Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Capt. Shechy [MacSheehy]: Observations on the Egyptian Bedouin

(The French landed at Alexandria July 1, 1798; this is an early impression of the Bedouin in the city's hinterland by one of Gen. Bonaparte's aides. These letters were intercepted, translated and published by the British navy.)

Alexandria, (19 Messidor) July 7th, 1798.

SHECHY [Bernard MacSheehy], Captain-Adjutant to the Staff of General BONAPARTE, to Citizen LE MAIRE, of Paris.

I WISHED to write you, my dear Le Maire, a long letter--Read the inclosed (1); it will inform you where we are at present. Say every thing for me to Madame Dumuy ; and above all, assure her that I will take care to send her an ample account of all our transactions, from Cairo, where I hope to arrive soon, with General Bonaparte. Dumuy(2) is here ; he stays behind to organize the troops that remain, to treat with the Bedouin Arabs, of whom you will find some account below, and to open a communication with the capital.

We are engaged here, my dear Le Maire, in a most fatiguing business. The wars of Europe have nothing in common with this of Egypt. We reckon ourselves fortunate in the extreme, if we can procure biscuit and water. We are now preparing for a march of five days across the Desert.

Put a wafer in Citizen Doulcet's letter ; and pray be kind enough to give the subjoined note respecting the Arabs, to my uncle. I wrote a very long letter to Madame Dumuy, from Malta: I wrote also to you, informing you, that the memorial relative to my promotion had been transmitted to the Minister of War, by Berthier. Call on Tallien and Bruix ; give my remembrances to them, and intreat them to accelerate an affair which may be easily arranged: try yourself too, what can be done in it. Write me a long letter, and accept the assurances of my friendship.


Note [on the Bedouin]

THE Bedouin Arabs constantly rise at a very early hour, drop on their knees, and kiss the ground twice, with their eyes turned towards the heavens. At sunrise, and at the first appearance of the moon, they repeat the same ceremony three times, directing their face towards that planet. They are commanded by chiefs, whom they respect; they salute them whenever they approach or pass them, pay the greatest attention to every thing they say, and punctually execute all their commands. Their usual dress is a piece of white woollen, which they fasten round their necks, throwing the corners over their shoulders. Their arms are quite naked. They have also a kind of pantaloon, reaching to the knee, where it is fastened; the legs, like the arms, are naked: they have all yellow slippers.

The dress of the women differs very little from that of the men. They carry their children on their backs. They are in good estimation with their husbands, though they do not eat with them. Like the Scythians, the Bedouins dwell in camps, which they move at pleasure, and as circumstances require. They carry with them all their household on camels, of which they possess a far greater number than of horses. The women and children are placed on the back of one of these animals, in a kind of circular cot, which affords them all a sufficient space to lie down.

They visit frequently, and live in a state of great familiarity and kindness one with another ; but it is observable, that one family never eats with another. They exchange one kind of merchandize, or one object of general utility for another, without the intervention of specie, of which they have no need. Every thing that is taken belongs to the taker: nay, a man may be made prisoner, and even sold by him who made him so, without any other person's pretending to interfere. Their general practice (3) is not to put any one to death, but only to rob him ; unless he should be rash enough to make resistance.

Their manner of living is very hard. They feed on a species of bread extremely black, and baked on the dung of their camels. Their water, kept for a long while in bottles made of goats' skin, and constantly exposed to the heat of the sun, is extremely offensive. They dip their bread in a kind of oil of a most disagreeable smell, which they procure in the midst of the sands of the Desert, from springs known only to themselves, and not less than fifty or sixty miles from each other.(4)

Every family has a tent to itself. It is under the command of a chief, and it is he only who makes war. Their horses, which are exclusively reserved for their excursions, are inconceivably active ; they are all wild, and ascend the steepest mountains with the same rapidity they run on even ground. They are never shod.

All these details were given me by the officers who had been made prisoners by the Bedouins on our landing. I collected them at the instant that the chiefs of the Arabs were with Bonaparte, arranging the terms of the treaty.

I have no paper to spare for covers. You will, therefore, inclose Citizen Doulcet's letter, and direct it to him.

[British Translators' Notes]

(1) See the next letter.

(2) This seems to be the person mentioned by General Menou ( Part I. p. 98.); his name, indeed, is spelt differently; but we observe a great inaccuracy with respect to names, throughout the whole of this Correspondence.

(3) Cependant, in the original; this word must have escaped Shechy through inadvertence; he could not surely have thought it strange, that those who were at liberty to sell their prisoners, did not kill them.

(4) It is hardly necessary to caution the reader to receive as little as possible of what the French pretend to give from the information of Arabs, Copts, &c. As far as the senses are concerned, they may generally be trusted, but no farther. What the prisoners saw, we are willing to believe they related with fidelity ; but when they proceed to tell us (from conversations, of which they certainly understood not a single word) of wonderful springs of oil found in the Desert, and kept secret from all the world, but the French ; we can only say, eras credimus, Aodie nihil. Bituminous and unctuous substances are sometimes, indeed, found floating on the surface of small pools or lakes, and but 'tis needless to enter further into the subject, on such authorities as those before us.

The little picture of the domestic economy of the Arabs, though rudely sketched, is far from being uninteresting. Their simple expressions of pious dependence, their respectful attachment to their hereditary chiefs, and their familiar and affectionate intercourse with one another, cannot fail to prepossess the reader a little in their favour ; and raise them in his mind far above the atheistical, turbulent, and unsocial horde, who, under the guidance of a ferocious Corsican, have traversed a thousand leagues of sea, for the " consolatory" purpose of exterminating them!

When one considers, too, the poverty of these people, their black bread, stinking water, and rancid oil, their burning sands, and interminable deserts, one would imagine that they, at least, would be secure from the rapacity and cruelty of France. Delusive thought! that nation has the eternal fever of the tiger; tnd presses forward with blind and inconsiderate fury, to slake its thirst in the blood of all it can reach, and overcome.

From: Copies of Original Letters from the Army of General Bonaparte in Egypt: Intercepted by the Fleet ... By Alexander Strong, William Frederick Darley. Part the First (London: J. Wright, 1799), pp. 5-8.

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