Dr Cirillo’s letter to Nelson

Dr Domenico Cirillo was a noted botanist and Enlightenment thinker, a man who befriended many a grand tourist and corresponded with Joseph Banks. That eminent musicologist, Dr Burney, would note that he spoke English better than any Italian he knew, and “as such had been the physician to much of the English community … his politics were reformist, his education enlightened”. He must have been well known to Sir William and Lady Hamilton, and a frequent visitor at court. In 1799, when the Neapolitan republic was declared following the flight of the royal family, Cirillo took up office in the new government, initially concerning himself with charity for the poor before assuming the post of president of the legislative commission. This was, in effect, his death warrant.

When the republic collapsed in June 1799, the Neapolitan republicans had mostly sought refuge in the city’s forts. They signed a treaty allowing them to go to France. Nelson then arrived and disputed the terms, but then relented. The republicans came out, and boarded 14 transports in the harbour. Nelson then prevented them from leaving and repudiated the treaty, seizing the leaders and sending anyone sought by the Bourbons to trial in the city. Sir William Hamilton informed Sir John Acton in Palermo how the stratagem had played out:

“How the cardinal will relish this letter I cannot tell, but I know that affairs could not be going on worse for their Majesties’ honour than they did before we came to this resolution — in our minds necessary for their Majesties’ honour I have reason to believe we have Cirillo and all the most guilty on board these polaccas, and the stroke was quite unexpected, and so will be the arrival of their Majesties and your Excellency, should you determine — as we sincerely wish.”

Cirillo was onboard the transports and, in early July 1799 was brought aboard the Portuguese ship, the San Sebastian, and was initially allowed a degree of freedom, perhaps in the hope that he would confess and admit his guilt. He did not and seems to have refused to be treated any differently from his incarcerated colleagues, so, at Nelson’s orders, he was placed in irons. The good doctor Cirillo protested, sending a letter to Nelson on 15 July (transcript of BL Add 34912, f. 334):

This is the third day since I am in irons without any additional crime, and while my conduct on board this ship has always been very regular and exact. Therefore, milord, if by your protection and by your orders I could be released from irons I shall take this great favour as the forerunner of that pardon which by your powerful patronage I flatter myself I shall obtain from our merciful king and ministers. I am with the greatest respect, Milord, your Lordship’s most obedient and most humble servant, D. Cirillo.”

The Hamiltons sought to get him to confess his role, plead guilty and ask for clemency. He did not, as revealed when Nelson wrote Cirillo “might have been saved, but that he chose to play the fool and lie”, and a letter from Cirillo to Lady Hamilton appears to be a forgery drafted as a confession of guilt.

The intrigue went no where, Nelson and the Hamiltons refusing to intervene unless Cirillo acknowledged his guilt. Cirillo refused to confess and to save himself whilst his fellow prisoners were punished. And there was to be no pardon. In early August Cirillo was brought ashore and confined in the Nuovo fort. He was tried at the end of September and sentenced to hang. A diarist noted how “the obstinate republican” Cirillo met his death on 29 October. Queen Maria Carolina’s comment when she heard he had been killed speaks of his ultimate defiance: “Cirillo has been executed, he was insolent unto the last”. Sir William, at least, was sorry, remarking that November:

“The trials of the principal Neapolitan rebels having been carried on without intermission ever since we left the bay of Naples, many of all classes have suffered death, by having been either beheaded or hanged; among the latter we have seen with regret the name of Doctor Domenico Cirillo, one of the first physicians, botanists and naturalists in Europe.”