- Counterpoint to Trafalgar: The Anglo-Russian Invasion of Naples, 1805–1806
There is little doubt that since antiquity, the powers that dominated the Mediterranean Sea controlled perhaps one of the most commercially important and militarily strategic waterways on earth. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, French, British, Russians, Germans, and even Americans, as well as the Italian maritime states, among others, all recognized this fact. So did Napoleon Bonaparte. The diminutive Corsican general who threw Europe into turmoil for the better part of a quarter century was intent on asserting French control over the Mediterranean and once and for all denying its use to France's nemesis, Great Britain.
In describing the wars of the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars, historians have been fascinated by Napoleon's remarkable military campaigns on the continent, usually focusing their attention on the major set-piece battles such as Borodino, Austerlitz, Ulm, Moscow, and of course, Waterloo. They overlook the fact that the Mediterranean was a key theater of operations for both the French and the various coalitions that tried to keep French power in check in the region. Indeed, ever since his disastrous invasion of Egypt in 1798, Napoleon understood the value of a strong French presence in "the great sea" and was constantly looking for ways to turn the Mediterranean into a French lake.
The imbalance is somewhat redressed by William Henry Flayhart III in his excellent book, Counterpoint to Trafalgar: The Anglo-Russian Invasion of Naples, 1805-1806. This assertion is qualified with use of the word somewhat merely to draw attention to the fact that although the book is a paperback reprint of the original 1992 cloth version published by the University of South Carolina Press, it will still probably be read only by a small group of scholars. This is unfortunate, because Flayhart has written a very cogent, fast-paced history book that deserves a much wider audience. Part of the problem may also lay with the book's title, which is a bit misleading and is perhaps [End Page 120] a nod to those wishing to learn more about the "glamorous" battle of Trafalgar. This book is not directly concerned with Admiral Nelson and Trafalgar. Rather, it focuses on (1) the breakdown of the general peace in Europe following the war of the Second Coalition against France, (2) the developing confluence of British and Russian interests in the Mediterranean, (3) the prosecution of the War of the Third Coalition in the Mediterranean theater (1803-6), and perhaps most of all, (4) the security of the failing Kingdom of Two Sicilies.
The island of Malta, with the advantage of its main port of Valetta and its key location situated between Sicily and Africa, came under the control of the British Royal Navy in 1800 and became a cause célèbre in the breakdown of relations between Great Britain and France in 1803. The French emperor, who was then at the height of his powers, was able to impose the punitive 1802 Treaty of Amiens upon the peace-seeking Addington government in London. Specifically, Article 10 called for British forces to quit the island in favor of restoring the Knights of St. John of the Hospital, who themselves had been forced from the island by the French just prior to Bonaparte's Egyptian adventure in 1798. The prospect that at some future time France might resume control of the strategic base linking the eastern and western Mediterranean, however, ultimately proved to be too much for the British government to accept.
As Napoleon began to apply pressure on the Bourbon crown in Naples, London quickly looked for allies and found one in St. Petersburg. Certainly Russia, which at the time had considerable interests in the eastern Mediterranean, recognized that if France controlled Malta the then powerful French navy could easily disturb one of Russia's primary commercial routes as well as perhaps bottle up the Russian navy in the Black Sea...