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- Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit etc. - 22/22 -


affectionate esteem which had ripened the pious wish of some kind individual, through all the gradations of possibility and probability, into a confident assertion, believed and affirmed by hundreds. The feelings of Great Britain on this awful event have been described well and worthily by a living poet, who has happily blended the passion and wild transitions of lyric song with the swell and solemnity of epic narration.

"--Thou art fall'n! fall'n, in the lap Of victory. To thy country thou cam'st back, Thou, conqueror, to triumphal Albion cam'st A corse! I saw before thy hearse pass on The comrades of thy perils and renown. The frequent tear upon their dauntless breasts Fell. I beheld the pomp thick gathered round The trophied car that bore thy graced remains Through armed ranks, and a nation gazing on. Bright glowed the sun, and not a cloud distained Heaven's arch of gold, but all was gloom beneath. A holy and unutterable pang Thrilled on the soul. Awe and mute anguish fell On all.--Yet high the public bosom throbbed With triumph. And if one, 'mid that vast pomp, If but the voice of one had shouted forth The name of NELSON, thou hadst past along, Thou in thy hearse to burial past, as oft Before the van of battle, proudly rode Thy prow, down Britain's line, shout after shout Rending the air with triumph, ere thy hand Had lanced the bolt of victory."

SOTHEBY (Saul, p. 80).

I introduced this digression with an apology, yet have extended it so much further than I had designed, that I must once more request my reader to excuse me. It was to be expected (I have said) that Lord Nelson would appreciate the isle of Malta from its relations to the British fleet on the Mediterranean station. It was the fashion of the day to style Egypt the key of India, and Malta the key of Egypt. Nelson saw the hollowness of this metaphor; or if he only doubted its applicability in the former instance, he was sure that it was false in the latter. Egypt might or might not be the key of India, but Malta was certainly not the key of Egypt. It was not intended to keep constantly two distinct fleets in that sea; and the largest naval force at Malta would not supersede the necessity of a squadron off Toulon. Malta does not lie in the direct course from Toulon to Alexandria; and from the nature of the winds (taking one time with another) the comparative length of the voyage to the latter port will be found far less than a view of the map would suggest, and in truth of little practical importance. If it were the object of the French fleet to avoid Malta in its passage to Egypt, the port-admiral at Valetta would in all probability receive his first intelligence of its course from Minorca or the squadron off Toulon, instead of communicating it. In what regards the refitting and provisioning of the fleet, either on ordinary or extraordinary occasions, Malta was as inconvenient as Minorca was advantageous, not only from its distance (which yet was sufficient to render it almost useless in cases of the most pressing necessity, as after a severe action or injuries of tempest), but likewise from the extreme difficulty, if not impracticability of leaving the harbour of Valetta with a NW. wind, which often lasts for weeks together. In all these points his lordship's observations were perfectly just; and it must be conceded by all persons acquainted with the situation and circumstances of Malta, that its importance, as a British possession, if not exaggerated on the whole, was unduly magnified in several important particulars. Thus Lord Minto, in a speech delivered at a county meeting, and afterwards published, affirms, that supposing (what no one could consider as unlikely to take place) that the court of Naples should be compelled to act under the influence of France, and that the Barbary powers were unfriendly to us, either in consequence of French intrigues or from their own caprice and insolence, there would not be a single port, harbour, bay, creek, or roadstead in the whole Mediterranean, from which our men-of-war could obtain a single ox or a hogshead of fresh water, unless Great Britain retained possession of Malta. The noble speaker seems not to have been aware, that under the circumstances supposed by him, Odessa too being closed against us by a Russian war, the island of Malta itself would be no better than a vast almshouse of 75,000 persons, exclusive of the British soldiery, all of whom must be regularly supplied with corn and salt meat from Great Britain or Ireland. The population of Malta and Gozo exceeds 100,000, while the food of all kinds produced on the two islands would barely suffice for one-fourth of that number. The deficit is procured by the growth and spinning of cotton, for which corn could not be substituted from the nature of the soil, or, were it attempted, would produce but a small proportion of the quantity which the cotton raised on the same fields and spun into thread, enables the Maltese to purchase, not to mention that the substitution of grain for cotton would leave half of the inhabitants without employment. As to live stock, it is quite out of the question, if we except the pigs and goats, which perform the office of scavengers in the streets of Valetta and the towns on the other side of the Porto Grande.

