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The Little Kingdom that Almost Didn't
—the British Naval Expedition against Naples of 1742


Even as it was, the Bourbon kingdom of Naples (alias the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) didn't last long as a European nation state— 1734 to 1860. That's 126 years, start to finish, and much of that was anything but clear sailing. It was interrupted for a few months in 1799 by a republic inspired by the earlier French revolution and then again between 1805 and 1814 when Napoleon took over the kingdom. But even earlier there was an incident that would have turned that 126 years into a mere eight. It was a British Naval Expedition against Naples, of which Michelangelo Schipa (1854–1939) an Italian historian and expert on the early years of the kingdom, wrote1:
...it wouldn't have taken much to have made the year 1742 the last one for the Kingdom—it would have been eight years of never being properly appreciated by contemporary states.
It's not that Britain and the kingdom of Naples were at war. Not at all, but Naples had taken sides in the series of wars among the larger northern states in the first half of the 1700s, all aimed at keeping the balance of power from skewing too much one way or the other. Those nations were Britain, France, Spain, Prussia and Austria; their respective dynasties were the houses of Hanover, Bourbon, Bourbon, Hohenzollern and Hapsburg. Many of the conflicts had similar sounding names: the War of the (nation) Succession: Spanish (1700 to 1713) Polish (1733-1738), and Austrian (the one in our story, lasting from 1740-48). Spain had troops operating in northern Italy (then still under Austrian rule) to oppose the Hapsburgs, who were allies of the British). Charles III of Naples, born in Spain, was sending troops north to help against the Austrians (and thus against the British). See what's about to happen? I knew you would.

A British fleet arrived in the Bay of Naples on the afternoon of August 19, 1742. It was under the command of commodore William Martin (1696-1756), a naval officer who had seen earlier service during the War of the Spanish Succession. He had risen rapidly in the ranks and was highly regarded. In hindsight, he was somewhat of an “enforcer” of British interests in the Mediterranean, as was the case here. He had orders to
 '...capture, sink or burn any vessels carrying military stores and supplies... [and] 'to use his utmost to lay the said city in ashes, unless the King of the two Sicilies shall agree forthwith not only to withdraw his troops now acting in conjunction with those of the King of Spain in Italy, but to forbear from giving in future any assistance of what kind soever.'2

Martin flashed his credentials: four ships-of-the-line (now called battleships) and six other vessels, together commanding almost 400 cannon.


It worked. No battle. No bloodshed. King Charles declared the neutrality of Naples and withdrew his troops that were assisting Spain in the north. A wise decision. Naples was not the Spanish vice-realm of Don Pedro de Toldeo of the late 1500s, who had turned the Naples into the best defended city in the Spanish Empire. The 1600s had been a disaster: the plague, the depopulation the city, civil unrest, decaying infrastructureall that. Charles had taken over in 1734; by 1742 he had begun to rebuild, yes, but his forces were no match for the British fleet, and having the capital city destroyed can stunt a young nation's growth. Charles would abdicate in 1759 to return to Spain, but before that, in the late 1750s, he also managed to declare neutrality in the grand war to readjust powers in central Europe, the Seven Years' War (a vicious struggle between Britain and France that took place even across oceans). Charles had learned a lesson—build a good navy. It would take almost another 50 years, but that, too, would come to pass. Charles started building. By the end of the century the kingdom of Naples had the best fleet in the Mediterranean.

The image (above) is of the Battle of Havana (1746) between 
 Britain and  Spain in the Caribbean.  It shows a  typical  British 
naval squadron of the period. The well-armed ships-of-the-line
are in the center. It is similar to the British fleet  that showed 
up in Naples. The painting is by Thomas Craskell.


1.
Il Regno di Napoli al tempo di Carlo di Borbone, Naples, printed by Luigi Pierro & son, 1904.
2.
The Navy In the War of 1739-48. Cambridge University Press Archive.