The Froberg Mutiny
On 12th April 1807, at around 9.30 pm, a huge explosion echoed around the Grand Harbour. Even in the dark, observers would have been able to see the huge pall of smoke floating above Fort Ricasoli, where the blast had originated. Inside the fort itself, a number of British soldiers who had been standing guard picked themselves up and quickly surveyed the damage. Apart from some wounded, three of their number had just been killed. As for the six mutineers who up to some moments before had been trapped inside the gunpowder magazine - threatening to blow themselves up - there was no sign: perhaps they too had perished. Unknown to the guards at the time, however, those same men were even then hauling themselves down the fort’s bastions to escape into the countryside, taking full advantage of the distraction they had created. In spite of this, however, their days were numbered, as the Froberg Mutiny was entering its final act.
In the early 1800s, due to a shortage of local and British troops in Malta, the island’s safety often depended on foreign mercenaries recruited in Europe by British agents. One such regiment was that raised in Germany and the Christian parts of the Ottoman Empire in December 1803 by a certain Gustave de Montjoie, a French royalist pretending to be the German Count Froberg. His levy consisted of a wide assortment of different nationalities: Germans, Poles, Swiss, Albanians, Bulgarians and Greeks. With such a varied mixture of languages and cultures, it was a perfect recipe for disaster. Not surprisingly, the officers found great difficulty in communicating with their men, many of whom did not seem to have understood exactly what it was they had been recruited for. In addition, Froberg's recruiting methods were highly questionable, particularly in respect of those enlisted in Constantinople, where the process had been overseen by Froberg’s adjutant, the deceitful Lieutenant Schwartz. Most of the recruits had been promised an officer’s commission, with the privileges and pay that went with it, but they soon found themselves serving as privates, with less than half the pay they had been promised.
On 11th April 1806, 513 men from the regiment arrived in Malta from Corfu. They were commanded by Major Schumelketel, who had as his second-in-command the unpopular Lieutenant Schwartz, the officer who had tricked most of the men into joining through false promises. It did not take long before the men’s discontent became apparent. While still in quarantine at the Lazzaretto on Manoel Island, many complained that they had been brought to Malta against their will, and demanded that they immediately be returned to Corfu. They only relented when Schwartz threatened to stop their food rations, which in reality only increased their resentment. After they had completed their quarantine, they were allowed to visit Valletta, but following numerous drunken fights between themselves and even with the locals, Lieutenant-General William Villettes, the overall commander of British troops in Malta, ordered them to be confined at Fort Ricasoli, in an effort to keep them out of trouble. Once again this only served to further antagonise the men. After almost a year on the island, many had had enough.
On Saturday 4th April 1807, a group of around 200, mostly Greeks and Albanians, rose up against their own officers. Led by a Greco-Bulgarian called Caro Mitro, they ruthlessly murdered the hated Lieutenant Schwartz and another officer, while Schumelketel was seriously wounded. Gunner John Johnstone, a British artilleryman, was also killed when he refused to hand over the keys to the armoury. About 20 British soldiers who were responsible for manning the fort’s guns and mortars were forced to turn their weapons in the direction of Valletta, after which point they, together with the regimental officers and their wives and children, were taken hostage. From the other side of the harbour, it soon became clear that something odd was happening: musket fire was heard coming from the direction of the fort, and soon after the British flag was lowered, to be replaced by the Russian ensign. The drawbridge leading into the fort was taken up and the gates closed. Any confusion as to what was happening was soon cleared up when a message was received from the mutineers. They demanded to be discharged from service, a free passage to Corfu, and a pardon. Unless these demands were met, the fort’s guns would be fired on Valletta.
Lieutenant-General Villettes found himself in a delicate situation. Although his first instinct was to quash the rebellion with force, he was aware that such a move might lead to damage to the capital, and possibly casualties among the civilian population, not to mention a risk to the lives of the hostages being held by the rebels. Crucially, he was aware that the fort held only enough provisions for a few days, and thus resolved to starve the men out instead. He refused all of their demands and ordered their immediate unconditional surrender. Soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Malta, as well as the British 39th (Dorsetshire) Regiment of Foot, were immediately dispatched to take up positions overlooking the fort. All ships and boats were moved to the inner part of the harbour, while the guns of Fort St. Elmo and Fort St. Angelo were trained in the direction of Ricasoli. Although Villette’s decision to avoid direct confrontation was perhaps understandable, the rebels seemingly interpreted it as a sign of weakness, sending a second message demanding food and provisions for 800 men, or else they would open fire on Valletta. The only reaction from Villettes was to instruct the soldiers manning the guns aimed at Ricasoli to retaliate immediately should the rebels try to carry out their threat.
