Sicily and Ponza (1813)

Capture of the Island of Ponza Feby 26th 1813. From a plan by Capt Mounsey by Thomas Whitcombe [artist]; Thomas Sutherland [engraver], 1813. PAD5833

As the French debacle in Russia unfolded, allegiances became strained and Marshal King Murat apparently openly declared his intention of making peace with the British. Arriving back in his kingdom on 4 February 1813, he immediately dispatched an emissary to the Austrian Emperor, offering his troops in return for a guarantee that he could retain his kingdom as it stood presently, even if Napoleon fell, but nothing concrete came of the proposal.

Lord William Bentinck had previously received a proposal from the Russian Admiral Tchitchagov, commanding the Black Sea fleet and the Russian troops on the Danube, that he could provide 40,000 troops to attack the French possessions in Dalmatia, leading on to an invasion of Italy itself, if supported by 20,000 British/Sicilian troops. Although such a proposal may have sound very attractive to Bentinck, he declined to take up this offer once it became clear that the entire expense of paying and feeding these troops would fall on the British treasury.

Bentinck had so far followed his brief from London to send all available troops to the east coast of Spain over every other priority, despite his own hopes of leading an Italian insurrection. Napoleon had failed in Russia and was on the retreat in central Europe; because of this, the French garrisons in the Mediterranean were being severely denuded to reinforce the severely weakened forces in Germany. Bentinck saw his opportunity and began to champion his Italian dreams once again.

Now, Admiral Greig was in command of the Black Sea fleet and he had 11,000 Russian troops that could be utilised if paid by the British. With these, added to the troops that Bentinck could bring together at Sicily, he could create an army of 30,000 men, all in British pay, ready to be used anywhere in the Mediterranean. As a first move in this direction, on 26 February Bentinck sent a small force under Vice Admiral Pellew to capture the island of Ponza, to be used as a base for naval operations against coastal trade, as a supply base for smuggling British goods and as a way of providing immediate channels of communication with the Italian mainland. The troops landing on the island, whilst the naval guns pounded the small fortress, soon persuaded the governor of the island to capitulate. Some 300 prisoners were taken here, without a single casualty amongst the British troops.

Two days before this action, a convoy of fifty armed vessels with stores destined for Naples was attacked at Pietra Nera on the Calabrian coast. The attacking force, led by Captain Robert Hall, included two divisions of gunboats and four companies of the 75th Foot. The troops were landed on the coast at daylight on 14 February, and they soon took the coastal batteries and all the enemy boats were either carried off or burnt.

As regards the internal affairs of Sicily, things had begun to take on a much brighter appearance, with the quality of the Sicilian army improving, the anti-British party subsiding in influence and the British-style constitution beginning to bed in. But as always, trouble was not far away, usually harboured under the skirts of the queen – and so it proved once again.

Through the queen’s intrigues, the king had begun to take the government back under his own hand and in striving to return to the old ways, he effectively neutralised the new constitution. Bentinck reacted immediately and with great force, declaring that the alliance was to be ended immediately. This sudden threat caused an instant reaction from the king, who – true to form – immediately caved in and went back to his hunting. The harm had been done, however, and tensions grew between the Neapolitan troops stationed in Sicily and the Sicilian civilian population. This, added to renewed preparations by Murat for an invasion of Sicily, was regarded as so serious a situation that it led to Bentinck ordering some troops back from Spain.

By the end of May, however, all seemed to have settled down again, and the queen had, to all appearances, finally conceded defeat and announced her departure from the island. She would sail on 27 May for Constantinople, from where she could travel overland to Vienna. With the intrigues of the queen finally coming to an end, Bentinck felt the position on Sicily was secure enough, and he sailed for Alicante, taking as many troops as he could spare and leaving them at Ponza en route, to threaten the Italian mainland. Leaving General Macfarlane in command at Palermo, he gave him instructions to land 12,000 men on the mainland if an Italian insurrection actually materialised.

Hardly had he sailed than the news reached him that the queen had delayed her voyage because of ill health, although thankfully she did depart on 14 June for Zante. The Sicilian government, however, quickly reverted to type and once again became extremely obstructive and embroiled in petty squabbling.

By mid-July Macfarlane could only report the situation as ‘alarming’, with the new constitution on the verge of collapse. Palermo suffered regular riots and foodstuffs became scarce and expensive, adding to the unrest. Macfarlane was forced to order the return to Sicily of most of the troops sent to Ponza, and thankfully the Neapolitan troops remained loyal. In August Macfarlane felt that the situation was so grave that he wrote to Bentinck requesting his urgent return from Spain, with which he reluctantly concurred.

Sicily had rarely been any less than a severe headache for British commanders, and prospects now looked as bleak once again as they ever had. It seemed that no one would ever be able to get a firm grasp on Sicilian politics, queen or no queen, but abandoning the island to its own fate could never be an option. For all its faults, failings and frustrations, Sicily was too vital to the British cause in the Mediterranean. Perhaps that was always the problem: the Sicilians could also see that they were vital to Britain and therefore knew that they could continue their intrigues with impunity.