Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Frenchman Skeptical that the Arabs can be Subjugated

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. 59-69.


Rosetta, (10 Therimdor), July 28.

My dear Ramcy,

I HAVE not written to you since we left Malta. You received, I hope, the letter I wrote you on board my ship, while she lay there--not to repeat what I have already said, I take up my narrative from that day.

The ships of war and transports set sail on the 19th of June, directing their course to the eastward, and on the 24th we discovered the high lands of Candia, covered with snow; the 29th, the look-out frigate made the land (this was the coast of Barbary), and the same day the whole fleet had a sight of it; it was exceedingly low and sandy, resembling in every respect the ground between Calais and Gravelines.

At length, at day-break on the 1st of July, we discovered the city of Alexandria. The same day, about four in the afternoon, orders were given for landing the troops, which was effected, in spite of a very heavy sea, in a convenient bay about two leagues to the east(1) of the city. On this part of the coast is a building, called the Tower of the Mameloucs. The next day, six or seven thousand men, unprovided with artillery, laid siege to this ancient and celebrated city. The Turks discharged a few pieces of cannon. The French were already close to the ruined walls which surround it, where they received a volley of musquetry and stones from the Arabs, and then mounted to the assaulat by two old Breaches!

The Generals Kleber and Menou were wounded, but the French entered the city victoriously by noon. In the evening the Turks and Arabs fired on our troops from their houses, and killed some of them;-- this REVOLT was punished, but in the gentlest manner(2)! This first conquest cost us between two and three hundred men. The loss of the enemy was equal to our own.

I went on shore on the 3d, though I had not yet received orders to disembark, and walked five or six miles to the city; which I had the good fortune to enter, in company with my elder brother, without any accident whatever. On our way we saw the dead bodies of several of our countrymen. At Alexandria the whole army had the greatest difficulty to find provisions or quarters. On the 5th, the deputation of twelve or fifteen Bedouins came to offer us their alliance in the name of their tribe. The Commander in Chief made them a few presents, and, at parting, gave each of them ten louis. They promised to return the next day, but they never appeared afterwards. It is probable they only came as spies(3).

The 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th, the divisions of Desaix, Kleber, &c filed off towards Demanhour, a pretty considerable town, on the Canal of Alexandria, from which place it is about 10 leagues distant. The Commander in Chief, with General Cafarelli, and the rest of the staff, followed the army across the Desert.

All the corps of the arts and sciences, which were ordered to disembark on the 6th, are to continue at Alexandria till farther orders. Our brigade of civil engineers is still there, with the exception of three (of whom I am one) who seem to have been detached from it for the purpose of following the army. Till the 10th(4), however, when I received final orders to proceed to Rosetta, I amused myself with exploring the city of Alexandria. We endeavoured to trace out its ancient splendour amidst mountains of ruins, which seem to be merely those of the Alexandria rebuilt by the Arabs! We found scattered about fragments of columns various species of marble.

I went also to see the column of Severus, improperly attributed to Pompey(5); it stands without the circuit of the present city; it is of red granite, 104 feet in height; its shaft is 56 feet in length, and 9 in diameter, and is formed of a single block. In returning towards the city, you also see two pyramids, called Cleopatra's Needles!!! they are both situate on the coast, are between fifty and sixty feet in height, and about seven square feet. One of them is still standing, the other lying on the ground. The hieroglyphics with which the four sides are covered indicate that they are the works of the ancient Egyptians; they indicate also that they are not entire. Both of these pyramids have evidently been broken; and yet each of them was formed of a single piece of red granite. We are endeavouring to raise them, for the purpose of conveying them to France!

The infinite number of wells and cisterns to be found in this city, give us a pretty accurate idea of what it must have been. Generally speaking, these reservoirs are still very fine, and only require to be cleaned out; some of them are from forty to fifty feet in depth, and near thirty in diameter: others form subterraneous vaults, which are supported by two or three rows of columns, one over another.

