The Capitulation of the Maltese Islands from the Order of St. John to Napoleon Bonaparte

The French Occupation

On the 9 June 1798, a French fleet destined for Egypt with over 30,000 men under General Napoleon Bonaparte arrived off the heavily fortified citadel of Valletta, ruled by the Knights of St John. A French Knight in Malta recorded the event in these terms: “the Maltese people saw from vantage points, the forest of masts which covered a vast expanse of sea….the sight petrified us.”

Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch refused Bonaparte's demand that his convoy would be allowed to enter Valletta and take on supplies, insisting that only two ships could enter at a time, upon which Bonaparte immediately ordered his fleet to bombard Valletta and landed several thousand soldiers at seven strategic sites around the island.

Most French knights commanding various strategic localities and forts deserted the Order. However, many Maltese regiments offered brave resistance in spite of the confusion. At Fort Tigne, the Maltese Cacciatori regiment threw back three times the attacking French forces.  In Fort San Lucian at Marsaxlokk, the Maltese garrison put up a fierce resistance for 36 hours and the 165 men only gave up when they ran out of water and ammunition.

The demoralized Order however failed to mount a strong resistance and once the city of Mdina fell to Bonaparte, Hompesch surrendered Malta and all its resources to the French, in exchange for estates and pensions in France for himself and his knights.

Napoleon stayed in Malta for a few days during which time his troops established an administration controlled by his officers: introducing radical changes to limit the influence of the Bishop to purely religious matters, expelling all foreign clergy, and passing laws defending the rights of illegitimate children. The education system was reformed to focus on scientific subjects and a civil code was drawn up introducing equality before the law, freedom of religion and property rights. Slavery was abolished and all Turkish slaves were freed. All aristocratic rights and privileges were abolished. 

He then sailed for Egypt, leaving behind 4,000 soldiers who were deeply unpopular with the Maltese due to their hostility towards Catholicism. During the short period of French rule, Mdina and its nobles played a great part in the rising of the Maltese against their French rulers. At that time the Maltese were extremely loyal to their religious leaders and their faith,and resistant to liberal ideas.

 When the French began meddling with their churches and looting them of their silver, matters came to a head. The last straw came when, on September 2nd, the French ordered the auctioning of the damask of the Carmelite Church. This was opposed by an angry crowd and rioting broke out. A French officer by the name of Masson was attacked and thrown from a balcony in nearby Rabat, dying on the spot along with some of his men. Meanwhile, Col. Masson’s wife was only spared because she was expecting a child. The French troops took refuge behind the walls of Malta’s fortified cities, where they were blockaded by the Maltese militia.

When the French Mediterranean Fleet was destroyed at the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798, the British Royal Navy was able to start a blockade of Malta, assisted by the Maltese rebellion against French rule. Forced to retreat to Valletta, the French troops faced such food shortages, that they were reduced to eating cats and rats. Although small quantities of supplies arrived in early 1799, starvation and disease had a disastrous effect on the health and morale of the French troops.

The Kingdom of Naples and Sicily along with Great Britain sent ammunition and aid to the Maltese and blockaded the islands, stopping French convoys to and from Malta, forcing them to surrender to larger British squadrons in hard-fought battles. These defeats weakened so much the French position in Valletta that after a two-year siege, General Belgrand de Vaubois surrendered his garrison, exhausted by malnutrition and typhus disease, on the 4th of September 1800.

Maltese leaders presented their islands to Sir Alexander Ball asking that the island become a British Dominion. The Maltese people created a Declaration of Rights in which they agreed to come "under the protection and sovereignty of the King of the free people, His Majesty the King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland". The Declaration also stated that "his Majesty has no right to cede these Islands to any power...if he chooses to withdraw his protection, and abandon his sovereignty, the right of electing another sovereign, or of the governing of these Islands, belongs to us, the Maltese alone, and without control”.

Malta was retained by Britain, and control of the island was a reason for the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803. Ultimately it remained under British government for 164 years, gaining Independence in 1964.


Aerial view of Fort Tigne. Photo taken during the British times
Aerial view of Fort Tigne. Photo taken during the British times
Aerial view of Fort Tigne nowadays
Aerial view of Fort Tigne nowadays
Fort San Lucian during the British
Fort San Lucian during the British
Fort San Lucian nowadays
Fort San Lucian nowadays
Inside the Carmelite Church from where the French took the damask to auction it
Inside the Carmelite Church from where the French took the damask to auction it

View: