Among all the influences that have crossed the Maltese island over the past centuries, the brief presence of the French has left an important impact. On his way to invade Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte had to attack and invade Malta in order to secure a victory against England, which was his primary target.
On May 19, 1798, under his command, a fleet of more than 400 vessels and 50.000 men left their base of Toulon, Civitavecchia, Marseille, Ajaccio, Genova, heading to seize Egypt. The strategic position of Malta, situated in the middle of the Mediterranean was a perfect naval base for the french military expedition.
On June 9, 1798, the French fleet was at the Valletta city gates.The island, then ruled by the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John, governed by The Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch, refused access to all the french fleet at once, who had pretended to need provisions.
Napoleon Bonaparte attacks Malta
The refusal from The Grand Master triggered Napoleon's fury who decided to bombard the island. It only took three days to the gigantic french fleet to take over Malta. The Knights Hospitaller, inferior in number capitulated. The Knights gave up Malta to the French after the taking of the city of Mdina.
The French presence in Malta was instrumental in today’s administrative system in the country. Napoleon Bonaparte settled down at Palazzo Parisio in Valletta (today the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). He only spent six days in the island, but he had time to make many changes, before he left. More than 3.000 soldiers remained in the archipelago under the orders to the General Vaubois.
His short stay on the island was sufficient for Napoleon Bonaparte to start radical changes. Wishing to impose ideals promoted by the French Revolution, he dismantled the institutions of the Order of Saint John, he established a new administration similar to that of France. So in 1798, Malta had a constitution, the first in Maltese history.
The French abolished the Nobility, the feudal system as well as slavery. They had experienced it during the French Revolution in 1789, and were eager to end the class-system of society. This measure resulted in the liberation to all Turkish slaves.
Among other major reforms was the education system. He made it free for all, based on the will for equality within the society. Until today, education is free in Malta from primary to higher education.
Do not touch my church!
Napoleon also sought to limit the influence of the church and its representatives. Doing so, he dismantled, after years of presence on the island, the Inquisition. These radical reforms imposed on the local populations did not please the Maltese, especially those concerning the Church. In fact by attacking the church and looting its properties, the French set in motion the movement that would lead to their expulsion from the island.
The Maltese decided to expel the French from their island. But inferior in number in front of Napoleon's forces, they requested help from the British army. Three months after invading the archipelago, the French were confined into the fortifications of Valletta and the Three Cities until September 1800, when they eventually surrender to the British forces.