Walter Runciman : Nelson and Caracciolo ép. 4

The most famous victim was Admiral Francesco Caracciolo who had in the past fought alongside the British during the American War of Independence, helped control the Barbary pirates, and later distinguished himself alongside Admiral Hotham against the French at Genoa as recently as March 14th 1795. He had gone with the Royal Family to Palermo but as a personal friend of King Ferdinand he was allowed to return to Naples in January 1799 with the aim of protecting his own large estates.

The French had seized his land because they saw him as a royalist. Caracciolo had to agree to command the Neapolitan fleet in order to have his property restored. He thus subsequently had to fight against the Royalist fleet under Admiral Thurn, a personal enemy. Hence when the French agreed to evacuate their forces from Naples he was left in a very invidious position. He tried to hide but was discovered and taken to HMS Foudroyant Nelson’s flagship with his hands tied.

Runciman pulls no punches when he describes what happened next : « Nelson committed him for trial, which commenced at ten o’clock, and at twelve he was declared guilty. At five o’clock he was hanged at the yardarm of the Neapolitan frigate Minerva. This poor old man was tried solely by his enemies without being allowed to have counsel or call witnesses »40.

Thurn presided over the proceedings but it was Nelson who was in charge. So much for British justice.

Caracciolo had asked for a retrial but this was denied. Nelson also refused his request to be shot rather than hanged like a common criminal. He had also hoped that the wife of the British Ambassador, who he knew, might intercede for him, but she was nowhere to be seen. He had no idea that she was a party to the whole disgraceful episode. As his lifeless body dangled from the yardarm Emma said to Nelson :« Come, Bronte, come, let us take the barge and have another look at Caracciolo »41. Nelson even refused to let the family have his body. Instead, he was given a common sailor’s send-off – weights were attached to his feet so that he would sink in an upright position. As Runciman says : « who can read the gruesome story of the trial and hanging of the aged Prince Caracciolo without feeling ashamed that a fellow-countryman in Nelson’s position should have stamped his career with so dark a crime ? »42

He is equally scathing about his lover : « Neither did Emma Hamilton escape her just deserts for the vile part she played in one of the most abominable crimes ever committed »43.

As if in a story by Edgar Allan Poe, the Admiral took a post-mortem revenge. Not enough weight had been attached to his corpse so it resurfaced and was seen by the King and the pair of executioners from a boat, bobbing accusingly in the water. Ferdinand was horrified and he finally gave the body a Christian burial. Emma was likewise haunted by the event :« he had risen again to reproach her with the inhuman pleasure she had taken in watching the dreadful act. Nor did her shrieking avowal of repentance give the wretched Jezebel of a woman the assurance of forgiveness. She sought for distractions, and found most of them in wickedness, and passed into the presence of the Great Mystery with all her deeds of faithlessness, deceit, and uncontrollable revenge before her eyes »44. And this was the woman Nelson adored and who, according to him, could do no wrong. If Nelson assumed that by setting such a draconian example, peace would soon return to the benighted Kingdom of Naples, he was soon disabused of that notion : « No doubt Nelson thought, when he had the poor old Prince Caracciolo hung, that he would create a new earth by striking terror into the hearts of the Neapolitan race, but natural laws are not worked out by methods of this kind, and Nelson had the mortification of seeing his plan of regulating human affairs create a new and more ferocious little hell on earth. His judgment at this time was very much warped through the evil influence of the Court of Naples and more especially by his infatuation for Lady Hamilton »45.

Runciman makes a telling contrast in a footnote at the end of his book : « The terms of capitulation were agreed to and signed by Ruffo, the Russian and Turkish commanders, and by Captain Foote, representing the British Government. Thirty-six hours afterwards Nelson arrived in the Bay of Naples, and cancelled the treaty. Captain Foote was sent away and the shocking indefensible campaign of Nelson’s carried out. Nothing during the whole of Napoleon’s career can match this terrible act of Nelson’s »46.

To be continued…

  1. Runciman Ibid. 48 Runciman spelt the name Carraciolli. I have used Caracciolo throughout.
  2. Ibid. 48
  3. Ibid. 47-48
  4. Ibid. 48
  5. Ibid. 48
  6. Ibid. 49
  7. Ibid. 146 My italics