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The Peace of Amiens, 1802: The Preliminary Treaty, March­–October 1801

Addington took office on 14 March 1801; on 19 March, his cabinet formally requested the King’s permission to open negotiations. The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Hawkesbury, negotiated directly with the French envoy to London, Louis Otto. Britain initially offered to return all her military conquests during the war except for Ceylon, Malta, Trinidad, Tobago, Guadeloupe, and Martinique, in return for which the French would restore Egypt (where they still had an army) to Turkey. This was refused by France, which proposed keeping Egypt in return for Britain retaining Mysore in India.


By May Britain’s hand was strengthened by three events: Sir Ralph Abercromby’s significant victory at Alexandria in March; Nelson’s destruction of the Danish fleet at Copenhagen in April; and the assassination of Tsar Paul I, which ended the threat from the Russian-sponsored ‘Armed Neutrality’ in the Baltic. Britain now insisted on keeping the island of Malta (under British protection since 1801) as a naval base, particularly as France insisted that Minorca, another major Mediterranean base, should be returned to Spain.


The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library, "Louis Guillaume Otto", from here

Over the summer, however, two of Britain’s remaining allies – Portugal and Sicily – were forced to make peace, and the Prussians invaded Hanover. In July, therefore, Britain offered France new terms that took into account these changed circumstances. Britain now offered to evacuate the island of Malta in the Mediterranean. In return, Britain asked to keep the colonial conquests she had made during the 1790s at the expense of France, Spain, and Holland in the Caribbean. The French countered that they would permit Britain to keep only Tobago and Ceylon, which was not satisfactory to the British.

By this time, however, France was keen to move things on in case negotiations broke down completely and military movements had to be put in place before the winter. There were also rumours that the French position in Egypt was untenable, and Napoleon wanted peace concluded before he was decisively defeated there. On 22 September, the French proposed an ultimatum: peace had to be concluded before the beginning of October. Hawkesbury wanted to refuse, on the grounds that Britain had hoped to retain more colonial conquests, but Addington stepped in and helped guide the negotiations to a conclusion on 30 September. On 1 October the preliminary peace terms were laid before the cabinet for approval.


Despite the recent victories at sea and in Egypt, the terms of the preliminary treaty reflected Britain’s weak negotiating position. Napoleon had ruled out continental issues from the negotiations, arguing that Lunéville had settled those points. The treaty therefore accepted France’s territorial expansion. To some, this was particularly galling because Britain had originally entered the war to keep Holland and the Austrian Netherlands out of French hands.

  • Britain agreed to give up most of the colonial gains she had made over the course of the previous decade.

  • All French, Spanish, and Dutch territories were to be returned, with the exception of Ceylon and Trinidad.

  • The Cape of Good Hope was also relinquished as a free port.

  • In return, France and Britain agreed to evacuate Egypt, guarantee its territorial integrity, and restore it to the Ottoman Empire.

  • France also pledged to evacuate Naples and the Papal States and to leave Portugal alone.

  • As for Malta, Britain agreed to restore it to the Knights of St John under the guarantee of an unnamed third power.


France and Britain committed to send plenipotentiaries to Amiens to confirm the final peace terms.

Background image: James Gillray, "The First Kiss These Ten Years! Or the Meeting of Britannia and Citizen François", Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC, from here

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