Book review: Nelson at Naples – how a British ‘hero’ helped drown a revolution in blood

Josh Holroyd reviews Nelson at Naples (available here from Amazon) by Jonathan North, which exposes the atrocities committed by Horatio Nelson during his part in crushing the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799. The tragic events North describes, which reveal the unbridled barbarism of a reactionary old order fighting for its life, are rich with lessons for revolutionaries today.

Few names conjure a more potent image in the official British psyche than that of Viscount Horatio Nelson. Famed for his stunning victories at Aboukir and Trafalgar (which claimed his life), Nelson is revered as the personification of British genius and derring-do. Immortalised in stone atop a giant column at the centre of London’s Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s figure towers haughtily above passers-by, but among the Vice Admiral’s less celebrated exploits lurks an episode which, not unlike the caustic criticism of London’s pigeons, covers the great man’s memory with a sharp a rather foul odour.

For six months in 1799, the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples was overthrown by republican revolutionaries backed back French military might. After the king and queen “of the Two Sicilies” fled to Palermo, a new republic was founded in January on the principles of Liberty and Reason. However, isolated, disorganised, and eventually abandoned by their French protectors, the revolutionaries found themselves pushed back by the forces of reaction, supported by Nelson and the British fleet. Eventually, those patriots left defending the last bastions of the revolution surrendered, having signed a treaty allowing them to either return to Naples unharmed or leave to exile in France.

It is at this point that Nelson is accused of committing his worst crimes. In accordance with the furious orders of the exiled Queen, and in breach of all norms of conduct and diplomacy then in existence, Nelson deceived the revolutionaries into carrying out their end of the bargain and then, only when they were all disarmed aboard transport ships, placed them under arrest at the point of his naval guns. After days of waiting on the stinking transports, deprived of food and medicine, the prisoners were eventually turned over by Nelson to their executioners to be hanged and cut to pieces by the baying mob.

In his painstakingly researched and meticulously argued book, Nelson at Naples, Jonathan North lays bare the atrocities committed by Nelson and his Bourbon benefactors and offers a fascinating insight into the world of 1799, gripped by war, revolution and counter-revolution. But the book and its subject offer more than just historical interest; its depiction of a crumbling order fighting to prevent the birth of a new society raises many valuable questions for today.

Age of revolution

The beginning of the Great French Revolution in 1789 sent powerful shockwaves across all of “Old Europe”. The Earth-shattering events in France, such as the storming of the Bastille, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the abolition of feudalism, raised a gigantic beacon of hope for revolutionaries across the continent, struggling against their own despotic regimes and feudal privileges at home. As North notes:

“The maxims of liberty, equality and fraternity were now being sounded along the frontiers of France and the sounds of revolution were soon reverberating in the streets and squares of neighbouring states.” (Nelson at Naples, Amberley Publishing, 2018, page 34)

Jacobin Club Image public domainOn 19 November 1792, the Jacobin Convention issued the Edict of Fraternity, promising that the new French Republic would “grant fraternity and assistance to all peoples who wish to recover their liberty” / Image: public domain

The international significance of the French Revolution was immediately grasped by both its enemies and friends alike. In January 1790, Thomas Paine remarked in a letter to Edmund Burke, “The Revolution in France is certainly a forerunner to other revolutions in Europe.” In less than three years, Paine’s prediction would be decisively confirmed by events. The outbreak of war between France, Austria and Prussia in April 1792 began an era of European conflict which would last until the restoration of the French Bourbons in 1815. Surrounded by enemies on all sides, the revolution, although initially national in character, would have to spread to survive.

On 19 November 1792, the Jacobin Convention issued the Edict of Fraternity, promising that the new French Republic would “grant fraternity and assistance to all peoples who wish to recover their liberty.” This was an international call for revolution. Luckily for the defenders of the First Republic, it was swiftly taken up by would-be Jacobins across Europe. In French-speaking Savoy, assemblies voted to break away from Italy and join the French Republic. In December 1792, French victories against the Austrians were followed by the foundation of a Belgian “sister republic”. By 1799, a total of eight sister republics had been founded in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy.

