Saturday, September 8, 2007

French Fears of Mamluk Guerrilla War after Conquest of Cairo

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. 27-31.

[The cover of the following letter was lost so the author is currently unknown.]

Grand Cairo, (8 Thermidor) July 26th [1798].

CRYING “hunger! Thirst! and heat!” We are arrived, after beating the Mameloucs [Mamluks], at Grand Cairo. I have heard, my dear father, the bullets and balls whizzing very near me—happily none of them touched me. Oh, how often I regretted that I did not go to Paris before I sailed! more than once or twice I thought it quite impossible that I should ever go there again. At present we are a little more tranquil, and our situation appears to be somewhat improved.

It would be difficult for you, my dear father, to form an idea of the country, the people, or the customs, which we have found here. I am confident that the account of them, which I am at present preparing, will both interest and amuse you. It appears, from what I can collect, that the whole army is not destined to remain here. One part of it will fall down into Lower Egypt, as far as Damietta; another will proceed to the Isthmus of Suez, and a third will ascend the Nile as high as Thebes. Such is the distribution which common report makes of the army at this instant—I will not answer for its being correct; and, indeed, it strikes me, that such a division of our forces would be rather injudicious.

The Mameloucs, though beaten, may re-assemble. Their manner of making war authorizes the idea, that the country which we have traversed, and from which we have just driven them, ought not to be looked upon as conquered; since there is nothing to prevent their re-occupying it. In a country where the enemy attaches no kind of importance to the maintaining of a particular position, it is very difficult to determine him to quit the ground altogether. What secured our conquests in Italy, was the absolute refusal of the Austrians to advance, the moment they discovered their route lay near a fortress garrisoned by the French. The Mameloucs attack us at the distance of fifty paces, flee, and return the next day to attack us, in the very position from which we had driven them.

It appears that they are at present engaged in collecting a very considerable force—but we feel no alarm for it. For the rest; we ought to do justice to the little merit they boast: if I had been at the head of their troops, which are, after all, most gallant ones, the French would not have arrived quite so easily at Cairo. No trait of tactics, no appearance of the slightest knowledge of the art of war, is found in any of their movements. They are men perfectly well mounted, and well armed, who come to be massacred! Thus you see, that the greatest eulogium we have yet merited in this expedition, is for having marched near fifteen days, as it were, without eating or drinking. I fancy we are near akin to those devils who made the Madonnas of Rome roll their eyes . We work miracles still more astonishing here.

Adieu, my dear father: I embrace you, and beg you will have the goodness to tell all my brothers and sisters that many a time, in the Deserts of Africa, my thoughts have been directed towards them, and that many a time I have sworn, if ever I was fortunate enough to find myself in their company again, I would never, never quit them more.

Neither voyages nor wars make me happy! Adieu.

[British Translators' Notes]

(1) The cover of this letter, which is without any signature, is mislaid. The writer of it is a worthy disciple of the new school: ignorant, impious, and impure. The most shameless inmates of a brothel, hardened by mutual consciousness of guilt, would not dare to trust each other with the rank confessions which miserable profligate pours, without scruple, into the ears of his wretched father.

It is unnecessary to add, that every thing of this nature is carefully suppressed, through the whole of the Correspondence. With this security, even the present letter may be read to advantage; it contains some strictures on the Mameloucs, which do credit to the writer’s sagacity, and appear to have escaped the notice of his superiors.

(2) The writer alludes to the commotion excited against his countrymen by the miraculous indications here attributed to the Madonna, and on every great occasion expected from her images by the Roman populace. We say nothing on the opinion itself—but the French use of it may yet be pointed out. It is made the vehicle of every kind of vulgar abuse against religion itself, and its divine economy. The profane and senseless allusion to Moses, in another letter, and the assumption to themselves, in numberless passages, of miracles, “as good as the world ever saw”—all these are marks of the same spirit which has already met our solemn reprehension;--a spirit which laughs at the power of Heaven, and mocks all virtue upon earth; which commits “all iniquity with greediness,” and selects a parent’s bosom as the depositary of its obscenities!

This imaginary interposition of Providence took place in the winter of 1797-8. Those who are in the habit of reading the Jacobin papers, cannot have forgot the dull profanity with which they abounded on the occasion. The M.C., always foremost in impiety, and yet vain of its recent triumph over the Savior of our world, rioted in daily sarcasms on “priestcraft, and superstition, and such-like old lumber-stuff of Christianity.” BACCHUS was again placed “at the right-hand of the Father,” and there appeared to be no end of the degradation and insult mediated against the persecuted JESUS, when the news happily arrived that the French had dethroned and driven the Pope from his home—and the interests of blasphemy were for awhile forgotten in the savage howl of exultation over the misfortunes of a helpless old man; or, in the words of the Mourning Chronicle, of “and infirm and bed ridden dotard!’

The following account of the transaction alluded to, is from a resident on the spot. It is as simple as it is correct, and may serve to shew those who have no religion, that they should not judge from their own feelings, of the sincerity of those (whether priests or laity), who have a great deal.—

“The images of the Madonna had moved their eyes in different parts of the town, which, by favourable exposition, was supposed to be a manifestation of her peculiar favour to the Roman people. This miracle, however futile or false it may seem to men of reflection, had so powerful an influence over the minds of the multitude, as to produce an enthusiasm little short of madness.

“I know it is common to impute every effect of religious superstition to the knavery of a designing priesthood. Hence, this popular credulity may be supposed to have originated in artifice; but, I believe, if the whole affair were to be truly investigated, it would be found to have had its origin in the belief of a poor old man, who was paying his devotion to a Madonna at the Fontana di Trevi—and, as in the elements of the Catholic faith, the best informed are taught to believe (and do believe,) those things they cannot comprehend, so it ought not to be wondered at, that those who know less and believe more, should have felt themselves interested in a sign, that, to them, portended the salvation of their religion and their country.”—(It should be observed here, that this was subsequent to the death of the infamous Duphot, when the French were in full march for Rome, breathing nothing but rage and revenge).—“Of this opinion I am the more strongly persuaded, as no steps were ever taken to apply or direct this religious phrenzy to the advantage of those who might otherwise have been suspected to have been the authors of it.”

To return to the letter.—We doubt much whether the French will work any miracles in Egypt;--one, we believe, will be wrought on them, and, in the words of the author, an astonishing one. The hand of the Lord is stretched out, the hand of him who “Alone worketh the great marvels,” and we may address the nations of the earth in the sublime and awakening language in which MOSES, on the same spot, once addressed the Israelites.—“FEAR YE NOT, STAND STILL, AND SEE THE SALVATION OF THE LORD, WHICH HE WILL SHEW YOU TO-DAY. FOR THE ENEMY, WHOM YE HAVE SEEN TO-DAY, YE SHALL SEE THEM AGAIN NO MORE FOR EVER.” Exodus, ch. xiv ver. 13

1 comment:

George Buddy said...

Juan, don't know where else to put this, but high praise from me for your book Napoleon's Egypt. I have one chapter left to go. You should really consider another book with these broad, popular historical goals to help explain another facet that might interest you in the Middle East.

You are a good writer with a great eye for the entertainment which is what is needed to get dunderheads like me reading about the Middle East and learning about it and enjoying it at the same time.

Thanks too for informed comment. Every day, like an apple...

George Buddy