During the wars which followed the French Revolution, France’s armies turned on Britain’s last ally in Italy, the kingdom of Naples. The revolution at Naples was a fascinating but rather bloody episode. The armies of the French republic had chased out the Bourbon royal family and established a liberal government of doctors, lawyers and intellectuals. They lasted six months in office before a ferocious counter-revolution, led by a militant cleric, Cardinal Ruffo, swept them from power. His royalists exacted revenge in the streets or in the courts and on the scaffold. Hundreds died or were imprisoned or exiled, and the kingdom banished its intellectual elite only to find its culture beheaded.
Set within that brutal history is a dramatic story of surrender and betrayal.
By June 1799, as republicans were being hunted through the streets and put to death, a significant number took shelter and were besieged within the forts of the capital. They capitulated to the cardinal on condition they would be safely transported back to France, surrendered and signed a treaty.
It was at this point that Nelson arrived leading his British fleet and the admiral promptly rejected the treaty. Bolstered by the support of Sir William and Emma, Lady Hamilton and with the vindictive Bourbons declaring that there would be no treaty with rebels, Nelson violated the treaty of surrender and annulled the armistice with the rebels. He ordered a court-martial of Commodore Francesco Carocciolo who had commanded the treacherous side’s gunboats and then ordered that he be hanged from the yardarm of Nelson’s flagship, The Minerva, on the evening of 29th June 1799.
Through this controversial act and a tangled sequence of events, hundreds of Neapolitans, thinking themselves saved, now found themselves at the mercy of royalist revenge.
In Italy the event became synonymous with betrayal and Nelson’s honour was called into question by Charles Fox in Parliament.
Nelson’s biographer, the poet Robert Southey, went as far as to state that the episode was a deplorable transaction, “a stain on the memory of Nelson and upon the honour of England“. G. K. Chesterton agreed, writing Nelson turned his blindest eye on Naples and on liberty and another writer later alleged that Lady Hamilton has persuaded Nelson to take her in his barge to view Carocciola’s corpse swinging in the breeze.