The Redeclaration of War, 1803:
Malta and the Disintegration of Peace
British suspicion hardened into certainty when, on 30 January 1803, the French newspaper Le Moniteur published a paper by Colonel Horace Sébastiani, the Consulate’s envoy to the Ottoman Empire. Sébastiani pointed out that Britain also still had troops in Egypt in defiance of Amiens, but argued that they would not be able to prevent France becoming a power once again in the country, even if France were to send only six thousand men.
The Sébastiani Report caused a flurry of alarm in London. The Moniteur was an official government publication, and the Addington government feared this meant France was going to attempt another assault on Egypt. The situation made it vital to keep a strong naval base in Malta to check French ambitions. Despite having committed to evacuate the island, Britain in fact brought reinforcements over to Malta from Egypt.
In February, Britain’s refusal to keep to the terms of Amiens regarding Malta led to angry scenes in Paris between Napoleon and Lord Whitworth, the British ambassador. Meanwhile, with the number of French forces in Holland continuing to rise and France’s shipbuilding activities continuing unabated, Addington called out the militia, increased the size of the army (which stood at 128,000 men in March 1803), and began a press to add 10,000 men to the Royal Navy.
War was now more or less a certainty, and the immediate impact of Addington’s precautionary measures was to subject Whitworth to another long harangue from Napoleon about how the British had wanted war all along. The British government nevertheless continued to negotiate over Malta in an attempt to find a settlement. Lord Hawkesbury, the Foreign Secretary, proposed allowing the British to occupy Malta for six years before handing it back to the Knights of St John; in return, Britain would recognise Napoleon’s Presidency of the Cisalpine Republic. This was rejected, and the British proposed switching Malta for Lampedusa, another Mediterranean island, instead.
By this stage, however, Britain was making offers to Russia and Austria for a military alliance against France on the assumption that no settlement would be agreed. At the end of April, Lord Whitworth was instructed to give notice of his intention to leave France. There were some last-minute negotiations as the French Foreign Minister, Talleyrand, tried to find a workaround, but it was too late, and on 10 May Whitworth left Paris. On 18 May, Britain declared war on France, hoping to take advantage of the vulnerability of the expedition Napoleon had sent to the West Indies.
The two nations would not be at peace again for 11 years. Peace attempts were made again (most notably in 1806), but any remaining disposition to trust had been lost. Most British politicians, with the exception of a body of radicals and extreme Whigs, now became convinced that peace with Napoleonic France should only be the very last resort – even if it was never completely off the table.