Wednesday, October 3, 2007

French Descriptions of Poverty in 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. 180-186.


Alexandria(12 Fructidor), August 29th.

To the female Citizen DESCORCHES, Rue d'Anjou, No. 929, Fauxbourg Honore, a Paris.

YET another letter. You may probably, my love, be more happy than me: some of my letters chance to reach you; but I receive none of yours; that which I wrote from Malta was taken in the Sensible; but on our arrival here I wrote you one, which I think must have come to hand. I sent you one, too, by Guillaume Tell, after our defeat, and another by the English fleet.

These are all the opportunities I have had; the present letter is hazarded, for the port of Alexandria is blocked up by three sail of the line, and three frigates: the Zealous, the flag-ship; the Goliah, and the Swiftsure; the Alcmena, the Emerald, and the Bonne Citoyenne. Another ship of the line, whose name I do not recollect, is cruizing before Damietta, with two frigates, the corvette La Fortune, which they took from us, and two advice boats, La Torride and Le Leger. This last was coming from France when it was taken; judge then, how wretched it made us; all our letters fell into the hands of the enemy, the official ones expected(1), which were thrown over-board.

Amongst the letters, the English found a miniature, which some fair one had apparently sent to her lover. The ladies need not be much alarmed, for their swains have not the power, if they had the will, to be unfaithful. We have a few, and but a few, European women here; but the best of them are inferior in attractions to the veriest dowdies of our dear native land. As for those of the country, the handsome ones I fancy, keep themselves concealed; for those that we see absolutely frighten us(2).

Every person that comes from the interior of the country tells us that Alexandria is the finest city in Egypt. Good gods! what must the rest be then? figure to yourself a confused mass of ill built houses of one story, the best of them with a terrace; a little door with a wooden lock, no windows but a lattice of wood, of which the bars are so close that it is almost impossible to distinguish any object through them; and little narrow streets, except what they call "the Quarter of the Francs," and the "Residence of the Grandees." The poor inhabitants, infinitely the greater number, in a state of nature, with the exception of a blue shirt, which reaches half way down their thighs, and which is tucked up more than half their time, a girdle, and a turban dropping to rags. This is their whole wardrobe!

I hope we shall soon go to Cairo; we shall then see if the people of that city are like these; if so, I shall have had my belly-full of this blessed country. I could tear myself to pieces for coming here, so could my dear friend(3).

We wish vehemently--ay, and very vehemently to return to France; but since we are here it is as well to see as much as we can(4). The remains of this famous Alexandria are poor enough; we shall see if Memphis has any thing better to shew. This infernal Egypt! nothing but a waste of sand. The mud which the Nile leaves upon the ground constitutes all its wealth. A man who has a tract of land in the Desert, may cultivate as much sand as he can find constant water for. My courage is sustained by the hope of a speedy return. [(5)]

It may still be sent: in that case I shall fly to your arms, and from thence to my department. I am anxious to be there this winter; time passes away unhappily, too rapidly. It is not unlikely but that some attempt may be made, and I should be sorry not to be on the spot.

We shall perhaps, shew the world that the Bretons and the Normands are rather superior to the Provencials. This unfortunate defeat arises in a great measure, from their bad conduct(6). All the officers who came from Brest, one only expected, are either killed or dangerously wounded. I see with pain that the Admiral will be made the pack-horse. He cannot help himself, and therefore every body is loading him. He may have committed errors, but certainly not all that are charged, and that will continue to be charged, upon him. Gantheaume, his chief of the staff, who was made a Rear Admiral by the Commander in Chief, will assume, as it seems, on his return from Cairo, the command of the miserable force we have here. We are all desirous of it, and anxiously expect his arrival; this will console us a little, and we shall then see what steps to take next; for to form any plan here, in out present circumstances, is impossible. Our destination must be ultimately directed by the situation of affairs at Cairo.

What a number of people have been taken in, my dear girl! All those sudden acquirers of fortunes, or rather all those robbers(7), are pitifully down in the mouth, and would, I believe, be very happy to return from whence they came. It gives me a deal of pleasure to see, that the majority of them will rather have lost than gained by their speculations. Some, indeed, have done tolerably well, but they are very few; and few as they are, have sweated pretty handsomely for what they have got. The Arabs of the Desert have sent a good many of them to the other world. These people infest the towns and villages in such a manner, that at two hundred paces from the walls, one is always in the most imminent danger of being shot. Several of our men have been destroyed in this way.

