From a Gutenberg e-text of Bourrienne's biography of Napoleon Bonaparte (R.W. Phipps trans.), an eye-witness account of how Bonaparte became committed to an attack on Egypt.
'In the month of August 1797 he [Bonaparte] wrote "that the time was not far distant when we should see that, to destroy the power of England effectually, it would be necessary to attack Egypt."
In the same month he wrote to Talleyrand, who had just succeeded Charles de Lacroix as Minister of Foreign Affairs, "that it would be necessary to attack Egypt, which did not belong to the Grand Signior [Ottoman Emperor]." Talleyrand replied, "that his ideas respecting Egypt were certainly grand, and that their utility could not fail to be fully appreciated." He concluded by saying he would write to him at length on the subject.
History will speak as favourably of M. de Talleyrand as his contemporaries have spoken ill of him. When a statesman, throughout a great, long, and difficult career, makes and preserves a number of faithful friends, and provokes but few enemies, it must be acknowledged that his character is honourable and his talent profound, and that his political conduct has been wise and moderate. It is impossible to know M. de Talleyrand without admiring him. All who have that advantage, no doubt, judge him as I do.
In the month of November of the same year Bonaparte sent Poussielgue, under the pretence of inspecting the ports of the Levant, to give the finishing stroke to the meditated expedition against Malta.
General Desaix, whom Bonaparte had made the confidant of all his plans at their interview in Italy after the preliminaries of Leoben, wrote to him from Affenbourg, on his return to Germany, that he regarded the fleet of Corfu with great interest. "If ever," said he, "it should be engaged in the grand enterprises of which I have heard you speak, do not, I beseech you, forget me." Bonaparte was far from forgetting him.
The Directory at first disapproved of the expedition against Malta, which Bonaparte had proposed long before the treaty of Campo-Formio was signed. The expedition was decided to be impossible, for Malta had observed strict neutrality, and had on several occasions even assisted our ships and seamen. Thus we had no pretext for going to war with her. It was said, too, that the legislative body would certainly not look with a favourable eye on such a measure. This opinion, which, however, did not last long, vexed Bonaparte. It was one of the disappointments which made him give a rough welcome to Bottot, Barras' agent, at the commencement of October 1797.
In the course of an animated conversation he said to Bottot, shrugging his shoulders, "Mon Dieu! Malta is for sale!" Sometime after he himself was told that "great importance was attached to the acquisition of Malta, and that he must not suffer it to escape." At the latter end of September 1797 Talleyrand, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote to him that the Directory authorized him to give the necessary orders to Admiral Brueys for taking Malta. He sent Bonaparte some letters for the island, because Bonaparte had said it was necessary to prepare the public mind for the event.
Bonaparte exerted himself night and day in the execution of his projects. I never saw him so active. He made himself acquainted with the abilities of the respective generals, and the force of all the army corps. Orders and instructions succeeded each other with extraordinary rapidity. If he wanted an order of the Directory he ran to the Luxembourg to get it signed by one of the Directors. Merlin de Douai was generally the person who did him this service, for he was the most constant at his post. Lagarde, the Secretary-General, did not countersign any document relative to this expedition, Bonaparte not wishing him to be informed of the business. He transmitted to Toulon the money taken at Berne, which the Directory had placed at his disposal. It amounted to something above 3,000,000 francs. In those times of disorder and negligence the finances were very badly managed. The revenues were anticipated and squandered away, so that the treasury never possessed so large a sum as that just mentioned.
It was determined that Bonaparte should undertake an expedition of an unusual character to the East. I must confess that two things cheered me in this very painful interval; my friendship and admiration for the talents of the conqueror of Italy, and the pleasing hope of traversing those ancient regions, the historical and religious accounts of which had engaged the attention of my youth.
It was at Passeriano that, seeing the approaching termination of his labours in Europe, he first began to turn serious attention to the East. During his long strolls in the evening in the magnificent park there he delighted to converse about the celebrated events of that part of the world, and the many famous empires it once possessed. He used to say, "Europe is a mole-hill. There have never been great empires and revolutions except in the East, where there are 600,000,000 men." He considered that part of the world as the cradle of all religious, of all metaphysical extravagances. This subject was no less interesting than inexhaustible, and he daily introduced it when conversing with the generals with whom he was intimate, with Monge, and with me.
Monge entirely concurred in the General-in-Chief's opinions on this point; and his scientific ardour was increased by Bonaparte's enthusiasm. In short, all were unanimously of one opinion. The Directory had no share in renewing the project of this memorable expedition, the result of which did not correspond with the grand views in which it had been conceived. Neither had the Directory any positive control over Bonaparte's departure or return. It was merely the passive instrument of the General's wishes, which it converted into decrees, as the law required. He was no more ordered to undertake the conquest of Egypt than he was instructed as to the plan of its execution. Bonaparte organised the army of the East, raised money, and collected ships; and it was he who conceived the happy idea of joining to the expedition men distinguished in science and art, and whose labours have made known, in its present and past state, a country, the very name of which is never pronounced without exciting grand recollections.
Bonaparte's orders flew like lightning from Toulon to Civita Vecchia. With admirable precision he appointed some forces to assemble before Malta, and others before Alexandria. He dictated all these orders to me in his Cabinet.
In the position in which France stood with respect to Europe, after the treaty of Campo-Formio, the Directory, far from pressing or even facilitating this expedition, ought to have opposed it. A victory on the Adige would have been far better far France than one on the Nile. From all I saw, I am of opinion that the wish to get rid of an ambitious and rising man, whose popularity excited envy, triumphed over the evident danger of removing, for an indefinite period, an excellent army, and the possible loss of the French fleet. As to Bonaparte, he was well assured that nothing remained for him but to choose between that hazardous enterprise and his certain ruin. Egypt was, he thought, the right place to maintain his reputation, and to add fresh glory to his name.
On the 12th of April 1798 he was appointed General-in-Chief of the army of the East. . .
Shortly before our departure I asked Bonaparte how long he intended to remain in Egypt. He replied, "A few months, or six years: all depends on circumstances. I will colonise the country. I will bring them artists and artisans of every description; women, actors, etc. We are but nine- and-twenty now, and we shall then be five-and-thirty. That is not an old age. Those six years will enable me, if all goes well, to get to India. Give out that you are going to Brest. Say so even to your family." I obeyed, to prove my discretion and real attachment to him. '