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Malta Surrendered

Joe Scicluna

Average Review Rating Average Rating 9/10 (1 Review)
Book Details

Publisher : Allied Publications

Published : 2011

Copyright : Joe Scicluna 2011

ISBN-10 : PB 9-9909316-1-5
ISBN-13 : PB 978-9-9909316-1-7

Publisher's Write-Up

Ever since the Great Siege of 1565, Malta became known as the impregnable island. It was the home of the Knights of St John, that highly admired Christian army formed of the upper crust of Europe's nobility. And yet, when Napoleon's fleet turned up at its shores in June 1798, the knights were in a state of disarray. They were incapable of planning or executing a credible defence strategy, much to Europe's amazement. It was difficult to conceive how centuries of glorious victories could culminate in the disgraceful banishment that followed the surrender of Malta.

These are the memoirs of Pierre-Jean Doublet who was then the Grand Master's secretary for the French Langue. He witnessed the events as they unfolded and left a detailed account of what took place and what, in his view led to such an unpredictable outcome.

In this book Joe Scicluna has rendered a great service to his homeland by translating from French to English these memoirs on the French invasion of Malta.

'Joe Scicluna has rendered a great service to his homeland by translating from French into English the memoirs on the French invasion of Malta written by a chief protagonist, Pierre-Jean-Louis-Ovide Doublet, secretary to Grand Master Hompesch.'

Albert Ganado
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Reader Reviews

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Review by Vincenzo (310811) Rating (9/10)

Review by Vincenzo
Rating 9/10
How does an ostensibly impregnable island fortress, such as Malta was deemed to be at the end of the 18th century, surrender itself to domination by Bonaparte’s France, with nary a shot being fired? Moreover, how do the Maltese miss the opportunity to secure political rights for self determination on the coattails of cries for "Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité" that echoed from the barricades of France’s revolutionary Third Republic?

In Malta Surrendered, the recently published English translation by Joe Scicluna of Pierre Jean Louis Ovide Doublet’s memoirs, we are treated to an eclectic narrative of events that give us an almost voyeuristic insight into the realpolitik of this turbulent period in Maltese history. This is a story of capitulation, de-capitation and other intrigue which led to the expulsion of the Knights of the Order of St. John from Malta by the French in 1798.

As private secretary to Grand Masters De Rohan and Hompesh, few were better positioned than Doublet to provide an eyewitness account of the Order’s surrender of Malta on board Napoleon’s flagship L’Orient and of the events that led to that pivotal outcome.

It has been said that the pure truth is seldom pure and never simple - Doublet’s narrative is a good case in point. Right from the outset, Doublet tells us that his reason for writing the memoirs is to set the record straight in a rebuttal of allegations that implicated him in collusion with anti-Order French republican agents; of divulging secret ciphers of the Order to Napoleon; and of other deeds of betrayal of his allegiance to the Grand Master and the Order. One might be forgiven for thinking that Doublet would discharge his exoneration quest in a dry narration of facts and data. What unfolds, however, is an articulate and well structured collage of events, anecdotes and social context that intertwine to make this a highly compelling story to the modern reader.

Doublet’s career path follows the 18th century equivalent of today’s middle management corporate ladder. This sees him climb from modest peasant stock, with hard work and, evidently, well directed subservience, to become the senior-most mandarin of the Order in Malta and a trusted advisor to the Grand Master. Along the way, we are given glimpses of his infatuation with Bettina Magri, a suitably virtuous Maltese maiden, whom Doublet eventually marries. He does this almost covertly, after deftly circumventing objections to the union from Chevalier Varrax, his wayward superior, who seemed intent on redirecting Doublet’s passions towards a somewhat less demure local debutante. Doublet goes on to sire seven children with Bettina, whose progeny still live in Malta and some of whom today also call Australia home.

