1 FEBRUARY 1963, Page 21


What Price Grandeur


THERE is a special fascination in historical episodes where two totally alien forces con- front one another, where the exotic and the incomprehensible unite to heighten the ordinary colouring of history. Cortes face to face with Montezuma, Byzantine ambassadors relating their visit to the camp of Attila, many a narra- tive of life in early British India—these things have a quality of their own, giving rise to almost limitless conjecture. We know what Cortes thought of Montezuma, but what did Monte- zuma think of Cortes? Did sonic perception of what the arrival of this white man might mean ever sweep aside the ritual diagnostics and remedies prescribed by the cult of which he was

the high priest? .

J. Christopher Herold, in his new book Bonaparte in Egypt,* has chosen to recount one of these brutally picturesque clashes between civilisations—on the one hand, the dynamic Power of revolutionary France; on the other, the moribund Mameluke regime of Egypt. Mr. Herold tells his tale very well indeed, and his book is fascinating reading. He makes the forces influencing the Egyptian campaign as clear as they can be made—the only point which he does not entirely elucidate is why Napoleon should have gone to Egypt in the first place and what his ultimate ambitions were, and that Napoleon seems hardly to have known himself. The ex- pedition seems to have originated as part of a general plan for putting pressure on England. If Egypt was seized, then perhaps (a big 'perhaps' given the distances involved) a gesture could be Made towards India where Tippoo Sahib was busy fighting the British raj. At any rate, Egypt would be a useful card to hold in any future Peace negotiation.

Napoleon himself, when speaking later of his time in Egypt—`the most beautiful in my life because . . . the most ideal'—was given to re- counting his own dreams: 'I saw myself founding a religion, marching into Asia, riding an elephant, a turban on my head and in my hand the new Koran that 1 would have composed to suit my n,eeds.' Many of his projects sound a little like !n. e programme of public works undertaken by the ageing Faust, and one at least has received 111,e attention of President Nasser: the plan for that Africa, 'for it is from the hands of Egypt `n at the peoples of central Africa must receive enlightenment and happiness.' In all this there was the romanticism of the age and also the r human revolutionary belief in the power of the ouman will. Napoleon as Pasha of Egypt would not. after all, have been much more incredible than Bernadotte as King of Sweden.

_ Yet, Napoleon was severely practical when it `_aine to his career, and Mr. Herold is right to °2!-Ibt whether such visions influenced his de- cision much. It seems to have been more the des of the soldier to go where kudos was to

* BONAPARTE IN EGYPT. (Hamish Hamilton, 30s.)

be won, of the politician to absent himself at a time which was not yet ripe for his ambitions. However this may be, the event answered his expectations. The Mamelukes were overthrown, Napoleon established himself, and the perambu- lating academy he had brought with him in Cairo, only slightly disturbed by Nelson's de- struction of the French fleet at Aboukir Bay or by the ordeals to which he had subjected his soldiers in the course of forced and waterless marches. He busied himself with such matters as the creation of one general and a number of provincial divans for Egypt, the destruction of villages where French soldiers had been killed, discussions with the 'Institute' on the re- sources of the country, and the ridding of Cairo of its plentiful prostitutes-400 of them are said to have been beheaded, sewn up in sacks and thrown into the Nile.

But the Mamelukes still held the field, and the Sultan of Turkey, so far from accepting French occupation of Egypt, had declared war. Nor was the local population deceived by Napoleon's protestations and adoption of Islam; it remained basically hostile to the infidel. So Desaix was sent to Upper Egypt in pursuit of the elusive Murad Bey, where he marched to and fro at great speed amid the temples and tombs of the Pharaohs. M r, Herold's account of this cam- paign, and its accompanying archxological ex- cursions, is one of the best bits of his book. Its hero, apart from Desaix himself, was the artist Denon, whose drawings of the monuments— often made when half-dead from fatigue or half- blind from ophthalmia—did so much to arouse interest in ancient Egypt.

