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Ball's governorship

In his feature on Captain Alexander Ball (October 19) John A. Mizzi wrote about the 200th anniversary of the death at San Anton Palace "of Captain Sir Alexander Ball, the first British Governor of Malta", tying it up in the next paragraph with "the last Commander of the British Forces in Malta" spanning 200 years of Malta-Great Britain historical association.

That feature titled First Governor Of Malta, with the said two opening paragraphs, gave the mistaken impression to the ordinary reader that Ball was the first Governor of Malta under British rule appointed by the British sovereign.

Quite understandably, two correspondents (October 22) took the cue to show that the first British Governor of Malta was Sir Thomas Maitland in 1813.

In his rejoinder (October 24) Mr Mizzi pointed out that he was referring to September 29, 1799 when the Maltese insurgents were blockading the French in Valletta. I feel that date should have been made clear from the start to avoid any misconceptions. At that time there was no British connection with Malta.

The Maltese insurgents had taken over the government of the Maltese islands and formed a Congresso on February 11, 1799, which used to meet at the Palazzo di Sant'Antonio to manage the islands' affairs. The Congresso was composed of representatives of the towns and villages which were not occupied by the French.

On October 4, 1798 Captain Ball had been ordered by Nelson to proceed from Naples to Malta with four British vessels to cooperate with the Portuguese squadron in blockading the Maltese ports against the French. At that time the lawful sovereign of the Maltese islands was the King of the Two Sicilies. Captain Ball was the means of communication between the Maltese and the Court of Naples through Nelson as the insurgents were in dire need of help to oust the French from the island of Malta. In December 1798, Ball prevailed upon the Maltese deputies to hoist the Neapolitan flag and he advised Nelson that this positive step had been taken.

Ball in the meantime succeeded in bringing about some sort of consensus among the Maltese leaders and when the Congress was formed he was asked to preside at its meeting. Throughout 1799 the meetings were held "in presenza di S.E. il Sig. Comandante Ball", or in the presence of Capt. Vivion when Ball was absent from the island. As from the meeting of August 26, 1799 the minutes start referring to Ball as "S.E. il Sig.r Governatore Giovanni Ball". Besides, as Ball wrote on February 9, 1799, the Maltese esteemed but also feared the English "knowing we have always the means of punishing them, and they are now more sensible of it than ever, from their having experienced what they would not believe before, that a British squadron can block them up and starve them in the winter months".

Once there was no Congress resolution appointing Ball as "Mr Governor", it appears that he assumed the title himself. However, undoubtedly through Nelson's influence, an official appointment eventually arrived from the Neapolitan Government. On September 11, 1799 a Royal dispatch was sent to Ball in virtue of which His Majesty the King of the Two Sicilies appointed him as his representative in Malta by conferring upon him "the command of the Island of Malta". The dispatch was sent to Ball by John Acton from the Court of King Ferdinand, to whom from then on Captain Ball owed allegiance while his appointment lasted.

According to the extract from Ball's diary published by Mr Mizzi (October 24), Acton's letter reached him on September 29, 1799. On receiving that letter Ball wrote in his diary that he had been appointed "Governor of Malta".

Whether the title of Governor was actually used in the Royal dispatch can only be known if the document still exists in the original Italian. Therefore, as things stand, one is entitled to say that the first (and only) Governor of the Maltese islands appointed by the King of the Two Sicilies was Captain Alexander John Ball, of British nationality. To name Ball as "the first British Governor of Malta" without any reference to King Ferdinand and the year 1799 is rather confusing.

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