The port of Alexandria is divided into two very beautiful bays (with no great depth of water), separated by a dike or causeway near 1200 yards in length, and reaching to the Pharos, that is to say, to the site of that ancient and magnificent edifice, from whence vessels were discovered at the distance of thirty or forty leagues. This Pharos is nothing at present but a paltry fort, which is tumbling in ruin. In the centre of it is a minaret, which I examined. There are a few pieces of cannon, some long culverines of 18 or 20 feet, and some stone mortars: the whole absolutely unserviceable, and incapable of resisting a single shot. In this fort were found a few arms, the shape and make of which clearly prove that they once belonged to the French who perished in the unfortunate expedition of St. Louis(6).

I shall say nothing more of this city; except that is inhabitants, though vanquished, are not in a state of complete subjection, nor likely to be so for a long time to come. We must use policy here, for we are not strong enough to do otherwise(7). For the rest, we respect their religion, their manners, and above all, their women; these last, it must be confessed, are not mightily engaging. In short, they are a hideous, and abominable race.

I had orders, as I observed above, to proceed to Rosetta, distant about 12 leagues from Alexandria; I embarked with General Menou, who commands this province provisionally. We entered the Nile on the 12th of July, passing the bar, the terror of navigators, with some difficulty, and ascended the river till we came to Rosetta, which is situated on its left bank, about two leagues from its mouth. It is only at this second(8), and principal branch of the Nile, that Egypt puts on a little appearance of verdure, which is rendered still more agreeable by the strong contrast of the neighbouring Deserts. Along the banks of the river we saw many dates of palm trees, and sycamores, numbers of cattle, and houses. The gardens are full or orange, citron, and banana trees.

Rosetta, like all the other towns of the Levant, inhabited by the Turks, is wretchedly built, and full of filth: the streets are narrow alleys, of which the houses meet at the top; the houses themselves are the receptacles of fleas, gnats &c. &c. To this moment, as I may say, we have done nothing, thought of nothing, but how to procure a little food and sleep. The musquitoes are a real plague; their sting, the heat of an ever burning sun, and of a serene sky always on fire, make us pass most dreadful nights. In vain do I plunge myself into the muddy waters of the Nile; I cannot extinguish the heat of my boiling blood.

My employment at Rosetta is to take a plan of the course of the Nile, to observe the river as to its rise, its epochs, its inundations, its mouth, its bar, or bank of sand, so dangerous to navigation, and, in short, to present a memoir on the town of Rosetta, considered as a port. I am lodged on the bank of the river, and can see the Delta from my bed. We have not yet put foot in this province; but that gives us no uneasiness, as we know it will soon be in our power.

We learned yesterday (the 27th July, of happy memory), that Cairo was in the possession of the French, who entered it as conquerors, on the 22nd. This capture was the consequence of an action of some hours: the Mameloucs, to the number of four thousand horse, came out of Cairo and shewed a disposition to defend the approaches of the city. The French, though harassed and worn down with fatigue, carried with fixed bayonets a redoubt tolerably well fortified, and defended by thirty pieces of cannon. This was the affair of a single instant; the action then became general; a thousand Mameloucs were cut to pieces, or destroyed by grape-shot, and two or three hundred drowned in the Nile; the remainder took fright, and fled. Our troops then entered the city, the fire was still preying on the palace of the three Beys, who had seized the sovereign power, and rendered themselves independant of the Grand Seignior. A Sultana preserved all the Europeans who resided at Cairo, by opening her palace to them: without this act of humanity, they would have all been infallibly massacred.

The capture of Cairo will bring over all the Turks, who did not dare to join us before, lest we should be defeated! In spite of this, however, we have daily alarms both here and at Alexandria. The day before yesterday, I accompanied General Menou in a sortie which he made; it proved to be a false alarm; this, however, is not always the case, when Arabs force us to march out.

When we arrived at Alexandria the plague was still there; it was also at Rosetta; but from the beginning of June, and the five or six months which follow it, this malady is neither dangerous or infectious. The Nile is on its increase; its waters are extremely muddy; this, however, does not prevent me from bathing in it every day.