The fate of the rogue Chevalier Varrax provides one of the interesting side-bar vignettes that are interspersed throughout the narrative and which lend Malta Surrendered much of its charm. Varrax, we learn, was soon to fall victim of progressive dementia and Doublet does not miss the opportunity to regale his reader with a couple of amusing anecdotes that chronicle his erstwhile boss’ descent into insanity. We assume that Varrax’s affliction was by-product of syphilis which he would have contracted from his dalliances with the less salubrious demi-monde that prevailed in Valletta during the twilight years of the Knights’ reign. Doublet offers an interesting account of Varrax’s doctors’ attempts to treat his condition with magnetized strawberries - probably the leading edge medical technology of the day - followed by protracted immersion in a bath of ice water that induced extreme hypothermia and ultimately his death. Thus, the hapless Varrax was permanently relieved from the indignity of his dementia.
Doublet does not hold back any punches in his denunciation of Grand Master Hompesh’s dithering, poor judgment and perhaps even outright cowardice. In pursuit of his quest for exoneration, Doublet submits ample detail to vindicate the analysis and counsel that he had provided to Hompesh, including specific advice on military strategy, which Hompesh, at his peril, chose to ignore.

As the narrative unfolds, we learn that much of Hompesh’s quandary was predicated by a deep seated belief that he did not have the support of the hearts, minds and brawn of the Maltese population to fend off a siege by Napoleon’s fleet. This perhaps speaks volumes about Hompesh’s leadership, especially when contrasted with his predecessor, Jean Parisot De La Vallette, at the Great Siege of 1565. Doublet includes a few anecdotes about violent and erratic behaviour of some of the Maltese militia at the time - events that might well have played on Hompesh’s psyche to lend credence to his paranoid conspiracy theories.

In one instance, Doublet recounts the capture of Knights at knifepoint and the killing to two Knights by disgruntled Maltese militia. In another, he describes in some detail, the gruesome decapitation of a Frenchman whose body and severed head were later thrown into Valletta harbour, close to where today stands the fish market. In this same incident, the Maltese mob proceeds to perpetrate a massacre of recently freed slaves and to savagely beat to death a French merchant, by the name of Eynaud, who was married to a Maltese lady with whom he fathered 10 children and whose descendants can still be traced in Malta today. This indiscriminate orgy of violence also led to the demise of several Greek sailors who were suspected of caching arms.

Doublet’s story is very much a French account, written by a Frenchman, for a French and northern European audience. It does nevertheless give us interesting insights about the Maltese perspective, perhaps not so much by what Doublet writes on the subject, but by what he does not write. For example, in making a passing reference to a chance encounter with Maltese advocate Torregiani, Doublet is perhaps exposing the ephemera of Maltese activism in the events that influenced the island’s life.

Doublet’s remarkably open account of the introduction of Masonic activity on the island and the Church’s efforts to suppress this movement adds further colour to the story. This is all the more interesting, given the well documented squabbles that frequently erupted between the Order and the local Church and which often required arbitration by papal intervention.
Maltese history is replete with countless entreaties for self-government by the Maltese to their rex-du-jour. True to this form, the Maltese leaders of the Univerista dei Giurati managed to include a contingent of four representatives on board Bonaparte’s L’Orient, moored in choppy seas outside St. Julian’s bay. In spite of some debilitating seasickness, the Maltese prevailed upon Napoleon to include an Article in the Deed of Convention to register a claim, albeit a somewhat weak one, for religious freedom, native rights and protection from taxes. Napoleon’s blatant disregard of this undertaking would prove to be the French’s undoing in Malta a few years later. But that is another story.

In Malta Surrendered, Joe Scicluna does an admirable job of staying true to Doublet’s text while morphing archaic French vocabulary and the labyrinthine writing style of the time into a gripping, informative and thoroughly enjoyable yarn.

It would be too simplistic, and perhaps quite misguided, to read into Doublet’s story an account of winners and losers. In the final analysis, Malta Surrendered shines a light on events, people and behaviours that made up a microcosm of political life in Malta at the turn of the 18th century. This therefore is less about binary winners or losers and more about protagonists, actions and outcomes that have had a material bearing on how we Maltese define ourselves in the 21st century. For this we owe Doublet and Joe Scicluna, his translator and commentator, a debt of gratitude for giving us an eminently good read.
Vincenzo (31st August 2011)

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