Someone – it is still not quite clear who – set in motion secret negotiations to draw Malta of the Knights and the United States of George Washington closer together.
The commerce of the US would find, in the Mediterranean, ports to secure it from storms and pirates; in exchange for which Malta would possess in America property granted forever.
by Giovanni Bonello
The French Revolution signalled an irresistible decline in the fortunes of the Order of Malta. That (by then) anachronistic Crusader institution could not have appeared more flagrantly ancien régime had it made a deliberate effort to do so: based on the threadbare virtues of privilege and of aristocracy, gorging itself off the labour of others, shielded by a system of law that placed titles and genes above merit and commitment, the Maltese Order struck out as a foul provocation to the values of liberté, égalité and fraternité ostensibly espoused by the new republic.
With the triumph of the Revolution, the Knights found themselves targets of the victors’ hate and persecution, and by the end of a series of hostile enactments, the Order forfeited virtually all its property and revenues in France, which till then represented the largest spread of its capital assets and source of income. By the time the Jacobins had consolidated their supremacy, the Hospitallers teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.
Something had to be done to redress that huge and sudden shortfall – and it was hardly enough for the distraught Grand Master to offer to live, as he did, on a few francs a day. The best brains of the Order set to work to explore alternative sources of prosperity. The financial catastrophe urgently required fresh rethinking, and some of it went in the direction of tapping into the sympathies and resources of a brand new independent state that to the enlightened already showed the promise of becoming the wealthiest world power – the infant United States of America.
The Order of St John, or more accurately, individual knights of Malta and a good number of well-trained Maltese seamen, had contributed remarkably to the struggles of the American colonies to emancipate themselves from Britain and to gain their nationhood. Benjamin Franklin, the first US ambassador to Paris, had acknowledged the Maltese input towards the success of the War of American Independence.
On April 6, 1783, he sent Grand Master de Rohan a specially minted medal coined on his initiative to honour those who had significantly promoted the ultimate victory. This medal, which Rohan cherished and proudly displayed in the Palace ‘cabinet’, could very well have been the one designed jointly by Franklin and Voltaire in 1778. Together with all the other precious objects collected by successive Grand Masters and displayed in the ‘cabinet’, Benjamin Franklin’s medal has sadly disappeared.
In Franklin’s words, that medal represented “an homage of gratitude”, and to the rhetoric he added a broad hint about the desirability of ensuring the protection of US citizens in Maltese ports.
Eleven years before proper bilateral negotiations on these issues started between the US and the Order of Malta, De Rohan had already assured Franklin that “wherever chance or commerce shall lead any of your citizens or their vessels into the ports of my island, I shall receive them with the greatest welcome. They shall experience from me every assistance.”
The former 13 colonies had finally seen their independence from the British crown internationally recognised in 1783, shortly before the Order of St John suffered its debilitating losses in France.
Someone – it is still not quite clear who – set in motion secret negotiations to draw Malta of the Knights and the United States of George Washington closer together, and to work out schemes of co-operation that would be of mutual benefit. Curiously the blueprint was sketched by French Hospitallers in France itself, though the launch of such a high-risk gamble would surely have been submitted for the prior approval of the Grand Master, Emanuel de Rohan.
The private papers of a future President of the United States, James Monroe, tell us a lot about this bold, creative idea meant to link closer together the destinies of the new colossus and of the ancient dwarfling.
Monroe’s letters and other writings, published in 1899, include the correspondence exchanged in 1794 between the Order of Malta and the American ambassador in Paris, the future President.
I am not aware that a copy of these writings exists in the Maltese archives. Historians, including Edgar Erskine Hume in the US and Dr Paul Cassar in Malta, were acquainted with this episode and made good use of it. I propose to trace some unknown contours around their research.
Firstly, who were the two ‘conspirators’? On the Maltese side, a Monsieur Cibon; across the divide, the fifth American ambassador to Paris, James Monroe. I have found it anything but easy to flesh out Cibon. He represented himself as chargé d’affaires at the Order’s legation in Paris.
After the confiscation of the Order’s huge holdings in France in 1790, a trickle of diehard aristocrats still sought to join the Order of Malta, among them featured a certain Jean-François Eleozar Paul de Cibon, who was inducted in the Order on October 13, 1792. But our chargé d’affaires is never referred to as Fra or Frere as all professed knights were, even in revolutionary times, and anyway, the knight Cibon would have been far too young, just three years after his profession, to be placed on the hot seat – acting ambassador to Paris during the most turbulent times in French history and the most dejecting times in that of the Hospitallers. That, I believe, rules the knight de Cibon out.