I hope to go to Cairo in a fortnight, and from thence still higher up the river, to see the famous pyramids, and the other monuments of antiquity. I hope, and desire mostly ardently, to return to France, by the way of Italy. May heaven prosper my wishes, my projects, to see once more my dear native land;-- wishes which a Frenchman can never renounce!

I fancy that my letter will be sent to France by the first packet, which is to carry the news of our success. While I am writing to you, my dear Ramsey, I beg you to let my friends at Calais know I am well. You see that I have written pretty much at length; this letter is the fourth. I shall not write then to Calais, but will trouble you to remember me to Madame Wieyne, your intended; to your worthy family; to Madame Grandcourt, Dufaux, and his son; Madame Becquet; Monsieur and Madame Durier; my friends Moreaux, Dufour, Eden, &c. ; and at Paris, to Madame Recicour, and Monsieur and Madame Benard.

Health and friendship during life,


Two travellers in Egypt have written on this ancient country. Savary, whose account I read on my passage, and who is far from correct (his work is in three volumes); and Volney, whom I had read, and whom I am now reading again! His work is well written, and his descriptions are very accurate(9). I could wish you to read it (it is in two volumes).

We heard at Alexandria of the famous descent of the English on the French coast near Ostend. They landed with 10,000 men, of whom 4,500 were made prisoners, 1,500 killed, and the rest put to fight(10)! This is not amiss; these Islanders ought to be well beaten: they should have staid in their wooden houses. These animals descend, I think, in a right line from Moses, who taught them to use the sea(11). They ought to confine themselves constantly to it, for the instant they get on land, the prove themselves to be a very stupid race. In spite of the Proclamation of the Commander in Chief, to the Turks on our expedition, the Egyptians, the Turks, the Mahometans, all ask us where the Bashaw of Selim is, in whose name we profess to act? The taking of Cairo has filled them with terror and astonishment; they seem to be much pleased with it, and say, in their own language, "God has availed himself "of the arms of the French, to drive away the Mameloucs, the Beys, the oppressors of Egypt."

[British Translators' Notes]

(1)Citizen Girez is not much more accurate in his geography than the rest of his countrymen: the bay in which they landed is not to the east, but to the west of Alexandria; and, for the honour of his historical precision, be it farther remarked, that the building of which he speaks, is not called the Tower of the Mameloucs, but of the Arabs, which is a very different thing;--but to notice every blunder of this nature, as we observed on a former occasion, is as far from our intentions, as our power, in the limits we have prescribed ourselves.

(2)That is to say, by an indiscriminate massacre of men, women, and children, for the space of four hours! Girez seems to have pretty nearly the same notions of humanity as the Rev. Mr. W. who, like him, perhaps, would call this resistance to the fury of the great nation, a REVOLT.

(3)We have here a complete explanation of a circumstance which otherwise we could only know from the event. The reader cannot have forgot the exhultation with which not only the letters in the First Part of this publication, but even the official dispatches of Bonaparte and Berthier, speak of this alliance with the Arabs, and of the mighty advantages to be derived from it.

Here then behold the venerable negotiators (Vagabonds and Beggars) who were entrusted with the interests of the Arabs! and contemplate the important drama to which the eyes of all Europe were anxiously directed, begun and ended in one miserable scene!

(4)In the original, 10 Messidor (the 28th of June), a most ridiculous blunder! There is no way of correcting it, but by supposing Girez to have confounded the old and new calendars in his mind (no uncommon circumstance); and in that case, if we read 10th of July in the good old way, instead of 10 Messidor, we shall probably be not far from the truth.

(5)This is the hundredth time at least, that we have met with this expression, which after all is taken from Savary, “the Column of Severus, improperly attributed to Pompey.” Such a deplorable display of minute science amidst the grossest ignorance, is not calculated to raise our ideas of the progress of the disciples of the new school, to a very extraordinary pitch. What real knowledge is still amongst the French, and we are convinced there is still a great deal, was acquired under a very different discipline. With the scholars of the old regime will expire all that is scientific and profound in France.