On the morning of 6th April, the mutineers repeated their demands, this time through one of the officers, who was able to provide the British with detailed information about conditions in the fort, before he was forced to return to his captors, as they still held his wife. Upon being informed that Villettes had once again refused their demands, some of the mutineers decided there was no way out except to surrender, and a white flag was soon hoisted above the fort. Almost immediately, it was taken back down: a more fanatical faction had won over. Encouraged by this sign of apparent disunity among the mutineers, Villettes sent over a delegation demanding their surrender, but it soon became clear that that was not going to happen any time soon.
On the morning of 8th April, to the surprise of the authorities, the gates of the fort were opened. The wives and children of the officers being held captive were allowed to leave before the gates were swiftly shut again. It soon became apparent that the only reason they had been allowed to go was the acute shortage of food, which was driving the mutineers to desperation. They threatened to blow up the fort, with them and the prisoners inside, unless provisions were delivered by a certain time. When their ultimatum expired, they sent yet another threat: they would kill the officers and British artillerymen that were still being kept hostage. Tensions were clearly rising, but once again their request was ignored. Later that day, infighting broke out once more: a large group of Germans and Poles, who had disassociated themselves from the mutinous actions of their regimental colleagues, managed to overpower those manning the gates. Upon rushing out, they were immediately captured by the troops surrounding the fort, but a group of around 20 diehards managed to reclose the gates and retreated back inside.
On 10th April, this evermore desperate faction decided to finally carry out their threat of targeting Valletta, intending to show that they meant business, and hoping to put pressure on Villettes. Although damage to the city was negligible, this turned out to be the last straw for Villettes, who thus far had avoided direct action. Later that night, under cover of darkness, a group of 40 hand-picked men, led by Lieutenant de Clermont, himself of the Froberg Regiment, scaled the walls of the fort. Using the element of surprise, and without suffering any casualties, they swiftly gained control of the fort and captured the majority of the remaining rebels. However, the rebel leader, Caro Mitro, and five others managed to retreat into the gunpowder magazine. Locking themselves inside, they threatened to blow it up if any move against them was attempted. Two nights later, the threat was carried out. Three British soldiers standing guard in the vicinity were killed by the explosion, and at first, it was thought that the six rebels had also killed themselves in the process. In reality, they had somehow slipped out unnoticed and soon disappeared into the surrounding countryside.
Now that the mutiny was finally over, it was time to bring the culprits to justice and make an example of them. A manhunt was launched for the six escapees, with four being caught soon after. Only Caro Mitro and his friend, Nicola d’Anastasi, still eluded capture. A very brief military trial was immediately convened, at which 24 of the men were identified as the ringleaders and sentenced to death. In a letter he wrote, Villettes described them as “ferocious savages”, but there was certainly nothing civilised about the way their execution was carried out. The event was held on the Floriana Parade Ground, in front of the remaining members of the Froberg Regiment, now imprisoned, a large part of the island’s garrison, and a sizable crowd of Maltese civilians. Fifteen of the condemned men were divided into three groups. The first five were hanged by the second group, who were themselves hanged in turn by the last five. This latter group then joined the remaining men, who were handcuffed and executed by firing squad without being blindfolded. Remarkably, not everyone was hit by the first volley, and some of the survivors attempted to flee. They were hunted down and finished off, although two of them were killed when they jumped over the bastions in their attempts to escape.
Between 20th and 22nd April, a board of inquiry was set up, and it was at this point that the failures of the recruiting process were uncovered. The Froberg Regiment was immediately disbanded and about 350 men who were considered to have reasonable grounds for discharge were repatriated to the Balkans. Others not implicated in the mutiny - mostly Germans, Poles and Russians - who wished to remain in British service were reassigned to other regiments. A few days later, on 25th or 26th April, the two last remaining fugitives were captured by Maltese soldiers near Qalet Marku tower in Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq. Caro Mitro and Nicola d'Anastasi were hanged shortly afterwards, before being buried in an unmarked grave. There was still to be one more violent death linked to this episode, however. Count Froberg, the regiment's founder, was in Constantinople when news of the mutiny reached him. Anticipating trouble, he fled the city, but it is alleged that he was eventually tracked down and murdered in cold blood - possibly by some of his former soldiers still thirsting for revenge.
Fort Ricasoli itself had been badly damaged in the explosion, and although repair works costing over £4,500 were eventually carried out, some parts of the fortifications were never rebuilt to their original design. Sadly, the fort was again badly damaged by aerial bombardment during World War Two, but after years of neglect and the constant threat of coastal erosion, a €1 million restoration project was recently announced, which will hopefully help restore it to its former glory.