Britain joins the war

At the beginning of the revolution in France, Britain occupied a neutral position, but by 1799 it had placed itself at the head of the absolutist counter-revolution in Europe. At first sight, this seems paradoxical. After all, like the French, the English had executed their own absolutist king in 1649 and since the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, the British bourgeoisie had assumed almost complete control over the state under the form of a constitutional monarchy. However, having originally played a progressive role, young British capitalism had pressing reasons to join with the decaying monarchies of Europe to strangle the French Republic at birth.

Having firmly established its own rule, the British bourgeoisie had no interest in strengthening its most powerful competitor. On the international stage, for hundreds of years England’s policy towards the continent had been that of maintaining the “balance of power”, shifting its allegiances in order to contain any state capable of dominating the rest of Europe. The French victories of 1792-3 threatened to upset this balance spectacularly.

More important however was the effect that events in France were having on the class struggle at home. The increasingly radical policies of the Jacobin Convention had a profound impact in Britain. In one of the great dialectical ironies which abound throughout history, the very act of trying to carry through the bourgeois revolution to its logical conclusion in France posed a very real threat to the stability of the bourgeois-aristocratic alliance which underpinned English capitalism. As Engels remarks in his masterful History of the English Middle Class:

“What should the British bourgeois do without his aristocracy, that taught him manners, such as they were, and invented fashions for him – that furnished officers for the army, which kept order at home, and the navy, which conquered colonial possessions and new markets abroad?”

The slogan of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” had little use for the wealthy manufacturers and landed speculators who filled the Mother of Parliaments, but they had plenty to say to the oppressed and impoverished masses who filled the crowded cities and “dark satanic mills” of industrial Britain. The country was not without its own equivalent of the radical “sans-culottes”, and the British ruling class considered them a mortal threat. The sweeping democratic and social reforms of the Jacobin Convention inspired a large number of English Radicals, like Thomas Paine, who saw in the French Revolution a living vindication of the Rights of Man and universal suffrage, both of which were anathema to good old fashioned ‘English liberty’ at the time. In his classic, A People’s History of England, A. L. Morton describes how in England, known Radicals, suspected of sympathising with the Jacobins, were attacked and looted by Tory mobs (Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1938, page 338). The Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger, even suspended the right of habeas corpus in 1794 and passed laws prohibiting the holding of public meetings. Paine’s Rights of Man was banned.

Pitt had reason to fear the spread of revolution across the Channel. The country was wracked with strikes, bread riots and machine wrecking. According to Morton, “industrial areas were treated almost as a conquered country in the hands of an army of occupation” (ibid. page 344). Troops were often sent to quell dissent but could not always be relied upon, as their sympathy for the people caused them to fraternise and refuse to carry out orders to fire.

Worse still was the threat of republicanism in Ireland. Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen raising the demand for Irish independence at the head of a movement that was even able to overcome the division between Catholics and Protestants. This had to be stopped by any means, and no barbarity was spared to suppress the Irish revolt. As the English commander in Ireland reported himself:

“Every crime, every cruelty that could be committed by Cossacks or Calmucks had been committed there.” (Ibid. page 345)

But this repression could not be limited to Britain and Ireland. Just as the revolution was becoming increasingly international, the forces of reaction across the continent also had to unite. To this end, the First Coalition of Spain, Holland, Austria, Prussia, England and Sardinia was formed in 1793. It was in this context that Nelson made his name in the British navy. As a lowborn upstart raised to greatness as the defender of the crowned heads of Europe, in many ways the mirror image of the Corsican general who made his name as the “saviour of the Republic”, Nelson’s consciousness, and particularly his loathing of “rebels”, would undoubtedly have been shaped by this.

