Wednesday, November 7, 2007

"In the Hands of a Civilized Nation" Egypt "Would Become a Mine of Wealth"

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. 147-162.


Grand Cairo, July 28th.

My dear Parents,

OUR entrance into this city furnishes me with an opportunity of writing to you(1); and as my design is to make you fully acquainted with an expedition no less singular than astonishing, I shall take the liberty of recapitulating our achievements since the day we left Toulon.

The land army, composed of 30,000 men, embarked at Marseilles, Toulon, Genoa, and Civita Vecchia, set sail on the 19th of May, under the convoy of 15 sail of the line (two of which were armed en flute[2]) 14 frigates, and several smaller ships of war. The convoy altogether formed a total of more than 400 sail; and never perhaps, since the Crusades, has so large an armament appeared in the Mediterranean.

Without calculating the dangers of the element on which we were embarked, or those which we had to apprehend from an enemy formidable at sea, we steered with a favourable wind for Malta, where we arrived on the 10th of June. The conquest of this important place cost us but a few men. It capitulated on the 12th—the Order was abolished, and the Grand Master packed off to Germany with a budget of fine promises; in a word, every thing succeeded to our wish. Time, however, was precious—we had no leisure to amuse ourselves with calculating the advantages to be derived from the possession of Malta; for an English squadron of 13 sail of the line, commanded by Nelson, was at anchor in the Bay of Naples(3), and watched all our motions. Bonaparte, informed of this, scarce gave us time to take in water: he ordered the fleet to weight immediately, and, on the 18th of June, we were already in full sail for the second object of our expedition. We fell in with Candia on the 25th, and on the 30th our light vessels made Alexandria.

Admiral Nelson had been off the city on the noon of this very day; and proposed to the Turks to anchor in the port, by way of securing it against us; but as his proposal was not accepted, he stood on for Cyprus; while we, profiting by his errors, and turning even his stupidity to our own advantage, made good our landing on the 2d of July, at Marabou. The whole army was on shore by break of day, and Bonaparte putting himself at their head, marched straight to Alexandria, across a desert of three leagues, which did not even afford a drop of water, in a climate where the heat is insupportable.

Notwithstanding all these difficulties, we reached the town, which was defended by a garrison of near 500 Janizaries. Of the rest of the inhabitants, some had thrown themselves into the forts, and others got on the tops of their houses. In this situation they waited our attack. The charge is sounded—our soldiers fly to the ramparts, which they scale, in spite of the obstinate defence of the besieged: many Generals are wounded, amongst the rest Kleber—we lose near 150 men, but courage, at length, subdues the obstinacy of the Turks! Repulsed on every side, they betake themselves to God and their Prophet, and fill their mosques—men, women, old, young, children at the breast, ALL are massacred(4). At the end of four hours, the fury of our troops ceases—tranquility revives in the city—several forts capitulate—I myself reduce one into which 700 Turks had fled—confidence springs up—and, by the next day, all is quiet.

It will not be amiss, I think, to make a short digression just here—for the sake of informing you of the object of this expedition, and of the causes which have induced Bonaparte to take possession of Egypt.

France, by the different events of the war and the Revolution, having lost her colonies and her factories, must inevitably see her commerce decline, and her industrious inhabitants compelled to procure at second hand the most essential articles of their trade. Many weighty reasons must compel her to look upon the recovery of those colonies, if not impossible, yet altogether unlikely to produce any of the advantages which were derived from them before they became a scene of devastation and horror; especially, if we may add to this, the decree for abolishing the slave trade.

To indemnify itself, therefore, for this loss, which may be considered as realized, the Government turned its views towards Egypt and Syria; countries which, by their climate and their fertility, are capable of being made the storehouses of France, and, in process of time, the mart of her commerce with India. It is certain, that by seizing and organizing these countries, we shall be enabled to extend our views still further; to annihilate, by degrees, the English East India trade, enter into it with advantage ourselves; and, finally, get into our hands the whole commerce of Africa and of Asia.

These, I think, are the considerations which have induced the Government to undertake the present expedition against Egypt.

This part of the Ottoman dominion has been for many ages governed by a species of men called Mameloucs, who, having a number of Beys at their head, disavow the authority of the Grand Seignior, and rule despotically and tyrannically, a people and a country, which, in the hands of a civilized nation, would become a mine of wealth.

