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The Neapolitan Navy under Murat and the French (1806-1815)
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This, then, is about the attempt to rebuild the Neapolitan navy, first under Joseph Bonaparte in 1806-7 and then under Murat from 1808 until 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars when he was deposed as king of Naples. As noted in the time-line (1806), when the Bourbons left for Sicily they took the navy with them. It wasn't much, since they had destroyed their earlier large fleet in 1799, but it left the French rulers of Naples with almost no navy at all except what they could borrow from the French. The need for a good French navy and good navies in the French maritime client states (such as the kingdom of Naples) was clear to most. After all, not only could the British fleet pretty much do as it pleased in the waters off of Naples, but the British held the massive island of Sicily, where it sheltered the Bourbon royal family and openly supported remnant Bourbon sympathizers across the waters on the Calabrian mainland. That was a thorn in the side to Napoleon and the new rulers of Naples.
The first attempt by the French and Neapolitans to take Sicily came almost immediately after Joseph Bonaparte took over the kingdom of Naples in 1806. Napoleon sent him the naval engineer, Pierre Forfait, the one who had prepared the grand flotilla in Boulogne-sur-Mer for the aborted French invasion of Britain the previous year. If Napoleon couldn’t take the British isles, he could at least take Sicily and greatly diminish the power of the British fleet in the Mediterranean. It was to be a small-scale version of the aborted invasion of Britain (and maybe even a dress rehearsal for another attempt at the real thing!). And, after all, how hard could it be? “Crossing the straits of Messina is just like crossing a river,” Napoleon had said.
Thus, on April 17, 1806, the few former Bourbon ships that were left in the kingdom of Naples reinforced by two large French ships of the line (the forerunner of the “battleship”) sent down from Toulon set out from Civitavecchia (the port in the client Roman Republic). The invasion fleet was barely underway when it was met and decisively beaten by British ships sent up from Messina to meet the invasion. It was this episode that occasioned the creation of a true Neapolitan navy. It was a union of the new French naval mission in Naples (1 ship of the line captain, 2 frigate captains, 6 lieutenants, 12 ships of the line ensigns and 5 naval engineers) and 2 Neapolitan brigantine vessels abandoned in Civitavecchia by the Bourbons plus whatever could be recovered from former Bourbon naval facilities in Naples or at the Castellammare shipyards (which Queen Caroline had in vain ordered to be burnt behind the Bourbon retreat from the city). There were a number of Bourbon naval officers left in Naples, as well, including some Republican refugees from the 1799 revolution who now returned with the French. Two frigates were recovered, including the famous Cerere; as well, 4 minor vessels were recovered as were 22 smaller gun-boats with half their crews.The fleet as well as six regiments of a new Armée de Naples were reconstituted on June 24, 1806. A flurry of construction ensued in the shipyards of Naples and Castellammare, activity that then led to the successful retaking of Capri in 1808.
The failed invasion of Sicily had been so poorly thought out that we wonder if Napoleon, not to mention Murat, had any real naval acumen at all. Both totally underestimated the task of landing forces at Messina. No cohesive plan had been drawn up by the dépôt de la Marine in Paris; there was not even a minimum amount of hydrographic information on sea conditions and ports on the island. It is not clear what lesson Napoleon took away from his failed plans to invade Britain or from defeats in the naval battles of the Nile and Trafalgar or from the first attempt to invade Sicily; the second attempt wasn’t much better. On September 18, 1810, Murat, at the behest of Napoleon, tried to land 2500 men at Messina as an avant-garde of a larger invasion force. The invasion failed and Murat withdrew. Yet he still maintained that his fleet had kept the British fleet bottled up on Sicily for months, and that even a failed invasion had shown the mettle of his ships and men.
Murat witnessed—indeed, directed—the epic victory at Capri in 1808, and no doubt enjoyed looking at his own image on the medal struck to commemorate that victory. Besides the Battle of Capri, another bright light in Murat’s naval endeavors was the successful repelling of a Sicilian/British force that landed in Reggio Calabria on June 11, 1809 in an attempt to foment revolution against the French. The British fleet then sailed as far north as the Bay of Naples and occupied the islands of Procida and Ischia. On June 24 a decisive naval battle took place off of Procida between the Neapolitan ship, the Cerere, and the British Cyane. Both ships were badly damaged, but the British vessel withdrew. There are paintings immortalizing the Neapolitan victory; they show Murat, surrounded by the wounded, on the bridge of the Cerere embracing the captain, Giovanni Bausan. But Murat was a former cavalry officer and in spite of those moments of naval glory, he may not have understood navies and their function. Later, when the tide of the Napoleonic Wars had turned against the emperor, and Murat was worried about his own future without Napoleon, he told the British that it had been Napoleon who had forced him to construct a fleet of ships-of-the-line. Personally, Murat said he felt no need for such a fleet and said he was quite prepared to dismantle it. Indeed, as the king of Naples, he considered himself England’s natural ally and was prepared to put his land-forces at her [England’s] disposal in the Mediterranean.
Whatever the case, under Murat the navy of the kingdom of Naples increased in manpower from 3,000 to 6,000 officers and men. Two battle-ships of the line, a number of frigates and smaller gunboats were built. Shipbuilding facilities at Castellammare were increased and coastal batteries were improved. Also, when Napoleon commissioned ships from Naples to be built, furnished with crews and sent to Toulon as soon as possible, Murat often managed—as they say in Italian—“to listen with a merchant’s ears”; that is, he heard only what he wanted to hear. He built the ships but often forgot to send them. After the failed invasion of Sicily in 1810 he was no longer content just to be a client king, an appendage of the great emperor. Friction grew as he became aware that the emperor didn’t really want a Neapolitan navy; he wanted a French Navy in Naples. In only nine years, Murat wound up with a good navy, ships that eventually found their way back into the hands of the restored Bourbon monarchy after 1815.
Clark, Hewson. An impartial history of the naval, military and political events in Europe from the commencement of the French revolution to the ... conclusion of a general peace. Brightly & Childs, Suffolk. c.1820
Ilari, Virgilo and Piero Crociani. La Marina Napoletana di Murat (1806-1815). c.1901
Randàccio , Carlo. Le marinerie militari italiane: nei tempi moderni, 1730-1860, memorie storiche.
second edition, Luigi Beuf, Genova, Torino. 1870.
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