The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies

Meanwhile, in the sleepy Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the tumultuous events in France would soon find their echo. Seated in his capital of Naples, King Ferdinand IV ruled over a land “weak in effective institutions, dogged by inertia” as North notes. As the British ambassador, Sir William Hamilton wrote at the time, “there was universal complaint of total want of justice and good government throughout the kingdom” and “the provinces were in the most extreme want and misery.” (Nelson at Naples, page 31)

Lazzari giocano alle carte Image public domainThe base of the rotten edifice of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was a feudal system of land ownership in the countryside. This medieval backwardness gave rise to the infamous lazzaroni: an underclass that flocked to the capital in Naples / Image public domain

At the base of this rotten edifice was a feudal system of land ownership in the countryside that had survived over centuries. Under this system, a tiny minority of noble families ruled over the bulk over country, with absolute power over the lands and lives of their vassals. North lists some of the many impositions piled onto the shoulders of the Neapolitan peasantry: the lords owned and controlled the tools, ovens and mills, and charged the people for their use; they levied charges for grazing rights over formerly common land; they charged for the use of the decrepit roads and even rivers; not to mention a slew of other rents and taxes. The persistence of this straightjacket, incapable of further development, condemned the kingdom to stagnation and its people to penury, whilst the rich continued to live well and finance the king’s largesse.

Naples itself was a city of stark contradictions. The largest city in Italy, Naples was home to thousands of clerics, nobles, servants, lawyers, merchants, labourers and soldiers, plus an immense underclass, the infamous lazzaroni, who survived on handouts from the rich and organised crime, forming a powerful social reserve for the status quo, despite their being left so impoverished by it. And although surrounded by medieval backwardness, Naples was a “beacon of the Enlightenment”, producing many bourgeois intellectuals who began to eagerly discuss the prospects for reform through a growing network of Masonic lodges and political clubs.

The Parthenopean Republic

Frustrated by the bureaucracy and corruption of the status quo, enraged by the poverty and backwardness of the country, it was inevitable that the Neapolitan middle class would find its model and inspiration in Jacobinism. Copying the famous French political club which had swept away the French Bourbons, Neapolitan radicals founded the Repubblica o morte and (more moderate) Libertà o morte clubs. These clubs “were preaching popular revolution on the French model” (ibid. page 37), including universal suffrage; liberty in belief and expression; a social system based on the rights of man; and respect for property, but with the regulation of wealth and prices by the state.

Such was the fear of these radicals held by the king that any men wearing short hair or long trousers (like the famous Parisian sans culottes) were held in suspicion and pursued by the secret police. This fear was not without justification either. In 1794, a “large-scale Jacobin conspiracy” (ibid. page 38) to kill the king and queen and produce an Italian version of France’s radical 1793 Constitution was foiled and crushed. But this was just the early tremor that precedes a Vesuvian eruption. A new order was struggling to be born; the old order was fighting for its life. A single push could tip the balance of forces.

That push eventually came in late 1798. The attempt of Ferdinand’s army to stem the republican tide by retaking Rome from the French had been a disaster. Having successfully defended the infant Roman Republic, the French commander, Jean-Étienne Championnet, set out to create another and marched on Naples on 20 December 1798. Faced with the prospect of defending their capital and its population from a foreign invader, the king and queen naturally fled to Palermo, along with all the treasure they could load onto their ships, under the protection of none other than their “liberator and saviour”, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson.

With even the semblance of government now absent, the city was plunged into anarchy as the French army approached. The defending Neapolitan army had surrendered before the French even reached the city gates but the plebeian lazzaroni, far from welcoming the French as their liberators, carried out a “ferocious resistance” accompanied by the looting of the homes of any suspected Jacobins.

Eventually, on the evening of 22 January 1799, the French, supported by republican forces within the city, captured the last bastion of the desperate defenders. The birth of the Parthenopean Republic (named after the ancient Greek colony founded on the same spot) was proclaimed on 23 January. Championnet entered the city in triumph, flanked by the Jacobin, Giuseppe Poerio, and the head of the recently pacified lazzaroni, Michele Marino. The old regime was gone, for now.

