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Bonaparte and the Knights of Malta

‘Why not seize Malta?’ Napoleon asked Talleyrand, ‘We could be masters of the Mediterranean’. By Christopher Hibbert. 

'Why do we not seize Malta?,’ General Bonaparte asked Talleyrand in September 1797.

‘The inhabitants, 100,000 in number, are very much in our favour and are thoroughly dissatisfied with the Knights... We could be masters of the Mediterranean.’

Bonaparte wrote from Passeriano in Venetia, where, as a conclusion to his military triumphs in Italy, he was negotiating with the Austrians the peace that was to be known as the Treaty of Campo Formio.

Already he was dreaming of new and greater conquests, of schemes in which the capture of a small Mediterranean island would play but a minor, preliminary part. He was dreaming, in fact, of a French empire in the Orient. Feeling, as he put it himself at St Helena, as though the earth were fleeing from beneath his feet, as though he were being ‘carried to the sky’, he had visions of himself as the conqueror of the Levant, the inheritor of the empires of the East.

‘The Turkish Empire is crumbling,’ he assured the Directory. ‘The day is not far off when we shall appreciate the necessity, in order utterly to destroy England, of seizing Egypt.’ For to seize Egypt would be to control the land routes to the East and to crush the power of England in India.

The Directory agreed. Talleyrand, who had been listening sympathetically to other voices advocating action in the Levant, replied that Bonaparte’s plans for Malta were approved. Not only would the island be invaluable for future operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, but a French occupation would disappoint the ambitions of the Emperor Francis II, who had recently enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing a German elected to the Grand Mastership of the Order of the Knights of Malta.

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