Against these arguments Sir A. Ball placed the following considerations. It had been long his conviction that the Mediterranean squadron should be supplied by regular store-ships, the sole business of which should be that of carriers for the fleet. This he recommended as by far the most economic plan in the first instance. Secondly, beyond any other it would secure a system and regularity in the arrival of supplies. And, lastly, it would conduce to the discipline of the navy, and prevent both ships and officers from being out of the way on any sudden emergency. If this system were introduced, the objections to Malta, from its great distance, &c., would have little force. On the other hand, the objections to Minorca he deemed irremovable. The same disadvantages which attended the getting out of the harbour of Valetta, applied to vessels getting into Port Mahon; but while fifteen hundred or two thousand British troops might be safely entrusted with the preservation of Malta, the troops for the defence of Minorca must ever be in proportion to those which the enemy may be supposed likely to send against it. It is so little favoured by nature or by art, that the possessors stood merely on the level with the invaders. Caeteris paribus, if there 12,000 of the enemy landed, there must be an equal number to repel them; nor could the garrison, or any part of it, be spared for any sudden emergency without risk of losing the island. Previously to the battle of Marengo, the most earnest representations were made to the governor and commander at Minorca by the British admiral, who offered to take on himself the whole responsibility of the measure, if he would permit the troops at Minorca to join our allies. The governor felt himself compelled to refuse his assent. Doubtless, he acted wisely, for responsibility is not transferable. The fact is introduced in proof of the defenceless state of Minorca, and its constant liability to attack. If the Austrian army had stood in the same relation to eight or nine thousand British soldiers at Malta, a single regiment would have precluded all alarms as to the island itself, and the remainder have perhaps changed the destiny of Europe. What might not, almost I would say, what must not eight thousand Britons have accomplished at the battle of Marengo, nicely poised as the fortunes of the two armies are now known to have been? Minorca, too, is alone useful or desirable during a war, and on the supposition of a fleet off Toulon. The advantages of Malta are permanent and national. As a second Gibraltar it must tend to secure Gibraltar itself; for if by the loss of that one place we could be excluded from the Mediterranean, it is difficult to say what sacrifices of blood and treasure the enemy would deem too high a price for its conquest. Whatever Malta may or may not be respecting Egypt, its high importance to the independence of Sicily cannot be doubted, or its advantages as a central station, for any portion of our disposable force. Neither is the influence which it will enable us to exert on the Barbary powers to be wholly neglected. I shall only add, that during the plague at Gibraltar, Lord Nelson himself acknowledged that he began to see the possession of Malta in a different light.

Sir Alexander Ball looked forward to future contingencies as likely to increase the value of Malta to Great Britain. He foresaw that the whole of Italy would become a French province, and he knew that the French Government had been long intriguing on the coast of Barbary. The Dey of Algiers was believed to have accumulated a treasure of fifteen millions sterling, and Buonaparte had actually duped him into a treaty, by which the French were to be permitted to erect a fort on the very spot where the ancient Hippo stood, the choice between which and the Hellespont, as the site of New Rome, is said to have perplexed the judgment of Constantine. To this he added an additional point of connection with Russia, by means of Odessa, and on the supposition of a war in the Baltic, a still more interesting relation to Turkey, and the Mores, and the Greek islands. It had been repeatedly signified to the British Government, that from the Morea and the countries adjacent, a considerable supply of ship timber and naval stores might be obtained, such as would at least greatly lessen the pressure of a Russian war. The agents of France were in full activity in the Morea and the Greek islands, the possession of which, by that Government, would augment the naval resources of the French to a degree of which few are aware who have not made the present state of commerce of the Greeks an object of particular attention. In short, if the possession of Malta were advantageous to England solely as a convenient watch-tower, as a centre of intelligence, its importance would be undeniable.

Although these suggestions did not prevent the signing away of Malta at the peace of Amiens, they doubtless were not without effect, when the ambition of Buonaparte had given a full and final answer to the grand question: can we remain at peace with France? I have likewise reason to believe that Sir Alexander Ball, baffled, by exposing an insidious proposal of the French Government, during the negotiations that preceded the recommencement of the war--that the fortifications of Malta should be entirely dismantled, and the island left to its inhabitants. Without dwelling on the obvious inhumanity and flagitious injustice of exposing the Maltese to certain pillage and slavery from their old and inveterate enemies, the Moors, he showed that the plan would promote the interests of Buonaparte even more than his actual possession of the island, which France had no possible interest in desiring, except as the means of keeping it out of the hands of Great Britain.

But Sir Alexander Ball is no more. The writer still clings to the hope that he may yet be able to record his good deeds more fully and regularly; that then, with a sense of comfort, not without a subdued exultation, he may raise heavenward from his honoured tomb the glistening eye of an humble, but ever grateful Friend.


Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit etc. - 22/22

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