Fought during the turbulent naval wars which followed the French Revolution, the Battle of the Malta Convoy took place in what's called the War of the Second Coalition- when combined European powers sought to curb Revolutionary France under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
This bright and detailed painting depicts a brave maneuver from the Frigate HMS SUCCESS, attacking the much larger French Ship of the Line GENEREUX to deliver several broadsides. The ships are finely painted and realistically depicted at the key moment of the conflict. Cannon fire flashes in bright orange while smoke billows. GENEREUX turns to flee, but she won't escape the approach of Nelson's forces including his flagship FOUDROYANT lurking in the background. While not much is known of the life of artist E.H. Dyason, he clearly had an outstanding knowledge of ships of the period as well as a great understanding of naval conflict in his day.
1798's Battle of the Nile was the culmination of three months fighting across the Mediterranean Sea. It began with Napoleon himself leading a group of ships filled with 30,000 expeditionary forces bound for Egypt. His aim was to strike at British colonies- the financial engine of the British Empire, hoping to force Britain out of the French Revolutionary Wars. He was famously pursued and then soundly defeated by a fleet led by Admiral Lord Nelson. However, before Nelson could engage, Napoleon's ships landed on Malta and a quick press of troops led to French control of the island. Napoleon left 3,000 men on the island and sailed for Alexandria. Nelson followed and then laid waste to most of the French Mediterranean Fleet.
France and Britain would fight over Malta for the next two years, a conflict called the Siege of Malta. Its strategic location made it a desirable port for ships to resupply and a key place to station troops. Attempts to retake the island were mostly ineffective, but Britain set up a blockade to keep supply ships from landing. Over time, the continued battles forced the French garrison to consolidate in the capital city of Valetta and by then the blockade had done its work. Severe food shortages led to starvation and rampant disease. By early 1800 the beleaguered French troops were hardly prepared to defend anything.
Knowing the situation was dire, a significant convoy of French ships under Contre-Admiral (Rear-Admiral) Jean-Baptiste Perrée was sent out from Toulon determined to reach Valetta and resupply the garrison with food, arms and relief troops, lead by the 74 gun Ship of the Line GENEREUX.
After the Battle of the Nile, Lord Nelson was commanded to remain nearby to protect the Kingdom of Naples from France, part of which was also command of the nearby blockade forces at Malta. While the French were planning Perrée's convoy, the Royal Navy was preparing 1,200 Neapolitan troops for Malta as reinforcements. Concerned that Nelson was too distracted by the new wife of the British Ambassador to Naples, the infamous Lady Emma Hamilton, he was commanded to accompany these troops along with his superior, Vice-Admiral and Overall Commander of Troops in the Mediterranean, Lord Keith. The troops were delivered to the southern Maltese port of Marsa Sirocco in the first week of February,1800 and Keith stationed his fleet around the Island with his own flagship HMS CHARLOTTE directly off Valetta.
On the 17th Lord Keith received word from the frigate HMS SUCCESS that a French Convoy was approaching from the direction of Sicily and he quickly repositioned four nearby ships at his command to better cover the port- Nelson's HMS FOUDROYANT among them.
The following day, the French fleet was sighted approaching Valetta. All ships scrambled- the British to give chase and the French to flee into a better position for battle. A small transport fell to the British quickly but most were able to retreat out to sea, except GENEREUX whose position made it impossible to follow lest she fall right into battle position with HMS ALEXANDER. With GENEREUX having stopped short, the large British ships were unable to attack the French flagship, which left only one ship in position to fire...
HMS SUCCESS, under the command of Captain Shuldham Peard, had shadowed the French ships all the way to Valetta and he was able to close on GENEREUX. Boldly crossing GENEREUX's bow, SUCCESS immediately opened heavy fire. The nimble smaller ship got off several broadsides before GENEREUX could turn and fire on the frigate but once they did the massive firepower of the larger ship tore apart SUCCESS' rigging and masts. Within minutes the ship was badly damaged and drifting.
The damage however, was done. Admiral Perrée had fallen to SUCCESS' cannon fire on deck and the delay had allowed FOUDROYANT to reach GENERAUX. After two shots from Nelson's ship and having lost their commanding officer, the demoralized French officers fired a single shot and then surrendered. The supply ships had come within sight of the starving troops on land but never reached them.
Though the French would send another squadron the following month, it too was intercepted and the position in Malta became impossible to hold. The French held out another five months before turning the island over to the British, who would retain control for the next 164 years.
Lord Keith gave Nelson credit for the victory, but Nelson himself gave credit and great honor to SUCCESS and her Captain for bravery. The frigate would go on to many more battles in the Napoleonic wars.
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