The Short-lived French Occupation: Napoleon in Malta

Maltese discontent grew as a result of the harsh realities of the French rule

Malta occupies a special place in the history of the Mediterranean, having experienced the rise and fall of empires, the clash of civilizations, and the passing of legendary people. Napoleon Bonaparte stands out among these personalities as being the most recognisable. His brief visit to Malta and the subsequent French conquest had a lasting impression on the island’s history. 

Napoleon’s presence in 1798 was a part of his ambitious intention to give France a foothold in the Mediterranean. At the time, Malta had been fortified by the Knights of St. John into a powerful stronghold that served as a vital outpost to protect the maritime lanes between Europe and the Middle East.

A major turning point in Malta’s history occurred with the advent of Napoleon. He moored his fleet, which included the flagship L’Orient, off the shore of the Maltese capital, on June 9, 1798. The Maltese people first embraced Napoleon as a liberator because they were tired of the Knights’ dictatorial rule and were motivated by the ideals of the French Revolution.

However, Napoleon’s true intentions underlined an imperialistic nature rather than a humanitarian one. He demanded the island’s surrender, and when the Knights resisted, the country experienced a brief but intense siege. The French soldiers quickly overpowered the Knights’ defences, and The Order of St. John’s dominion came to an end when Malta was captured by the French on June 11, 1798.

Significant changes to Malta transpired following Napoleon’s invasion. He implemented progressive changes such as the elimination of feudal privileges, the creation of a system of public education, and the adoption of a legal code. Unfortunately, his authoritarian style of rule frequently eclipsed these improvements. Malta’s religious landscape was significantly impacted by Napoleon’s occupation as well. He advocated a secularisation agenda in an effort to lessen the Catholic Church’s influence. The clergy and religious institutions were subject to limitations, and the customary religious celebrations and rites were scaled back. As the years passed, Maltese discontent grew as a result of the harsh realities of French rule. High taxes, conscription, and cultural tensions all contributed to the strong resistance.  Alas, British troops besieged the island in 1800 with the aid of Maltese rebels, finally forcing the French to yield in September.

Nonetheless, A lasting effect was left by Napoleon’s short visit to Malta and the subsequent French occupation of the island. Even if the memory of the stolen goods and the disruption of customary religious rituals still exist today, the episode also had an iconic role in the formation of the Maltese identity. It also boosted the desire to protect their sovereignty and instilled a resilient attitude among patriotic locals.