In 1798 Malta was invaded by Napoleon on his way to his campaign in Egypt. According to our family tradition, Alexandre Callus, brother of my Gt Gt Gt Grandfather Joseph (c. 1788-1813) was a colonel in Napoleon’s army and ended up living in Corsica. Is this a myth or could it be true?
Napoleon’s Invasion of Malta
In the second half of the eighteenth century, there was growing unrest amongst the Maltese people with the rule of the Knights Hospitallers. In 1775, there had been an unsuccessful insurrection by the Maltese, which included many priests. It had been put down and the ring leaders given life imprisonment or exile. Also, as a result of the support lent to the French Revolution by many of the French knights and Grand Master Ximenes, the island of Malta was in poor shape financially so taxes were raised to recover revenues which caused great hardship to the native population.
By 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte’s star was rising and he was busy hatching ambitious plans to invade Egypt and possibly even to extend to the Middle East. But France was broke and he did not have the resources to finance such an enterprise. As it happens Malta was en route and some Maltese had secretly made contact inviting him to come and relieve the Knights of their dominion!
On 11 June 1798, Napoleon arrived at Malta with 30,000 troops and requested permission to harbour his ships at Valletta for supplies. The Grand Master, Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim, replied that as Malta was a neutral territory, only 2 ships could enter at a time. Napoleon responded by bombarding the harbour and despatching thousands of troops to land at strategic points all around the island. The Maltese were overwhelmed. At the same time, a goodly proportion of the French contingent of Knights Hospitallers refused to take up arms against their countrymen. The Grand Master therefore had little choice but to surrender Malta to Napoleon in return for lands in France for himself and the Knights. They departed Malta immediately, never to return, signalling the end of the rule of the Knights.
Napoleon’s troops were instructed to overrun the island, plundering the treasury, palaces, churches and the houses of the aristocracy. The financing of the Egypt campaign was effectively achieved through piracy! At this time, my Callus ancestors resided in Zebbug, near Mdina. When the villagers of Zebbug heard that the French troops were coming, they quickly descended on the parish church and hid its treasures. They then threw open all the doors to the church so that the soldiers would think that the church had already been looted and would pass by. Ingenuous and it worked!
Napoleon himself only stayed 6 days and then departed for Egypt. During that time, he issued 10 Ordinances for the government of the island which included mandating use of the French language, the abolition of slavery, compulsory schooling, decreeing religious freedom for jews and Greek orthodox church and the recognition of civil marriage. Streets and squares were renamed.
The Maltese Response to French Rule
A garrison of around 4000 soldiers was left behind to maintain control of Malta. At first the local Maltese population welcomed them, seeing them as liberators, particularly as Napoleon had abolished the ancient feudal system that had kept them in thrall to the Knights. However while they tolerated the policy of looting the aristocracy, they took great exception to the looting of their churches and the disrespectful attitudes of the French garrison to their clergy. This reached a head at a public auction of church property in Mdina which inflamed the crowds and caused a local riot. Soon after, on 2 September 1798 after an occupation of only 3 months, the Maltese rebelled and routed the French from Mdina and the island’s interior.
The French and about 100 Maltese supporters retreated to Valletta where they remained under siege for almost 2 years, with the British fleet under Nelson blockading the Grand Harbour and supplying arms to Maltese irregulars to starve and harry the troops inside the fortress. What was left of the garrison eventually surrendered to the British in September 1800. (The Maltese were not consulted on the terms)! Britain then held Malta as a British Protectorate until the 20th century, when Malta gained independence, becoming a republic in 1964.
An excellent and more detailed account can be found at Vassallo History – French Blockade.
The Search for Alexandre
How does our family tradition stack up against the historical facts of Napoleon’s invasion?
Alexandre was baptised Phillip Alexander Augustus Callus on 7 July 1779 in Zebbug. This meant he was 19 years old at the time of Napoleon’s invasion.
His parents were Andrea Callus and his second wife Caterina Cauchi, (Andrea’s first wife Rosa Cauchi having died many years earlier without issue). Alexandre was named after Caterina’s father Alexander Cauchi. He was about 9 years older than his brother Joseph, but it’s not known if there were other siblings.
We have to speculate under what circumstances Alexandre could have engaged with Napoleon’s forces. I think it unlikely that he would have enlisted after Sept 1798, as the Maltese of the interior, which included Zebbug, had by then become completely disenchanted with French rule. To enter at the rank of colonel seems doubtful, particularly for a young non career soldier in these circumstances, but there is the possibility that he bought a commission during the 3 month “honeymoon period” of Napoleon’s occupation. His family were probably sufficiently well off. If this were true, then he would most likely have been caught up in the siege at Valletta and been lucky to survive and escape!
It seems more probable that he had left Malta and joined the French army some time prior to the invasion as there were plenty of French sympathisers before this point. In a letter from Hortense Callus dated 1930 she states that Alexandre joined the army in Corsica and “passed through Malta before settling in France”. If correct he may then have been part of the force that captured Malta and then left for Egypt. By the time that campaign was over, a return to Malta would have been impossible due to the French reversal of fortune.
I do not know what would have been the earliest age for enlistment in the French army and have not been able to locate any French military records – where to start? Perhaps this is an avenue for future research.
With just a birth date and a viable timeline but little else to go on in terms of evidence, this seemed to be the end of the road for this story and then finally, I decided to see if it was possible to locate any Corsican records online. Lo and behold, I discovered one solitary Callus family in the records – a marriage in 1824. With some trepidation I clicked on the name to find out more and up came the results:
The bride was Marie Catherine Jéròme Callus born c. 1805 Ajaccio. She married Etienne Corticchiato (b. 1803) on 24 April 1824. But more significantly Marie’s parents were named as Alexandre Callus and Therésè Secondini of Ajaccio, Corsica!
There are also records for 2 other children:
Dominique Callus b. 1810 Ajaccio and
André Callus b. 1817 Ajaccio
The dates align perfectly with our man. If we assume he married around 1804, he would have been aged 25. What is more his occupation is given as, not a colonel, but a teinturier=dyer. Alexandre’s brother Joseph, was the owner of a spinning mill back in Malta, so the occupation of dyer seems an appropriate skill for the main industry of his home town and the family business. It is not clear however what induced Alexandre to leave the island when his family seemed to have a thriving business. Perhaps therefore the spinning mill was not the product of his father’s fortunes but of his brother’s, either as a self made man or connected with his in-laws? (I will be returning to Joseph’s story in a future post).
However, the fact that the nub of this story came down to us as oral history does indicate that Alexandre must have remained in contact with his family in Malta. If there was a family falling out, his travels would not have been considered worthy of passing on to future generations.
The lack of evidence for a military role remains a mystery. It is interesting to speculate that following Joseph’s death in 1813, Alexandre may have had an opportunity to return to Malta to take over the spinning business. However if Alexandre had indeed had a military career in Napoleon’s army then Malta’s new colonial regime under the British may well have considered this a treacherous association, making it impossible for him to return. It’s becoming a recurring theme!