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!
A higher than the warrior's excellence."
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.
In the interim between the capitulation of the French garrison and Sir Alexander Ball's appointment as His Majesty's civil commissioner for Malta, his zeal for the Maltese was neither suspended nor unproductive of important benefits. He was enabled to remove many prejudices and misunderstandings, and to persons of no inconsiderable influence gave juster notions of the true importance of the island to Great Britain. He displayed the magnitude of the trade of the Mediterranean in its existing state; showed the immense extent to which it might be carried, and the hollowness of the opinion that this trade was attached to the south of France by any natural or indissoluble bond of connection. I have some reason for likewise believing that his wise and patriotic representations prevented Malta from being made the seat of and pretext for a numerous civil establishment, in hapless imitation of Corsica, Ceylon, and the Cape of Good Hope. It was at least generally rumoured that it had been in the contemplation of the Ministry to appoint Sir Ralph Abercrombie as governor, with a salary of 10,000 pounds a year, and to reside in England, while one of his countrymen was to be the lieutenant- governor at 5,000 pounds a year, to which were to be added a long etcetera of other offices and places of proportional emolument. This threatened appendix to the State Calendar may have existed only in the imaginations of the reporters, yet inspired some uneasy apprehensions in the minds of many well-wishers to the Maltese, who knew that -- for a foreign settlement at least, and one, too, possessing in all the ranks and functions of society an ample population of its own -- such a stately and wide-branching tree of patronage, though delightful to the individuals who are to pluck its golden apples, sheds, like the manchineel, unwholesome and corrosive dews on the multitude who are to rest beneath its shade. It need not, however, be doubted, that Sir Alexander Ball would exert himself to preclude any such intention, by stating and evincing the extreme impolicy and injustice of the plan, as well as its utter inutility in the case of Malta. With the exception of the governor and of the public secretary, both of whom undoubtedly should be natives of Great Britain and appointed by the British Government, there was no civil office that could be of the remotest advantage to the island which was not already filled by the natives, and the functions of which none could perform so well as they. The number of inhabitants (he would state) was prodigious compared with the extent of the island, though from the fear of the Moors one-fourth of its surface remained unpeopled and uncultivated. To deprive, therefore, the middle and lower classes of such places as they had been accustomed to hold, would be cruel; while the places held by the nobility were, for the greater part such as none but natives could perform the duties of. By any innovation we should affront the higher classes and alienate the affections of all, not only without any imaginable advantage but with the certainty of great loss. Were Englishmen to be employed, the salaries must be increased fourfold, and would yet be scarcely worth acceptance; and in higher offices, such as those of the civil and criminal judges, the salaries must be augmented more than tenfold. For, greatly to the credit of their patriotism and moral character, the Maltese gentry sought these places as honourable distinctions, which endeared them to their fellow-countrymen, and at the same time rendered the yoke of the Order somewhat less grievous and galling. With the exception of the Maltese secretary, whose situation was one of incessant labour, and who at the same time performed the duties of law counsellor to the Government, the highest salaries scarcely exceeded 100 pounds a year, and were barely sufficient to defray the increased expenses of the functionaries for an additional equipage, or one of more imposing appearance. Besides, it was of importance that the person placed at the head of that 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
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.