To gain possession of Egypt, then, it is necessary to subdue these Mameloucs(5); they are in number about 8000—al cavalry—under the command of 24 Beys. It is of consequence to give you some idea of these people, their manner of making war, their arms, defensive and offensive, and their origin.

Every Mamelouc is purchased—they are all from Georgia and Mount Caucasus—there are a great number of Germans and Russians amongst them, and even some French. Their religion is Mahometanism: exercised from their infancy in the military art, they acquire an extraordinary degree of dexterity in the management of their horses, in shooting with the carabine and pistol, in throwing the lance, and in wielding the sabre; there have been instances of their severing, at one blow, a head of wet cotton.

Every Mamelouc has two, three, and sometimes four servants, who follow him on foot wherever he goes; nay, even to the field. The arms of a Mamelouc on horseback, are two carabines, carried by his servants—these are never fired but once—two pair of pistols stuck in his girdle; eight light lances in a kind of quiver, which he flings with admirable dexterity; and an iron headed mace. When all these are discharged, he comes to his last resource—his two sabers: putting, then, the bridle of his horse between his teeth, he takes one of them in each hand, and rushes full speed upon the foe, cutting and slashing to right and left. Woe be to those who cannot parry his blows! For some of them have been known to cleave a man down the middle. Such are the people with whom we are at war! I shall now proceed with my narrative.

Having organized a government at Alexandria, and secured a communication(6) with the read of our army, Bonaparte ordered every man to furnish himself with five day’s provisions, and made preparations for passing a desert of twenty leagues in extent, in order to arrive at the mouth of the Nile, and ascend that celebrated stream to Grand Cairo—the prime object of his expedition. We began our march on the 5th of July, and reached the river by easy stages, falling in, on our route, with some detached parties of the Mameloucs, who retired as we advanced. It was not till the 12th, that General Bonaparte learned that the Beys were marching to meet him, with their united forces, and that he might expect to be attacked the next day: he marched therefore in order of battle, and took the necessary precautions.

Bonaparte sent me forward to gain intelligence, with three armed sloops; with this little flotilla I advanced about three leagues in front of the army. I landed at every village on both sides of the Nile, to gain what information I could respecting the Mameloucs; in some I was fired at, in others received with kindness, and offered provisions. In one of them I met with an adventure as laughable(7) as it is singular: the Cheik of the place having collected all his people to meet me, came forward from the rest, and demanded to know by what right the Christians were come to seize a country which belonged to the Grand Seignior. I answered him, that it was the will of God and his Prophet to bring us there. But, rejoined he, the King of France ought at least to have informed the Sultan of this step. I assured him that this had been done; and he then asked me how our King did? I replied, very well; upon which he swore by his turban and his beard, that he would always look on me as his friend. I took advantage of the kindness of these good people, collected all the information I could, and continuing my route up the Nile, came to anchor for the night opposite a village called Chebriki, where the Mameloucs were collected in force, and where the first action took place.

I sent off my dispatches to the Commander in Chief that night; in these I gave him all the information I had been able to obtain respecting the Mameloucs.

As soon as the day broke, I clambered up the mast of my vessel, and discovered six Turkish shalops bearing down upon me; at the same time I was reinforced by a demi-galley. I drew out my little fleet to meet them, and at half after four a cannonade began between us, which lasted five hours; in spite of the enemy’s superiority, I made head against them, they continued nevertheless to advance upon me, and I lost for a moment the demi-galley, and one of the gun-boats. Yielding, however, was out of the question, it was absolutely necessary to conquer;--in this dreadful moment our army came up, and I was disengaged. One of the enemy’s vessels blew up. Such was the termination of our naval combat.

While this was passing, the Mameloucs advanced upon our army; they rode round and round it, without finding any point where an impression might be made, and, indeed, without any attempt at it. I presume, that, astonished at the manner in which our columns were drawn up, they were induced to put off to a future day the decision of their fortune and their empire. This affair was trifling enough in itself, the Mameloucs only lost about 20 men, but we reaped a considerable advantage from it, that of having given an extraordinary idea of our tactics to an enemy acquainted with any; who knows of no other superiority in arms than that of sleight and agility; without order to firmness, unable even to march in platoons, advancing in confused groups, and falling upon the enemy in sudden starts of wild and savage fury.

