Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit etc.
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Part 3 out of 3

Government should be looked up to by the natives, and possess the
means of distinguishing and rewarding those who had been most
faithful and zealous in their attachment to Great Britain, and
hostile to their former tyrants. The number of the employments to be
conferred would give considerable influence to His Majesty's civil
representative, while the trifling amount of the emolument attached
to each precluded all temptation of abusing it.

Sir Alexander Ball would likewise, it is probable, urge, that the
commercial advantages of Malta, which were most intelligible to the
English public, and best fitted to render our retention of the island
popular, must necessarily be of very slow growth, though finally they
would become great, and of an extent not to be calculated. For this
reason, therefore, it was highly desirable that the possession should
be, and appear to be, at least inexpensive. After the British
Government had made one advance for a stock of corn sufficient to
place the island a year beforehand, the sum total drawn from Great
Britain need not exceed 25,000 pounds, or at most 30,000 pounds
annually: excluding of course the expenditure connected with our own
military and navy, and the repair of the fortifications, which latter
expense ought to be much less than at Gibraltar, from the multitude
and low wages of the labourers in Malta, and from the softness and
admirable quality of the stone. Indeed much more might safely be
promised on the assumption that a wise and generous system of policy
were adopted and persevered in. The monopoly of the Maltese corn-
trade by the Government formed an exception to a general rule, and by
a strange, yet valid anomaly in the operations of political economy,
was not more necessary than advantageous to the inhabitants. The
chief reason is, that the produce of the island itself barely
suffices for one-fourth of its inhabitants, although fruits and
vegetables form so large a part of their nourishment. Meantime the
harbours of Malta, and its equidistance from Europe, Asia, and
Africa, gave it a vast and unnatural importance in the present
relations of the great European powers, and imposed on its
government, whether native or dependent, the necessity of considering
the whole island as a single garrison, the provisioning of which
could not be trusted to the casualties of ordinary commerce. What is
actually necessary is seldom injurious. Thus in Malta bread is
better and cheaper on an average than in Italy or the coast of
Barbary; while a similar interference with the corn-trade in Sicily
impoverishes the inhabitants, and keeps the agriculture in a state of
barbarism. But the point in question is the expense to Great
Britain. Whether the monopoly be good or evil in itself, it remains
true, that in this established usage, and in the gradual enclosure of
the uncultivated district, such resources exist as without the least
oppression might render the civil government in Valetta independent
of the Treasury at home, finally taking upon itself even the repair
of the fortifications, and thus realise one instance of an important
possession that cost the country nothing.

But now the time arrived which threatened to frustrate the patriotism
of the Maltese themselves, and all the zealous efforts of their
disinterested friend. Soon after the war had for the first time
become indisputably just and necessary, the people at large and a
majority of independent senators, incapable, as it might seem, of
translating their fanatical anti-Jacobinism into a well-grounded, yet
equally impassioned, anti-Gallicanism, grew impatient for peace, or
rather for a name, under which the most terrific of all wars would be
incessantly waged against us. Our conduct was not much wiser than
that of the weary traveller, who having proceeded half way on his
journey, procured a short rest for himself by getting up behind a
chaise which was going the contrary road. In the strange treaty of
Amiens, in which we neither recognised our former relations with
France nor with the other European powers, nor formed any new ones,
the compromise concerning Malta formed the prominent feature; and its
nominal re-delivery to the Order of St. John was authorised, in the
minds of the people, by Lord Nelson's opinion of its worthlessness to
Great Britain in a political or naval view. It is a melancholy fact,
and one that must often sadden a reflective and philanthropic mind,
how little moral considerations weigh even with the noblest nations,
how vain are the strongest appeals to justice, humanity, and national
honour, unless when the public mind is under the immediate influence
of the cheerful or vehement passions, indignation or avaricious hope.
In the whole class of human infirmities there is none that make such
loud appeals to prudence, and yet so frequently outrages its plainest
dictates, as the spirit of fear. The worst cause conducted in hope
is an overmatch for the noblest managed by despondency; in both
cases, an unnatural conjunction that recalls the old fable of Love
and Death, taking each the arrows of the other by mistake. When
islands that had courted British protection in reliance upon British
honour, are with their inhabitants and proprietors abandoned to the
resentment which we had tempted them to provoke, what wonder, if the
opinion becomes general, that alike to England as to France, the
fates and fortunes of other nations are but the counters, with which
the bloody game of war is played; and that notwithstanding the great
and acknowledged difference between the two Governments during
possession, yet the protection of France is more desirable because it
is more likely to endure? for what the French take, they keep. Often
both in Sicily and Malta have I heard the case of Minorca referred
to, where a considerable portion of the most respectable gentry and
merchants (no provision having been made for their protection on the
re-delivery of that island to Spain) expiated in dungeons the warmth
and forwardness of their predilection for Great Britain.

It has been by some persons imagined, that Lord Nelson was
considerably influenced, in his public declaration concerning the
value of Malta, by ministerial flattery, and his own sense of the
great serviceableness of that opinion to the persons in office. This
supposition is, however, wholly false and groundless. His lordship's
opinion was indeed greatly shaken afterwards, if not changed; but at
that time he spoke in strictest correspondence with his existing
convictions. He said no more than he had often previously declared
to his private friends: it was the point on which, after some
amicable controversy, his lordship and Sir Alexander Ball had "agreed
to differ." Though the opinion itself may have lost the greatest
part of its interest, and except for the historian is, as it were,
superannuated; yet the grounds and causes of it, as far as they arose
out of Lord Nelson's particular character, and may perhaps tend to
re-enliven our recollection of a hero so deeply and justly beloved,
will for ever possess an interest of their own. In an essay, too,
which purports to be no more than a series of sketches and fragments,
the reader, it is hoped, will readily excuse an occasional
digression, and a more desultory style of narration than could be
tolerated in a work of regular biography.

