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“My lord,” he said, “will you tell me what’s happened

2023-12-04 05:02:20source:Hurry up Classification:internet

It was, I know, a general opinion among the English in the Mediterranean, that Sir Alexander Ball thought too well of the Maltese, and did not share in the enthusiasm of Britons concerning their own superiority. To the former part of the charge I shall only reply at present, that a more venial, and almost desirable fault, can scarcely be attributed to a governor, than that of a strong attachment to the people whom he was sent to govern. The latter part of the charge is false, if we are to understand by it, that he did not think his countrymen superior on the whole to the other nations of Europe; but it is true, as far as relates to his belief, that the English thought themselves still better than they are; that they dwelt on and exaggerated their national virtues, and weighed them by the opposite vices of foreigners, instead of the virtues which those foreigners possessed and they themselves wanted. Above all, as statesmen, we must consider qualities by their practical uses. Thus, he entertained no doubt that the English were superior to all others in the kind and the degree of their courage, which is marked by far greater enthusiasm than the courage of the Germans and northern nations, and by a far greater steadiness and self-subsistency than that of the French. It is more closely connected with the character of the individual. The courage of an English army (he used to say) is the sum total of the courage which the individual soldiers bring with them to it, rather than of that which they derive from it. This remark of Sir Alexander's was forcibly recalled to my mind when I was at Naples. A Russian and an English regiment were drawn up together in the same square: "See," said a Neapolitan to me, who had mistaken me for one of his countrymen, "there is but one face in that whole regiment, while in that" (pointing to the English) "every soldier has a face of his own." On the other hand, there are qualities scarcely less requisite to the completion of the military character, in which Sir A. did not hesitate to think the English inferior to the continental nations; as for instance, both in the power and the disposition to endure privations; in the friendly temper necessary, when troops of different nations are to act in concert; in their obedience to the regulations of their commanding officers, respecting their treatment of the inhabitants of the countries through which they are marching, as well as in many other points, not immediately connected with their conduct in the field: and, above all, in sobriety and temperance. During the siege of Valetta, especially during the sore distress to which the besiegers were for some time exposed from the failure of provision, Sir Alexander Ball had an ample opportunity of observing and weighing the separate merits and demerits of the native and of the English troops; and surely since the publication of Sir John Moore's campaign, there can be no just offence taken, though I should say, that before the walls of Valetta, as well as in the plains of Galicia, an indignant commander might, with too great propriety, have addressed the English soldiery in the words of an old dramatist -

“My lord,” he said, “will you tell me what’s happened

Will you still owe your virtues to your bellies? And only then think nobly when y'are full? Doth fodder keep you honest? Are you bad When out of flesh? And think you't an excuse Of vile and ignominious actions, that Y' are lean and out of liking? CARTWRIGHT'S Love's Convert.

