A plea to Nelson

Cardinal Ruffo’s forces stormed Naples in June 1799. A thousand republicans sought shelter in the city’s forts. A treaty of surrender was agreed with Cardinal Ruffo, allowing the republicans to return home, unmolested, or to set sail for France and exile. Transports were collected in the harbour for that purpose. Then Nelson and his fleet arrived, and repudiated the treaty. After much discussion, he relented and allowed the embarkation of the rebels. On 26 June 1799 the forts of Naples were evacuated. But Nelson did not allow the transports to sail. The republicans were trapped. Two days later, on the pretext that he had received orders from the exiled court at Palermo to annul the treaty (which he’d expected all along), Nelson dutifully secured the transports and began to comb the transports for the leading republican commanders and members of government. These were placed in irons on Nelson’s ships whilst the rest of the republicans, confused and fearful, were left to stew in their hulks. Many of them would also be sent ashore for trial and execution but, in the meantime, they suffered in the heat of a Neapolitan summer. They had fallen for Nelson’s ruse.

Captain Salfi had served in the republic’s National Guard, and had been brought over to the transports in the harbour following evacuation of the forts. he was one of those suffering in the intolerable heat and in conditions which were such that “on numerous occasions we wished for death to put an end to our woes”.  He protested to the officers of HMS Majestic tasked with guarding his transport:

“It was the hottest season, and the heat in Naples was excessive. The ship on which we were being housed was in bad shape and filthy, and had normally been used to transport oil so the smell was overpowering. Many of the patriots were sick on account of the stink and the mistreatment, but were denied doctors and medicine. Our food, supposedly supplied by the king, was scarce and bad. We were being eaten by lice, fleas, bugs, mosquitoes and all kinds of other insects. We slept on ballast.

The English officer whose duty it was to pay us visits was young and handsome and we thought his body might contain a soul to match. I stopped him one morning and, in pathetic tones, expressed our sufferings; I told him that, whatever our opinions might be, we were humans first, and, trusting in the integrity of the English, we had surrendered to them. In short, I begged him to pity us and our situation. To treat our sick, to grant us better food and a better boat. My prayers, the aspect of death, the sighs of the sick should have moved him to mercy. Vain hope. In a serious and grave tone he told me: ‘you will change boats, but only to be taken to the gallows; that’s the boat that will suit you best and I wouldn’t be surprised if, within the hour, you aren’t dragged out and put on it’.”

A plea was sent directly to Nelson around 19 July by Amedeo Ricciardi on behalf of the prisoners in transport number 14. They too were suffering from the intolerable heat and the horrible conditions:

“We have now been for 24 days in this roadstead without departing, and deprived of all necessaries of life; indeed, they are only giving us bread and putrid water, and wine mixed with sea water; and they are allowing us to sleep on the ground. Our homes have been completely plundered, and we are
in consequence unable to get any help from them. The greater part of our relations have been either massacred or arrested The deplorable condition we are in has already produced disease, and on board of this polacca there are five sick with epidemic fever, a thing which threatens the lives of all of us. We are convinced that the treatment we are suffering, after having capitulated, and having on our part religiously carried into effect the articles of the capitulation, is entirely unknown to your Excellency and to his Sicilian Majesty, for your sense of honour and his kind heart are both famous. The delay in the execution of the capitulation entitles us to protest, and to appeal to his sense of justice and to yours, in order that a treaty which has been entered into with four of the most civilized powers in Europe, who have always appreciated the inviolability of treaties, may be carried into effect as soon as possible. We hope that by means of your influence with his Sicilian Majesty there may be put into execution the articles of a capitulation which has been signed in the best of faith, and which has been religiously carried out by the garrisons, who implore your protection and the justice of the powers.”