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. 3, pp. 122-151
Cairo, September 22, 1799.
E. POUSSIELGUE, Comptroller of the Expences of the Army, and Administrator-general of the Finances of Egypt, to the EXECUTIVE DIRECTORY.
I HAVE been exclusively charged, since the arrival of the army in Egypt, with the administration of the finances, and of the other departments connected with the political economy of this country.
I conceive I owe you, after the departure of the General Bonaparte, and in the critical situation in which he left us, a concise but faithful representation of the observations which I have collected, and the political opinions which naturally flow from them.
Travelers, and even the agents of the French Government, who have been in Egypt, have so cordially agreed in the exaggerated ideas which they have disseminated respecting the natural riches, and the treasures which this country contains, that a residence of fifteen months, with multiplied researches, and experiments by a great number of enlightened men, have not yet totally effaced the false impressions they had given.
The ordinary revenues, including the customs, were estimated from 49 to 50,000,000; some have even carried them as far as 60,000,000.
They can only be reckoned, in time of peace, at 19,000,000; a system of commerce well managed, and well protected, might raise them to 20,000,000.
In time of war (such as that in which we have been incessantly engaged) the revenues do not, by any means, exceed 12 or 13,000,000.
Abundance in Egypt depends, first, on a good Nile, and secondly, on the distribution of the water: every year the canals must be cleaned out, the dikes repaired, and care taken that none of them be cut sooner or later than the common interest appears to require.
The distribution and the maintenance of the canals are very far from being carried here to that degree of utility which one would expect to find in a country, whose fertility entirely depends on the observation of these two circumstances.
Even when the Nile is good, a great quantity of land remains uncultivated, for want of order in cutting the dikes: but when the Nile is bad, or middling, the loss is ten times greater than it ought to be, because all the villages being equally afraid of wanting water, those who border on the river hasten, before the proper time, to cut the dikes: which is never done without a contest with the villages interested in opposing it: and by this inconsiderate method of proceeding, a great part of the water, already so scarce, is lost without procuring the least advantage.
But however productive the harvests may be, they cannot, under the present system, increase the revenues of the Government, although it be itself proprietor of two-thirds of the lands of Egypt; while, on the other hand, a bad Nile diminishes them considerably.
The Egyptian system of finance is entirely feudal.
The peasant ploughs and sows for his own advantage, in consideration of a fixed rent which he pays in money, or in kind, to the proprietor.
This rent may be divided into three distinct heads.
The Miri: this is a kind of ground-rent due to the Grand Seignor; the proprietor receives and pays in to the Effendi appointed to collect it.
This Miri, imposed on the lands, amounts to 3,000,000 livres, according to the rent-rolls which fell into my hands.
The second kind of rent is called Barani, or Moudaf; it is composed, first, of an over-charge of income, laid on by the proprietor by way of requisitions of every kind, made on the village, either of money or of produce. Thirdly, of expenses caused by the passage of the troops, or by the visits of the proprietor. Fourthly, of all the official charges of the village and the province, pious foundations, &c. &c. These united, produce from all the landed property of Egypt, 6,400,000.
Besides this, there is a sum of 1,300,000 arising from the duties which the Cachess used to collect for their own advantage in the provinces which they governed.
Thus it appears that the sum total of the revenues in specie which are raised from the cultivators of the lands of Egypt (exclusive of the immense peculations of the Copts who collect them) amount pretty nearly to 14,000,000.
From there must be deducted 3,200,000 livres for the fais and the baranis of the lands which do not appertain to the Government, and which are estimated at a third of Egypt: there will then remain to the Government 10,800,000.
It is not possible to obtain more than this, without making advances, or exactions.
To this revenue must be added the fais and barani which is paid in kind. This only takes place in the provinces of Upper Egypt.
This is estimated at 1,800,000 quintals of all kinds of grain, for that portion which belongs to the Government: taking the whole as equivalent to 1,000,000 quintals of good wheat, at 3 livres 10 fols each, it will amount to 3,500,000 livres.
