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.
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?
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.”