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NELSON'S HONOR

Inglese italianato, diavolo incarnato.(Old Italian saying.)
The Englishman who acts like an Italian is the devil incarnate.

In 1798, England, Austria, Russia, Turkey, Portugal and Naples formed a coalition to
oppose the French. Ferdinand IV of Naples jumped the gun, invading the French-held
Roman Republic in November, before his partners were ready to launch their offensive.
The French struck back and within a month of the opening of hostilities Their Sicilian
Majesties had fled Naples for Palermo Sicily aboard Horatio Nelson's flagship. In
January 1799, the Parthenopean Republic was proclaimed in the former Kingdom of
Naples. By May 1799, Cardinal Ruffo, in command of a Calabrian peasant Army of the
Holy Faith (also known as the Sanfedisti), with some Austrian and Russian troops,
recaptured Naples from the French (who had sent the bulk of their forces to northern
Italy) and the Neapolitan patriots. The remaining French troops and the patriots only
held out in three forts within the city, awaiting the arrival of a combined French-Spanish
fleet known to be in the Mediterranean.

Ruffo wanted to end the destruction in the city being done by his own troops and by the
Neapolitan lazzaroni (the lower-class "canaille", who used the fighting as an excuse to
rape, murder and loot), as well as possible destruction and loss of life that would occur
in beseiging the republican-held forts. Ruffo also hoped to end the fighting before any
relieving force could arrive from the French and Spanish navies. To this end, Ruffo
signed an armistice with the patriots. Ruffo had been appointed by King Ferdinand as his
personal representative with "the unrestricted quality of alter-ego." The treaty gave the
French and the patriots the full honors of war, with their persons and property
guaranteed, and included the provision that the garrisons of the forts could embark freely
for France. This agreement was signed by Ruffo in the King's name, by the Russian and
Turkish representatives in Naples, and by the highest ranking English Royal Navy officer
on hand, Capt. Troubridge.

While Nelson lounged in the Palazzo Palagonia in Palermo with Lady and Sir William
Hamilton and Their Sicilian Majesties, Troubridge had been sent by Nelson with four
ships of the line to capture Naples before "that swelled-up priest", as Nelson called
Ruffo. Nelson, in a blood-thirsty mood, wrote to Troubridge: "Send me word some
proper heads are taken off, this alone will comfort me." He also wrote that King
Ferdinand's failed generals were to be tried for cowardice, and "if found guilty...they shall
be shot or hanged; should this be effected, I shall have some hopes that I have done
good. I ever preach that rewards and punishments are the foundation of all good
government." Nelson was to get his wish. Dozens of polaccas--small coasting sailing
ships--were to be employed in the evacuation of the "rebels". All day long Patriot
families hurried to the bay with whatever belongings they could gather. They were joined
by the republicans from the castles who, aware of their King's capricious temper, didn't
bother with the "honors of war" granted to them by Ruffo's treaty. These small vessels
lacked facilities for the passengers--no beds or bathroom facilities--and were not yet
provisioned for their intended voyage.

As the ships were made ready for the departure of the "rebels" Nelson arrived with the
rest of his squadron, Sir William Hamilton (the English ambassador) and his wife, Emma
Hamilton (Nelson's mistress). "Annoyed by his fruitless search for the Franco-Spanish
fleet, and his truculance boil[ing] over...", as Harold Acton wrote, Nelson was in no
mood to honor the treaty already agreed to, signed and implemented. (A treaty that
Charles Lock, the English Consul at Palermo, called "a very wise measure...as it
effectively sweeps the Kingdom of the disaffected...") Ambassador Hamilton was also in
no mood to be concilatory, having just had a ship carrying his collection of classical art
treasures wrecked (which he blamed on the 'Jacobins'.) The Cardinal informed the
pugnacious little English seaman that "They are obliged to honor a treaty, after it has been
made." And the Russians and the Turks, displaying more honor than the Royal Navy
gentleman, were also determined to honor the treaty they had signed their names to.
Cardinal Ruffo threatened to withdraw his troops if Nelson didn't honor the treaty.
Without Ruffo's Sanfedisti, Nelson would be forced to take the castles with his own
men. Suddenly, Nelson capitulated, sending a message to Ruffo through Hamilton that he
was "resolved to do nothing which would break the armistice", and furthermore that he
wouldn't oppose the continuation of the embarkation of the "rebel" garrisons according
to the terms of the treaty.


The remaining patriots left the protection of their forts and were boarded on the polaccas when Nelson received communications from THeir Sicilian Majesties, still safely ensconced in Palermo, disavowing the agreement. The Neapolitan Queen wrote to Emma Hamilton to instruct "Lord Nelson to treat Naples as if it were a rebellious city in Ireland." The refugees, already crammed aboard the unprovisioned ships, were brough under the guns of the English fleet. Men, women and children were kept hungry, hot and disease-ravaged in the holds while their leaders were taken off and imprisoned on the English men-of-war. The Cardinal begged Nelson "not to stain his glory." Ruffo, who had reconquered his ungrateful sovereign's kingdom, was forced to resign in disgust. Nelson, writing to his wife, claimed all the credit for the "victory" over the French, stating without irony: "Nelson came, the invincible Nelson, and they were all preserved and again made happy."


More than 8,000 of the refugees aboard the transports were tried for treason. Exactly
how many were condemned will never be known because the Neapolitan King had the
official records destroyed in 1803. The English historian Lord Acton (a pro-Bourbon
historian) says 100 were executed, 222 condemned for life, 322 to shorter terms, 288 to
deportation and 67 to exile. Cavaliere Francesco Caracciolo, the most famous victim, was
captured, tried and executed on Nelson's orders. After being hung like a common
criminal, Caracciolo's body was thrown in the Bay. As one historian has put it: "when may
an English warship be made the scene of a court-martial upon a foreign officer tried by
foreign judges?...Can Ferdinand of Naples, or any other human being, have more than
one alter ego at the same time {meaning Ruffo and Nelson]?...When is a treaty not a
treaty?" Charles Lock, the English consul, wrote: "You will hear with grief of the infraction
of the articles convened with the Neapolitan Jacobins and of the stab our English honour
has received in being employed to decoy these people, who relied upon our faith, into the
most deplorable situation." A gallows was erected in the marketplace of Naples and
remained there for months while the trials of the republican prisoners continued. So men
and women who had laid down their arms in an honorable peace were treated not even as
prisoners of war but common criminals. A sort of "sicilian vespers" ensued in the Kingdom
of Naples, with as many as 4,000 republicans being massacred in "mopping up"
operations.

To these deaths and those executed can be added the several thousands killed by Ruffo's
Sanfedisti and by the Neapolitan lazzaroni when Naples was taken. On three separate
occasions during this period, as Nelson busied himself with his affairs in Naples, he
disobeyed the orders of his own Navy superiors to sail in search of the Spanish-French
fleet. However, Nelson's reward for his actions in the Bay of Naples against the "rebels"
from the Neapolitan King was being named the Duke of Bronte with a estate of 30,000
acres on the slopes of Mount Etna worth 3,000 pounds per annum. Most biographies of
Nelson downplay or cover up Nelson's role in this despicable affair.

Article written by Tom Holmberg

1998

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