Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Neapolitan Navy in the Nineteenth century

In the 1850s, Italy wasn't the unified state we see today, but a patchwork of smaller countries, with the northern regions still controlled by the Austro-Hungarian empire. The largest of these statelets, comprising the south of the peninsula, and the island of Sicily, was the the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with it's capital in Naples (why two Sicilies when there is only one?, but there you are). The KTS was ruled by the Bourbon family, although Sicily had repeatedly rebelled and in 1848 had actually been independent for 16 months.

The Navy (Real Marina del Regno delle Due Sicilie)

The flag of the Real Marina del Regno delle Due Sicilie

A look at the map shows that the sea was essential to the Kingdom's trade, especially considering the poor nature of the roads inland and almost complete lack of railways. In fact the KTS possessed the largest merchant fleet in the Mediterranean, and 80% of all merchant tonnage. The first steamship built in the Mediterranean had been built near Naples, a rare technological achievement.

Protecting this huge merchant fleet, and the ties to Sicily, obviously demanded a Navy, which in 1859 stood at...

Sail ships (all built in Castellammare di Stabia)

The Vesuvio

Two ships of the line, of 86 and 80 guns.
The Monarca of 86 guns, later converted to also have steam power
The Vesuvio (80)
4 frigates of around 50 guns each, the Amalia, Regina Isabella, Partenope and Regina
1 corvettes (22) Cristina
1 mortar vessel
5 brigantines of 18 guns


1 frigate of 54 guns, the Borbone
11 steam frigates all of 10 guns, except the Fulminante which had 12  These mainly dated from an upgrading of the Navy during the 1840s and were a mixture of locally built ships from Castellammare and others made in England including the Fulminate (Blackwall) and Guiscardo, Roberto, Ruggiero and Tancredi (Gravesend) and the Veloce (Cowes). Several of these English built ships were actually converted merchant ships, originally purchased by the Scilian rebels.
13 smaller corvettes and gunboats of 4-8 guns including the paddle corvettes Ferdinando II (1833), and Gaeta
and numerous smaller vessels

There were also two battalions of Marines, each of 6 companies, and 14 companies of Marine Artillery.

 The Marines

The Navy was supported by the Arsenal in Naples, which in 1860 employed 1,800 men, whilst ships were produced at the dockyards at Castellammare, with boilers from the foundry at Pietrarsa, at the time the largest industrial complex in Italy.

Initially, the Navy seems to have been quite well regarded, and during the 1820s and 30s various actions were undertaken against the North African states to deter piracy. In 1848, the Navy contributed significantly to the Neapolitan victory. The big test however came during the wars of Italian Unification, and here it failed, miserably.

Part of the problem was discontent amongst the officers and men. In 1856 a magazine exploded in the Monarca, causing many casualties, and in 1857 the steam corvette Carlo III exploded - in both cases sabotage was suspected. In 1860, the Veloce, a ten-gun paddle steamer, deserted and gave fire support to Garibaldi's forces at the Battle of Milazzo. Shortly afterwards the garrison at Messina in Sicily was abandoned after the Navy refused to support the shipment of troops from Naples, many Naval officers only agreeing to an Oath of Allegiance if it did not include fighting against other Italians.

Crucially, the navy did not stop Garibaldi crossing over to the mainland, and this was the beginning of the end for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. After this the time for intervention was past, although the huge Neapolitan fortress at Gaeta could maybe have been saved when under siege in 1861, if the weaker Piedmontese Navy had been driven off, but it was not to be.

After the war some of the best ships were incorporated into the new Italian Navy, but the ships, yards, and manufacturing were increasingly transferred to Piedmont. Economically the Unification was in many ways a disaster for the South, and well as for the Veneto in the north, leading to poverty, and massive migration to the Americas.

Selected ships


Built in Castellammare di Stabia' in 1824. She has quite an eventful career, in 1825 being sent to Tangiers and Tripoli to deter pirates, and in 1843 she was the flag ship of the squadron that carried the Princess Maria Teresa to Rio, to marry the Brazilian Emperor, Dom Pedro II. She had been involved in the war of 1848, shelling Palermo, but despite a refit 1852 in the new dry dock at Castellammare, she was too poor condition to be involved in the events of 1860-61.


Part of the 1840s modernisation program, when launched in 1850 the Monarca was the most powerful warship ever built in Italy, even though she was, anachronistically, entirely powered by sail. In 1858 this was resolved when she returned to the shipyards at Castellammare and four steam boilers were added, though at the expense of reducing her armament to 64 muzzle loaders.

In August 1860, a rather daring plan was hatched by the rebels  to board the Monarca in Castellammare harbour. The Tukery (see above, and below) was to sail from Palermo with, in addition to her crew, two companies of the 2nd battalion of the Sardinan Bersaglieri, who were to board the Monarca at night. Meanwhile, a sympathiser in the harbour, Captain Giovanni Vacca, removed the iron chains holding the ship and positioned her facing out to sea. Unfortunately, it all went horribly wrong. Firstly, the port was on high alert after a false alarm a few days before, and secondly, Vacca should have left well alone, the Monarca was much taller then the Tukery and instead of boarding from the pier the revolutionaries would now have to tie alongside and climb up.

 The assault of the Tukery on the Monarca

Anyway, the leader of the expedition, Poila, tried to bluff his way through, asking permission to tie alongside and at the same time dropping three boats, each of 24 men, on his far side which rowed round towards the Monarca. At this point, the Bourbon crew realised what was afoot, and under the orders of Commander Guglielmo Acton*  opened fire. The three boarding parties pressed home their attack, but the crew of the Monarca had the advantage of the high ground, and were soon joined by soldiers on the pier. The deck of the Tukery was swept by fire and Piola ordered a retreat, but as the Tukery backed away one of the boarding boats was sucked under her paddle wheels and destroyed, the other two having no choice but to surrender.

A bizarre gun fight now developed in the harbour, with the Tukery taking on the Monarca, shore artillery and rifleman on the quayside, but both sides desperate not to hit British and French vessels also in the harbour. The engine of the Tukery was hit and for 20 minutes she was immobilised, though when she drifted towards the foreign vessels the Neapolitans ceased fire. Eventually she managed to get under way and escape.
* Guglielmo Acton was a descendant of an Anglo-Neapolitan family long associated with the Neapolitan navy. He was awarded the Croce di Cavaliere dell’Ordine di San Ferdinando e del Merito for his part in the action. He later joined the Italian Navy and commanded a frigate at the Battle of Lissa.

In September 1860 when Francis II fled to the fortress of Gaeta, the Monarca, now under a new captain,  refused to follow him, and changed sides, in fact taking part in the bombardment of Gaeta. After the Neapolitan surrender she entered the Italian navy, as the largest ship in the fleet.

Veloce / Tukery

As we have seen the Tukery played a major role in the affairs of 1860/61, so it's a little surprising that she was never meant to be a warship at all. She had been ordered in 1848 by the SS Peninsular & Oriental Navigation Company from Thomas & Robert White of Cowes, Isle of Wight, as an ocean going passenger steamer. Howver, she was purchased during construction by the revolutionary government in Sicily. Pressure from Naples led the French to arrest her in Marseilles and turn her over to the Bourbon authorities.

Finding themselves with an unexpected bonus, the Neapolitans armed the newly named Veloce with eight 200 mm guns, changed in 1851 to two smoothbore pieces of 60 pounds, 4 gun-howitzers, and two 12-pounders.

Bewteen 1857 and 1860 the Veloce was busy transporting troops to Sicily, but in July 1860 the captain, Amilcare Anguissola, sailed into Palermo harbour and declared for Garibaldi. His crew were offered posts in the new navy, but 130 men out of 179 elected to return to Naples.

Under her new colours the Veloce was renamed the Tukery (in honour of the Garibaldist Lajos Tüköry) and was even more busy, as we have seen taking part in the battle of Milazzo and transporting men and material. In August she was damaged in a fight with the steamer Borbone, and had to return to Syracuse for repairs, but later that month she was again in action in the raid on the Monarca. This was to be the last action of the Tukery and she was later transferred to the new Italian navy.


The Archimede in Naples harbour

A more typical ship of the fleet was the Archimede, constructed in Castellammare between 1842 and 1845 as a steam powered paddle steamer, with two masts as backup. She was armed with a smoothbore 112 pounder, a 60 pounder, 4 Paixham howitzers and 6x 30 pounders.

Like most of the Neapolitan fleet she was involved in the Sicilian rising in 1848/49, blockading the island and bombarding Taormina, Messina and Catania in April 1849. Together with the Roberto and Carlos III she forced the surrender of Schisò and Taormina later that month.

Her career for the next few years consisted of cruising in the Mediterranean, though in 1860 she rescued the US brig Golden Rule, earning her captain the Congressional Gold order of Merit.

During 1860 the Archimede and the rest of the Neapolitan fleet were involved again in blockading Sicily, in August attacking and capturing 15 boats from the Garibaldian fleet. By September however it was clear which way the wind was blowing, and when Francis II fled to Gaeta the Archimede refused to follow, instead declaring for the Sardinian fleet. In January 1861, she actually transported Sardinian troops to the siege at Gaeta. In March the Archimede was officially transferred to the Italian Navy.

Further reading

A very thorough and well illustrated guide (in Italian) can be found at

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