“My lord,” he said, “will you tell me what’s happened

From the first insurrectionary movement to the final departure of the French from the island, though the civil and military powers and the whole of the island, save Valetta, were in the hands of the peasantry, not a single act of excess can be charged against the Maltese, if we except the razing of one house at Civita Vecchia belonging to a notorious and abandoned traitor, the creature and hireling of the French. In no instance did they injure, insult, or plunder, any one of the native nobility, or employ even the appearance of force toward them, except in the collection of the lead and iron from their houses and gardens, in order to supply themselves with bullets; and this very appearance was assumed from the generous wish to shelter the nobles from the resentment of the French, should the patriotic efforts of the peasantry prove unsuccessful. At the dire command of famine the Maltese troops did indeed once force their way to the ovens in which the bread for the British soldiery was baked, and were clamorous that an equal division should be made. I mention this unpleasant circumstance, because it brought into proof the firmness of Sir Alexander Ball's character, his presence of mind, and generous disregard of danger and personal responsibility, where the slavery or emancipation, the misery or the happiness, of an innocent and patriotic people were involved; and because his conduct in this exigency evinced that his general habits of circumspection and deliberation were the results of wisdom and complete self- possession, and not the easy virtues of a spirit constitutionally timorous and hesitating. He was sitting at table with the principal British officers, when a certain general addressed him in strong and violent terms concerning this outrage of the Maltese, reminding him of the necessity of exerting his commanding influence in the present case, or the consequences must be taken. "What," replied Sir Alexander Ball, "would you have us do? Would you have us threaten death to men dying with famine? Can you suppose that the hazard of being shot will weigh with whole regiments acting under a common necessity? Does not the extremity of hunger take away all difference between men and animals? and is it not as absurd to appeal to the prudence of a body of men starving, as to a herd of famished wolves? No, general, I will not degrade myself or outrage humanity by menacing famine with massacre! More effectual means must be taken." With these words he rose and left the room, and having first consulted with Sir Thomas Troubridge, he determined at his own risk on a step, which the extreme necessity warranted, and which the conduct of the Neapolitan court amply justified. For this court, though terror-stricken by the French, was still actuated by hatred to the English, and a jealousy of their power in the Mediterranean; and in this so strange and senseless a manner, that we must join the extremes of imbecility and treachery in the same cabinet, in order to find it comprehensible. Though the very existence of Naples and Sicily, as a nation, depended wholly and exclusively on British support; though the royal family owed their personal safety to the British fleet; though not only their dominions and their rank, but the liberty and even the lives of Ferdinand and his family, were interwoven with our success; yet with an infatuation scarcely credible, the most affecting representations of the distress of the besiegers, and of the utter insecurity of Sicily if the French remained possessors of Malta, were treated with neglect; and the urgent remonstrances for the permission of importing corn from Messina, were answered only by sanguinary edicts precluding all supply. Sir Alexander Ball sent for his senior lieutenant, and gave him orders to proceed immediately to the port of Messina, and there to seize and bring with him to Malta the ships laden with corn, of the number of which Sir Alexander had received accurate information. These orders were executed without delay, to the great delight and profit of the shipowners and proprietors; the necessity of raising the siege was removed; and the author of the measure waited in calmness for the consequences that might result to himself personally. But not a complaint, not a murmur, proceeded from the court of Naples. The sole result was, that the governor of Malta became an especial object of its hatred, its fear, and its respect.

“My lord,” he said, “will you tell me what’s happened

The whole of this tedious siege, from its commencement to the signing of the capitulation, called forth into constant activity the rarest and most difficult virtues of a commanding mind; virtues of no show or splendour in the vulgar apprehension, yet more infallible characteristics of true greatness than the most unequivocal displays of enterprise and active daring. Scarcely a day passed in which Sir Alexander Ball's patience, forbearance, and inflexible constancy were not put to the severest trial. He had not only to remove the misunderstandings that arose between the Maltese and their allies, to settle the differences among the Maltese themselves, and to organise their efforts; he was likewise engaged in the more difficult and unthankful task of counteracting the weariness, discontent, and despondency of his own countrymen--a task, however, which he accomplished by management and address, and an alternation of real firmness with apparent yielding. During many months he remained the only Englishman who did not think the siege hopeless, and the object worthless. He often spoke of the time in which he resided at the country seat of the grand master at St. Antonio, four miles from Valetta, as perhaps the most trying period of his life. For some weeks Captain Vivian was his sole English companion, of whom, as his partner in anxiety, he always expressed himself with affectionate esteem. Sir Alexander Ball's presence was absolutely necessary to the Maltese, who, accustomed to be governed by him, became incapable of acting in concert without his immediate influence. In the outburst of popular emotion, the impulse which produces an insurrection, is for a brief while its sufficient pilot: the attraction constitutes the cohesion, and the common provocation, supplying an immediate object, not only unites, but directs the multitude. But this first impulse had passed away, and Sir Alexander Ball was the one individual who possessed the general confidence. On him they relied with implicit faith; and even after they had long enjoyed the blessings of British government and protection, it was still remarkable with what child-like helplessness they were in the habit of applying to him, even in their private concerns. It seemed as if they thought him made on purpose to think for them all. Yet his situation at St. Antonio was one of great peril; and he attributed his preservation to the dejection which had now begun to prey on the spirits of the French garrison, and which rendered them unenterprising and almost passive, aided by the dread which the nature of the country inspired. For subdivided as it was into small fields, scarcely larger than a cottage garden, and each of these little squares of land inclosed with substantial stone walls; these too from the necessity of having the fields perfectly level, rising in tiers above each other; the whole of the inhabited part of the island was an effective fortification for all the purposes of annoyance and offensive warfare. Sir Alexander Ball exerted himself successfully in procuring information respecting the state and temper of the garrison, and, by the assistance of the clergy and the almost universal fidelity of the Maltese, contrived that the spies in the pay of the French should be in truth his own confidential agents. He had already given splendid proofs that he could outfight them; but here, and in his after diplomatic intercourse previous to the recommencement of the war, he likewise outwitted them. He once told me with a smile, as we were conversing on the practice of laying wagers, that he was sometimes inclined to think that the final perseverance in the siege was not a little indebted to several valuable bets of his own, he well knowing at the time, and from information which himself alone possessed, that he should certainly lose them. Yet this artifice had a considerable effect in suspending the impatience of the officers, and in supplying topics for dispute and conversation. At length, however, the two French frigates, the sailing of which had been the subject of these wagers, left the great harbour on the 24th of August, 1800, with a part of the garrison: and one of them soon became a prize to the English. Sir Alexander Ball related to me the circumstances which occasioned the escape of the other; but I do not recollect them with sufficient accuracy to dare repeat them in this place. On the 15th of September following, the capitulation was signed, and after a blockade of two years the English obtained possession of Valetta, and remained masters of the whole island and its dependencies.

