Friday, November 2, 2007

Life in Egypt Described as a State of "Perpetual Vexation"

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. 106-109.


Rosetta, in Egypt, July 27th.

I HOPE, child, that this letter will reach thee; I send it by a particular opportunity, and it is, perhaps, the only one of all that I have written to thee since my departure from Malta which will come safe to hand. As for me, I have not once heard from thee since I left Toulon, notwithstanding two advice boats have arrived within the last six days, and brought a vast number of letters.

I presume that thy letters were put on board the corvette which was taken by the English; in that case, I cannot hope to hear from thee for some time, an idea that distresses me almost beyond bearing. My situation is so grievous, that I shall sink under it if I am deprived of that consolation. Exert thyself, therefore, my love, and write to me so frequently, that I may at least stand a chance of hearing from thee once or twice. Thou must needs be assured that my anxiety on thy account is very great. I could send thee but a little money by Capt. Collot; at present I have not the power of transmitting a single sous. I am more than hundred miles from Citizen Magallon(1), and I foresee that I shall be able to send thee nothing before I get to Cairo.

I fear that we have all been terribly deceived with respect to this expedition, so fine, and so cried up! Nay, I am even apprehensive, that if we succeed in conquering Egypt, we shall still find prodigious difficulties in drawing from it all those advantages which we so fondly promised ourselves. We experience every where a great deal of resistance, and a greater still of treachery. It is impossible for one of us to walk out alone a musket shot from any inhabited place without running the risk of being assassinated, or of becoming the victim of a detestable passion, much in the vogue in this country, especially among the Mameloucs, and Bedouin Arabs. I know several who were seized about nightfall in the very streets of Alexandria, and compelled to undergo this shocking outrage.

Rosetta is much more tranquil than Alexandria. Its inhabitants are more civilized, and we are consequently exposed to fewer dangers: notwithstanding this, however, we maintain the greatest circumspection in our individual conduct, and the strictest police, nay even a degree of severity in our general administration.

This country, so much celebrated, is by no means worthy of the character it has obtained; the most savage and uncultivated spot in France is a thousand times more beautiful. Nothing on earth can be so gloomy, so wretched, and so unhealthy as Alexandria, the most commercial spot in Egypt! Houses of mud, with no other windows than a hole here and there, covered with a clumsy wooden lattice; no raised roofs, and doors which you must break your back to enter; briefly, figure to thyself a collection of dirty, ill built, pigeonhouses, and thou wilt have an adequate idea of Alexandria.

The streets are all narrow and crooked, and without pavement, so that one is continually incommoded by the dust, and excessive heat. When the inhabitants take it into their heads to water the streets before the doors of their hovels, the remedy is worse than the disease; the dust is instantly converted into mud, and the streets become altogether impassable. Every thing there is very scarce and very dear; add to all this, the difficulty of making ones-self understood, and the thousand other disagreeable circumstances which I have not the power to describe, and thou wilt be able to form a tolerable opinion of our situation.

I must, however, allow, that since I came here, I have been less wretched. The face of the country is a little more agreeable. The Nile produces a small quantity of verdure; and the sight of the palm-tree (though extremely monotonous, from the circumstance of its being the only tree to be found here), in some trifling degree refreshes the eye; but nothing is calculated to engage or amuse the imagination, and thou may’st easily conceive, that in a country like this, and in a situation productive of so much pain and inquietude, that faculty must needs be extremely active; as the objects around us, therefore, are dark and gloomy, the thoughts necessarily take a tinge from them, and we live in a state of perpetual spleen and vexation----

[British Translators' Notes]

The remainder of this interesting letter has received so much injury as to be illegible. We regret it the less, as after the correct and spirited picture of the country which we have just seen, the writer probably returned to his own immediate concerns. We know not who he is; it only appears from a few words which we can make a shift to decipher towards the conclusion, that he was first clerk to Poussielgue, Comptroller of the expences of the army.

(1)Consul General at Alexandria. He was at this time with the army at Cairo.

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