Murad Bey is retired into Upper Egypt, where he has been pursued without success; Ibrahim Bey into Syria; and he too has been pursued to no purpose. Our troops, indeed, came up with his rear-guard, which fought in a most gallant manner: and as we could make no impression on it with all our efforts, we were obliged to let it proceed tranquilly to its destination. The rich caravan was almost all secured by Ibrahim; what we obtained was scarcely worth taking. I am afraid that we shall want money soon: I am certain we shall, if we pretend to execute those fine projects, which will undoubtedly be useful, but which will cost an immense sum! the people of the country are poor; nothing, therefore, can be expected from them.--There is not a single Mamelouc in the country. Their bravery is astonishing: well armed, and intrepid to excess, they rushed upon our ranks to be butchered. Not one of them would accept quarter.

This is all that I can say at present. I have talked to you in this letter only of business; but in another which I shall send at the same time, by what I conceive to be a safer mode of conveyance, I shall open all my heart to my dearest and best beloved wife.


[British Translators' Notes]

(1)There was luckily no "exception," as the reader will see by the following extract from Captain Hope's Letter to the Admirality.

"Though every preparation was made from boarding the Leger, to save any dispatches she might have for Bonaparte, we could not prevent their being thrown overboard; which was, however, perceived by John Taylor, and James Harding, belonging to the Alcmene, who, at the risk of their lives, dashed overboard, and saved the whole of them." Gazette, Sept. 30th, 1798.

It is pleasant to add, that these intrepid men have been gratefully remembered by their country.

(2)Another letter says,"I never saw any thing so disgusting as their women. A traveller called Savary" (this is a most scurvy designation of the man on whose accuracy all of France relied)"he had, I scarce know how, the stupidity to compare these filthy objects to the Princess Nausicaa! I could forgive him if his design was merely to laugh at the princess; but he is quite serious."

(3)Avrieury seems to have thought of the old adage, tantum valet quantum somat; or perhaps he never thought at all of the matter. His journey to Memphis was probably postponed. He may therefore comfort himself(supposing these remarks should ever fall in his way) by hearing that he has lost nothing by the delay; for we can confidently assure him that Memphis has even less "to shew" than Alexandria. Etiam periere ruinae; its very ruins have disappeared.

(4)Here are two lines obliterated by a fold; it is impossible to restore them, but their purport may be guessed at from what follows. Avrieury, it should seem, flattered himself that if a certain expedition took place, he should be recalled to engage in it. The allusion is evidently to the projected invasion of Ireland.

One would think the Citizen had almost had enough of INVASIONS. It appears from his own account, that the one he is at present engaged in, is not very consoling to his feelings; and we can take upon us to assure him, that he would have found the other productive of no extraordinary amusement. Alexandria, we allow, has little to gratify his curiosity, but Mill-prison has still less; as the envied partakers of the expedition in question may one day let him know.

(5)There is something extremely unjust(but when was a Frenchman just to the unfortunate?) in attributing the defeat of the 1st of August to the Provencials. They fought at least as well as the Bretons and Normands, who if we may judge from the fate of the Brest squadron on the coast of Ireland (which we suppose was manned with them), have very little reason, whatever Avrieury may fancy, to boast of their superiority either of conduct or courage.

(6)As all the expeditions of France have been undertaken with a view to plunder, their armies have been constantly followed by large bodies of people of this description, prepared to treat for such STOLEN GOODS as were of too unwieldy a nature to be put up with the baggage.

Bonaparte never moved without a legion of these convenient RECEIVERS in his train, who were always ready to purchase, at a low rate, whatever he and his harpies could seize in the houses of individuals, from the cottager to the prince. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say, that this Chief of Brokers has sold, for his own share, more furniture, plate, wine, pictures, busts, &c. than half the auctioneers in Europe.

Notwithstanding the swarms of "robbers" which, by Avrieury's account, followed him into Egypt, we do not find that the number in Italy was at all lessened. We have before us the JOURNAL of what took place to the seizure of Rome, written by a man of integrity and observation, who was himself a witness of what he relates. From THIS, we borrow the following passage:

"As soon as the Pope was removed, the Vatican and Quirinal palaces were opened, and an inventory made of every article. The company of brokers that followed the army were then permitted to purchase, upon their own terms, whatever they chose, and afterwards the Jews of the Getta were called in to take the rest."

"These brokers" adds the writer (Mr. Richard Duppa), "were a number of monied men from France, particularly from Lyons and Marseilles, who joined together a considerable capital towards supporting the army of Italy, when Bonaparte first crossed the Alps, with one express condition, of their having the refusal of any spoils that might be made, at a certain percentage, for their own profit, upon a fair valuation, which valuation was to be made by themselves!"

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