Ovide Doublet, the Grand Master’s secretary for the French Langues in Malta, in his memoirs recently translated into English, frequently refers to M. Cibon, the chargé d’affaires in Paris, but never gives his full name: “M. Cibon Junior was secretary at the Maltese embassy in Paris during the time when Bailli de Vireu abandoned the capital after the horrible attack on the Tuileries on August 10, 1792. The secretary remained in the capital for his own safety and to protect Malta’s interests. He assumed the title of chargé d’affaires but without any formal delegation of authority from the Grand Master.”
Doublet adds some more details about Cibon whose father had also been employed as secretary of the Maltese embassy in Paris. When the father died, Cibon Junior eased himself into his father’s job. He did that in extremely dangerous times, with the French General Assembly deliberating the abolition of the Order of Malta, the confiscation of all its properties and the repressive forces of the Revolution arresting the Order’s more vocal members.
Cibon believed there could still be room for compromise and manoeuvre, if only the Order negotiated with France its prime negotiable asset: the use of its harbours and hospitals.
Probably rightly but certainly sadly, Grand Master de Rohan felt it infra dig even to think of discussing anything at all with a riff-raff revolutionary administration not as yet recognised by any civilised nation. And the fact that Cibon did not belong to some knightly rank, however lowly, caused Rohan to disregard his counsel and to distrust him – he did not even feel he had to mention Cibon’s proposals to the Council of State or deign to reply to his dispatches proposing negotiating with that ‘enemy’ scum.
And yet, as a mere secretary to a hostile embassy, Cibon had succeeded in obtaining the release of some knights of Malta detained by the revolutionaries.
Only one source I know of gives more details of this brave man’s name: d’Elzear de Cibon – not the same person (the secretary was married with children), but probably closely related by family ties to the freshly-knighted Eleozar de Cibon.
And brave he undoubtedly was, to persevere in his determination to remain living and holding the fort in a wholly malevolent and inflamed Paris, representing an impeccably aristocratic Order whose members were singled out for hate, vendetta and, when the happy occasion arose, for assassination.
We know something more as to how the hot potato of taking care of Hospitaller interests in France landed in Cibon’s hands rather than someone else’s.
Grand Master de Rohan, fully conscious of the rabid anti-ancien régime fury prevalent in Paris, thought it prudent not to name a new ambassador to France to replace the Balì de Brillane after the latter passed away.
De Brillane had abruptly dropped dead, suffering a fulminating stroke on his way out of a meeting with the royalist minister Armand-Marc Montmorin, later duly massacred by the revolutionary mobs.
The Grand Master delegated the interests of the Order of St John in Paris to Commander d’Estourmel, under the guidance of the Balì de Virieu, until such time as the mass turbulence and hysteria would have somehow quietened down.
The Balì de Hannonville arrived in Paris in 1795 as Ambassador Extraordinary of the Grand Master, but when he requested to present his credentials, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charles-François Delacroix, rebuffed him with the news that he was persona non grata and that his presence in Paris was “disagreeable to the Directorate”. (Delacroix featured, officially, as the father of the renowned ‘romantic’ painter Eugène, but… gossips just laughed loud and, in those pre-DNA days, boy, did they snigger and scoff).
In retaliation to the Paris affront, the Grand Master refused to receive a French minister on a visit to Malta. Compelled by adverse circumstances, Rohan allowed M. Cibon Junior to remain in Paris, but only as a low-profile secretary to the legation.
From being a lively and populous embassy, the Maltese one was now reduced to a one-man outfit. Cibon had to cope with the stresses of the Revolution in Paris virtually on his own.
Cibon knew full well that one of the weakest links in the chain of the emergent American power was its inability to protect and defend its commercial shipping in the Mediterranean, especially from the almost daily depredations of the Barbary corsairs and pirates. Just before the Hospitaller secretary’s letter to Monroe, the US had acknowledged the threat to their interests in the Mediterranean and had consequently reached a momentous decision: concrete measures had to be immediately undertaken to lay down an armed fleet in order to protect their Mediterranean lines of communication. The US navy was born in March 1794 with the Mediterranean situation expressly in mind.