From this must be deducted 850,000 for the expenses of collecting and carrying, which amount to 17 fols for every quintal delivered at Cairo: there remain then 2,650,000 livres.
In time of peace the produce of the customs and of the other indirect duties is usually stated at about 5,000,000.
The Mint produces 750,000.
From this it appears that the revenues of the government in time of peace will be 19,200,000 livres; but in the state of war in which we are, the customs and indirect revenues do not produce more than 1,500,000.
The grain of Upper Egypt which is not sold on the spot, and which we have no sufficient means to bring down the country, will not produce more than a million. The discharges that must be given to the villages for the lands not watered, will amount to more than 1,500,000.
There must still be deducted a number of charges and pensions granted to the country, and which we have been obliged to continue; the expenses of the caravan to Mecca, which were partly supplied by us last year, and which must be wholly so, this; the expenses of the Divans of the Provinces, and of the Janissaries of the country: all these will take off nearly 3,000,000.
It is not possible, then, to take the revenues appropriated to the army at more than 9 of the 10,000,000; of this sum there only remains about 2,000,000 to be obtained from this period to the 20th of December next.
General Bonaparte levied in the first months of our arrival on the different nations, and on the merchants, about 4,000,000 livres of extraordinary contributions. He also laid a duty of two-fifths of a year’s revenue on the landed property of individuals, which brought in about 1,2000,000.
These expedients are worn out. No more extraordinary contributions can be looked for in a country where all trade has been at an end for nineteen months. The money of the Christians is exhausted; we cannot ask the Turks for any without occasioning a revolt, and, besides, we should in no case obtain it. The money is hid; and the Turks, still more than the Christians, suffer themselves to be imprisoned, to be beaten in the most cruel manner; nay, SOME OF THEM HAVE EVEN SUFFERED THEIR HEADS TO BE CUT OFF RATHER THAN DISCOVER WHERE THEY HAD CONCEALED THEIR TREASURES!
The collection of the revenues begins in November for the rice-grounds; in January for the land appropriated to wheat, and other articles which pay in money; and in June for those which pay in kind.
The peasantry are still more tenacious of their money than the inhabitants of the towns; they never pay but when they are absolutely forced into it, and even then sous by sous: their money is hid, their produce and their other property buried in the ground; they know they must pay at last, and that by doing it voluntarily, and at the regular periods, they might save themselves from those violent measures which always cost them double, or ruin them. They prefer waiting for a column of troops; if they see them coming, they immediately flee with their wives, their children, and their cattle; and the soldiers find nothing at their arrival but a number of empty hovels. If they fancy themselves strong enough to resist, they give battle, and call in the neighboring villages, and even the Arabs, to their assistance. They have always scouts abroad to give them timely notice of the approach of the troops.
Sometimes it is possible to seize the chiefs of the village. They are thrown into prison, and kept there till the village has discharged what is due: this expedient is tedious, and does not always succeed. If we are fortunate enough to carry off their camels, buffaloes, and sheep, they suffer them to be sold, instead of attempting to recover them by paying their debt, and expose themselves to the hazard of dying with hunger, leaving their lands uncultivated for the succeeding year!
It is, therefore, absolutely necessary to maintain perpetually in each of the sixteen provinces of Egypt a column of eighty or a hundred men, whose sole employment it is to force the villagers to pay their taxes: very frequently after a long and laborious round the soldiers return with a mere trifle.
It is easy to conjecture all the evils, the excavations, the havoc and waste, and the confusion, which commonly attend those rounds, and which the severest discipline can neither prevent nor remedy.
An inconvenience of a very serious nature arises to prevent the collecting of the taxes during the eight months in which the country is not inundated; it is the period when the Arabs undertake their predatory incursions, when landings are made on the coasts, and when we are threatened with attack from every quarter. It then becomes necessary for us to be continually fighting; and a column of troops has scarce begun to move forward, before it is compelled to fall back, in order to punish the revolted villages, or to expel the Mameloucs and the Arabs!
