Monday, September 24, 2007

Frenchman Writes on Colonizing and Civilizing Egypt

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. 2, pp. 128-136


Cairo (27 Thermidor), August 14th.

Adjunct-General Lacuee, to his Uncle.

I HAVE received no letter from you, my dear uncle,(1) since I sailed from Toulon, and I am very much afraid that you have not received one from me. I judge of your anxiety respecting me, by the benefits which you have heaped upon me; you may judge of mine respecting you, by the gratitude they demand in return.

This letter, perhaps, will reach you. One of my comrades is about to embark in a neutral ship, and will take charge of it. Besides, the English, though victorious, are too much disabled to keep the sea,(2) and will for some time, I flatter myself, leave our communications open. With what ardour do we all wish it! for four months we have now been ignorant of what is become of our relations and friends. We left the Republic surrounded with factions, and all that has since reached us has been now and then a paltry gazette! every packet has been taken; a melancholy presage of our fate! that which brought Tallien(3) is the only one which has had the good fortune to escape.

If the General's dispatches have reached France, you will see that I am wounded,(4) though to all appearance not very dangerously. The ball spared my tongue, throat, blood vessels, and left jaw: the [5] only was fractured, or rather shivered a good deal, but, happily, not in such a manner as to disfigure me. The wound is healing fast. I can speak, and in another fortnight hope to be able to eat something besides broths: I should have said, able to eat at all; for, in truth, during the last month, I have only been able to swallow. The surgeons say that the waters of Barege will be necessary, if not indispensable for me. I think myself that they will be proper, and feel a strong inclination to go there; but as it is probable that the unfortunate action of Aboukir will render the situation of the army rather critical, and as there is an immediate prospect of my wound's cicatrizing,(6) although I serve with little, indeed very little, satisfaction to myself, and although I am perfectly sure that no one will feel obliged to me for the sacrifice.

The campaign which we have just finished, is indisputably the severest in which the French have ever been engaged. Our forced marches in the Desert, under a burning sky, and over still more burning sands, our want of water during five days, of bread during fifteen, and of wine during three months; our being continually under arms, exposed to a treacherous dew, which blinded all those who were not aware of it,-- all this is infinitely more terrible than battles, and sieges. A little enthusiasm will do for these,--true courage alone for the other; courage not only of heart, but of the head and soul.

We have had but two battles, and three or four skirmishes, or rather we have had but two butcheries: the Mamelouccs had nothing but bravery; we had discipline and experience. They rushed on to dash themselves in pieces against our squared batallions: their unreflecting valour precipitated them between two of these formidable masses, where they found their grave! vanquished, and without any other chance of safety than flight, they retreated with all their baggage. They are no longer to be feared; the constancy of courage can never be the portion of ignorance,(7) which has nothing but its enthusiasm! Besides, a few forts erected at the entrance of the Desert, and the passes of Syria, will secure us from their attacks; and then, where will this horde of slaves find recruits?

The Bedouin Arabs, and the natives of the country, are at present our only enemies.(8) The former are absolutely indestructible. Robbers by profession, and by institutions handed down from generation to generation, it would be more difficult to civilize them, than to barbarize ourselves! The bonds of society would be more grievous to them than fatigues, which custom and ignorance prevent them from finding disagreeable. All that can be done is to keep them at a distance; which can only be effected by cultivating the country, digging wide and deep canals, and erecting block-houses at short distances. With respect to the natives, the heads of a few Cheiks will speedily awe them into submission.

Egypt has not the slightest resemblance to what has been said of it by our writers. Its soil, indeed, is fruitful, but there is little of it. Nature asks only to produce; but the land is bare, and almost uncultivated. The natives, degraded by slavery, are relapsed into the savage state, retaining nothing of their former civilization but superstition and religious intolerance. I have found them resembling, in every circumstance, the islanders of the South Sea, described by Cook and Forster.

In a word, this country is nothing at present. It merely offers magnificent recollections of the past, and vast, but distant hopes of the future. It is not worth conquering in its present condition: but if statesmen, above all, if able administrators should undertake the management of it for ten years;--if for the same space of time we should employ all our care on it, and sacrifice the whole of its revenues, it might become the most valuable colony of Europe, and effect an important change in the commerce of the world!

But where are they,--these able administrators? We have, indeed, the man here capable of giving the first strong impulse to the taste of Egypt,(9) but not a soul equal to its administration,--whatever may be said to the contrary by the babbling Goddess. Oh! How many false reputations were acquired in Italy! And how many pedestals will now rest without statues! Besides; are the French, whose impetuosity was well adapted to the conquest of this country,--are they, I say, endued with sufficient patience to wait for all this? Incessantly eager to pluck the fruit,--will they let it ripen for ten years? And will they not, rather, like the savage of Montesquieu, cut down the tree to have it sooner! the first measures which have been taken, give me every reason to fear it.

Gurieux is perfectly well at present; he has had no other complaint than a violent diarrhea; he is over burdened with business, and, what is worse, with business totally unworthy of him. Our people do not know how to avail themselves of his peculiar talents, and therefore endeavour to turn his activity to account by profaning it. He philosophies from morn to night, and has ample opportunity of putting in practice what he formerly read, and has since reflected on.

I have postponed speaking of the unfortunate Desna [10] to the end of my letter. He was taken by the Arabs more than a month ago, and we have not heard what is become of him since. These robbers have certainly not killed him; but if they have given him up to the Mameloucs, he is lost. Should this not happen to be the case, and he be able to endure fatigue and harsh treatment, we shall probably have him gain. We all cling to this thread of hope, but it is very feeble! The loss of a comrade is felt very sensibly here, especially of such a one as Desna. His numerous good qualities had inspired me with a friendship for him, which, on his side, was warmly returned. He was the only friend of my own age, that I had in the army: Gueriux is now all that is left me.

This campaign has been very fatal to our staff. The day before yesterday the Adjunct General was the only one we had capable of going on duty,--all the rest are either killed, wounded, or taken. Never were hussars engaged in so severe a service; no, not even in the first Italian campaign! I call to mind a most agreeable party of pleasure, which five of us made, before we sailed for this country, on the highest mountain of Toulon. Of the five, I only remain!

The person who has engaged to deliver or send you this letter, is Citizen Veyssiere, captain of the 18th. He has served thirty years, and made seven campaigns. He would consequently have been intitled to retire on a pension, but wounded in this country, and tortured by the stone, he was eager to return to France. Some one has stupidly advised him to throw up his commission: he has done so, and it has been accepted.—Would it not be possible still, think you, to get him his pension, or a company of invalids? I beseech you to employ all your efforts, and all your credit in his favour. You will render an essential service to one of the bravest officers of the Republic, who retires with a pure heart and clean hands from the Revolution, and the war!

Adieu.—I embrace you, as well as my aunt, with all my heart. I can scarcely tell how much I long to see you both again—I intended to have brought some shawls for my aunt,(11) but the caravan has been stopped by the Beys, and the few which are to be found here, have been raised to a most extravagant price. Five and twenty or thirty livres have been given for a very common one.—I shall, therefore, be under the necessity of bringing her some Moka coffee instead of them.

Adieu; my respects to Citizen Lacepede and his wife; to General Clarke, Brostaut, Servan, &c. Remember me to Davignan, Desages, Decok, Charles Maroit, Marecheski, &c. &c.


[British Translators' Notes]

(1)This uncle of Lacuee is a very respectable man. He was, we believe, a member of the National Convention, and is at present in the Counsel of Elders. He was an officer under the Monarchy, and, during the legislative Assembly, President of the Military Committee. We know nothing of his nephew. It appears that he is a man of abilities; and we recommend his letter, which is not only admirably written, but full of important matter, to the serious consideration of our readers.

(2)The fate of this letter is the best refutation of this assertion; which would not indeed been worth noticing, were it not for the opportunity it gives us of making a short remark on the ignorance in which the army were kept respecting the engagement of the first of August. That we had conquered could not well be denied, as the French fleet was annihilated: all that remained, therefore, for Bonaparte, was to represent the English fleet as nearly in the same state. This he did not fail to do; and this checked, for some days, the murmurs and despondency of the army. There is a letter from one of these deluded people, which, after mentioning their defeat, concludes with assuring his friend, upon the authority we have given, that the English ships were unable to stir,--“or” says he, “reste a scavoir, &c.” Now it remains to be seen what can be done against them, by the vessels in the port of Alexandria, (the frigates and transports)—and the writer actually buoys himself up with hopes of capturing or destroying them!!!

(3)The Lodi, which had nearly shared the fate of the rest. In the original it is,--“the packet was respected,” and just below we find that Lacuee’s tongue was “respected.” This is sad cant; but it is not altogether new, for we find a curious instance of its application in Vaillant. “A tiger, and myself,” says he, “met each other in the Desert. The noble creature surveyed me, while I gazed at him in my turn. We mutually respected each other, and passed on!”

(4)Lacuee is not mentioned as far as we can see by Bonaparte; but Berthier speaks of him as having been wounded at the same time with the first Commissary Sucy, in whose galley he was.

(5)Probably right jaw; but the word is obliterated.

(6)The original is illegible in this place; but we have endeavoured to complete the sentence.

(7)Our philosopher reasons rather mal-a-propos. He has probably discovered long before this time, that his rhetorical flourish was a mere petitio principii: the ignorance of the Mameloucs still remains to be proved, but the constancy of their courage is no longer a question with the miserable remains of the French army.

(8)Lacuee seems to derive consolation from a circumstance, which would have thrown any other man into despair.

But mark the pretty plan of getting rid of those “enemies,” who are only all the settled people of the country, and the surrounding Arabs, who are as invulnerable as the harpies,

--non vulnera tergo,
Accipiunt; celerique fuga, &c.

What they cannot do with the sword, however, they are determined to effect with the plugh-share; and all the sands of Egypt are to be cultivated, that they may at length proceed with tranquility in the great work of colonization. In the expressive figure of Solomon, “they will sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind!”

(9)If lacuee means Bonaparte here, he differs from us toto caelo, in his estimate of the General’s political talents. We think (and we judge from his Italian regulations) that Nature never formed a man less capable of giving what the writer calls “the first strong impulse to the taste of a nation,”—unless, indeed, it be the “taste” of pillage and desolation. But Lacuee, it may be urged, might have some other person in view;--of this we can say nothing: we wish, however, to press this, and the following paragraphs, on the readers’ most serious attention: referring them for what is said on the want of “able administrators, &c.” to the Note, p.76.

(10)This name is effaced by a blot. We made it out Desnattoz; but it is more probably Desnanotre, who is mentioned by Desgenettes, Part 1. P. 102.

The French, to whom these letters are infinitely dear, and by whom they are anxiously and universally read, will perhaps thank us for this scrupulous attention to names, that have little in them to interest the curiosity of our countrymen. They will recognize those of their fathers, brothers, &c.; and they will inquire with avidity into their fate.

Now we are on the subject we will just mention that, that in a former letter, we found one inclosed for a “Citizen Perrin, merchant at Sens,” acquainting him with the death of his son, who, as the writer expresses it, par le fatal arret du destin devoit perir sur le Nil. This is probably the first intimation the unfortunate father will have of his loss. The letter also laments, in the most feeling manner, the general want of news from France, and adds, that the English have taken twelve of their advice-boats.

(11)We see by this that the plunder of the caravan was counted upon, as a matter of certainty.

It is impossible to think, without indignation, of the coolness with which these people looked forward to the commission of the most atrocious acts, as things of course. They had wasted and destroyed the fairest part of Europe, and they triumphed in the impunity of their crimes.—But there was an EYE that marked them! They were abandoned to their presumption, and they rushed madly on destruction.

If there be a spectacle which sanctions a belief in the visible interposition of Providence, and “justifies the ways of God to man,” it is that of Bonaparte and his army. The man who boasted, and perhaps though, that he held Fortune in chains; the legions, whose prowess and whose enormities struck Italy with terror, and confounded the powers of Germany, are now the sport of a weak and contemptible rabble,--of the Arabs, who are scarce numbered amongst civilized nations, and of the mob of Cairo, the most brutified, and savage in the universe! To become the slaves of these outcasts of Humanity, to serve their brutal passions, and to minister food to their just vengeance,--to love despised, and abhorred; to die unknown, and have their carcasses flung to the dogs and vultures of the country, is now the only fate that awaits them! Who does not see in this humiliating catastrophe, the operation of retributive justice; and who that sees it, does not confess with the moral poet of antiquity,

Nec surdum, nec Tiresiam quenquam esse Deorum!

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