THE MALTA ESCAPE
Wednesday, June 6, 1798
A storm was coming, one that would radically change the landscape of the small Mediterranean nation and alter the course of history. But unlike the rains that soaked the islands during the winter months, this was a different kind of storm.
This one was bringing cannons.
According to Maltese spies, Napoleon was on his way with an invasion fleet of over 30,000 men. His ultimate goal was to sail further south to Egypt, where he would establish a French presence in the Middle East and use northern Africa as a steppingstone to reach India. But before he did, he planned to seize Malta, which was being protected by a chivalric order formally called the Knights Hospitaller.
Also known as the Order of Saint John, the Knights of Malta had cemented their reputation during the Great Siege of 1565, when they had repelled the vastly superior numbers of the Ottoman Empire in its attempt to invade the island nation. The Maltese victory was celebrated across Europe, for it had ended the perception of Ottoman invincibility while opening the door for European expansion across the Mediterranean.
As a token of appreciation—and a way to curry favor with this legendary order—financial assistance had come flooding in from royal families across the continent. In the decades that followed, the Knights had strengthened the inner harbor, constructed watchtowers along the coasts, and built several fortified cities, including the new capital city of Valletta.
Their goal was to be ready for the next attack.
Whenever that may come.
For the next two hundred years, the Knights had flourished on Malta, shepherding in a cultural renaissance that led to extreme power and wealth. Recruits came from across Europe, bringing with them a fighting spirit, a sense of adventure, and enough foreign connections to fill the Knights’ coffers beyond belief. And yet very few members of the Order knew how rich they actually were, and even fewer knew where the Maltese treasure was kept.
The reason for this was obvious.
Diverse backgrounds led to diverse loyalties.
Particularly in the time of war.
And plenty of battles occurred during those years, many of which reshaped the political landscape in Europe. Patrons were killed, assets were seized, and enemies came to power—all of which weakened the infrastructure of the organization.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the Order was a shell of its former self. Its ranks had been depleted, and the Knights were no longer capable of defending Malta, particularly against a force the size of the French fleet. The Grand Master of the Order—a German named Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim—knew this. He also realized that nearly two-thirds of his Knights were of French descent, which complicated things further.
In the heat of battle, which side would they be fighting on?
Would they be with Napoleon or against him?
Although Hompesch had never met Napoleon, he was familiar with his tactics. He knew it would take a lot of money to wage a foreign war so far from home. Which meant Napoleon’s first order of business upon capturing Malta would be to seize the Order’s holdings. He would then use those riches to fund his journey across Africa and beyond.
But how could he seize what wasn’t there?
Facing a battle he couldn’t win and a timeline he couldn’t change, Hompesch made the most logical decision possible. Instead of wasting his time on the short-term protection of Malta, he decided to ensure the long-term future of his Order.
And he would do that by moving the treasure.