The Revolution falters

Having shrugged off almost a century of Bourbon rule, Championnet acted swiftly to fill the vacuum of power and installed a provisional government, made up of republican exiles, charged with the task of restoring order and modernising the state. The Neapolitan patriots then sought to extend the revolution beyond the capital to the provinces. Initially, their efforts met with success, with trees of liberty symbolically planted in the major squares of a host of provincial towns, but within months the revolution had began to roll back under the force of blows both from abroad and at home.

Even before the arrival of the king’s allies, important points of support in the provinces of Puglia and Calabria had begun to slip away from the revolutionaries’ grasp. Although the bulk of the middle class, along with progressive sections of the nobility and clergy (or at least those who saw in the Republic a better guardian of their property than the mob) welcomed the arrival of republican commissaries and adopted the tricolour cockade, the plebeian masses of the towns did not, and having initially received their new liberators in passive hostility, began to revolt.

The picture was even worse in the countryside, where republicanism had made little or no gains at all. As one revolutionary noted in his diary:

“A terrible revolution has broken out amongst the lower orders, especially those in the countryside around us, all on account of listening to the sermons which have stirred everyone up to take up arms to defend Religion, the State and their farms and to preserve the honour of their families from our French enemies and their Jacobinical followers.” (Ibid. page 71)

But such sermons have been delivered by every counter-revolutionary in history. Exactly the same could be said of the enemies of the French Revolution or the Russian Whites. And yet in those cases, the revolution won out and seized a strong foothold in the countryside. Why did it fail this time?

There is not and never has been such a thing as a ‘chemically pure’ revolution. Defined by Trotsky as “the direct interference of the masses in historical events”, every revolution necessarily draws into it a variety of social classes, each with differing interests. In any largely rural country, where the peasantry predominates, it is precisely the position of this layer which ultimately determines the success or failure of the new regime. In Russia, the success and survival of Soviet rule were based as much on the movement of the peasantry as that of the proletariat, just as it was the delayed movement of the peasantry in 1906, which left the workers isolated and defeated.

In France too, every forward step of the revolutionaries in Paris was matched by the powerful rising of the peasantry in the countryside. It was in this sense that the Jacobins could truly be said to have led “the nation” as a whole against the old feudal order. In fact, the abolition of feudalism may have been formally proclaimed in the National Assembly, but it was rendered an established fact by the masses in the countryside, whose struggle against the last vestiges of feudalism illuminated the countryside with burning chateaux. However, the progressive role of the peasantry is in no way guaranteed in all cases; it is just as capable of swinging behind the old order as it is of smashing it.

The weakness of the old Neapolitan order could be seen by the speed with which it fell, but this offered no guarantee of the strength of the new. Naples was not Paris, and the Puglian and Calabrian provinces were not France. The revolutionary bourgeois and lesser nobility – a small minority in the nation – were looked upon with distrust by the bulk of the peasants, who saw in the revolution only French atheism. The key task for the revolutionaries was to win them over, not only with proselytising rhetoric, but with “peace, bread and land” as Lenin put it. Instead, the revolutionaries prevaricated, deferring the enormous question of the abolition of feudalism to an inquiry, which postponed the social tasks of the revolution to April, by which time the tide had already turned decisively against the Republic.Général JEAN ETIENNE CHAMPIONNET Image public domainThe French commander Jean-Étienne Championnet set out to create a republic in Naples. But he marched towards disaster / Image: public domain

Even in the capital, the revolutionaries found themselves outnumbered by potentially hostile forces. Unlike the Parisian sans culottes, the bloated underclass of lazzaroni was a purely parasitical class playing no role in production and dependent on charity from the ruling class as well as their own criminal means. This naturally made them hostile to the revolution, closer to the ancient Roman proletariat than the revolutionary enragés of Paris or the Red Guards of St Petersburg.

As North notes, “the greatly expanded social contract was understandably ignored by a wider populace who experience little change save novelty, inflation and a dearth of once common-or-garden foodstuffs”. The only way the new government could win a solid base of support amongst the masses, the only real guarantee of survival, was ultimately by delivering tangible gains for the poor masses, urban and rural alike. Without this, the regime was forced to rest on force alone.

