Malta Diary; The ant sees off the elephant – in 1798 the Gozitans expelled Napoleon Bonaparte and the French and Gozo became ‘independent’!
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Napoleon met his Waterloo on 18th June, 1815 – but well before that he met his Gozo on 28th October, 1798! On that day the French garrisons reigning over the minute island of Gozo (population at the time 16,000, an island of 67 square kilometres) were expelled by the people of Gozo under the leadership of no less than the Archpriest of its capital city Rabat (later re-named Victoria for Queen Victoria after the arrival of the British).
The turn of the 18th Century into the 19th was a particularly turbulent time for Malta and Gozo. In June 1798 the Mediterranean Fleet of the First French Republic entered Valletta’s Grand Harbour on the pretext of merely wanting to refresh supplies en route to Egypt in preparation for the Battle of the Nile. Napoleon Bonaparte strode onto Maltese soil and spent a turbulent week of revolutionary change.
Recognising Malta’s strategic geographical and military position at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea he immediately expelled the Knights of the Order of St John, seeing this as a gemstone of royalty’s anti-revolutionary stance as Grandmasters and Knights were mostly members of European Royalty. Thus came to an end a sojourn of almost three Centuries by the Knight Hospitaliers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.
In a week’s flurry of republican activity and to ensure that Malta would remain under French rule he issued no less than ten Ordinances embodying 98 Articles including the re-organisation of the education system and the Judiciary to conform to French principles before leaving to continue his journey to Egypt, leaving behind several garrisons to keep a hold on strategic Malta and Gozo.
The French established a number of garrisons, including two in Gozo. However, they underestimated the will and the strength of the ethnic opposition. The Maltese and Gozitans did not take to the French to any degree and French troops did not help their own cause by looting churches, fields for agricultural produce and food stores in general.
Groups for guerilla warfare were established and they made contact with the British Fleet under Admiral Lord Nelson established in Naples – despite the mostly Protestant ethic of the British – such was the extent of hate towards the French.
On 2nd September 1798, the third month of French domination in Malta, the Maltese rebelled in the old capital city of Mdina and demanded to return to the Kingdom of Sicily under King Ferdinand III. The word spread like wildfire and on the day after, 3rd September, the Gozitans followed suit and rebelled.
Faith in the clergy was then paramount and the rebels chose Father Saverio Cassar, the Archpriest of the parish of Rabat, as their leader. One of his first actions was to organise a “Dejma”, the equivalent of a home guard. A fund was initiated to purchase armaments and pro-French sympathisers, including three Canons in his own parish, were arrested.
Systematic and regular attacks were mounted on the two French garrisons at the Cittadella and Fort Chambray until they capitulated on 28th October, 1798. By then, the Gozitans had brought in Sir Alexander Ball and some British military and with their help the French agreed to surrender without a fight and also agreed to hand over 24 cannons, a large ammunition stash and 3,200 bags of flour!
On 30th October, Ball handed the island over to the Gozitans and for the first time in its history Gozo became an independent state – managed by Gozitans – a dream that was even beyond the wildest!
Fr Saverio appointed an Administrative Council made up of Gozitans and British military personnel with the Gozitans requesting that once more Gozo becomes an independent state under the patronage of King Ferdinand III of Sicily.
The Neapolitan flag (which later became the flag of The Two Sicilies) was chosen as the flag of Gozo and King Ferdinand III acknowledged his “faithful Gozitan subjects”. The Archpriest also organised the small island’s administration, reopened the Law Courts and even opened a Customs House.
At this juncture some personal points I would make. My maternal grandfather George Mallia was of Gozitan origins as his father Neriku i.e. Henry, (my great grandfather) was Gozitan born. As a boy, grandfather George often spent time explaining to me how one of his ancestors who was his great, great something or other and therefore one of my great, great something or other ancestor, was one of the members of this Administrative Council which indeed contained a Gozitan surnamed Mallia – not such a common surname in Gozo.
On a more sinister note and in more recent times my grandfather’s Gozitan second cousin Carlo Mallia fled to Italy in 1939 and joined Mussolini’s fascists and was later appointed as the Under Secretary for Education in Mussolini’s Government Cabinet.
By mere coincidence some 20 years ago I was having a holiday break in Gozo, I was introduced to a man who “is Carlo Mallia’s son”. Astounded, I explained our family connection and we embraced like long-lost brothers. With tears in his eyes he was elated to have met one of his relatives in the Maltese islands.
Gozo’ stretch of total independence came to an end on 20th August 1801 having lasted from 30-10-1798 to 20-08-1801 after the French garrison in Malta finally surrendered and in came the British on invitation declaring Malta to be “a Protectorate”. The Gozo Council was wound up and Sir Alexander Ball became the first Governor-General of the Maltese islands, including Gozo which no longer remained independent.
The Archpriest Saverio Cassar died aged 58 on 16th December, 1805.
“Give bread to those who know how to eat it”
Don’t waste your tools and resources on those who do not know how to best use them.