Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIX, 18

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XIX, 17 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XX, 1

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XIX, chapter 18
Return to Egypt – The Conquest of Upper Egypt

Napoleon back at Cairo wrote to General Dugua: ‘Citizen Governor you must cut off Abdalla-Aga’s head, that former Governor of Jaffa, held in the citadel. From what I am told he is a monster from whom the earth must be delivered. You must shoot the following, Hassan, Joussef, Ibrahim, Saleh, Mahamet, Bekir, Hadj-Saleh, Mustapha, Mahamed, all Mamelukes.’ He often repeated his orders against Egyptians who had spoken badly of the French: such was the situation that Bonaparte enacted a law; did even the rights of warfare allow him to sacrifice so many lives on the simple order given by a commander: you must shoot them? To the Sultan of Darfur he wrote: ‘I wish you to send me two thousand male slaves over sixteen years old.’ He delighted in slaves.

An Ottoman fleet of hundred vessels anchored at Aboukir and disembarked an army: Murat, supported by General Lannes, drove it into the sea; Bonaparte reported, concerning this success, to the Directory: ‘The bay whose currents last year bore the corpses of English and French is today covered with those of our enemies.’ One grows as tired of marching through these mounting victories as through the shimmering dunes of those deserts.

The following note strikes the spirit mournfully: ‘I am little pleased, Citizen General, with the sum of your activities during the action which recently took place. You received the order to take yourself off to Cairo and have done nothing about it. Any amount of events which occur should never prevent a soldier obeying an order, and skill in warfare consists in simplifying those difficulties which may render an operation awkward, and not in failing to execute it.’

Ungrateful already, this rude instruction from Bonaparte was addressed to Desaix who offered, while leading his brave men through Upper Egypt, as many examples of humanity as courage, marching in his horse’s footsteps, chatting about ruins, missing his country, sparing women and children, admired by the native population who called him the Just Sultan; to that Desaix killed later at Marengo in the charge which made the First Consul the master of Europe. The character of the man shows through Napoleon’s note: dominating and jealous; it identifies the trait that afflicts all famous men, those who create destiny, those to whom is granted the word that lingers and compels; and without that power of command could Bonaparte have carried all before him?

Ready to leave the ancient lands where humanity once cried out in death: ‘You powers that dispense life to men receive me and grant me a place among the immortal gods!’ Bonaparte only considered his future on earth: he sent warnings to the Governors of the Île de France and the Île de Bourbon via the Red Sea; he sent greetings to the Sultan of Morocco and the Bey of Tripoli; he informed them of his fond concern for the caravans and pilgrims of Mecca; Napoleon at the same time sought to deter the Grand Vizier from the invasion that the Porte intended, assuring him that he was as ready to conquer all, as to enter into negotiations about all.

One thing would have brought little honour to our character, if our imaginativeness and love of novelty had not been more to blame than the loss of our national sense of fair play; the French on the Egyptian expedition felt enraptured, and did not notice that they were injuring both honesty and political justice: completely at peace with France’s oldest ally, we attacked them, stole from them their fertile Nile province, without a declaration of war, like the Algerians who, in one of their algarades, seized Marseilles and Provence. When the Porte armed itself for legitimate defence, proud of our notable pre-emption, we asked them what they were at, why they were angry; we declared that we had taken up arms in order to police the region, and drive out the brigands and Mamelukes who held their Pasha prisoner. Bonaparte informed the Grand Vizier; ‘How can Your Excellency not feel that every Frenchman killed is one more ally lost to the Porte? As for me, I will consider the finest day of my life to be that on which I may contribute to ending a war at once impolitic and pointless.’ Bonaparte wished to leave: so the war was pointless and impolitic! The former monarchy however was as guilty as the Republic: the archives of its foreign affairs contain various plans for French colonies in Egypt; Leibnitz himself had suggested an Egyptian colony to Louis XIV. Indeed the English themselves only value affirmative politics, that of self-interest; fidelity to treaties and moral scruples seem to them to be puerile.

At last the hour chimed: brought to a halt at the eastern frontiers of Asia, Bonaparte soon left to seize the European sceptre, then to seek in the north, by another road, the gateway to the Himalayas and the splendours of Kashmir. His last letter to Kléber, dated from Alexandria, on the 22nd of August 1799, is quite excellent and unites reason, experience and authority. The conclusion of the letter achieves serious and profound pathos.

‘You will find enclosed, Citizen General, an order to take command as head of the army. The fear that the English fleet may reappear at any moment has brought forward my setting sail by two or three days.
I am taking with me Generals Berthier, Andréossi, Murat, Lannes and Marmont and citizens Monge and Berthollet.
You will find enclosed the English newspapers and those from Frankfurt up to the 10th of June. You will see that we have lost Italy, and that Mantua, Turin and Tortona are under siege. I have room for hope that the first of these will hold out until the end of November. I hope, if fortune smiles on me, to arrive in Europe before the beginning of October.’
Specific instructions follow.
‘You will appreciate as well as I do how important the possession of Egypt is to France: this Turkish Empire, which threatens destruction on all sides, is now collapsing, and the evacuation of Egypt would be all the greater a misfortune, in that we would see in our day this beautiful province fall into different European hands.
The news of the successes or defeats that the Republic may experience must also enter significantly into your calculations………………
Citizen General, you are aware of how I view the internal politics of Egypt: whatever you do, the Christians will be our friends. They must be prevented from being too arrogant, lest the Turks display the same fanaticism towards us that they do towards the Christians, which would render them irreconcilable to our presence…………………………………...
I have already asked several times for a troupe of actors; I will take especial care to send you one. The thing is very important to the Army, and in starting to change the customs of the country.
The important position you will occupy as commander will allow you finally to deploy the talents which nature has given you. What happens here will be of great interest, and the results will be immense as far as commerce and civilisation are concerned: this will be the epoch from which the great revolutions will date.
Accustomed to view the recompense for life’s pains and efforts in the light of posterity, I am leaving Egypt with the greatest of regrets. Only the interests of our country, its glory, obedience, and the exceptional events which have happened, have decided my passage through the enemy squadrons in order to return to Europe. I will be with you in heart and spirit. Your successes will be as dear to me as those I might achieve in person, and I will regard those days as ill employed on which I do not do something for the army whose command I leave you, and so consolidate the magnificent edifice whose foundations have been laid.
The army I entrust you with is composed entirely of my children; I have had at all times, even in the worst troubles, tokens of their affection. Maintain those sentiments, and you will owe it to the esteem and quite particular friendship I have for you and the true affection I bear them.

No warrior has ever achieved a similar tone of voice; it is Napoleon who concludes it; the Emperor, who follows, will of a surety be more astonishing still: but how much more detestable! His voice will no longer possess the tones of youth: time, despotism, the intoxication of success, will alter it.

Bonaparte would have been deeply to be pitied if he had been forced, in accordance with the ancient Egyptian law, to clasp in his embrace for three days the children whose death he had caused. He dreamed of providing, for the soldiers whom he left exposed to the heat of the sun, those entertainments that Captain Parry employed twenty years later for his sailors in the freezing polar nights. He left his Egyptian legacy to his brave successor, who was soon to be assassinated, and slunk away furtively, as Caesar saved himself by swimming, in the port of Alexandria. That queen whom the poet called a fatal prodigy, Cleopatra, did not await Napoleon; he journeyed to the secret rendezvous assigned to him by Fate, another faithless power. After having plunged into the Orient, the source of marvellous renown, he returned to us, without however having been seen in Jerusalem, just as he never entered Rome. The Jew who cried: ‘Woe! Woe’ wandered about the holy city without penetrating the eternal tabernacle. A poet, escaping from Alexandria, was last to board the risk-bound frigate. Impregnated by the miracles of Judea, having appreciated the tomb in the Pyramids, Bonaparte crossed the sea, heedless of enemy ships and the deep: all things were fordable by this giant, whether events or waves.

Napoleon takes the route I followed: he skirts Africa faced with contrary winds; at the end of twenty-one days he doubles Cape Bon; he gains the coast of Sardinia, is forced to anchor at Ajaccio, casts his eyes on his place of birth, receives some money from Cardinal Fesch, and re-embarks; he comes across the English fleet which does not pursue him. On the 8th of October, he enters the harbour of Fréjus, not far from the Gulf of Juan where he would become manifest on a second terrible occasion. He goes ashore, departs, arrives at Lyons, takes La RouteBourbonnais, and enters Paris on the 16th of October. All seem opposed to him, Barras, Sieyès, Bernadotte, Moreau; and all these opponents come to serve him as if by a miracle. The conspiracy is hatched; the government is transferred to Saint-Cloud. Bonaparte wants to harangue the Council of Elders: he is agitated, he stammers out brothers in arms, volcanoes, victory, Caesar; he is called a Cromwell, a tyrant, a hypocrite: he wishes to accuse and is accused; he says he is accompanied by the god of war and the goddess of fortune; he withdraws shouting: ‘Whoever loves me follow me!’ His arrest is demanded; Lucien, President of the Council of the Five Hundred, resigns so as not to put Napoleon beyond the law. He draws his sword and swears to pierce his brother’s breast, if he should ever attempt to strike a blow at liberty. They talk about having this deserter shot, this flouter of the medical code, this plague-carrier, and they crown him. Murat makes the representatives leap from the windows; the 18th of Brumaire is accomplished; Consular government is born, and freedom dies.

So absolute change is brought about in society: the man of the last century departs the stage: the man of the new century makes his entrance. Washington, at the end of his prodigious achievements, yields his place to Napoleon, who begins his. On the 9th of November the President of the Unites States closes the year 1799: the First Consul of the FrenchRepublic opens the year 1800:

‘A great destiny commences, a great destiny is completed.’

It was across these immense events that the first part of my Memoirs, that you have read, were written; just as a modern text desecrates some ancient manuscript. I told of my despondency and obscurity in London against the background of Napoleon’s brilliant rise; the sound of his footsteps mingled with the silence of mine on my solitary walks; his name pursued me into those little rooms where were to be found the sad poverty of my companions in misfortune, and the joyous distress or, as our former language would have said, the mirthful misery of Peltier. Napoleon was my age: both of us leaving the womb of the army, he won a hundred battles while I yet languished in the obscurity of the Emigration which was the pedestal of his fortune. Left so far behind him, could I ever rejoin him? Yet nonetheless while he was dictating the law to monarchs, while he was crushing their armies and making their blood spurt at his feet, while flag in hand, he crossed the bridges at Arcola and Lodi, while he triumphed at the Pyramids, would I have given for all those victories a single one of those forgotten hours spent in England in a little unknown town? Oh, the magic of youth!