Lord Nelson was an admiral every inch of him. He looked at
everything, not merely in its possible relations to the naval service
in general, but in its immediate bearings on his own squadron; to his
officers, his men, to the particular ships themselves, his affections
were as strong and ardent as those of a lover. Hence, though his
temper was constitutionally irritable and uneven, yet never was a
commander so enthusiastically loved by men of all ranks, from the
captain of the fleet to the youngest ship-boy. Hence, too, the
unexampled harmony which reigned in his fleet, year after year, under
circumstances that might well have undermined the patience of the
best-balanced dispositions, much more of men with the impetuous
character of British sailors. Year after year, the same dull duties
of a wearisome blockade, of doubtful policy--little, if any,
opportunity of making prizes; and the few prizes, which accident
might throw in the way, of little or no value; and when at last the
occasion presented itself which would have compensated for all, then
a disappointment as sudden and unexpected as it was unjust and cruel,
and the cup dashed from their lips! Add to these trials the sense of
enterprises checked by feebleness and timidity elsewhere, not
omitting the tiresomeness of the Mediterranean sea, sky, and climate;
and the unjarring and cheerful spirit of affectionate brotherhood,
which linked together the hearts of that whole squadron, will appear
not less wonderful to us than admirable and affecting. When the
resolution was taken of commencing hostilities against Spain, before
any intelligence was sent to Lord Nelson, another admiral, with two
or three ships of the line, was sent into the Mediterranean, and
stationed before Cadiz, for the express purpose of intercepting the
Spanish prizes. The admiral despatched on this lucrative service
gave no information to Lord Nelson of his arrival in the same sea,
and five weeks elapsed before his lordship became acquainted with the
circumstance. The prizes thus taken were immense. A month or two
sufficed to enrich the commander and officers of this small and
highly-favoured squadron; while to Nelson and his fleet the sense of
having done their duty, and the consciousness of the glorious
services which they had performed, were considered, it must be
presumed, as an abundant remuneration for all their toils and long
suffering! It was, indeed, an unexampled circumstance, that a small
squadron should be sent to the station which had been long occupied
by a large fleet, commanded by the darling of the navy, and the glory
of the British empire, to the station where this fleet had for years
been wearing away in the most barren, repulsive, and spirit-trying
service, in which the navy can be employed! and that this minor
squadron should be sent independently of, and without any
communication with the commander of the former fleet, for the express
and solitary purpose of stepping between it and the Spanish prizes,
and as soon as this short and pleasant service was performed, of
bringing home the unshared booty with all possible caution and
despatch. The substantial advantages of naval service were, perhaps,
deemed of too gross a nature for men already rewarded with the
grateful affections of their own countrymen, and the admiration of
the whole world! They were to be awarded, therefore, on a principle
of compensation to a commander less rich in fame, and whose laurels,
though not scanty, were not yet sufficiently luxuriant to hide the
golden crown which is the appropriate ornament of victory in the
bloodless war of commercial capture! Of all the wounds which were
ever inflicted on Nelson's feelings (and there were not a few), this
was the deepest--this rankled most! "I had thought" (said the
gallant man, in a letter written on the first feelings of the
affront), "I fancied--but nay, it must have been a dream, an idle
dream--yet, I confess it, I did fancy, that I had done my country
service--and thus they use me. It was not enough to have robbed me
once before of my West India harvest--now they have taken away the
Spanish--and under what circumstances, and with what pointed
aggravations? Yet, if I know my own thoughts, it is not for myself,
or on my own account chiefly, that I feel the sting, and the
disappointment; no! it is for my brave officers; for my noble-minded
friends and comrades--such a gallant set of fellows! such a hand of
brothers! My heart swells at the thought of them!"

This strong attachment of the heroic admiral to his fleet, faithfully
repaid by an equal attachment on their part to their admiral, had no
little influence in attuning their hearts to each other; and when he
died, it seemed as if no man was a stranger to another; for all were
made acquaintances by the rights of a common anguish. In the fleet
itself, many a private quarrel was forgotten, no more to be
remembered; many, who had been alienated, became once more good
friends; yea, many a one was reconciled to his very enemy, and loved
and (as it were) thanked him for the bitterness of his grief, as if
it had been an act of consolation to himself in an intercourse of
private sympathy. The tidings arrived at Naples on the day that I
returned to that city from Calabria; and never can I forget the
sorrow and consternation that lay on every countenance. Even to this
day there are times when I seem to see, as in a vision, separate
groups and individual faces of the picture. Numbers stopped and
shook hands with me because they had seen the tears on my cheek, and
conjectured that I was an Englishman; and several, as they held my
hand, burst themselves into tears. And though it may awake a smile,
yet it pleased and affected me, as a proof of the goodness of the
human heart struggling to exercise its kindness in spite of
prejudices the most obstinate, and eager to carry on its love and
honour into the life beyond life, that it was whispered about Naples,
that Lord Nelson had become a good Catholic before his death. The
absurdity of the fiction is a sort of measurement of the fond and
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

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.


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