Anxious not to give offence, but more anxious to communicate the truth, it is not without pain that I find myself under the moral obligation of remonstrating against the silence concerning Sir Alexander Ball's services or the transfer of them to others. More than once has the latter aroused my indignation in the reported speeches of the House of Commons: and as to the former, I need only state that in Rees's Encyclopaedia there is an historical article of considerable length under the word Malta, in which Sir Alexander's name does not once occur! During a residence of eighteen months in that island, I possessed and availed myself of the best possible means of information, not only from eye-witnesses, but likewise from the principal agents themselves. And I now thus publicly and unequivocally assert, that to Sir A. Ball pre-eminently--and if I had said, to Sir A. Ball alone, the ordinary use of the word under such circumstances would bear me out--the capture and the preservation of Malta were owing, with every blessing that a powerful mind and a wise heart could confer on its docile and grateful inhabitants. With a similar pain I proceed to avow my sentiments on this capitulation, by which Malta was delivered up to his Britannic Majesty and his allies, without the least mention made of the Maltese. With a warmth honourable both to his head and his heart, Sir Alexander Ball pleaded, as not less a point of sound policy than of plain justice, that the Maltese, by some representative, should be made a party in the capitulation, and a joint subscriber in the signature. They had never been the slaves or the property of the Knights of St. John, but freemen and the true landed proprietors of the country, the civil and military government of which, under certain restrictions, had been vested in that Order; yet checked by the rights and influences of the clergy and the native nobility, and by the customs and ancient laws of the island. This trust the Knights had, with the blackest treason and the most profligate perjury, betrayed and abandoned. The right of government of course reverted to the landed proprietors and the clergy. Animated by a just sense of this right, the Maltese had risen of their own accord, had contended for it in defiance of death and danger, had fought bravely, and endured patiently. Without undervaluing the military assistance afterwards furnished by Great Britain (though how scanty this was before the arrival of General Pigot is well known), it remains undeniable, that the Maltese had taken the greatest share both in the fatigues and in the privations consequent on the siege; and that had not the greatest virtues and the most exemplary fidelity been uniformly displayed by them, the English troops (they not being more numerous than they had been for the greater part of the two years) could not possibly have remained before the fortifications of Valetta, defended as that city was by a French garrison that greatly outnumbered the British besiegers. Still less could there have been the least hope of ultimate success; as if any part of the Maltese peasantry had been friendly to the French, or even indifferent, if they had not all indeed been most zealous and persevering in their hostility towards them, it would have been impracticable so to blockade that island as to have precluded the arrival of supplies. If the siege had proved unsuccessful, the Maltese were well aware that they should be exposed to all the horrors which revenge and wounded pride could dictate to an unprincipled, rapacious, and sanguinary soldiery; and now that success has crowned their efforts, is this to be their reward, that their own allies are to bargain for them with the French as for a herd of slaves, whom the French had before purchased from a former proprietor? If it be urged, that there is no established government in Malta, is it not equally true that through the whole population of the island there is not a single dissentient? and thus that the chief inconvenience which an established authority is to obviate is virtually removed by the admitted fact of their unanimity? And have they not a bishop, and a dignified clergy, their judges and municipal magistrates, who were at all times sharers in the power of the government, and now, supported by the unanimous suffrage of the inhabitants, have a rightful claim to be considered as its representatives? Will it not be oftener said than answered, that the main difference between French and English injustice rests in this point alone, that the French seized on the Maltese without any previous pretences of friendship, while the English procured possession of the island by means of their friendly promises, and by the co-operation of the natives afforded in confident reliance on these promises? The impolicy of refusing the signature on the part of the Maltese was equally evident; since such refusal could answer no one purpose but that of alienating their affections by a wanton insult to their feelings. For the Maltese were not only ready but desirous and eager to place themselves at the same time under British protection, to take the oaths of loyalty as subjects of the British Crown, and to acknowledge their island to belong to it. These representations, however, were overruled; and I dare affirm from my own experience in the Mediterranean, that our conduct in this instance, added to the impression which had been made at Corsica, Minorca, and elsewhere, and was often referred to by men of reflection in Sicily, who have more than once said to me, "A connection with Great Britain, with the consequent extension and security of our commerce, are indeed great blessings: but who can rely on their permanence? or that we shall not be made to pay bitterly for our zeal as partisans of England, whenever it shall suit its plans to deliver us back to our old oppressors?"

