ambush by superior numbers of Turkish troops. Besieged in Alexandria, the troops held out bravely until a peace treaty was signed in Constantinople and the British were obliged to retreat. Following Egypt, the Sicilian Regiment was again stationed in Sicily and later Malta, where it formed part of the force which saw some action in Capri and Ischia.
When it was first raised in 1806, the Sicilian Regiment consisted of 10 companies of just under 700 men. It reached its peak of 1,200 men in 1811, but the following year its number was reduced when 378 men were transferred to the Piedmontese Legion Levy in September 1814.
The soldiers were Italian and so were ranks titles: guastatore (artisan or artificer), carabinieri (sharpshooters or light infantrymen) and fucilieri (privates or riflemen). Organised according to the British light infantry unit system of the time, each company was divided into two platoons, each platoon into two sections and each section into two squads. A copy of the Ordini Permanenti per le Truppi di Sua Maestà Britannica (Standing Orders for His Britannic Majesty’s Troops), printed in Malta and dated 1813, lists all the ranks and their respective numbers.
Having its own printing press, presumably in Valletta, the regiment printed this own documents. This is indicated at the bottom of the title page of the standing orders, which reads Dalla Stamperia Regimentale, Presso G. Sevaglios Sergente Stampatore (From the regimental printing press, Printed by G. Sevaglios, sergeant printer). It is interesting that on the title page of the copy pictured are hand-written the words ‘R. Reg. Malta Fencibles’ and ‘Hugh Rafferty school master’, a probable connection to Rivarola, who used the same standing orders for the Maltese regiment.
1809 was a memorable year for the regiment, as while it was stationed in Malta, it was presented with colours for its service to the Crown. It was described as a white flag with a black flying eagle, crowned, bearing an escutcheon with the three fleur-de-lys of the Bourbon dynasty.
The ceremony was conducted with great pomp at the Floriana parade ground and was lavishly recorded in Rapporto della Funzione fatta in Malta per la consecrazione della Bandiera del Reggimento Siciliano (Report on the function of the blessing of the colours of the Sicilian Regiment). The service was conducted by Bishop of Malta Ferdinando Mattei, and the colours were presented by the Governor and Commander of all Forces in Malta, Major General Hilderbrand Oakes.
Commanding the parade was Major Rivarola, who was promoted to lieutenant colonel the same year. Following speeches and the presentation, “…the ensigns ‘solemnly’ paraded the colours through the ranks where each soldier touched them as they passed”. The men then took an oath of allegiance to King George and were called to give three good cheers of “Viva il Re”.
The colours were then paraded around the whole arena and a salute was given to the Governor and Bishop before departing. The regiment was marched off the arena to their barracks where they were treated to a good meal.
The barracks were opened to the public and were inspected by Oakes with Lady Ball on his arm who were very impressed by the good standard of upkeep and the salutations to King George and Ferdinand IV by the soldiers wherever they passed.
A detachment from the regiment was detailed to maintain a sanitary cordon around the infected village of Xagħra
The site now occupied by the National Library, or Bibliotheca, was previously the Conservatoria, where gold and silver bullion and treasures of the Order of St John were conserved. In 1788, the Order’s mint was also transferred to this building. A huge classical palace built to the design of Polish architect Stefano Ittar and completed five years after his death in 1796, the Bibliotheca was the last palace to be built by the Order in Malta.
Following the morning parade, a sumptuous dinner was given by the officers of the Sicilian Regiment at the Palazzo della Conservatoria, as the Bibliotheca was called. That evening, the palace was brightly lit both inside and out. At the top of the stairs was a large niche which held the inscription: “The Sicilian Regiment has solemnly sworn to keep and defend their colours with their blood – Malta – February 2, 1809”.
Upon entering the main hall, the 500 guests were amazed by the bright lights and decorations. By one of the walls was a throne with a large painting of King George, and at its foot was the badge of the regiment, surmounted by the two colours surrounded by candelabra, laurel and two field guns.