The collection of grain is still more difficult. Like the tax in specie, it is absolutely necessary to compel the villages, at the point of the bayonet, to pay what is due; it must then be taken to the magazines on the banks of the Nile, embarked in boats, and sent down the river to Cairo.
When the two first difficulties are overcome, the third, more difficult than their, still remains, on account of the small number of boats which can be found for these convoys, and the short time they can be used, which is only during the four months in which the Nile is navigable. Since our arrival a prodigious number of boats have been cut up and burnt for want of other fuel; these neither have, nor can by any possible means, be replaced; a part of what is left is constantly employed in following the movements of the troops who are in pursuit of Mourad Bey.
Last year we were obliged to purchase for ready money at Cairo, notwithstanding the scarcity of specie, corn for the subsistence of the army, to the amount of more than 300,000 livres, though we had at that very time several millions worth in Upper Egypt.
This year the boats have been exclusively employed in bringing down the Government stores: the Consequence of this has been an inconvenience of another kind; the city of Cairo is in want of bread, and the uneasiness of the people on the occasion has already produced some degree of fermentation!
In despite of all these disagreeable circumstances, there was last year some specie in the country; some had been brought in by the commerce of the preceding year; and yet, when Bonaparte left us, there were more than 10,000,000 still due to the army, of which the mere pay of the troops amounted to 4,000,000.
At present the specie has entirely disappeared; nothing is now to be seen but medins, which circulate from hand to hand with inconceivable rapidity!
This coin bears but little more than a third of the intrinsic value of the other coins. Before the war, Spanish dollars were brought here in abundance, and the medins carried away: at present the dollars are all taken off by the coffee-trade with Yemen, where they are sent to the mint, and melted down; so that, like the gold coin, they become more valuable as they become more scarce, and the medins more plentiful. The consequence of this is, a rise in the price of every article, and a number of obstacles in the circulation of cash.
The present superabundance of all the mercantile productions of Egypt, arising from the total cessation of foreign trade, is a circumstance still more disagreeable: it will complete the ruin of this country; for the villages being obliged to pay us always the same sums, and unable either to export, or to find a market for, their produce at home, will speedily see their inhabitants reduced to the last stage of misery; while the army, which had so much difficulty to procure money while there was yet some in the country, will shortly be deprived of it altogether.
The military chest is always empty; and for a considerable period to come, we have not the most distant prospect of receiving more than 2 or 300,000 livres a month, while the ordinary expenses amount to more than 1,300,000 for the same space of time.
The natives of this country, notwithstanding their frequent insurrections, may be considered as a mild and tractable people; but they cannot be trusted; they are besides very far from loving us, although they have been treated with more kindness than was ever yet known to any conquered people!!!
The difference of manners, that extremely important one of language, and, above all, their religion, form obstacles of the most insuperable nature to every thing like a sincere affection.
They have the government of the Mameloucs; they dread the yoke of Constantinople; but they will never be brought to endure ours but in the hope of ultimately shaking it off. The only favour they might be disposed to grant, is, to allow us the preference of all the nations which they call Christians.
We have here, on every side of us, ten thousand secret enemies to one open friend!
We had succeeded in maintaining a good intelligence with the Cherif of Mecca; and the letters which he wrote to Bonaparte and myself had quieted for an instant the consciences of the Mussulmen in this country: but we conjecture, from some spires which he has sent to Cairo since the arrival of the Grand Vizier at Damascus, that he has changed his opinion, and, in consequence of the insinuations of the English, who have a force in the Red Sea, gone over to our enemies.
We had 41,000 effective men at our arrival in Egypt. There were then only Mameloucs and Arabs to fight; and yet these constantly and exclusively occupied the whole attention of the army to the end of January.
At present the Mameloucs, though dispersed, are notwithstanding almost all in existence; and may, whenever the attention of the army shall be otherwise occupied, reunite with the utmost promptitude: they have only lost four or five interior chiefs; the principal ones who remain are still powerful, and have a considerable degree of interest.
