Friday, October 26, 2007

Napoleon Orders General to Retake Maltese Riches

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. 1, pp. 63-66.


Head Quarters, Cairo July 27.

BONAPARTE, Member of the National Institute, Commander in Chief, to the General of Division, KLEBER.

Citizen General,

THERE is here a very excellent mint. We shall again have occasion for all the ingots(1) which we left with the merchants of Alexandria, in exchange for the specie of the country; I request you, therefore, to call together all the merchants with whom the said ingots were exchanged, and to re-demand them. I will give them in lieu of the bullion, wheat and rice, of which we have immense quantities.

Our poverty in specie is equal to our riches in commodities: this circumstance absolutely compels me to take as many ingots as possible from the merchants, and to give them corn, &c. in exchange(2).

I have heard nothing from you since I left Alexandria. You have doubtless heard many idle rumours, and alarms. I have sent you several letters by the people of the country, which I fear have been intercepted by the Arabs, as has most probably been the case with those which you have sent me. I am now all impatience to hear from you; as you have undoubtedly by this time received intelligence from France.

We have undergone more hardships than many among us had courage to support: at present, we are recovering ourselves a little at Cairo, which is not deficient in supplies. All our troops have joined.

The Officers of the Staff will have acquainted you with the military transaction which preceded our entry into this place. It was tolerably brilliant. Two thousand of the best mounted Mameloucs were driven into the Nile.

The army is in the greatest want of its baggage. I have dispatched the Adjutant-General Almeyras with a battalion of the 85th, and an immense quantity of provisions for the fleet, to Rosetta. He is commissioned on his return to take on board his flotilla, all the baggage, &c. of the army, and to escort it to the Cairo.

Order the Staff Officers of the different corps, charged with the care of the magazines, to send them all to Rosetta.

Send us our Arabic and French printing-presses. See that they embark all the wine, brandy, tents, shoes(3), &c. Send round all these articles by sea to Rosetta: and as the Nile is now upon its increase, they will find no difficulty in passing up that river to Cairo.

I am anxious to hear of your health. I hope it will be speedily re-established, and that you will be soon in a condition to come and join us.

I have written to Louis(4) to set out for Rosetta immediately, with all my baggage.

Since I wrote this, I have found in a garden belonging to one of the Mameloucs, a letter from Louis—this convinces me that one of your couriers has been intercepted by these people.




[British Translators' Notes]

(1)These ingots were formed from the gold and silver previously stolen by this rapacious freebooter from the church of St. John, where the Maltese kept their public treasury. See the Letter of the Bailly of Teigna, and the Manifestoes of the different commanders.

(2)To force one kind of plunder on the merchants, by way of payment, and then to take it from them again in exchange for some other which can be more conveniently spared, is a proceeding so perfectly consonant to the French ideas of justice, and has been so frequently employed by them, wherever they have had power to put it in practice, as their good friends and allies can testify, that it scarce deserves notice.

But we could fain ask the General how the country can be poor in specie, when it appears from his letter to the Directory, written only three days before the present, that every Mamelouc had three or four hundred pounds in his pocket. “The Mameloucs,” says he, (see all the papers of the 31st of October) “shewed great bravery. They defended their fortunes, for there we not one of them on whom our soldiers did not find three, four, and five hundred louis”!!!

Now it appears from the same account, that the number of Mameloucs engaged was 6000. It is but fair to suppose that those who escaped were as rich as those who fell: 6000, therefore, multiplied by 400, the average of their fortunes, gives a total of 2,400,000 louis—no despicable sum for a country so poor in specie; and probably not a great deal less than what might be found in the pockets, or even in the possession, of the same number of people in any army in France—a country, as we all know, so rich in specie!

Further; the soldiers must have found on the 2000 Mameloucs, who, as the general says in his letter to the Directory, were killed, 800,000 louis, by the fairest calculation: now we think that some method might have been found to persuade them to resign their plunder for a time (especially as they seem to enjoy few opportunities of wasting it); and thus to have spared Bonaparte the mortification, and Kleber the infamy, of compelling the merchants of Alexandria to take what they do not want, in exchange for what they cannot spare!

Shall we now be serious? We do not believe that the Mameloucs had a single louis about them: rich arms and clothing they certainly had; and if the French should ever return home (as, if it please God, they never will), they may probably turn them to some account: at present, all these fine things are mere incumbrances to them.

We do not know the reason of it, but we constantly observe that none of the army attempt to cajole Kleber. He is almost the only one to whom things are represented as they really are—And Bonaparte, whose letter to the Cockneys of Paris, representing Egypt as almost paved with gold, was scarce dry; sits down to tell this, sagacious and penetrating General, that there is none to be found in it; and that he has no resource but the plundered ingots of Malta!

(3)We have already observed that not one of these articles can reach Cairo. The port of Alexandria is hermetically sealed, and however urgent the wants of the army may be, they must learn to bear them.

(4)His brother. He alludes to Boursienne’s letter, see No. XIV.

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