From: Copies of original letters from the army of General Bonaparte in Egypt, intercepted by the fleet under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson. With an English translation (London, J. Wright, 1798-1800, 3 vols.), vol. 2, pp. 147-152
Cairo(29 Thermidor), August 16.
To Citizen Pistre, at the Bureau du Naulage, Vincent’s Key, No. 199, Lyons.
I eagerly avail myself, my dear friend, of the opportunity afforded me by one of our officers(1), who has thrown up his commission and got leave to retire, to write you this letter, in the hope that it will be more fortunate than that which I wrote you from Alexandria; the frigate by which it was sent having been taken by the English.
You have heard, without doubt, that after a very prosperous navigation we took possession of Malta, from whence we again set sail for Egypt. We arrived before Alexandria on the 2d of July(2), of which we also took possession, after a slight resistance.
I want words, my dear friend, to express the astonishment I felt on entering this city, once so famous, but which does not now retain the slightest vestige of splendor, if we expect a few scattered fragments of its ancient buildings, such as the Column of Pompey, the Baths of Cleopatra, &c. Modern Alexandria is nothing more than a mass of mud barracks, forming a number of little narrow lanes, of which the filthiness is beyond imagination, and which, together with the excessive heat of the climate, engenders a kind of stagnant and putrefying air, annually productive of the plague.
It had not entirely ceased its ravages when we arrived: many of the ships in the harbour were still infected, and I myself saw several poor wretches, who were ill of it, carried on shore! I will freely confess to you, that this spectacle, joined to the stupid and ferocious air of the inhabitants, cut me to the heart; and I said to myself, “HOW COULD THE GOVERNMENT OF FRANCE MAKE SUCH EXTRAORDINARY EFFORTS, AND EXPOSE AN ARMY OF FOURTY THOUSAND MEN TO DESTRUCTION, FOR THE SAKE OF SUBDUING A SET OF FIERCE AND BRUTIFIED SAVAGES.”
Such, my dear friend, was the question I put to myself on first setting foot on this burning soil; which presents nothing to the eye but immense deserts, utterly destitute of water; and one of which, extending more than forty miles in breadth, we crossed in our first march from Alexandria.
After this dreadful march, during which the troops suffered prodigiously from heat and thirst, we reached the Nile, whose banks are a little more fertile, but whose inhabitants are not a whit less ferocious than the Alexandrines. During the three first days of our march, we were continually harassed by the Bedouin Arabs, a sort of banditti on horseback, accustomed to live on plunder; and who cut the throats of all those who, exhausted by thirst and fatigue, could not keep up with the main body.
At length we fell in with the Mameloucs: these are troops which the Beys, who, to the number of twenty-four(3), govern Egypt, draw from Georgia and Circassia, and keep in their pay. These people are all mounted on excellent horses: they shewed a disposition to charge us, but the fire of the musquetry and cannon soon compelled them to retire under the walls of Cairo; which we entered on the 21st of July, after having completely routed them.
I had flattered myself that on our arrival at this city, so famous for its commerce with India, we should find every thing in abundance, and a more civilized people than we had hitherto met with; but I have been cruelly disappointed. With the exception of the Europeans who are settled here, the inhabitants are as barbarous and as ignorant as those of Alexandria.
From the slight sketch which I have given you of Egypt, you may easily conceive that the army is by no means pleased with this expedition, to a country of which the usage, diet, and excessive heat, are totally repugnant to our manner of living in Europe. The major part of the army is labouring under a diarrhea and ALTHOUGH VICTORIOUS, WILL TERMINATE ITS CAREER BY PERISHING MISERABLY, IF OUR GOVERNMENT PERSISTS IN ITS AMBITIOUS PROJECTS. Many officers are throwing up their commissions; and I freely confess to you, that I would also throw up mine, if I had the least prospect of obtaining any thing in France; but, deprived as I am of every resource, I must persevere, and patiently wait to see what change events may bring about in our present critical situation.