The Arabs are not at all diminished; they hate us as much as they did at our arrival; and their wandering kind of life renders us no objects of apprehension to them.
When we first landed, the Egyptians believed, AS WE TOLD THEM, that it was with the consent of the Grand Signior, and they submitted with more docility: at present they are perfectly convinced of the contrary. Those who appear to be in our interest conceive themselves authorized, BY OUR LIE, to betray us; they will certainly do it on the first occasion; and their hearts were bounding with joy when the landing took place at Aboukir in August last.
But when to these numerous armies, in the midst of whom we live, are added those from without; when the Grand Vizier, with the principal officers of the Ottoman Court, is assembling all the forces of the Empire to attack us in different points at once, by land and sea, assisted too by England and Russia; when he calls upon all the people of this country to rise against us; and finally, when the few Arabs whom he had attached to us leave us to go over to him; it is not difficult to discovered that our situation is desperate!
The enemy loses an army; he raises another instantly. He was beaten at Mount Tabor, two months after he was beaten at Aboukir; the same period is elapsed, and he is again ready to be beaten at Salahieh! But every victory carries off some of our best troops, and their loss cannot be repaired. A DEFEAT WOULD ANNIHILATE US ALL TO THE LAST MAN; AND HOWEVER BRAVE THE ARMY MAY BE, IT CANNOT LONG AVERT THAT FATAL EVENT!
The war has deprived us of a number of excellent officers, such as General Caffarelli, General Dommartin, General Bon, General Rambault, and General Dupuis; it has also deprived us of almost the whole corps of Engineers, and of a very considerable part of the Chiefs of Brigade, both of infantry and cavalry. Several able General have left us, and Bonaparte has taken five with him.
The army, without clothes, and, above all, without arms, and without stores of any kind, reduced to less than two thirds of its original numbers, has now no more than eleven thousand men capable of taking the field, although about thirteen or fourteen thousand appear under arms; this is owing to the appearance of a great number of soldiers at the roll-call, who prefer, sick and wounded as they are, doing duty at their quarters to staying in the hospitals or in the depots. When they are wanted to march a little farther than usual, or to fight, the force they have put upon themselves instantly appears. Wounds, opthalmies, dysenteries, and other diseases not less common here, have absolutely disabled the rest of the army.
Even those who are in a condition to march are exhausted by fatigue, enfeebled by the climate, and the wounds and sickness which they have endured; and their courage is proportionally diminished.
With this handful of men, we have to cover five hundred leagues of country; overawe three millions of inhabitants, who may be reckoned as so many enemy; and garrison the holds and fortresses of Alexandria, Rosetta, Rahmanie, Gizeh, Benisuef, Medine, Miniet, Siout, Girge, Kene, Coffeir, Cairo, Suez, Mitt Kaniar, Slahieh, El Arisch, Billbeis, Catieh, Damietta, Mansora, Semenoud, and El Benouf. Should the Grand Vizier attack us, we cannot oppose more than five or six thousand men to all the Ottoman forces which will be at his disposal; and should he attack us in two places at once, he will penetrate into the country without a possibility on our side of preventing him: this would certainly have happened to General Bonaparte, if the Turks, while they were landing at Aboukir, had made the Syrian army advance upon Egypt!
In three months, we shall be obliged to encounter, a second time, that destructive malady the plague, which may make dreadful havoc amongst us: this horrible prospect dismays the stoutest hearts.
To put finishing hand to our misfortunes, the Nile of this year has been extremely bad, having flowed off suddenly, and before the lands could be inundated in due succession; we shall not be able to draw any contribution from the villages which have not received their water, and we are threatened with the most frightful misery!
There is not a soldier, not an officer, not a general, who does not most earnestly long to return to France; persuaded, as they all are, that they are sacrificing here, without any advantage to their country, their healths, and their lives!
However, from the present situation of things in France, and considering that for more than fifteen months it has not been possible to send us any assistance, it is clear that we must forego the hope of having it in any time to do us service, especially as the favourable season has now be suffered to pass by.