"The way of ancient ordinance, though it winds, Is yet no devious way. Straight forward goes The lightning's path; and straight the fearful path Of the cannon-ball. Direct it flies and rapid, Shattering that it may reach, and shattering what it reaches. My son! the road the human being travels, That, on which blessing comes and goes, doth follow The river's course, the valley's playful windings, Curves round the corn-field and the hill of vines, Honouring the holy bounds of property! There exists A higher than the warrior's excellence." WALLENSTEIN.

Captain Ball's services in Malta were honoured with his sovereign's approbation, transmitted in a letter from the Secretary Dundas, and with a baronetcy. A thousand pounds were at the same time directed to be paid him from the Maltese treasury. The best and most appropriate addition to the applause of his king and his country, Sir Alexander Ball found in the feelings and faithful affection of the Maltese. The enthusiasm manifested in reverential gestures and shouts of triumph whenever their friend and deliverer appeared in public, was the utterance of a deep feeling, and in nowise the mere ebullition of animal sensibility; which is not indeed a part of the Maltese character. The truth of this observation will not be doubted by any person who has witnessed the religious processions in honour of the favourite saints, both at Valetta and at Messina or Palermo, and who must have been struck with the contrast between the apparent apathy, or at least the perfect sobriety of the Maltese, and the fanatical agitations of the Sicilian populace. Among the latter each man's soul seems hardly containable in his body, like a prisoner whose gaol is on fire, flying madly from one barred outlet to another; while the former might suggest the suspicion that their bodies were on the point of sinking into the same slumber with their understandings. But their political deliverance was a thing that came home to their hearts, and intertwined with their most impassioned recollections, personal and patriotic. To Sir Alexander Ball exclusively the Maltese themselves attributed their emancipation; on him too they rested their hopes of the future. Whenever he appeared in Valetta, the passengers on each side, through the whole length of the street, stopped, and remained uncovered till he had passed; the very clamours of the market-place were hushed at his entrance, and then exchanged for shouts of joy and welcome. Even after the lapse of years he never appeared in any one of their casals, which did not lie in the direct road between Valetta and St. Antonio, his summer residence, but the women and children, with such of the men who were not at labour in their fields, fell into ranks and followed or preceded him, singing the Maltese song which had been made in his honour, and which was scarcely less familiar to the inhabitants of Malta and Gozo than "God save the King" to Britons. When he went to the gate through the city, the young men refrained talking, and the aged arose and stood up. When the ear heard then it blessed him, and when the eye saw him it gave witness to him, because he delivered the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and those that had none to help them. The blessing of them that were ready to perish came upon him, and he caused the widow's heart to sing for joy.

These feelings were afterwards amply justified by his administration of the government; and the very excesses of their gratitude on their first deliverance proved, in the end, only to be acknowledgments antedated. For some time after the departure of the French, the distress was so general and so severe, that a large proportion of the lower classes became mendicants, and one of the greatest thoroughfares of Valetta still retains the name of the "Nix mangiare stairs," from the crowd who used there to assail the ears of the passengers with cries of "nix mangiare," or "nothing to eat," the former word nix being the low German pronunciation of nichts, nothing. By what means it was introduced into Malta, I know not; but it became the common vehicle both of solicitation and refusal, the Maltese thinking it an English word, and the English supposing it to be Maltese. I often felt it as a pleasing remembrancer of the evil day gone by, when a tribe of little children, quite naked, as is the custom of that climate, and each with a pair of gold earrings in its ears, and all fat and beautifully proportioned, would suddenly leave their play, and, looking round to see that their parents were not in sight, change their shouts of merriment for "nix mangiare," awkwardly imitating the plaintive tones of mendicancy; while the white teeth in their little swarthy faces gave a splendour to the happy and confessing laugh with which they received the good-humoured rebuke or refusal, and ran back to their former sport.