1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Caracciolo, Francesco
CARACCIOLO, FRANCESCO, Prince (1732–1799), Neapolitan admiral and revolutionist, was born on the 18th of January 1732, of a noble Neapolitan family. He entered the navy and learned his seamanship under Rodney. He fought with distinction in the British service in the American War of Independence, against the Barbary pirates, and against the French at Toulon under Lord Hotham. The Bourbons placed the greatest confidence in his skill. When on the approach of the French to Naples King Ferdinand IV. and Queen Mary Caroline fled to Sicily on board Nelson’s ship the “Vanguard” (December 1798), Caracciolo escorted them on the frigate “Sannita.” He was the only prominent Neapolitan trusted by the king, but even the admiral’s loyalty was shaken by Ferdinand’s cowardly flight. On reaching Palermo Caracciolo asked permission to return to Naples to look after his own private affairs (January 1799). This was granted, but when he arrived at Naples he found all the aristocracy and educated middle classes infatuated with the French revolutionary ideas, and he himself was received with great enthusiasm. He seems at first to have intended to live a retired life; but, finding that he must either join the Republican party or escape to Procida, then in the hands of the English, in which case even his intimates would regard him as a traitor and his property would have been confiscated, he was induced to adhere to the new order of things and took command of the republic’s naval forces. Once at sea, he fought actively against the British and Neapolitan squadrons and prevented the landing of some Royalist bands. A few days later all the French troops in Naples, except 500 men, were recalled to the north of Italy.
Caracciolo then attacked Admiral Thurn, who from the “Minerva” commanded the Royalist fleet, and did some damage to that vessel. But the British fleet on the one hand and Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo’s army on the other made resistance impossible. The Republicans and the 500 French had retired to the castles, and Caracciolo landed and tried to escape in disguise. But he was betrayed and arrested by a Royalist officer, who on the 29th of June brought him in chains on board Nelson’s flagship the “Foudroyant.” It is doubtful whether Caracciolo should have been included in the capitulation concluded with the Republicans in the castles, as that document promised life and liberty to those who surrendered before the blockade of the forts, whereas he was arrested afterwards, but as the whole capitulation was violated the point is immaterial. Moreover, the admiral’s fate was decided even before his capture, because on the 27th of June the British minister, Sir W. Hamilton, had communicated to Nelson Queen Mary Caroline’s wish that Caracciolo should be hanged. As soon as he was brought on board, Nelson ordered Thurn to summon a court martial composed of Caracciolo’s former officers, Thurn himself being a personal enemy of the accused. The court was held on board the “Foudroyant,” which was British territory—a most indefensible proceeding. Caracciolo was charged with high treason; he had asked to be judged by British officers, which was refused, nor was he allowed to summon witnesses in his defence. He was condemned to death by three votes to two, and as soon as the sentence was communicated to Nelson the latter ordered that he should be hanged at the yard-arm of the “Minerva” the next morning, and his body thrown into the sea at sundown. Even the customary twenty-four hours’ respite for confession was denied him, and his request to be shot instead of hanged refused. The sentence was duly carried out on the 30th of June 1799.
Caracciolo was technically a traitor to the king whose uniform he had worn, but apart from the wave of revolutionary enthusiasm which had spread all over the educated classes of Italy, and the fact that treason to a government like that of the Neapolitan Bourbons could hardly be regarded as a crime, there was no necessity for Nelson to make himself the executor of the revenge of Ferdinand and Mary Caroline. His greatest offence, as Captain Mahan remarks (Life of Nelson, i. 440), was committed against his own country by sacrificing his inalienable character as the representative of the king of Great Britain to his secondary and artificial character as delegate of the king of Naples. The only explanation of Nelson’s conduct is to be found in his infatuation for Lady Hamilton, whose low ambition made her use her influence over him in the interest of Queen Mary Caroline’s malignant spite.