Napoleon’s Maltese Treasure…

This is one of those days when the only word I can think to use in regard to Napoleon is ‘punk’.  (Sorry, those of you with Napoleophilia, I can’t help myself.) 

Right, now that I’ve got that off my chest, where was I? 

Oh yes, Malta.  That is to say, Napoleon (punk) and his plans to conquer Egypt. 

So there he is, it’s 1797-8 and he’s sitting about in Paris with nothing to do–it’s that ‘nothing to do’ that worries the French government–when he gets this brilliant idea to conquer Egypt and perhaps even the whole of the Middle East.  I mean, why stop there?  Remember, this is a fellow for whom the words legitimacy and/or can’t don’t exist. 

From a strategic point of view it would be fab, because then the French could control the eastern Mediterranean and cause problems for the British navy and merchant navy.  And for the French government it would be superlative because it would get the punk out of France (where he was dangerously popular), and off annoying someone else.

Terrific.

So, Napoleon throws himself into the project, getting together a large number of scientists, artists, engineers which are referred to as les savants; he sends his mate Savary off down to Italy to buy up a number of boats, lots of rice and other supplies, (all done undercover) and eventually they all set off for Egypt.  He also takes with him a rather large army–and note, he’s particularly sought out veterans of the war against the Chouan rebels of the Vendee (eastern France) because he knows these chaps are wholly ruthless and will commit any atrocity he orders… 

So fine.  And in between starry-eyed nighttime discussion with les savants on board, where Napoleon expounds on his idea to found a new world religion (I kid you not), things are all quite jolly.  But they’re not heading straight for Egypt.  No.  Instead, they’re taking a little diversion via Malta.  Because someone has to pay for this little venture and the French government doesn’t have any money–and if they had they wouldn’t be giving it to him, now would they?

So.  Malta. 

Where the mediaeval order of the Knights of St. John are an aging group of well, aging soldiers, living their publicly celibate lives with their private mistresses, governing Malta, and sitting on a rather large treasury…which Napoleon reckons could be put to better use by him and his army.  Obviously.

The Knights knowing they don’t have a hope, surrender to Napoleon and his forces on 11 June 1798.  And over the few weeks, 5 million francs of gold, 1 million of silver and 1 million of gems, as well as whatever gold plate and jewelry Napoleon’s men could plunder–estimated at a few million more–are liberated from the Maltese treasury and the private homes of the Knights, the Maltese and anyone else living thereabouts.

Napoleon also helps himself to the ceremonial Sword of La Vallette–he did like a bit of bling, the punk did. 

And now that he has the wherewithal to pay his troops and to set up the new Empire of the east that he’s planning, off they go.  (And yes, you Royal Navy die-hards, the hunt is on for them with Nelson in the lead, but that’s not the point of this blog, at least not yet, so be quiet, will you?)

What is not clear from the accounts I’ve read is whether von Hompesch, the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, surrendered the sword to Napoleon as part of the deal which he’d struck to guarantee himself an annual pension from the French government of 300,000 francs.  But that’s a detail.

Anyway, the loot–for want of a better term–goes to Egypt, all tucked up safely in the hold of the 120-gun warship upon which Napoleon was sailing, l’Orient.  Although certainly some of it, according to sources close to Napoleon, was intended by him to be sent to the government in Paris–whether or not it was sent, I cannot tell you.

Arriving safely in Egypt, during the 1-2 July, the French unloaded their ships at Alexandria and settled in–though they unwisely appear to have left the bullion and other treasures on board for safekeeping.

Because it wasn’t very safe after all.  For after tracking them all over the Mediterranean, Lord Nelson tracked them down in Aboukir Bay on the afternoon of 1 August 1798…Whoops.

And the next ‘sighting’ of the looted millions occurs that night, during the ensuing Battle of the Nile, when l’Orient caught fire and blew up.

Most sources therefore insist that the treasure went to the bottom of Aboukir Bay.  However others, including some naval friends, say that seamen do not stop fighting because of a ship blowing up–when l’Orient exploded, the sailors involved in the battle stopped fighting and took cover because of the danger of the flying detritus, the huge splinters of wood and the flying red-hot gold.

What is certain is that Napoleon didn’t get to spend his stolen millions (at least not the stolen Maltese millions) and he didn’t pay his troops with it either–they were unpaid in Egypt and often went hungry.  The ‘plan’ didn’t go to plan, of course, and several defeats, bouts of decimating illness and starvation later, the French army was on its knees and without a way home.  So Napoleon, ever the caring-sharing leader, abandoned his remaining troops and hied it home to France in secret.  Punk.

Now, for the fun part.  Over the last decade or so, the French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio and his international diving team have been exploring the seabed wrecks of the ships sunk at on that night of August 1-2 at the Battle of the Nile. 

Down some 40 feet, they have found the waterlogged timbers which made up the center section of  l’Orient–lying among fragments of bronze cannon, cooking implements, silverware, bits of clothing and human bones and a heap of lead type from a shipboard printing press.  L’Orient’s 35-foot-long rudder, emblazoned with the words Dauphin Royal (her original name) was nearby.  The anchors of some of Napoleon’s other ships lay scattered about the site.  And there too, they find the treasure or some of it:  gold, silver, and copper coins minted in Malta, Venice, Spain, France, Portugal, and the Ottoman Empire. 