We do not know whether we shall stay in these new regions, or carry our conquests farther. To judge from appearances, this country will be kept; for our people are already engaged in organizing some municipalities. A part of the army is in pursuit of the Mameloucs. I imagine every possible effort will be made to come up with them before they effect their retreat into Syria; BECAUSE they have got possession of the caravan from India, which they are carrying with them, and which is the object of the utmost importance and value.
Adieu, my friend. Let me hear from you, which I have not done since I left Genoa. I beg my compliments to all our family, and remain,
Your’s most sincerely,
[British Translators' Notes]
(1)Citizen Veyssiere, mentioned by Lacuee.—See his letter to his uncle.
(2)In the original it is le 14 Thermidor, (the 1st of August.) The French, as we have had frequent occasions to observe in the course of this work, are very far from being perfect in their new fangled calendar. Their Fructidors, and their Messidors, their rain months, and their snow months, are strangely out of their places in Egpyt. A circumstance which has, probably corrected by this time, the ideas of their vagabond Savans, who were, doubtless, in amazement at first, at the waywardness of nature, in not reducing all climates to the climate of the Great Nation; and still more, at her presumption in venturing to deviate from the calendar of a Directory and two Councils!
(3)This again is taken from Savary (for we never get out of his track), and, though repeated with the utmost confidence in many of these letters, not a jot more correct than the rest of his reveries.
The government of Egypt, says Niebuhr, (who in one page has conveyed more real information on the subject, than is to be found in some extensive volumes), is vested in a Bashaw, representative of the Grand Seignior; sometimes, indeed, neglected, but whom the invasion of the French will certainly restore to all his influence, and in eighteen Beys—for to this number they have now been reduced for many years. These Beys are not, as is commonly supposed, all of Christian origin, purchased in their childhood, and brought as slaves to Grand Cairo; so long since as 1762 (many years before Savary was in Egypt), five of them were already of Mahometan families; and as the importation of slaves from Mingrelia and Georgia has been constantly diminishing, it is very probably that the greater number of the present Beys are of the same description.
It has been also thought, that the military strength of Egypt consists merely of 8000 Mameloucs: this too is a mistake. Travelers may have been led into it, because the troops are not assembled, exercised, and uniformly clothed, after the European manner; but every Bey has his particular troops, which consist principally of his vassals: some of them have as many as 2000; dispersed, indeed, about the country, but capable of being collected at the first signal. There are besides many regiments (such as those of Assab, Motasrraka, Tsjumlan, Tessehschan, &c.) maintained by the State. The number of Janissaries too, in the pay of the Porte, is considerable; and as most of the officers have possessions in the country, they are all exceedingly attached to the government. If to all these are added the hordes of Bedouins, whose assistance may be easily purchased against a foreign enemy, we shall find that Bonaparte will have to contend not only with more troops, but with far more formidable ones, than he had probably reckoned on.
We could enlarge with pleasure on the observations of this well-informed traveler—but we forbear, as this note is already long, as as we have a point to settle with the French Reviewers of this Correspondence.
In the First Part, we took the liberty of expressing our surprise at the general important of the “Army of England;” or, “of the East,” respecting Egypt. This appears to have given great offence.—How, say the writers of the Decade Philosophique, Literaire and Politique, “how” (we omit their passionate preamble), “can people who have never been in a distant country, know any thing of it but from the accounts of travelers?” This, as a general remark, may be very well; but unfortunately it has nothing to do with the point in dispute. Our surprise was occasioned, as the critics may have seen, by observing, that in a case where it imported them so greatly to collect the best information, not a man in the army, nor in the long train of Savans which followed it, should, as far as appears, have extended his inquiries beyond the jejune pages of Volney and Savary,--when besides the earlier and fuller works of their own countrymen, the judicious histories of Sandys, Shaw, Pocock, Norden, Niebuhr (himself an host), and a number of others, lay, as it were, immediately under their hands!
Enough for the present.—If we return to the Decade Philosophique, which is not improbably, we shall have ample opportunities of shewing, with what contempt of truth its conductors treat the “enlightened people of France,” and with what a daring disregard of reputation they willfully misrepresent the most obvious facts.
(4)We do not know Pistre’s rank in the army. He writes extremely well, and his letter is one of the most interesting in the whole collection.