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Vital Portuguese role in Maltese revolt of 1798 unrecognised

The Principe Real, the flagship of Admiral Marquis de Nisa's squadron painted by Manuel A. Branco. (Maritime Museum, Lisbon). Below: Admiral Marquis de Nisa in a painting by Alberto Cutlileiro. (Maritime Museum, Lisbon)

The Principe Real, the flagship of Admiral Marquis de Nisa's squadron painted by Manuel A. Branco. (Maritime Museum, Lisbon). Below: Admiral Marquis de Nisa in a painting by Alberto Cutlileiro. (Maritime Museum, Lisbon)

If you were to ask most Maltese, who was it that came to the rescue of our ancestors when they revolted against the French troops who were running the island in 1798-1800, the majority would say the British.

But this is not quite correct because during the most crucial moments at that tumultuous time, the first assistance came from the Portuguese, history professor Henry Frendo said when interviewed.

Prof. Frendo, who is director of the Institute of Maltese Studies at the University of Malta, feels it is unfortunate that such a historic day as September 2, 1798 when the Maltese rose against the French, is not better known.

"It is the most popular event in Maltese history when many were those who laid down their lives in very difficult circumstances. The Portuguese were the first to provide aid and the last to leave," he added.

Malta will be marking this Portuguese contribution with a plaque to be unveiled this evening at the Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta. Taking part in the ceremony starting at 7.15 p.m. will be President Eddie Fenech Adami, the Portuguese Ambassador to Malta, António Russo Dias and Prof. Frendo, who will talk about Making Amends With History: A Vindication Of Maltese-Portuguese Relations.

At the time, the Maltese were at the end of their tether as the French press ganged young men for their military exploits in Egypt. Another practice that irritated the Maltese was the way the French were messing up the lease system of arable land. Not to mention the rape of women, the theft from churches and forced loans from the well-to-do, Prof. Frendo added.

While the French represented a military dictatorship with between 4,000 and 5,000 troops, the Maltese had few arms and were not trained in military tactics.

After the expulsion from Malta of the Knights of the Order of St John, the Maltese still recognised the king of Naples as their sovereign. So they sent word to Sicily and Naples asking for assistance.

It was after this call for help that Admiral Marquis de Nisa came to Malta with his battleships on September 19, 1798.

Lord Nelson had informed Admiral de Nisa that he could not make it to Malta because most of his fleet needed seeing to after the battle at Abukir Bay when the British defeated the French.

Quoting from the diary kept by Feliċ Cutajar who was secretary to Governor Alexander Ball, Prof. Frendo said there was a lack of meat and only makeshift weapons on the island at the time.

De Nisa made it to Grand Harbour without hindrance because the French had only two battleships that incidentally had slipped away from Abukir. They could not resist the two frigates and seven ships of war of the Portuguese.

By then the French were blockaded in Valletta and the Cottonera.

Thousands of Maltese died mostly of malnutrition and dysentery.

Prof. Frendo lamented the fact that Maltese history is not an obligatory subject in schools which has led to a weak collective conscience as far as the history of the island is concerned.

"September and October were two crucial months, a make or break situation. That is why the Portuguese intervention was so important.

"We have put up a thousand and one plaques but not one about the contribution by the Portuguese Navy. Now, at last, this is being put right," he said.

De Nisa had about 3,000 troops and he gave 500 muskets to the Maltese and dispatched several officers trained in warfare to show the Maltese where to dig trenches and build posts. The Portuguese wanted to fight for the Maltese and 400 of them came ashore to do so.

Two weeks later British ships made port and handed 800 muskets to the locals.

"As soon as the Maltese learned that the Portuguese had arrived, they thought a miracle had happened and hoisted the Maltese, Neapolitan and Portuguese flags on the roof of the tower in Mdina known as It- Torri ta' l-Istandard, that today houses the police station.

The Portuguese sailed for home on December 13, 1799, when two British regiments reached the island.

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