Thursday, October 18, 2007

"War with the Mameloucs, peace with the Arabs!"

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. 16-24.


L’Orient, off Aboukir, July 8th.

From JAUBERT(1), Commissary, &c.

HERE we are, my dear Jaubert, on the coasts of Egypt. Our brave troops have already got footing in its territories, and every thing announces that ere long the improvident despotism of the Mameloucs, and the apathy of the Egyptians, will be succeeded by a creative government, and by a spirit of emulation hitherto unknown to its inhabitants.

We are masters of Alexandria. On our march we seized on Aboukir and Rosetta, and are consequently in possession of one of the principal mouths of the Nile. Thou mayst trace our route on the chart to Savary’s Voyage(2), which I suppose thou hast before thee.

At six in the morning of the first instant, we were within six leagues of Alexandria. The Juno was dispatched to the port with a letter to the French Consul.—This was the ostensible motive, but her secret orders were, at all events, to bring him and all the French in the city on board the fleet. Every thing there was in confusion. A French invasion had been openly talked of for the last two months, and measures taken (as measures usually are taken by the Turks) to prevent it. The appearance of an English squadron of fourteen sail on the 28th of June, and which the Governor obstinately maintained to be ours, had redoubled the terrors of the city, and rendered the situation of the French residents there, more and more critical. The Consul, however, obtained permission to go on board the Juno, on his promise to return in three hours; and the frigate directly put to sea with him. On his arrival on board the l’Orient, the necessity of the immediate measures became apparent, not only to anticipate the English in getting possession of Alexandria, but to shelter our fleet from an engagement, which must be evidently on unequal terms, in the confusion of a first anchorage on unknown ground.

The English fleet has played with ill luck on its side—first, it missed us on the coast of Sardinia; next, it missed a convoy of fifty-seven sail coming from Civita Vecchia, with seven thousand troops of the army of Italy on board. It did not arrive at Malta till five days after we left it; and it arrived at Alexandria two days before we reached it! It is to be presumed that it is gone to Alexandretta, under an idea that the army is to be disembarked there for the conquest of India. We shall certainly see it at last, but we are now moored in such a manner as to bid defiance to a force more than double our own.

Such, however, was our critical situation on the morning of the 1st, that in spite of the promptitude with which we disembarked, we might have been surprised by the English in the midst of our operations. Apprehensive of this, the Commander in Chief, with his Staff, was in his galley by four in the afternoon, surrounded by the boats and shallops of the different vessels, all full of troops, and ready for the descent.

On the morning of the 2d, a landing was effected at Marabou, two leagues to the west of Alexandria—not the slightest resistance! Not even a piece of cannon at Marabou! The army then advanced in platoons towards the city; the stragglers, and those who marched at any distance from the main body, were attacked by parties of Arabs, and a few scattered Mameloucs, who hovered about us. There were also a few partial engagements, in which we lost men. On our arrival, the entrance of our brave troops was opposed. A few three or four-pounders, (observer, that we had no artillery with us) carabines, stones &c. announced a resolution to defend the city. General Kleber was wounded in the head, and General Menou in divers places; but by eleven o’clock we were in possession of Alexandria. The aukward musquetry which attempted a defence by firing from the windows, all hid themselves, or were killed. The Mameloucs, and a vast number of Arabs, took refuge in the desert. The few inhabitants who remained were exceedingly astonished(3) at finding we did not cut their throats, and read with transports of joy, the proclamation (4) which the Commander in Chief had previously printed in Arabic, and which you must long before this have seen in the public papers.

This proclamation has given birth to two very singular circumstances. The evening before, we had seized a few Turks and Arabs, and carried them on board the fleet. The question was to clam their apprehensions, and make them our apostles. A Maronite priest from Damascus (a Christian like ourselves) was ordered to read it to them, and to comment on it as he proceeded. When you consider the proclamation(5), you will judge how well the part he played became him!

The day we landed, the Turkish Vice Admiral, who was in the port of Alexandria, with the Caraval (a large vessel belonging to the Grand Seignior), destined to collect the tribute of the army, sent his flag officer on board the l’Orient with a present of two sheep, and an order to inquire into the destination of our armament. We gave him the proclamation to read, he excused himself on his ignorance, and it was read to him: every paragraph that touched on the insolence of the Mameloucs made him leap with joy. He asked for some proclamations to disperse, and assured us, that the Vice Admiral, who represented the person of the Grand Seignior, would give a general order for the friendly reception of the French. At length, after drinking a cup of coffee and eating some sweetmeats, he retired extremely well satisfied(6). The Caraval is still in the port with the Admiral’s flag flying.

I landed at Alexandria on the 4th with the Admiral. Those of the inhabitants who had remained, as well as the Arabs of the neighbourhood, appeared to be tolerably well recovered from their fright, and in a way of acquiring a little confidence. There were in the Bazar (market-place) sheep, pigeons, tobacco, and a number of barbers; who place the head of their customers between their knees; and who, at first, seem rather preparing to twist their necks off than to shave them; they have, however, a very light hand, and go through their business skillfully. I saw also some women: they were muffled up in long vestments, which left nothing to be seen but the eyes; a mode of dress which put me in mind of the penitents of our southern provinces.

This city, which is still said to contain 10,000 inhabitants, has nothing of the ancient Alexandria but the name—the Arabs, indeed, call it Scanderia. The ruins of its former circuit announce that it was once a most extensive place, and might well contain the 300,000 people which historians have given it. But the despotism and stupor which followed that period, and the discovery of the route to India by the Cape of Good Hope, have successively reduced it to the miserable state in which it now lies.

It is a mere heap of ruins, where you see a paltry hovel of mud and straw stuck against the magnificent fragments of a granite column! The streets are not paved. This image of desolation is rendered the more striking by being within view of two objects, which have passed uninjured through the lapse of ages that has devoured every thing around them. One is what is called Pompey’s Column, but which was raised by Severus; this I have only seen at a distance: the other, which is called Cleopatra’s Needle, I have examined closely. It is an obelisk formed of a single piece of granite, exceedingly well preserved. As far as I could judge from my eye, it is about 72 of our feet in height, and 7 feet square at the base, and 4 towards the summit; it is covered with hieroglyphics on every side. A few date-trees are scattered here and there about the country. It is a melancholy looking tree, which, at a distance, bears some resemblance to a fir that has been stript of all its branches to the top.

Such is the coast of this country, so fertile in the interior! And which, under an enlightened government, might see once more revived the age of Alexander and the Ptolemites.

Arrived at head quarters, which are fixed near the northern extremity of the city, we found an activity, an appearance of life which we had not been used to for a long time: some of the troops disembarking, others repairing for their march across the desert to Rosetta—Generals, soldiers, Turks, Arabs, camels—all together formed a contrast which presented a very lively picture of the Revolution(7) which was about to change the face of the country.

In the midst of this confusion appeared the Commander in Chief, regulating the march of the army, the police of the city, and the precautions to be taken against the plague;--tracing out new fortifications, combining the operations of the fleet with those of the army, and expediting, in conjunction with the Arabs who had submitted, proclamations to the tribes who had taken the alarm. A most striking example was made at this instant: a soldier was brought in, who had stolen a poignard from a friendly Arab; the face was ascertained, and the culprit was instantly shot on the spot.

In consequence of this, an entire tribe of Arabs, consisting of 3000, sent deputies the next day to the Commander in Chief, to swear a lasting friendship between the two nations, under pain of damnation! They brought with them some prisoners, among whom was one of our women, whom they had beaten. This tribe will furnish us with armed soldiers; others will assuredly imitate their example. War with the Mameloucs, peace with the Arabs! Such is the cry which will swell our armies, and sweep before us the oppressors of this part of the world.

I am obliged to break off—the vessel is going. I have not time to read it over, to see if it be correctly copied; this must be my excuse.




[British Translators' Notes]

(1) It appears from the next letter, which is under the same signature, and which the reader will find well worthy of his serious attention, that Jaubert was first Commissary to the fleet. The cover of this letter is either lost or mislaid, but it was probably addressed to his brother, one of the Generals of the French army in Italy.

(2) In the original it is “Savary’s, or some other,”—what other Jaubert might allude to we know not, nor, perhaps, the writer himself; but certainly Savary’s is good for nothing.

It is this man’s rhapsodical and delusive panegyric on Egypt which appears to have increased, in a considerable degree, the old bias of the French government towards the seizure of that country; it also seems to be the only Vade-Mecum of the Savans, and leaders of the expedition, who appear to have placed an implicit confidence in it. The former, at least as far as we know, have not made any advances towards a recantation of their credulity; for, as the great Pangloss well observed, when he spat out his last tooth in the hospital, “it does not become a philosopher to change his opinions;” but the latter have loudly and frequently declared their sorrow and indignation at having been so miserably misled.

(3)The astonishment of the remaining Alexandrines, at finding the French did not cut their throats, may be tolerably well accounted for (no offence to Mons. Jaubert’s sagacity!) by a slight perusal of Citizen Boyer’s long letter to his father, (see No. XXII.) After an indiscriminate massacre of these unoffending people (unless it be an offence to dispute the possession of their lives and properties, with a rapacious and blood-thirsty horde of strangers) “for a space of four hours;” the trembling survivors might reasonably wonder at their being spared, and read with pleasure (or, if Mons. Jaubert will have it so, “with transports of joy,”) any thing that promised a temporary cessation of the wanton cruelties of their invaders.

(4)See the APPENDIX, No. I.

(5)Jaubert would have made no bad coadjutor to Hebert, the original Pere du Chene. The same impiety, the same disregard of decency, and the same readiness to adopt every prejudice of the people for the sake of turning them to the purposes of pillage and proscription!

Hypocrisy of every kind is bad; but the hypocrisy of Atheism is monstrous! It adds cowardice to guilt.

Now we are on this subject, it may not be amiss to mention that the passage before us puts the authenticity of Bonaparte’s proclamation out of dispute. Our readers cannot have forgotten with what sturdiness the Opposition writers (out of a tender regard, we suppose, for the pious memory of their favourite Chief) first maintained that it was fabricated in this country, and then, when it appeared in France mutilated and disguised—(as, on account of Spain, an open profession of Mahometanism is not yet, perhaps thought prudent)—with what versatility they veered round, and allowed that Bonaparte had, indeed, published a proclamation, but that it was only to be found in its genuine state in the French papers.

We enter into no cavils with these gentlemen. Our translation is made from faithful rendering of the original Arabic, by the Dragoman of our Embassy at the Port, and the reader who turns to it, will perfectly comprehend the sneer of Jaubert at the part played by the Maronite, or Christian priest!

(6)We have given Bonaparte’s address to the vice Admiral in the Appendix; it is in his unusual style of insolence. With respect to the farce played on board the l’Orient, by the Turkish messenger, we do not believe a word of it; this, however, is certain at all events, that if any such mummery took place, it was not the Turk that was duped by it!

(7)This is no bad picture of the restless spirit of these people. Whether abroad or at home, their expectations are the same. In every chance-medley they discover the destruction of empires; and a confusion of any kind (though but of men and camels,) is to them the certain pledge of approaching revolutions!

No comments: