Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter, XIV

Nice, January 20, 1764.

DEAR SIR — Last Sunday I crossed Montalban on horseback, with some Swiss officers, on a visit to our consul, Mr. B— d, who lives at Ville Franche, about half a league from Nice. It is a small town, built upon the side of a rock, at the bottom of the harbour, which is a fine basin, surrounded with hills on every side, except to the south, where it lies open to the sea. If there was a small island in the mouth of it, to break off the force of the waves, when the wind is southerly, it would be one of the finest harbours in the world; for the ground is exceeding good for anchorage: there is a sufficient depth of water, and room enough for the whole navy of England. On the right hand, as you enter the port, there is an elegant fanal, or lighthouse, kept in good repair: but in all the charts of this coast which I have seen, this lanthorn is laid down to the westward of the harbour; an error equally absurd and dangerous, as it may mislead the navigator, and induce him to run his ship among the rocks, to the eastward of the lighthouse, where it would undoubtedly perish. Opposite to the mouth of the harbour is the fort, which can be of no service, but in defending the shipping and the town by sea; for, by land, it is commanded by Montalban, and all the hills in the neighbourhood. In the war of 1744, it was taken and retaken. At present, it is in tolerable good repair. On the left of the fort, is the basin for the gallies, with a kind of dock, in which they are built, and occasionally laid up to be refitted. This basin is formed by a pretty stone mole; and here his Sardinian majesty’s two gallies lie perfectly secure, moored with their sterns close to the jette. I went on board one of these vessels, and saw about two hundred miserable wretches, chained to the banks on which they sit and row, when the galley is at sea. This is a sight which a British subject, sensible of the blessing he enjoys, cannot behold without horror and compassion. Not but that if we consider the nature of the case, with coolness and deliberation, we must acknowledge the justice, and even sagacity, of employing for the service of the public, those malefactors who have forfeited their title to the privileges of the community. Among the slaves at Ville Franche is a Piedmontese count, condemned to the gallies for life, in consequence of having been convicted of forgery. He is permitted to live on shore; and gets money by employing the other slaves to knit stockings for sale. He appears always in the Turkish habit, and is in a fair way of raising a better fortune than that which he has forfeited.

It is a great pity, however, and a manifest outrage against the law of nations, as well as of humanity, to mix with those banditti, the Moorish and Turkish prisoners who are taken in the prosecution of open war. It is certainly no justification of this barbarous practice, that the Christian prisoners are treated as cruelly at Tunis and Algiers. It would be for the honour of Christendom, to set an example of generosity to the Turks; and, if they would not follow it, to join their naval forces, and extirpate at once those nests of pirates, who have so long infested the Mediterranean. Certainly, nothing can be more shameful, than the treaties which France and the Maritime Powers have concluded with those barbarians. They supply them with artillery, arms, and ammunition, to disturb their neighbours. They even pay them a sort of tribute, under the denomination of presents; and often put up with insults tamely, for the sordid consideration of a little gain in the way of commerce. They know that Spain, Sardinia, and almost all the Catholic powers in the Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Levant, are at perpetual war with those Mahometans; that while Algiers, Tunis, and Sallee, maintain armed cruisers at sea, those Christian powers will not run the risque of trading in their own bottoms, but rather employ as carriers the maritime nations, who are at peace with the infidels. It is for our share of this advantage, that we cultivate the piratical States of Barbary, and meanly purchase passports of them, thus acknowledging them masters of the Mediterranean.