As reported elsewhere, as of last summer, “…Gaballah Ali Gaballah, Secretary General of the Supreme Council for Antiquities, facing mounting criticism from the local press, denied reports that a French marine archeologist had received government permission to keep a share of the artifacts recovered from a shipwreck dating back to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt.  Gaballah said that the treasure, including gold coins stolen by Napoleon’s army from the Maltese treasury, would be placed in a proposed naval museum in Alexandria.”

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10 comments on “Napoleon’s Maltese Treasure…

  1. Great post. I didn’t know about the sword, but there may be another reason it was given up (apart from the pension) because the Knights posessed something far more valuable. Not saying what, though you’ll probably guess, because it’s going to be in my 4th story – but you’ve given me a fantastic decoy!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Excellent. Delighted to be of service. Anything else I can supply? Chocolate eclairs? Spiffy bicorne hats? Gold bullion?

      • The bullion’d be handy (farrier tomorrow, HOYS on Thursday) but failing that eclairs’ll be fine!
        The bicorne can wait until I have an officers uniform to go with it. Looks a bit silly on a private dragoon. Plus…my ears stick out too far.

  2. Cead Evans says:

    There still is no adequate information about what happened to the Maltese treasure, given several maritime expeditions found virtually nothing of it in the Bay of Aboukir. Napoleon sold one spoon in Cairo at an auction. That’s it.

    • I would imagine it’s a great deal like much else that was looted by Napoleon and Co.–it disappeared into an hundred private pockets, some of it perhaps was buried as was much that they pillaged in Moscow, some went for bribing the Egyptians, some flew into the air when L’Orient exploded (to be found by Frank Goddio and his team recently)…and should that molten gold have fallen onto the decks of the British ships, I don’t see the sailors gathering it up and giving it to their captains, I fancy they gathered it up and stowed it somewhere safe for a rainy day…

      The Sword of La Valetta is in the Louvre and there are frequent representations by the Maltese to the French Government to have it returned.

      • Cead Evans says:

        In 1986 Dr. Mohrez El Hussini, Director of the National Maritime Museum, invited me as a historian to join the French “expedition”. I have years of research files gathering mold here in a box…but time is against me doing anything in Egypt on the ground, so to speak. My leading comment to which you have so aptly responded in summary, was tossed up to see if you included the idea of Napoleon stashing the loot. He was a land warrior of course, and having seen Lord Nelson’s fleet (and having heard it was in Alexandria but 3 days prior to the arrival of the French convoy), you would think that in the month at anchor before Nelson’s attack Napoleon would have stashed the loot in a safe and convenient location.

        I have always thought that Fort St. Julien, a purpose-built fortication, constructed around a pre-existing Ottoman fort, el Raschid (Rosetta), would have been the only ideal location. I sent my son, Dr. Evans (archaeologist) to survey the site . . . while he created a photo inventory he was arrested. This well-guarded “historic site” suffered a bodgy renovation a couple of decades ago.

        Of course the French Institute in Cairo was gutted by fire during the recent uprisings, and its great library lost. You would think a cellar therein would be another good stash point.

        Then of course we have Napoleon’s encampment near the Sphinx, where he resided much of his time there. Obviously plenty of tombs and so forth wherein to place stash.

        The main problem with the stashed hoard concept is that Napoleon had ample time to collect any treasure and take it on board the frigate he escaped on in Alexandria Harbour. Furthermore he won a huge battle at Abukir just prior to departure. But of course his savants continued to work in the Upper Nile, and his General fight skirmishes.

      • M M Bennetts says:

        Given that scholars are now convinced Napoleon (and his troops) stashed most of what they stole from Russia in the plains to the west of Moscow sometime before the 6/7 November 1812 and which Russians scholars now believe they may be onto–they’ve been digging up little bits for the last 200 years, but not the main Napoleonic ‘haul’, it seems probable that at least a portion was stashed. Somewhere. And heaven knows there have been enough conflicts and grave robbing in that part of the world over the last 200 years to at least allow for some of that stash to have been found and squirrelled off by the finders…

        The other thing is though and this is always overlooked–war is expensive. Napoleon went through money like water in order to keep his army in the field, in uniforms, with enough ammunition, with horses and their fodder…It’s catastrophic for any but the most buoyant economy and France’s wasn’t that. They were frequently on the point of national bankruptcy. And Napoleon also had expensive personal tastes and an enormous fondness for bling–again, these cost money. So whatever he had, whatever he stole, whatever he pillaged would have been eaten up just by his personal ‘requirements’ and his army. I think probably it’s that simple. We just don’t want to face ‘head-on’ as it were just how expensive his wars and behaviour really were. It’s too staggering a sum.

  3. otto bcn says:

    Great work! This is the kind of info that should be shared around the internet. Thanks =)

  4. […] Napoleon’s Maltese Treasure… […]

  5. Tim W. says:

    The Sword of La Valetta should be returned to it’s rightful owners, the Order of Malta (SMOM), not the French Government.

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