The army saw with pleasure General Kleber at their head after the departure of General Bonaparte; no one is more capable of inspiring them with confidence and esteem.
But he is full of honour, and of noble pride; and the more sensible he is of the difficulty of the task thus left him, the more fearful he will be of listening to sentiments imperiously dictated by circumstances, and the immediate interest of the army, but which might some time hence be attributed, perhaps, to timidity.
Not having the same responsibility on me, I am not afraid, Citizen Directors, to lay before you the naked truth; and be assured that, however strong the representation I have just made, you would find it but feeble and imperfect, if the limits of a letter would allow me to enter into greater details.
Egypt is a very fine country; our dreadful situation in it is merely the effect of circumstances. It proves only that we are arrived too soon, and that the time is not yet come for us to establish ourselves.
There is not a doubt but that if we were peaceable masters of Egypt, we might in a few years entirely remove a great part of the evils which infest and desolate it, such as the plague and the Arabs; and give to agriculture and commerce a new activity, which should restore this country to its ancient splendor. This would render it one of the finest colonies in the world, which would speedily become the centre of universal commerce.
But Egypt is bounded by two seas (the Red Sea and the Mediterranean) and by deserts.
It is necessary to have a powerful marine to be in a condition of approaching it at pleasure; and above all, to be enabled to protect its commerce, and ensure all the advantages which it holds out.
The French Republic is at present without a navy; it will be yet a long time before it can have created one capable of contending with that of our enemies.
To pretend to preserve Egypt without having any means of sending thither, and of assuring the safety of our convoys of every kind, is merely to expose ourselves to the hazards of being compelled to abandon it to Russia or England, who, under the pretext of driving us from It, will establish themselves there, and very soon take effectual measures to exclude us from it for ever.
We might, indeed, still maintain ourselves there if we had the permission of the porte; but if it was not thought possible to obtain it before our invasion, it must be still less so now, when the Porte lies at the mercy of the Russians and the English: and even were she, contrary to all appearances, disposed, from political considerations, to suffer us to occupy Egypt provisionally, the English would never be induced to permit it.
When the expedition to Egypt took place, we were at peace on the Continent; we had still a considerable fragment of our naval force in the Mediterranean; and we were in possession of the whole of Italy, Corfu, and Malta; a hope, too, might have been indulged that we should obtain the continent of the Porte, at least tacitly; and thus we should have gained the end we proposed, against the English; for it is my opinion, with that of all the world, that our proper view was, by alarming them for the safety of their Indian possessions, to force them into a peace, advantageous for the Republic, by making the evacuation of Egypt an object of compensation for the restitutions which we should in that case required.
BUT THE FATAL ENGAGEMENT OF ABOUKIR RUINED ALL OUR HOPES. It prevented us from receiving the remainder of the forces which were destined for us; it left the field free for the English to persuade the Porte to declare war against us; it rekindled that which was hardly extinguished with the Emperor of Germany; it opened the Mediterranean to the Russians, and planted them on our frontiers; it occasioned the loss of Italy, and the invaluable possessions in the Adriatic, which we owed to the successful campaigns of Bonaparte; and finally, it at once rendered abortive all our projects, since it was no longer possible for us to dream of giving the English any uneasiness in India: add to this, that the people of Egypt whom we wished to consider as friends and allies, instantaneously became our enemies, and, entirely surrounded as we were by the Turks, we found ourselves engaged in a most difficult defensive war, without a glimpse of the slightest future advantage to be derived from it.
At present we can no longer flatter ourselves that the English will be prevailed on to agree to an equivalent in the articles of peace, for the evacuation of Egpyt. For in the first place, they know perfectly well the degree of weakness and want of which we are reduced, and which renders it impossible to undertake any thing against them: and in the second, that even if we should receive succours (which they will use every means in their power to prevent), we should not, on that account, be a jot farther advanced while we have the Turks to contend with; and while they are assured that the Porte will not make peace without their consent, or without stipulating that the preliminary article for terminating the war, shall be the evacuation of Egypt.
Under this point of view, our plan has totally failed; in as much as it can no longer affect the English; and thus, neither as a conquest nor a colony, can there be any farther pretence for keeping possession of Egypt.
But there is yet another consideration; it is, that if we delay entering into a treaty (such is the state of weakness to which we are already reduced), there is reason to fear that we shall be too late; that the remainder of the army will perish, or that we shall be obliged to evacuate the country without any conditions at all: while, on the contrary, we have it at present in out power to make it the price of peace with the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary States, the strengthening our old connections with Constantinople, and resuming in the Levant the exclusive commerce which we once enjoyed.
This treaty, to which the ENGLISH MUST BE ADMITTED AS A PARTY, will be a preparatory step to that peace which it is, at length, more than time to conclude with them. It will infallibly induce Russia to declare war against the Porte, and cause a diversion of the most important kind in our affairs in Europe; we might even hope to regain by it what we have lost in the Mediterranean.
I have the greater confidence in this opinion, because I am persuaded that the English cannot see without some uneasiness, and without a secret kind of jealousy, the progress of the Russians—a progress much more dangerous for them than our continental power, now that our navy is destroyed, and that we have lost our maritime conquests.
The only event which could possibly enable us to preserve Egypt, would be an immediate war between Russia and the Porte. All the Ottoman forces which are marching against us would instantly fly to protect the centre of the empire. In such a case, the Grand Seignior would grant us peace on any terms we might think proper to ask.
But it is probable, that without a treaty of alliance between the French Republic and Russia, which might be useful to us at this moment, but which would certainly be impolitic, this last power will only wait till the Porte shall have made peace with us to declare war against her: for, by fighting against the Turks, we diminish his forces and his means. This is toiling for Russia, who, on her side, unable to make war against the Porte without forcing her to conclude a peace with us, attains her purpose, which is the destruction of that power, just as effectually by making war on the French, whom she knows to be her sole stay and support.
The Ottoman Empire is generally regarded as an old edifice, tottering to its fall. The European powers have long been preparing to divide its scattered fragments, and many politicians conceive that the catastrophe is close at hand. In this supposition, they might think it but right that France should have her share in the spoils; and the part allotted to her is Egypt.
If this fall of the Ottoman Empire (which is very far from being so certain, when we consider the discussions and the variety of oppositions it would produce amongst the great powers of Europe, even among those who might have combined for this very object; when we consider still further, that it will be eternally the interest of France, England, Prussia, and even the Empire, to oppose it); if this fall, I say, should after all take place, France will always be in time to have Egypt. Besides, the French will be invited there by the Turks themselves, whenever the latter find themselves menaced by the Russians, whom they mortally hate.
France is so fine a country; the French are so powerful by their numbers, their riches, and their situation with respect to the other continental powers, that they cannot possibly gain any thing by a total overthrow of the system of Europe; while, at the same time, this overthrow maay give birth to a new and preponderating power, which shall deprive them of all their advantages in the Mediterranean.
Weighing all these circumstances, Citizen Directors, I cannot but conclude that we are too distant, and that events operate too rapidly, to permit us to wait for your orders before we take our resolution; at least we cannot do so without compromising the interests of the Republic, the safety and the honour of the remains of the army.
That we must infallibly evacuate Egypt, establishing, as the price of this sacrifice, a peace, together with all our ancient connections, with the Ottomans and the States of Barbary.
That all which you have now to hope for, whatever may be your views on Egypt, depends upon the present intentions of General Kleber, which are to retard the evacuation as long as possible by the delays which he will endeavour to introduce into the negotiation; if, after all, we are happy enough to be permitted to negotiate:
That finally, if the evacuation should take place without waiting for your orders, it will only be, because it was inevitable; and because, in the state of ignorance in which we all are, respecting the real situation of France, and of Europe, this evacuation was imperiously called for by prudence, and was not inconsistent with our political interests.
Health and respect.