After the retreat of the Mameloucs, we advanced upon Cairo, where the decisive action took place. It was, in fine, on the 22d of July, that the army found itself at daybreak about three leagues from Cairo, and give from the so much celebrated Pyramids. Here the Mameloucs, commanded by the famous Mourad, the most powerful of the Beys, awaited us: till three in the afternoon the day was wasted in skirmishes; at length the hour arrived! Our army, flanked on the right by the Pyramids, and on the left by the Nile, perceived the enemy was making a movement. Two thousand Mameloucs advanced against our right, commanded by General Desaix and Regnier. Never did I see so furious a charge! Giving their horse the rein, they rushed on the divisions like a torrent, and pushed in between them. Our soldiers, firm and immoveable, let them come within ten paces, and then began a running fire, accompanied with some discharges of artillery; in the twinkling of an eye more than 150 of them fell, the rest sought their safety in flight. They returned, however, to the charge, and were received in the same manner. Wearied out at length by our resistance, they turned, and attacked out left wing, to see if fortune would there be more favorable to them.

The success of our right encouraged Bonaparte. The Mameloucs had thrown up a hasty entrenchment in the village of Embabet, on the left bank of the Nile, in which they had placed thirty pieces of cannon, with their valets, and a small number of Janizaries to defend their approaches—this entrenchment the General gave orders to force; two divisions undertook it, in spite of a terrible cannonade. At the instant our soldiers were rapidly advancing towards it, six hundred Mameloucs sallied from the works, surrounded our platoons, and endeavoured to cut them down;--but, instead of succeeding, met their own deaths. Three hundred of them dropt on the spot; and the rest, in their attempt to escape, threw themselves into the Nile, where they all perished. Despairing now of any success, the Mameloucs fled on all sides; set fire to their fleet, which soon after blew up, and abandoned their camp to us, with more than four hundred camels loaded with baggage.

Thus ended the day, to the confusion of an enemy who were possessed with the belief that they should cut us in pieces; and who had boasted that it was as easy to cut off the heads of a thousand Frenchmen, as to divide a gourd or a melon(8).

The army marched on that night to Gizeh; the residence of Murat, the Chief of the Mameloucs. The next day we crossed the Nile in flat-bottomed boats, and entered Cairo without resistance.

Here ends the narrative of our military operations. I propose now to give you some account of the miseries we underwent in our march, together with a brief description of the country we have traversed, and of the inhabitants.

Let us return to Alexandria.—This city has nothing of its antiquity but the name—if there be any other relicks(9) of it, they remain utterly unregarded and unknown, among a people, who appear to be scarce conscious of their own existence. Figure to yourself being incapable of feeling, taking events just as they occur, and surprised at nothing; who with a pipe in his mouth, has no other occupation than that of squatting on his breech before his own door, or that of some great man, and dreaming away the day, without a thought of his wife or family. Figure to yourself too, a number of mothers strolling about, wrapped up in a dirty black rage, and offering to sell their children to every one they meet;--Men half naked, of the colour of copper, and of a most disgusting appearance, raking in the puddles and kennels like hogs, and devouring every thing they find there;--houses of twenty feet in height at the most, of which the roof is flat, the interior a stable, and the exterior four mud walls.—Figure to yourself all this, I day,and you will have a pretty correct idea of the city of Alexandria. Add, that around this mass of misery and horror, lie the ruins of the most celebrated city of the ancient world, the most precious monuments of the arts.

Leaving this city to ascend the Nile, you cross a desert, bare as my hand, where every three or four leagues you find a paltry well of brackish water. Imagine yourself the situation of an army obliged to pass these arid plains, which do not afford the slightest shelter against the intolerable heat which prevails there! The soldier, loaded with provisions, finds himself, before he has marched an hour, overcome by the heat, and the weight of what he carries, and throws away every thing that adds to his fatigue, without thinking of tomorrow. Thirst attacks him! He has not a drop of water; hunger!—he has not a bit of bread. It was thus that amidst the horrors which this faithful picture presents, we beheld several of the soldiers die of thirst, of hunger, and of heat; others, seeing the sufferings of their comrades, blew out their own brains; others threw themselves, loaded as they were, into the Nile, and perished in the water.

