Walter Runciman : Nelson and Caroline of Naples ép. 3

There was, of course, another woman in Nelson’s life – Caroline of Naples : « I declare to God, my whole study is how to best meet the approbation of the Queen »25. He was under Emma’s spell and Caroline’s thumb : « He frankly avowed that he would prefer to resign if any distinction were to be drawn between loyalty to his rightful sovereign and that of his Sicilian Majesty [Ferdinand], who was the faithful ally of his King. The solemn audacity of this statement reveals a mind so far fallen to pieces by infatuation that it has lost the power of discrimination »26.

At Palermo, Nelson became totally wrapped up with the proceedings at Court. The capital was a gambling den and he was warned of the consequences of his lack of discernment by his friend and fellow British naval officer Troubridge : « I dread, My Lord, all the feasting etc., at Palermo. I am sure your health will be hurt. If so, all their saints will be damned by the navy »27. Troubridge was based at Naples and saw things that Nelson either did not see or chose not to notice : « The King would be better employed digesting a good Government ; everything gives way to their pleasures. The money spent at Palermo gives discontent here ; fifty thousand people are unemployed, trade discouraged, manufactures at a stand. It is in the interest of many here to keep the King away ; they all dread reform »28.

Troubridge en costume de contre-amiral, peint en 1804-5 par William Beechey

Troubridge was not only concerned about Nelson – he was a witness to the famine that was then raging in Naples. His appeals for succour from Palermo fell on deaf ears. His direct appeal to Nelson led to nothing. He wrote to Nelson begging him to intercede on behalf of the unfortunate population : « My Lord, we are dying off fast for want. I learn that Sir William Hamilton says Prince Luzzi refused corn, some time ago, and Sir William does not think it worth while making another application. If that be the case, I wish he commanded this distressing scene, instead of me. Puglia had an immense harvest : near thirty sail left Messina, before I did, to load corn. Will they let us have any ? If not, a short time will decide the business. The German interest prevails. I wish I was at your Lordship’s elbow for an hour. All, all, will be thrown on you: I will parry the blow as much as in my power, I foresee much mischief brewing. God bless your Lordship ! I am miserable, I cannot assist your operations more… I am not very tender-hearted, but really the distress here would even move a Neapolitan »29.

Troubridge wrote again soon after : « I have this day saved thirty thousand people from starvation, but with this day my ability ceases. As the Government are bent on starving us, I see no alternative but to leave these poor people to perish, without our being witnesses of the disaster. I curse the day I ever served the Neapolitan Govt. We have characters, My Lord, to lose ; these people have none… Girgenti is full of corn ; the money is ready to pay for it ; we do not ask it as a gift. Oh! Could you see the horrid distress I daily experience, something would be done »30.

But Nelson did absolutely nothing.

Troubridge goes on : « All I write is known at the Queen’s. For my own part, I look upon the Neapolitans as the worst of intriguing enemies ; every hour shows me their infamy and duplicity. I pray Your Lordship be cautious ; your honest open manner of acting will be made a handle of. When I see you and tell you of their infamous tricks, you will be as much surprised as I am. The whole will fall on you »31. When Nelson was told that the Court had withdrawn all restrictions on the export of corn he believed the lie completely. Instead, he moaned to the Duke of Clarence that his « constant thought was down, down with the damned French villains », and that his ‘blood boiled at the name of a Frenchman’32.

Meanwhile, the Queen he fawned upon did not care if her own people starved to death. At least her deceased relation Marie-Antoinette had spoken of cake… Nelson’s greatest act of moral turpitude concerned his treatment of Admiral Caracciolo. In 1798, Naples was in coalition with England, Russia, Austria, Turkey and Portugal against the French. The King of Naples, Ferdinand IV, urged on by his wife Queen Caroline and Emma Hamilton, struck before his allies were ready, attacking the Roman Republic held by the French in November. It was an utter debacle and in less than a month Nelson had to take the fleeing monarch and his court to Palermo in Sicily on his flagship as we have seen. The former Kingdom of Naples became the Parthenopean Republic in January 1799. By May, the tide had turned again and Cardinal Ruffo with his Sanfedisti peasant army along with Russian and Austrian soldiers, recaptured Naples for Ferdinand. Only three virtually impregnable forts remained in the hands of the French and their Neapolitan patriot allies, and the men behind the impressive walls hoped for rescue by French and Spanish ships. Ruffo’s own troops were creating havoc in the city along with the lazzaroni, peasants who took advantage of the lawless situation to rob, murder and pillage, but an attack on the forts would lead to an even greater loss of life. As Ferdinand’s personal representative, Ruffo thought it wise to sign an armistice with his opponents before they could be rescued. As Tom Holmberg remarks : « The treaty gave the French and the patriots the full honors of war, with their persons and property guaranteed, and included that the garrisons of the forts could embark freely for France »33.

The Russian and Turkish representatives in Naples also signed, along with Captain Troubridge.

Nelson, back in Palermo was in a belligerent mood. He despised Ruffo and wrote to Troubridge : « Send me word some proper heads are taken off, this alone will comfort me »34. He also wanted Ferdinand’s failed generals 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 »35. In effect, Nelson saw himself as a one-man judge and jury.

As dozens of small vessels called polaccas were being readied as per the treaty to take away the republicans and former rebels, Nelson arrived at Naples with his squadron accompanied by Emma Hamilton and her husband, the English ambassador. Ruffo stood by his treaty and was backed by the Russians and the Turks, stating that if Nelson didn’t agree he could try and take the forts himself. Nelson was forced to back down and via Hamilton stated that he was resolved to do nothing that would break the armistice, nor would he prevent the embarkation of the rebels.

Then news came that Ferdinand and Caroline had discussed the treaty. The Queen wrote to Emma Hamilton urging « Lord Nelson to treat Naples as if it were a rebellious city in Ireland »36. Thus : « 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 »37. At this terrible betrayal, Ruffo resigned, while Nelson wrote to his wife claiming ‘victory’ over the French : « Nelson came, the invincible Nelson, and they were all preserved and again made happy »38.

Over 8,000 people were tried for treason and dozens were executed. Lord Acton said 100 were executed, 222 condemned for life, 322 to shorter terms, 288 to deportation and 67 to exile. As Ferdinand destroyed the official records no one knows the real figures39.

To be continued…

  1. Ibid. 60
  2. Ibid. 60
  3. Ibid. 61
  4. Ibid. 61
  5. Ibid. 62
  6. Ibid. 62
  7. Ibid. 62
  8. Ibid. 62
  9. Holmberg Tom Nelson’s Honor article (1998)
  10. Ibid. 1
  11. Ibid. 1
  12. Ibid 2
  13. Ibid. 2
  14. Ibid. 2
  15. Ibid. 2