Robespierre himself famously remarked that “no one like missionaries with bayonets”. The Neapolitan patriots found themselves dependent on foreign bayonets from the beginning. But this alone was not enough to condemn the revolution to defeat; events in France had their own role to play.

The French Republic of 1799 was not the same as the Republic of 1793. The Jacobin Convention had been substituted the Directoire of the White Reaction. Although based on the new property relations brought about by the revolution and compelled to defend them by spreading revolution abroad, at the same time the new leaders of the ‘revolution’ represented not the radical sans culottes but the wealthy speculators and big merchants who had tired of the storms and stresses of the revolution, and longed for order and an end to the egalitarian policies of Robespierre. The reforms of the Jacobins were replaced with counter-reforms. The Maximum (limit of prices) was abolished. Reactionary émigrés were allowed to return, while revolutionaries were killed or imprisoned.

The international impact of this counter-revolution within the revolutionary regime itself could clearly be seen in the young Parthenopean republic. Championnet, a committed Jacobin, was replaced in February by the more reliable MacDonald, assisted by the grasping bureaucrat, Guillaume de Faipoult, whose primary purpose was to squeeze the ‘sister’ republic for cash, leaving the forces of revolution with even less means of social reforms for the masses and military defence against the armies of reaction.

When the Austrian Empire invaded Northern Italy on 12 March 1799, MacDonald removed the greater part of his forces from Naples and marched North, leaving fewer than 2,000 men to defend the city. The Republic was left to fend for itself, weakened, facing a growing revolt in the countryside and a coalition of naval and military intervention from abroad.

The revolution falls

Not content with the support of the world’s greatest naval power, the rightful monarch of the Two Sicilies formed a pact with the most reactionary forces in Europe at the time to squash the revolution. Tsarist Russia and Ottoman Empire abandoned all religious differences to join with the Holy Army of the Faith and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. This was a ‘rainbow coalition’ for the ages, demonstrating with remarkable clarity that ultimately, behind all ideology there lies powerful class interests, which suffice to drive the rulers of the world into a joint defence of their property and privilege.

In February 1799, the King and Queen sent Cardinal Ruffo to lead a crusade to recapture the provinces and bring an end to the revolution in Naples. Recruiting from the growing counter-revolutionary rebellion in the countryside, Ruffo began to assemble his Army of the Holy Faith from a motley assortment of clergy, rich landowners, artisans, rural labourers, murderers and thieves, as Ruffo’s own secretary attests (ibid. page 79). Ruffo was forced to march quickly for fear of what these defenders of the one true faith would get up to if left to their own devices and won a number of victories against the weakened and disorganised republican forces.

Holy Army of the Faith Image public domainCardinal Ruffo led a victorious crusade to destroy the revolution in Naples. His reactionary Army of the Holy Faith was an assortment of clergy, landowners, rural labourers, murderers and thieves / Image: public domain

Having seized Calabria, Ruffo marched his ragtag army of glorified brigands north towards Naples, linking up with the King’s Russian and Ottoman allies. On 13 June, he began his assault. Hard pressed, the republican troops fought on for days, but while they retained possession of two important forts, the rest of the city gradually slipped in royalist hands. Worse, the assault of the royalists from without was accompanied by a violent uprising of the lazzaroni within the city walls. Ruffo’s attack gave full vent to the barbarism and depravity of the lazzaroni, who began a massacre of all suspected Jacobins. A foreign visitor to the city wrote that “everyone still relates with horror that the Lazzaroni roasted men in the streets, and begged money of the passengers to purchase bread to their roast meat” and, “They were marching a naked man through the streets and he was bent double clutching his stomach for a demon who stood next to him was, with each step, attempting with his sword to cut off the man’s private parts.” (Ibid. page 109)

A British visitor reported the following:

“The barbarities that were committed on the unhappy patriots, to which I was a daily witness, were most atrocious. One morning I met a crowd of savages carrying a human head on a pole, while a miscreant holding up a severed limb, and sucking on the blood exclaimed, ‘Here is the blood of a Jacobin, let me drink it.’ The bodies of many individuals were thus treated, and these horrid outrages were encouraged by the junta.” (Ibid. page 110)

In order to destroy the evil, atheistic Jacobins, the forces of reaction had to raise all the demons of hell. However, even they were beginning to fear they would lose control of the destructive forces they had summoned, and Ruffo, fearing that if the fighting were not halted as soon as possible the city would be destroyed, eagerly sought a treaty of surrender from the remaining republican and French forces. On 22 June, a treaty was signed by the republican commander, Méjan, Ruffo, and the commanders of the allied British, Russian and Turkish forces. The terms of the treaty stipulated that in return for surrendering their remaining forts and all hostages, the republican garrisons would be free to choose to either remain at home unmolested or embark on transport ships to be taken to France. On 23 June the republicans began to carry out their end of the bargain.

The king’s revenge

Like the leader of any doomed system, King Ferdinand IV was described as both “timid and bigoted” and “cruel and vengeful” (ibid. page 20). Threatened, he immediately fled, and spent six months cowering behind Nelson’s fleet. Now, when victory was assured, he emerged, condemning Ruffo’s “shameful capitulation” and calling for merciless reprisals against the rebels. Nelson, the royal house’s pet admiral, was sent to Naples with clear instructions from Her Majesty Maria Carolina: “treat Naples as if it were an Irish town in rebellion” (ibid. page 157).

Taking these words to heart, Nelson sailed into the Bay of Naples, “being determined never to give any approbation to any terms with rebels but that of unconditional surrender”, as he put it to his superior, Lord Keith (ibid. page 225). But rather than repudiating the Treaty and allowing the republicans to retake their old position, as the existing rules of war demanded, Nelson falsely stated that he would allow the treaty to be carried into effect and then, when the republican exiles were already on board the transports, immediately took them prisoner and handed them over to the tender mercies of His Majesty. The treaty was dead in the water and Nelson had killed it.

Its victory complete, the counter-revolution took its revenge to the full. Anyone suspected of having supported the Republic or dishonouring the monarch was brought before a kangaroo court and sent for public execution. Where evidence was so lacking that even this court could not convict, confessions were obtained through torture. The bloodletting was so great that even leading royalists complained of the senseless persecution. In this period alone, over 10,000 were murdered by the counter-revolution, although the exact number will never be known. If the guillotine of the French Red Terror was the future devouring the past, then the Neapolitan noose was the past devouring the future.

The verdict of history

Nelson death Image public domainNelson’s betrayal of the captive rebels, in breach of all existing international norms of conduct, continued to haunt him even after his death at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 / Image: public domain

History delivered its final verdict on the rotten Bourbon dynasty when Garibaldi’s republican army captured Naples as part of his unification of Italy. All the outrages of the counter-revolution had succeeded only in postponing the inevitable and guaranteeing Naples’ slide ever further into backwardness and obscurity.

Back in Britain, Nelson’s betrayal of the captive rebels, in breach of all existing international norms of conduct, continued to haunt him even after his death at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. His biographer, Robert Southey, wrote in 1813 that Nelson’s actions in Naples constituted “a deplorable transaction! A stain upon the memory of Nelson and the honour of England!” Subsequently however, with the characteristic hypocrisy of the British bourgeois, the name of Nelson, not to mention whatever remains of English honour, has received whitewash after whitewash in order to leave untarnished the reputations of those who defended order and tradition against the anarchy of revolution.

This is not the only instance of such hypocrisy. Throughout history, the rulers of the world have warned of the horrors of revolution, and decried the terrible crimes of revolutionaries like Robespierre and Lenin, only to commit unspeakable acts of violence and treachery against whoever stands in their way. As this episode, so graphically told by North, demonstrates, there is no one and nothing on Earth more violent and depraved than a ruling class whose system is threatened with destruction. It is the duty of revolutionaries everywhere never to forget this fact.