Every day of our march renewed these dreadful scenes; and, what was never heard of before—what will stagger all belief; the army, during a march of seventeen days, never tasted bread—the soldiers lived during the whole of this time on gourds, melons, poultry, and such vegetables as they found on their route. Such as the food of all, from the General to the common soldier,--nay, the General was often obliged to fast for eighteen to twenty hours, because the privates generally arriving first, plundered the villages of every article of subsistence, and frequently reduced him to the necessity of satisfying himself with the refuse of their hunger, or of their imtemperance!

It is useless to speak of our drink. We all live here under the law of Mahomet, which forbids the use of wine; but, by way of indemnity, allows us as much Nile water as we can drink.

Shall I give you some account of the country between the two branches of the Nile? To do this properly, I must lay before you a topographical chart of the course and direction of the river.

Two leagues below Cairo it divides itself into two branches; one of which falls into sea at Rosetta; the other at Damietta: the intermediate country is called the Delta, and is extremely fertile. Along the outer sides of the two branches, runs a slip of cultivated land, broader in some places than in others, but no where more than a league: beyond this are the Deserts, extending on the left to Lybia, and on the right to the Red Sea. From Rosetta to Cairo, the country is well peopled, and produces a good deal of wheat, rice, lentils &c. The villages are crowded together-their construction is execrable, being little more than heaps of mud trodden into some consistency, hollowed out within; and resembling, in every feature, the snow heaps of our children. If you recollect the shape of those oven-like piles, you have a perfect idea of the palaces of the Egyptians!

The husbandmen, commonly called Fellas, are extremely laborious; they live on little, and in a state of filth and degradation that excites horror. I have seen them swallow the residue of the water which my camels and horses happened to leave in their troughs.

Such is this Egypt, so celebrated by travelers and historians! In despite, however, of all these horrors, of the hardships we endure, and of the miseries the army is condemned to suffer, I am still inclined to think that it is a country calculated above all others to give us a colony which may be productive of the highest advantages(10); but for this, time and hands are necessary. I have seen enough to be convinced, that it is not with soldiers as ours! They are terrible in the field, terrible after victory(11), and, without contradiction, the most intrepid troops in the world: but they are not formed for distant expeditions. A word dropt at random, will dishearten them—they are lazy, capricious, and exceedingly turbulent and licentious in their conversation—they have been heard to say, as their officers passed by, “there go the Jack Ketches of the French!” and a thousand other things of the same kind.

The cup of bitterness is poured out, and I will drain it to the dregs. I have on my side firmness, health, and a spirit which I trust will never flag: with these I will persevere to the end.

I have yet said nothing of Grand Cairo. This city, the capital of a kingdom, which, to borrow the language of the Savans of the country, has no bounds, contains about 400,000 souls. Its form is that of a long shaft or tunnel, crowded with houses piled one upon another, without order, distribution, or method of any kind. Its inhabitants, like those of Alexandria, are plunged in the most brutal ignorance, and regard with astonishment the prodigy who is able to read and write! This city, however, such as I have described it, is the centre of a considerable commerce, and the spot where the caravans of Mecca and India terminate their respective journies (My next will give you some account of these caravans).

I went yesterday to see the installation of the Divan, which Bonaparte has formed. It consists of nine persons(12). And such a sight! I was introduced to nine bearded automatons, dressed in long robes, and turbans; and whose mien and appearance altogether, put me strongly in mind of the figures of the twelve apostles in my grandfather’s little cabinet. I shall say nothing to you of their talents, knowledge, genius, wit, &c.—this is always a blank chapter in Turkey. No where is there to be found such a deplorable ignorance as in every part of that country—no where such wealth, and no where so vile and sordid is a misuse of the blessing.

Enough of this. I have now, I think, fulfilled my intentions: many topics have been doubtless overlooked; but these deficiencies will be well supplied by the dispatches of General Bonaparte.

Do not entertain any uneasiness on my account. I suffer, it is true, but the whole army suffers with me. My baggage has reached me in safety; I have, therefore, in the general distress, all the advantages of fortune. Once again, be easy; I am in good health.

Take care of your healths; in less than a year I hope to have the happiness of embracing you. I know how to appreciate that happiness in advance, as I will one day shew you.