The Sardinian gallies are mounted each with five-and-twenty oars, and six guns, six-pounders, of a side, and a large piece of artillery amidships, pointing ahead, which (so far as I am able to judge) can never be used point-blank, without demolishing the head or prow of the galley. The accommodation on board for the officers is wretched. There is a paltry cabin in the poop for the commander; but all the other officers lie below the slaves, in a dungeon, where they have neither light, air, nor any degree of quiet; half suffocated by the heat of the place; tormented by fleas, bugs, and lice; and disturbed by the incessant noise over head. The slaves lie upon the naked banks, without any other covering than a tilt. This, however, is no great hardship, in a climate where there is scarce any winter. They are fed with a very scanty allowance of bread, and about fourteen beans a day and twice a week they have a little rice, or cheese, but most of them, while they are in harbour knit stockings, or do some other kind of work, which enables them to make some addition to this wretched allowance. When they happen to be at sea in bad weather, their situation is truly deplorable. Every wave breaks over the vessel, and not only keeps them continually wet, but comes with such force, that they are dashed against the banks with surprising violence: sometimes their limbs are broke, and sometimes their brains dashed out. It is impossible (they say) to keep such a number of desperate people under any regular command, without exercising such severities as must shock humanity. It is almost equally impossible to maintain any tolerable degree of cleanliness, where such a number of wretches are crouded together without conveniences, or even the necessaries of life. They are ordered twice a week to strip, clean, and bathe themselves in the sea: but, notwithstanding all the precautions of discipline, they swarm with vermin, and the vessel smells like an hospital, or crouded jail. They seem, nevertheless, quite insensible of their misery, like so many convicts in Newgate: they laugh and sing, and swear, and get drunk when they can. When you enter by the stern, you are welcomed by a band of music selected from the slaves; and these expect a gratification. If you walk forwards, you must take care of your pockets. You will be accosted by one or other of the slaves, with a brush and blacking-ball for cleaning your shoes; and if you undergo this operation, it is ten to one but your pocket is picked. If you decline his service, and keep aloof, you will find it almost impossible to avoid a colony of vermin, which these fellows have a very dexterous method of conveying to strangers. Some of the Turkish prisoners, whose ransom or exchange is expected, are allowed to go ashore, under proper inspection; and those forcats, who have served the best part of the time for which they were condemned, are employed in public works, under a guard of soldiers. At the harbour of Nice, they are hired by ship-masters to bring ballast, and have a small proportion of what they earn, for their own use: the rest belongs to the king. They are distinguished by an iron shackle about one of their legs. The road from Nice to Ville Franche is scarce passable on horseback: a circumstance the more extraordinary, as those slaves, in the space of two or three months, might even make it fit for a carriage, and the king would not be one farthing out of pocket, for they are quite idle the greatest part of the year.

The gallies go to sea only in the summer. In tempestuous weather, they could not live out of port. Indeed, they are good for nothing but in smooth water during a calm; when, by dint of rowing, they make good way. The king of Sardinia is so sensible of their inutility, that he intends to let his gallies rot; and, in lieu of them, has purchased two large frigates in England, one of fifty, and another of thirty guns, which are now in the harbour of Ville Franche. He has also procured an English officer, one Mr. A — who is second in command on board of one of them, and has the title of captain consulteur, that is, instructor to the first captain, the marquis de M— i, who knows as little of seamanship as I do of Arabic.

The king, it is said, intends to have two or three more frigates, and then he will be more than a match for the Barbary corsairs, provided care be taken to man his fleet in a proper manner: but this will never be done, unless he invites foreigners into his service, officers as well as seamen; for his own dominions produce neither at present. If he is really determined to make the most of the maritime situation of his dominions, as well as of his alliance with Great-Britain, he ought to supply his ships with English mariners, and put a British commander at the head of his fleet. He ought to erect magazines and docks at Villa Franca; or if there is not conveniency for building, he may at least have pits and wharfs for heaving down and careening; and these ought to be under the direction of Englishmen, who best understand all the particulars of marine oeconomy. Without all doubt, he will not be able to engage foreigners, without giving them liberal appointments; and their being engaged in his service will give umbrage to his own subjects: but, when the business is to establish a maritime power, these considerations ought to be sacrificed to reasons of public utility. Nothing can be more absurd and unreasonable, than the murmurs of the Piedmontese officers at the preferment of foreigners, who execute those things for the advantage of their country, of which they know themselves incapable. When Mr. P— n was first promoted in the service of his Sardinian majesty, he met with great opposition, and numberless mortifications, from the jealousy of the Piedmontese officers, and was obliged to hazard his life in many rencounters with them, before they would be quiet. Being a man of uncommon spirit, he never suffered the least insult or affront to pass unchastised. He had repeated opportunities of signalizing his valour against the Turks; and by dint of extraordinary merit, and long services not only attained the chief command of the gallies, with the rank of lieutenant-general, but also acquired a very considerable share of the king’s favour, and was appointed commandant of Nice. His Sardinian majesty found his account more ways than one, in thus promoting Mr. P— n. He made the acquisition of an excellent officer, of tried courage and fidelity, by whose advice he conducted his marine affairs. This gentleman was perfectly well esteemed at the court of London. In the war of 1744, he lived in the utmost harmony with the British admirals who commanded our fleet in the Mediterranean. In consequence of this good understanding, a thousand occasional services were performed by the English ships, for the benefit of his master, which otherwise could not have been done, without a formal application to our ministry; in which case, the opportunities would have been lost. I know our admirals had general orders and instructions, to cooperate in all things with his Sardinian majesty; but I know, also, by experience, how little these general instructions avail, when the admiral is not cordially interested in the service. Were the king of Sardinia at present engaged with England in a new war against France, and a British squadron stationed upon this coast, as formerly, he would find a great difference in this particular. He should therefore carefully avoid having at Nice a Savoyard commandant, utterly ignorant of sea affairs; unacquainted with the true interest of his master; proud, and arbitrary; reserved to strangers, from a prejudice of national jealousy; and particularly averse to the English.

With respect to the antient name of Villa Franca, there is a dispute among antiquarians. It is not at all mentioned in the Itinerarium of Antoninus, unless it is meant as the port of Nice. But it is more surprising, that the accurate Strabo, in describing this coast, mentions no such harbour. Some people imagine it is the Portus Herculis Monaeci. But this is undoubtedly what is now called Monaco; the harbour of which exactly tallies with what Strabo says of the Portus Monaeci — neque magnas, neque multas capit naves, It holds but a few vessels and those of small burthen. Ptolomy, indeed, seems to mention it under the name of Herculis Portus, different from the Portus Monaeci. His words are these: post vari ostium ad Ligustrium mare, massiliensium, sunt Nicaea, Herculis Portus, Trophaea Augusti, Monaeci Portus, Beyond the mouth of the Var upon the Ligurian Coast, the Marsilian Colonies are Nice, Port Hercules, Trophaea and Monaco. In that case, Hercules was worshipped both here and at Monaco, and gave his name to both places. But on this subject, I shall perhaps speak more fully in another letter, after I have seen the Trophaea Augusti, now called Tourbia, and the town of Monaco, which last is about three leagues from Nice. Here I cannot help taking notice of the following elegant description from the Pharsalia, which seems to have been intended for this very harbour.

Finis et Hesperiae promoto milite varus, Quaque sub Herculeo sacratus numine Portus Urget rupe cava Pelagus, non Corus in illum Jus habet, aut Zephirus, solus sua littora turbat Circius, et tuta prohibet statione Monaeci.

The Troops advanc’d as far As flows th’ Hesperian Boundary, the Var; And where the mountain scoop’d by nature’s hands, The spacious Port of Hercules, expands;

Here the tall ships at anchor safe remain Tho’ Zephyr blows, or Caurus sweeps the Plain; The Southern Blast alone disturbs the Bay; And to Monaco’s safer Port obstructs the way.

The present town of Villa Franca was built and settled in the thirteenth century, by order of Charles II. king of the Sicilies, and count of Provence, in order to defend the harbour from the descents of the Saracens, who at that time infested the coast. The inhabitants were removed hither from another town, situated on the top of a mountain in the neighbourhood, which those pirates had destroyed. Some ruins of the old town are still extant. In order to secure the harbour still more effectually, Emanuel Philibert, duke of Savoy, built the fort in the beginning of the last century, together with the mole where the gallies are moored. As I said before, Ville Franche is built on the face of a barren rock, washed by the sea; and there is not an acre of plain ground within a mile of it. In summer, the reflexion of the sun from the rocks must make it intolerably hot; for even at this time of the year, I walked myself into a profuse sweat, by going about a quarter of a mile to see the gallies.

Pray remember me to our friends at A—‘s, and believe me to be ever yours.

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