Meanwhile Napoleon himself was marching up the coast of Palestine to deal with Djezzar Pasha, the murderous governor of Acre. The campaign, with its difficult conditions, its plague- stricken army harried by British warships and Bedouin, its fruitless siege and its terrible re- treat, more nearly resembled the retreat from Moscow than anything else in the Napoleonic career. It was marked on Napoleon's part by one legendary incident, the visit to the plague- stricken soldiers in Jaffa, and one atrocity, the appalling massacre of prisoners at the same town. Soon Napoleon, defeated by Djezzar Pasha and Sidney Smith, was back in Egypt, where he learnt that war had again broken out between the Directory and Austria and Russia. It was time to leave. There were laurels to be won elsewhere --and more than laurels. He left Egypt on August 23, 1799, leaving the army to Kleber, who was contemptuous. After KIther's assassination, it capitulated and was allowed to return to France at the end of August, 1801. The French savants were able to keep their collections, but the British insisted on having the Rosetta stone.

The immediate result of the Egyptian cam- paign. therefore, does not seem to have been of much advantage to anyone concerned. Both Britain and France had been put to a good deal

of trouble only to find themselves back where they started. The long-term significance was more striking. From this time dates the concern felt in Paris and London about Egyptian affairs; both the building of the Suez Canal and the British protectorate over Egypt can be traced back to the stimulus imparted by the expedition of 1798. After Napoleon's departure one of the alterna- tive policies debated by British statesmen was 'the destruction' of Egypt—presumably by de- stroying the irrigation system—in order to prevent French re-occupation. This kind of in- terest on the part of the great powers boded ill for the Egyptians, and, indeed, it was only with the advent of President Nasser that they finally got over it. Right up to the signing of the Entente Cordiale Britain and France intrigued against each other in Egypt, and the British pressure exerted on the French in Syria during the last war was the remnant of this rivalry—with all that that incident seems to have meant for President de Gaulle. The close of the process set in motion by the Battle of the Pyramids was the Suez expedition in which, ironically, Britain and France collaborated in a fiasco.

The main interest of the Egyptian episode still resides in the character of Napoleon Bonaparte. All the elements of Napoleonic history are there in miniature—the striking gesture costly in lives and money, the immensely efficient organisation, the lack of ultimate political sense. And this, indeed, is Napoleon's whole career. The Egyptian expedition could not have succeeded any more than the attempt to maintain French hegemony in Europe could succeed. In this comparatively minor campaign of the Napoleonic wars we can balance one against the other the gains and the losses lying behind the centuries of history which looked down from the Pyramids, and encounter the human reality of nine or ten executions ordered in such and such a village. These are the casualties of history—often ignored, but seldom entireiy neglected. The massacre of Jaffa is not mentioned by Georges Lefebvre in his book on Napoleon, but rumours of it have reached school- children in every country but France.

If one were a Frenchman, what would one think of Napoleon's 'policy of French greatness'? Some of the best of French thinkers—a Taine or a Tocqueville—have rejected it, while others--a Paul-Louis Courier or a Thiers—have been uncritical. What can certainly be said is that Napoleon's diplomacy was remarkably ill- adapted to the ends he had in view. A combina- tion of rhetoric—ranging from the grandiloquent speech before the Pyramids to the laconic 'I have shot the municipality of Pavia'—and of rea/- politik involving a considerable degree of decep- tion of himself and others led Napoleon to disaster. And this was a peculiarly French phenomenon due in part to the ignorance of foreign strength and foreign habits which is widespread in France even today. The result was a series of wars which cannot be said to have been much use to France and which wrecked Europe. The Napoleonic adventure has always seemed totally useless to everyone except French- men, and it is part of the universal ambivalence with which history is taught that Bonaparte should be regarded in France as the heir of the revolution. In fact, he was the heir of its violence and its double-dealing, not of its thirst for justice or its serious political thOught. True, he reorgan- ised France, but he did so in an authoritarian manner that is still being paid for by Frenchmen today. Bonapartism in the European political vocabulary stands for an expense of spirit in a waste of shame—much what Gaullism will stand for tomorrow, the most useless of all political exercises, an exercise in prestige.