I embrace my sisters with the sincerest affection, and am with respect,

Your most obedient son,



[British Translators' Notes]

(1)This letter has embarrassed us considerably. It bears the same signature as the preceding; and yet we can with difficulty persuade ourselves that it was written by the same person. The letter which the reader has just seen, is from a master hand, confident of knowledge, and deciding on facts without periphrasis, or affectation. The present, which is also well written, and with a sufficient knowledge of the transaction it records, is very inferior to it in simplicity, and manly decision.

The writer is incessantly labouring to say every thing in the finest manner, and doles out his little modicums of information in a style of gravity and self-importance, that has sometimes made us smile. With all this, however, the letter is very creditable to the author’s abilities. It furnishes, besides, many important facts, and it discovers, amidst a great solicitude to conceal it, that the French troops have been miserably duped by their government, and that they are rapidly hastening to total and irremediable distruction.

We were at first inclined to believe that the difference which we remarked in the style and manner of the two letters might originate in their being written to different persons: one an experienced commander, to whom it was necessary to represent things as they really were! The other, a parent ignorant, perhaps, of military affairs, and likely to be much better pleased with a florid narrative of extraordinary events, than with a brief relation of storming towns without walls, and gaining victories without enemies!—But on reconsidering the matter, we think the variation too considerable to be even thus accounted for. We frankly confess that we have no other solution of the difficulty to offer; and we, therefore, leave the whole to the reader: only repeating our first assertion, that the writing and the name subscribed to this and the preceding letter, are to the best of our judgment the same.

(2)These were Venitian sixty-fours. In his enumeration of the forces embarked, Boyer, omits those that were taken on board, at Ajaccio, and who amounted to several thousand: his list of ships of war is correct.

(3)It is unnecessary to say that this was not the case. Once for all, we must observe, that we have seldom thought it necessary to take notice of such geographical and historical blunders as appear in this correspondence;--the present letter, for instance, has several of both kind; but we leave them to the reader.

(4)These, then, are the triumphs of the “Hero of Italy!” of the “fond object of Mr. Wakefield’s daily and nightly solicitude!” of—but we dare not trust ourselves with the subject. On this man, and his sanguinary admirers, be the blood of this innocent people; and the ineffable contempt and abhorrence that naturally follow cruelties without motive or end, and base and abject panegyrics on their savage perpetrators!

(5)This is a better reason for declaring war against them, than the perculations of a Bey who has been dead these twenty years. But this is not the only instance in which the hypocrisy and falsehood of Bonaparte have been completely detected and exposed by the inadvertency of his agents. It is true, indeed, that we want no testimonies but those of our own eyes and our own understanding to convince us of his real motives; but still, it is not unpleasant nor unprofitable to be told of them, from time to time, by persons whose information can neither be disputed nor denied.

We recommend the three or four paragraphs preceding this, to the reader’s serious attention.

(6)We have spoken of this organization in our Introduction. The “communication that was kept up with the rear of the “army,” is almost too ridiculous to be mentioned. It never existed, it never can exist, with Bonaparte’s present numbers; and every letter, and Boyer’s among the rest, proves that before the General was out of sight of Alexandria, his communication with it was as completely cut off as if the Alps stood between them.

(7)Boyer’s ideas of humour are not extremely correct. We see nothing very facetious in a blasphemous falsehood, nor in basely availing himself of the name of his murdered King, to deceive a hospitable stranger, ignorant alike of him and his nation. This little anecdote is not, however, without its use; it proves with what truth these secluded people are represented as having injured the French; and with what justice they are delivered over in consequence of it, to pillage, murder, and utter devastation!

(8)Boyer subjoins that this is an Asiatic phrase:--the phrase may be Asiatic for ought we know, but the idea we hazard little in affirming to be Europeans. It is but changing “Frenchmen” to the “slaves of despots,” and “cutting off heads” to “biting the dust,” and the dispatches of Bonaparte himself will furnish Boyer with a thousand of those empty flourishes.

Ut nemo in sense tentat descendere, nemo;
Sed praecedenti spectatur mantica tergo!

(9)Here are two or three words obliterated in the original; these we have ventured to guess at, we know not with what success.

(10)There spoke a true Frenchman. Every circumstance proves that Egypt is wholly incapable of becoming a profitable colony to France, and Boyer himself is fully convinced of it; yet, in spite of his better knowledge, he drops the assurance of the fact, and is the fallacious expectations of future advantages, consoles himself for present disappointments!

(11)Alluding, perhaps, to the massacre at Alexandria.

No comments: