Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bonaparte Writes his Brother from Alexandria

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. 5-10.


Alexandria, July 6th, 1798.

To Citizen JOSEPH BONAPARTE, Deputy to the Council of Five Hundred, &c.

We have been in this city, my dear Brother, now four days; it was taken by assault. I will attempt to give you some account of our operations; not as a professional man, but as they appeared to me.

At daybreak, on the 1st of July, we discovered the coast of Africa; which had been seen, and announced to us the evening before by signals. We were presently off the Isles des Arabes, about two leagues from Alexandria, where the Juno frigate, which had been dispatched to bring the French Consul on board, rejoined us.

We learnt from the Consul that an English Squadron of fourteen sail of the line (of which to were three deckers,) had appcared off Alexandria, sent letters on shore to the English Consul, and informed the merchants there of the capture of Malta; that is had then made sail for Alexandretta, concluding, as it was supposed, that we had gone there to disembark our forces, and proceed to India by the way of Bassora.

This squadron had indeed been seen by the Justice, after our departure from Malta; and yet it had the aukwardness, or the stupidity to miss us! The English must be quite furious. It required, I think, no common degree of courage and good fortune, to run through a numerous fleet, with inferior forces, a convoy of four hundred transports; and to capture on our passage, partly by force, and partly by negotiation, such a place as Malta.

Till this day I had always a fancy that fortune might one time or other turn her back upon my brother: now I am persuaded, that she will never desert him, provided the troops retain but a little of that national spirit which has hitherto animated them.

The Mameloucs had been informed three weeks before, by some merchant vessels belonging to Marseilles, of the embarkation of our troops;--when, therefore, they saw the English fleet, they concluded it was ours, so that when we actually appeared, they were prepared for us. The sea ran so high that day that the officers of the marine would not permit the troops to disembark. The vessels therefore came to an anchor about two leagues from the shore: the day was spent in preparations; and at length, about eleven at night, we were put on board the boats of the fleet, with a rough sea, and a very blowing wind.

We marched that night with two thousand (1) infantry, and at break of day invested Alexandria, after driving into the town several small detachments of cavalry. The enemy defended themselves like men; tho artillery which they had planted on the walls was wretchedly served, but their musquetry was excellent. These people have no idea of children’s play: they either kill or are killed. The first inclosure, however, that is to say, that of the city of the Arabs, was carried; and soon after the second, in spite of the fire from the houses. The forts which are on the coast, on the other side of the city, were then invested; and in the evening capitulated.

Since the 2d of July we have been engaged in disembarking the troops, the artillery, and the baggage. General Desaix is at Demanhur, on the Nile; the rest of the army is to follow him.

The place where we disembarked is about two leagues from thence, at the tower of Marabout, or Isles des Arabes. The two first days we had a number of straglers cut off by the Arab and Mamelouc cavalry. I imagine that we have lost about one hundred killed, and as many wounded. The Generals Kleber, Menou, and Lescalle are wounded.

I send you the proclamation (2) to the inhabitants of the country, and three others to the army. The first has produced an effect altogether astonishing. The Bedouins, enemies of the Mameloucs, and who, properly speaking, are neither more nor less intrepid robbers, sent us back, as soon as they had read it, thirty of our people whom they had made prisoners, with an offer of their services against the Mameloucs. We have treated them kindly. They are an invincible people, inhabiting a burning desert, mounted on the fleetest horses in the world, and full of courage. They live with their wives and children in flying camps, which are never pitched two nights together in the same place. They are horrible savages, and yet they have some notion of gold and silver! A small quantity of it serves to excite their admiration. Yes, my dear brother, they live gold; they pass their lives in extorting it from such Europeans as fall into their hands; and for what purpose!—for continuing the course of life which I have described, and for teaching it to their children. O Jean Jacques! Why was it not thy fate to see those men, whom thou call’st “the men of nature?” thou would’st sink with shame, thou would’st startle with horror at the thought of having once admired them!

Adieu, my dear brother, let me hear from you soon. I suffered a great deal on our passage; this climate kills me; we shall be so altered that you will discover the change at a league’s distance.

I am not well at present, and shall be obliged to stay here a few days longer(3): every body else goes to-morrow. Adieu, I embrace you with the sincerest affection. Remember me to Julia, Caroline, &c. and to the legislator(4) Lucien. He might have sailed with us to advantage: we see more in two days than common travelers in two years.

The remarkable objects here are Pompey’s column, the obelisks of Cleopatra, the spot where her baths once stood, and a number of ruins, a subterraneous temple, some catacombs, mosques, and a few churches. But what is still more remarkable, is the character and manners of the inhabitants. They are of a sangfroid absolutely astonishing. Nothing agitates them; and death itself is to them, what a voyage to America is to the English(5).

Their exterior is imposing. The most marked physiognomies amongst us, are mere children’s countenances compared to theirs. The women wrap themselves up in a piece of cloth, which passes over their head, and descends in front to the eyebrows. The poorer sort cover the whole of their face with linen, leaving only two small apertures for the eyes; so that if this strange veil happens to be a little shriveled, or stained, they look like so many hob-goblins.

Their forts and their artillery are the most ridiculous thins in nature: they have not even a lock or a window to their houses; in a word, they are still involved in all the blindness of the earliest ages.

Oh! How many misanthropes would be converted if chance should conduct them into the midst of the deserts of Arabia.

Adieu, my dear brother.

Your’s entirely,

L. Bonaparte.

P.S. I beg, my dear brother, that will let the female citizen Coupry, my good old landlady, Rue St. Honore, No. 27, pres le passage des Feuillans, know how and where I am: tell her that I have not yet had time to write her, and that I desired to be remembered to her.


[British Translators' Notes]

(1) This is inaccurate. It appears from several of the letters, that a great portion of the army was engaged in the attack on Alexandria.

(2) See the APPENDIX

(3) It appears from Boursienne’s letter (see No. 14.) that he was still there on the 27th of July.

(4) This word is marked in the original, and evidently alludes to a piece of private history.

(5) Meaning, probably, a matter of little importance:--but an expression nearly resembling this, is proverbial amongst them.

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