Various inscriptions were spaced around the hall, such as: “To Rear Admiral Ca. Bar. Alessandro Gio. Ball, Civil Rights Commissioner”, “To Major General Hildebrand Oakes, Presenter of the Colours, 1809” and “To make the English what he is, valiant and powerful, Mars gave him the brand and Neptune the trident”.
Other displays around the hall were dedicated to Major General John Coape Sherbrooke, Major General Sir John Stuart and Lord Nelson. The coat-of-arms of King George III, Queen Charlotte, Ferdinand IV of Naples and II of Sicily, Ferdinand VII of Spain, Gustv Adolf of Sweden, Victor Emanuel of Sardinia and the Prince Regent of Portugal, were also on display.
The document refers to a new, large colonnaded structure that was erected in the Conservatoria. Today, at the far end of the main hall of the Bibliotheca, stand four large fluted columns, and above the entabliture are three bays separated by pilasters. The central bay contains a large sculpture of the British Royal Arms, and the bay on the right holds a contemporary portrait of Oakes in a perfect fit. Used as a club for British officers, Oakes, British Civil Commissioner, ordered that the books belonging to Balì Guerin de Tencin were to be transferred here, and on June 4, 1812, the official birthday of King George III, he inaugurated the building as the Malta Public Library.
The evening was further enlivened by music and a ball which began at 8.30pm, and where drinks were served in abundance. At 11.30pm, the dining hall’s doors were opened and the guests took their place for an exquisite dinner. The ball resumed after dinner and lasted until 6am. The officers of the Sicilian Regiment were conspicuous for their courtesy in receiving guests, for the prodigality shown during the feast and for the magnificence of everything.
Vice Admiral Sir Alexander John Ball had been a friend of Malta since his arrival as a captain during the uprising of the Maltese against the French in 1798. Ball passed away at his residence in San Anton Palace on October 25, 1809, while he was Civil Commissioner, a position he had held since 1802. Two days later, the coffin bearing his remains was conveyed from San Anton Palace to the Palace in Valletta. The route was lined by soldiers of the British, Maltese and émigré regiments, including the Sicilian Regiment.
At noon on October 31, the coffin started its final journey from the Palace to Fort St Elmo, where he was interred in one of the bastions facing the entrance to Grand Harbour. Ahead of the carriage conveying the coffin were the bands of the Sicilian Regiment and those of the 39th Regiment of Foot, with their drums covered with black cloth. In the cortège were also present a number of officers of the regiment who held high esteem for the deceased.
In 1813, Malta suffered a serious outbreak of bubonic plague. It reached all parts of the island, including Gozo, and killed nearly 4,500 people out of a population of 96,000. A detachment from the Sicilian Regiment was detailed to maintain a sanitary cordon around the infected village of Xagħra. In fact, the whole of Gozo was under the command of Captain Robert Carter of the Reggimento, who held the local provincial rank of major and as acting Governor of the island.
For the regiment, Malta served as a home away from home, particularly as Italian was still the island’s official language. English was slowly creeping in and Maltese was the tongue of the commoners. Officers from the regiment socialised while in Malta, with some even marrying.
Captain William Faintlaugh, a 30-year-old from St Peter in Drogheda, Ireland, married Charlotte D’Heilleman of Celle, Hanover. D’Heilleman was the daughter of the late Charles Count D’Heilleman, a lieutenant-colonel in Hompesch’s Hussars, and of Charlotte D’Heillemans of Luxembourg, Austrian Netherlands, then residing in Malta.
Probably the last deployment of the Sicilian Regiment while stationed in Malta was in 1814, when it took over the island of Ponza and then participated in the capture of the island of Corfu.
The regiment was finally disbanded on March 24, 1816, as were many other émigré regiments in the British Army, and those who were still in Malta, went home to their native Sicily.
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