Literature has not received so fatal a blow since the days of the National Convention, or (in the hypocritical cant of the present time) of Robespierre, as by the horrid deportations of the 18 Fructidor. In the prison ships of that period were confounded men of the most varied accomplishments; men who had long delighted and instructed Europe; and whose place the present generation of crude, and shallow, and clamorous cognoscenti, will ineffectually labour to supply. In spite of the NATIONAL INSTITUE, in spite of the innumerable memoirs, essays, odes, that issue daily from its countless mouths, and astonish the weak, and overwhelm the wise, we are persuaded that the French are gradually relapsing into barbarism; not will their decline, we apprehend, be much retarded even by the EGYPTIAN INSTITUDE, though Bonaparte is ostentatiously inrolled amongst its members; and Tallien has descended from the dignity of a Senator, and almost a Director, to become the corrector of the press to Citizen Marc Aurele!

(6)Though Girez appears to have a very pretty notion of antiquity, which he manifests among other things, by mistaking an obelisk for a pyramid, and the ruins of a Greek wall for an indubitable specimen of Arabic masonry, we are still somewhat disinclined to give him credit for the discovery of which he speaks in this place. To do him justice, however, he is not singular in his conjectures; a letter (a copy) has found its way to France, in which the same circumstance is mentioned. This has been printed in the papers of the Directory, and, according to the established custom, reprinted here, cum notis cariorum. To judge from the comments of the Jacobins on this famous discovery, it would seem as if they thought the whole army of France might be equipped from it. “A room,” say they, “has been found in the Castle, full of arms, supposed,” &c.—“this will prove a most valuable acquisition.” Would any one suppose, after this, that the treasure, of which their wishes lead them to speak with such apparent satisfaction, consisted in nothing more than half-a-dozen rusty halberds, and three or four unserviceable matchlocks, dragged out of a dust-hole!

(7)We hope the reader has not overlooked Girez’ admirable reason for “using policy.” It is the true secret of their forbearance in every country which the French have over-run, and is worth whole folios on the subject. Bonaparte seems to have committed a fatal mistake on this head at Cairo. He took his measures better in Italy, where he seldom laid aside his policy (which is a very expressive word in the vocabulary of a French general), and began the work of pillage and murder till, in the simple but expressive words of Girez, he was “strong enough to do it.”
(8)We do not quite comprehend this topographical view of Egypt. It seems as if Girez supposed Alexandria to be situated upon a branch of the Nile, a circumstance which, if we consider that he remained there several days, exploring, as he says, the circumjacent country, promises admirably for the fidelity of the hydraulic charts which we find he has been so judiciously selected to compose.

(9)It should not be forgotten, that our engineer, who decides so peremptorily on the accuracy of Volney’s account of Egypt, has not yet, as appears from his own letter, set foot beyond the suburbs of Rosetta, the first town, as he truly says, on entering the Nile. This is just as if an Egyptian should decide on the descriptions of France by taking a cursory view of the sands of Calais; and is not much unlike what was done by a half-witted philosopher called De Pages, who went round the world, raving after virtuous savages;” and who pretended to characterize the English form an accidental stay of three hours at Deal!

(10)This curious paragraph, in which Giretz, at the distance of a thousand leagues, puts his correspondent in mind of what happened under his own nose, bears a strong resemblance to a passage we once recollect to have seen in a letter from a back settler in North America to his friend in London. “Give my love to Abraham Turner, and tell him I have no news to send, only I hear the parliament is dissolved.”

We have no remarks on the authenticity of the intelligence which is conveyed to this deluded army.

(11)Girez, as Sir Hugh Evans says, has “prayed his piple ill.” If he will look into the history of Moses at his return, (for we fear he will have no opportunity of doing it while he stays in Egypt), he will find that Moses has little pretensions to the reputation of a teacher in navigation. His “descendants in a right line” too, know almost as little of the matter as himself; but so it ever is; ignorance and profaneness go hand in hand, and the sneer of the scoffer is produced by the misconceptions of the fool.

1 comment:

Jim Mikulak said...

It's hard to transition to reading the British Translators' Notes.