Europe, 1798

In 1798, Europe was in turmoil. Revolutionaries in Paris had overthrown the King. French armies had attacked neighbouring countries. The British Navy ruled the oceans.

This, one of the most explosive eras in history, is the background to Swashbuckler.

In France the Revolution and the Terror which followed it were over, and the guillotine had done its worst. The country and its ally Spain were at war against a coalition of European states, and its ships in the English Channel ports were blockaded by the British Royal Navy. French ships couldn’t leave their ports, and nobody else’s ships could get in.

France had to look to the south.

Pirates, traders and corsairs

The Mediterranean Sea had long been a haven for state-sponsored corsairs, and for pirates of many countries plying their trade in vessels of all sizes, from huge captured ships to tiny fishing boats. The great trading and naval powers in the Mediterranean Sea for hundreds of years had been the Italian cities of Venice and Genoa, the Ottoman Empire and its Barbary corsairs, Spain, Greece, and the Knights of Malta.

The British Royal Navy had left the region in early 1797, in spite of its resounding victory over the Spanish at Cape St Vincent, where a young commander called Horatio Nelson had shown his exceptional qualities, and lost an arm in battle.

General Bonaparte’s fleet

On 12 April 1798, a secret decree was issued by the French Government. It authorised the ambitious General Napoleon Bonaparte to occupy Egypt, and take from the English “all their possessions in the East to which the General can come”. Egypt was critical to the French, not only as a new territory in North Africa, but because it opened a route to the legendary riches of the British colonies in India and Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka). But Egypt, like the Barbary States, was part of the Ottoman Empire, self-sufficient outposts in the vast Islamic empire that stretched from Morocco to Central Asia.

General Bonaparte was also empowered to seize Malta, a group of three small islands which has always been of great strategic importance as a base in the very centre of the Mediterranean. Malta had been ruled for hundreds of years by a religious and military order of monks and knights, known as the Knights of Malta.

Knight swords
Nelson’s great chase

In April 1798, before the French invasion of Malta, Earl Spencer (an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales) was First Lord of the Admiralty, the English fleet was stationed off Cadiz in Spain, and Horatio Nelson was a Rear Admiral given the task of finding and destroying the great French fleet that was somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. Nobody knew where the French ships were, or which direction they were sailing.

Admiral Nelson had to guess. He guessed right – he realised that Bonaparte was trying to get to Egypt, so the English squadron charged across the sea to North Africa. There was no sign of the French fleet. Nelson didn’t realise it, but he’d beaten Bonaparte to his destination. The French hadn’t gone straight to Egypt, but had instead headed for the Knights’ fortified islands, which they took over without much of a fight.

At last Nelson heard the news that Bonaparte had taken Malta. But by then, the French General had already moved on – to Egypt. So Nelson and his ships sailed all the way back again, and finally found the French near the Nile Delta, at a place called Aboukir Bay. General Bonaparte and his army were already halfway to Cairo, but Nelson fought the French fleet in a great battle, and destroyed most of its ships and many thousands of sailors.

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