by Robert Tennant
Roma – London 1885
Libreria Spithöver – Stanford, Charing Cross
In comparatively modern times Sardinia has been the scene of two interesting historical events, the narration of which should not be omitted; the small island of “la Maddalena” lying north of the mainland, and only separated from it by a narrow tortuous channel, was the scene of both exploits.
Here Lord Nelson made his head quarters from 1803 to 1805, while watching the French fleet in the harbour of Toulon; and it was here too, when attacking the same island in 1795 that Napoleon Bonaparte, then a young artillery officer, met with the first repulse in his long and successful career.
Lord Nelson, who had tried every device to induce the French admiral to leave Toulon, was at length rewarded, on the 17th Jannuary 1805 for his patient watching and perseverance, by signals from the frigate in the offing, that the French fleet had put to sea.
It was a dark squally winters night; preparations for dauces private theatricals, and other amusements were being made on board the different ships, when the stirring news was received and acknowledged, but when the signal “weigh”, appeared, all was changed in a moment, the suddenness of the order being equalled only by the skill and celerity with which it was executed.
The passage was so narrow that only one ship could pass through at a time, and each was guided by the stern lights of the preceding vessel. Within two hours the whole fleet was clear of the passage, and stood to the southward, in pursuit of the French fleet, which a short time afterwards met with signal defeat at the battle of Trafalgar. The unflinching courage and determined spirit exhibited by Nelson on this occasion was the subject of special eulogy in the House of Lords, by His Mayesty King William IVth then Duke of Clarence, and is always cited as one of the most daring and dashing of Nelson’s many great exploits.
The renowned admiral had the very highest opinion of Sardinia as a naval station, he writes “The world cannot produce a finer, it possesses harbours fit for arsenals, bays to ride our fleets in, and so watch both Italy and Toulon. From its position it is worth a hundred Maltas”; and, both in his official and private letters, he strongly and repeatedly urges the acquisition of the Island by the English. In one of his letters he mentions that the net income of the Island did not then exceed £. 5000 per annum, and that it could be purchased for half a million sterling. This was no doubt a high price at the time, considered commercially and financially, but viewed politically or strategically, it would have proved an excellent bargain for England, had Lord Nelsons anticipations, been realised.
The name of Nelson is still remembered and revered in La Maddalena, and previous to his departure, he presented to the Church two massive silver candlesticks and a silver crucifix with the figure of our Saviour in gold; when publicly thanked for the gift, and assured that prayers would be offered up for his victory over the French, he replied “that if they would only pray to the Madonna that the fleet would come out of Toulon, and it was all he asked of them, he would undertake to do the rest; and they should then have the value of a French frigate in silver to build a church with”.
Local scandal is as strong in this small island, as in the rest of the world, and the rumour is still prevalent there, that the noble commander was not insensible to the charms of a young and lovely girl, Emily Isona ‒ at that time the Belle of the Island, ‒ and that it was at her wish and instigation that these ornaments were presented to the church, as offerings for their safety and happiness.
It was from Maddalena that Nelson wrote the characteristic letter to his brother, when the French admiral (La Touche) boasted that he had driven the whole English fleet before him when in fact, it had simply paraded and then retired with the object of inducing the French fleet to follow. “You will have seen (he writes) from La Touche’s letter how he chased me, and how I ran. I keep it and if I take him, by God, he shall eat it”.
The second historical event is equally interesting. Napoleon, when in garrison al Bonifacio in Corsica, was attached to an expedition which sailed thence to reduce La Maddalena; he acted as second in command, the whole force being under General Colonna Cesari. A body of troops having effected a landing by night on the adjoining Island of San Stefano, and having erected a battery, a heavy fire was opened in the morning on the town and its defences.
They were opposed by a garrison of 500 men, and the fire was returned with equal fury. The opposite shore on the mainland was at the same time lined by mountaineers who, when the French frigate had been dismasted, took to their boats, and attacked San Stefano.
The assault was so vigorous that Bonaparte was compelled to make a precipitate retreat with a few of his followers, leaving 200 prisoners with all the artillery and baggage. While Bonaparte was superintending the firing and watching its effects with his telescope, he observed the people going to mass, and exclaimed “I should like to fire at the church, just to frighten the women”. The shot was fired and the shell entered the church window, and fell at the foot of the image on the altar. It failed to burst, and this miraculous instance of religious respect had its due effect upon the pious islanders, and for a long time the shell was preserved among the sacred curiosities of the town, until it was bought by a scotch gentleman for 150 francs and sent to his native country.
A natural cause was however soon discovered for the harmlessness of the projectile, Napoleon continued firing, but finding that the shells took no effect, though they fell on the spot intended, he examined some of them and found they were filled with sand. “Friends”, exclaimed he “here is treason” and the troops who had been suffering severely from La Maddalena concluded that the treason was on the part of the General, and would have put him to death instally, had he not succeeded in getting on board his frigate, and escaped. It is said that Pascal Paoli, reluctantly obeying the French convention to undertake this expedition against Sardinia, entrusted, the command to General Cesari, his intimate friend, with instructions to secure its failure, considering Sardinia as their natural ally. However this may be, the affair ended by the retreat of the General with all his forces, after having thrown from S. Stefano over 500 shells and 500 round shot into La Maddalena without effect.
Adjoining la Maddalena is the Island of Caprera, formerly the residence of the Italian patriot Garibaldi; it is a mass of barren rock, its central peak being about 800 ft above the sea, and has several well sheltered Bays, from which the Neapolitan and other fishermen procure immense quantities of crayfish. The Island is said to have been the Head-Quarters of the Saracens when they made their attacks on the Italian coast during the 9th century.
It was from here that Garibaldi made his well-known expeditions on to the mainland, and it was here too where he always returned when his mission was completed; it was here also that he died.
Since Garibaldi death, the Island has been purchased by the nation, and a handsome monument the memory of the great patriot, is about to be erected by public subscription.
SOURCES OF ILLUSTRATIONS
19th Century Paintings, Drawings and Lithographs (captions translated freely)
John Francis Rigaud, Captain Horatio Nelson, 1781.
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, “Napoleon Bonaparte in 1792”, 1835.
Samuel Atkins, A squadron of the Royal Navy running, ca 1800.
British Museum, “Thank you letter by priest Biancareddu”, 22 October 1804.
Agostino Verani, “La Maddalena Islanders”, ca 1806-1815, IN Scoperta della Sardegna. Antologia di testi e autori italiani e stranieri, cura e introduzione di Giuseppe Dessì, Milano, Il Polifilo, 1967.
Antoine Jean Gros, “Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole”, 1796.
Denis Auguste Marie Raffet, “Bonaparte makes his debut in Sardinia”, 1826.
Postcards and Photos, Late 19th/Early 20th Century
by Antonio Frau – La Maddalena
Nello Anastasio – Flickr, MARC912374 – CC BY-SA 4.0 – Flickr, Richard Matthews – CC BY-SA – Flickr
Crucifix, candelabra and letter of Nelson; “Napoleon’s bombs”, at the Palace of the Municipality of La Maddalena, photo courtesy of Antonio Frau
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