However, though the determination was there, the American warships were then few, they could rely on no supply and maintenance home ports in the Mediterranean, and they depended for logistical support on bases thousands of nautical miles away.
The US had, with a gun to their head, concluded treaties with the Barbary rulers in terms of which they paid the turbaned extortionists huge sums in the form of protection monies in exchange for shaky guarantees that US shipping would not be attacked.
In Cibon’s time, this protection racket was costing the taxpayer 20 per cent of the annual USfederal budget. Surely a secure, well-furnished and friendly base in Malta would be an attractive, cost-saving investment for the US against that odious and institutionalised Barbary blackmail?
Was not this the proper time for the Order’s invoice of courage, blood and goodwill raised against America during the war for independence, to be presented for payment?
Picking up the ideas already toyed with by Franklin and Rohan in 1783, Cibon, in a letter written 11 years later, pleaded with the US Ambassador James Monroe to weigh in his mind the reflections he annexed and then to give him his frank reaction to them.
He began by a high-sounding rhetorical flourish: some nations naturally become rivals and oppose each other because of their position, their industry and their courage. Others, for the same reasons of courage and industry, discover their attraction to each other – they “feel a motive to esteem, approach and unite together, to increase their mutual prosperity and to render themselves reciprocally happy by a continual exchange of attentions, regards and services”.
With this introduction in place, the next fanfare follows naturally, and very quotable it is too: “The United States of America and the Island of Malta, notwithstanding the distance that separates them, do not appear to be less bound to cultivate a close and friendly union between them by motives of interest and by those of benevolent amity”.
Cibon then reminded Monroe how attractive the Mediterranean had become to industrious American merchants and mariners, always present in that sea in large numbers “forgetting the dangers to which they are exposed of becoming a prey to the Algerine corsairs who cover that sea”. And here Cibon starts advertising what Malta has to offer to the USA.
The wily salesman lists the obvious pluses: “the island of Malta placed at the centre of the Mediterranean between Africa and Sicily, offers by its position, to all navigators, an asylum, provisions and succour of every kind. Of what importance would it not be for the American commerce to find upon this stormy sea, fine ports, provisions and even protection against Algerine pirates?”
Cibon played with the Americans the same card his gambler instinct would have chanced with the French revolutionaries had Rohan encouraged him to: the offer of the use of Malta’s fine harbours and of other maritime facilities in a bid to regain some of the confiscated Hospitaller properties.
Then Cibon slips in what price the Order of Malta would expect for making available its friendship and its amenities: “In exchange for the succour and protection by means whereof the American vessels might navigate the Mediterranean freely and without inquietude, would the United States consent to grant in full right to the Order of Malta some lands in America in such quantity as might be agreed on between the two governments, placing such lands under the immediate protection and safeguard of the American loyalty?”
Cibon reinforces and clarifies his proposal: “Thus the commerce of the United States would find, in the Mediterranean, ports to secure it from storms and vessels given to protect it against the pirates of Algiers; in exchange for which Malta would possess in America property granted forever, protected by the United States and guaranteed by them in the manner most solid”.
Fine negotiator. Cibon’s proposals addressed the main concerns of either party. US navigation suffered manifestly from a lack of maritime bases and facilities in the Mediterranean, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Order had never stopped hankering after its own centuries-old colonial fantasies – vast lands to be taken over, exotic or otherwise, outside its domestic confines.
Some had been pipe dreams, like the purchase of Corsica, repeatedly entertained by more than one Grand Master, or the colonisation of Abyssinia, or the acquisition of large tracts of Canada like Acadia. Others, like the annexation of the islands of St Kitts in the Eastern Caribbean, had, if only briefly, come to pass.
Monroe, a seasoned and far-sighted politician, knew at once that the Maltese offer was, at least in theory, highly attractive and he did not dismiss Cibon’s “reflections” outright. He was a founding father of the United States and eventually became their President (1817-1825). When still Colonel Munroe, he had been sent as minister plenipotentiary to represent the United States in France in 1794.
He was, by political theory and personal conviction, a strong supporter of the French Revolution, though during his ambassadorship he distinguished himself by opposing, and courageously too, some of its excesses – he succeeded in freeing all Americans imprisoned by the revolutionaries, including Thomas Payne and the Lafayette family.
He must have found himself somewhat torn apart by his personal empathy with the Revolution, and the request of Malta, a small anti-revolutionary state more aligned in political conservatism and regression with his old monarchical British enemies than with his new French friends.