Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXI, 6

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXXI, chapter 6
The Expedition to Algiers



While they were gearing up for the fight, preparations for the expedition to Algiers were completed. General Bourmont, the Minister for War, named himself as leader of the expedition: did he wish to escape responsibility for the coup d’état he felt was coming? That is quite possible given his past history and his subtlety; but it was a disaster for Charles X. If the general had been in Paris at the time of the catastrophe, the portfolio vacated by the Minister for War would not have fallen into Monsieur de Polignac’s hands. Before striking a blow, assuming he would have consented to do so, Monsieur de Bourmont would have doubtless assembled the whole Royal Guard in Paris; he would have ensured money and provisions enough that the soldiers would have lacked nothing.

Our Navy revived by the battle at Navarino left those French harbours so neglected formerly. The roads were covered with ships that saluted the land as they departed. Steamboats, new inventions of human genius, came and went carrying orders from one squadron to another, like Sirens or aides de camp of the Admiral. The Dauphin stood on the shore, to which the entire population of the town and surrounding hills had descended: he, who having snatched his relative the King of Spain from the hands of the revolutionaries, saw the day break in which Christianity might be delivered, could he have conceived that he was so near his own eclipse?

It was no longer that age when Catherine de Médici solicited the investiture of the Principality of Algiers for Henri III, not yet King of Poland! Algiers was to become our daughter and our conquest, without anyone’s permission, without England daring to prevent us taking that château of the Emperor, which recalled Charles V and his fluctuating fortunes. There was great happiness and joy for the French spectators assembled to salute, with Bossuet’s salute, the noble vessels ready to break the chains of slavery with their prows; a victory increased by that cry from the Eagle of Meaux, when he announced future success to the great king, as if to console him one day in the grave for the dispersal of his race:

‘You will yield, or fall to this attack, Algiers, rich in Christian spoils. You said in your avaricious heart: “My laws rule the sea, and the nations are my prey.” The agility of your vessels gives you confidence, but you will find yourselves attacked within your walls like a pretty bird that one seeks among the rocks in its nest, where it shares what it has scavenged with its brood. You already render up your slaves. Louis has broken the chains with which you burdened his subjects, who were born to be free within his glorious empire. The startled pilots cry as they advance: “What city is like Tyrus, like the destroyed in the midst of the sea.”’

Magnificent words, could you not delay the collapse of a throne? The nations march to their fates, like certain of Dante’s shades, it is impossible to stop them, even amidst their good fortune.

Those vessels, which brought liberty to the shores of Numidia, carried off the Legitimacy; that fleet under its white banner was the monarchy weighing anchor, leaving the harbours where St Louis embarked, when death summoned it to Carthage. Slaves freed from the prisons of Algiers, those who returned you to your country have lost their own homeland; those who snatched you from endless exile are themselves exiled. The master of that vast fleet has crossed the sea as a fugitive in a little boat, and France might say of him as Cornelia did of Pompey: ‘It is because of my fortune, not yours, that I see you now reduced to one small boat, you who…had 500 ships with you when you sailed this sea.’

Among that crowd on the shore at Toulon who followed with their eyes that fleet departing for Africa, did I not have friends? Had not Monsieur du Plessis, my brother-in-law’s brother, taken under his wing a delightful woman, Madame Lenormant, who was awaiting the return of Champollion’s friend? What resulted from that hasty flight to Africa? Listen to Monsieur de Penhoen, my compatriot:

‘Barely two months since this same banner had been seen flying over five hundred vessels, in sight of these same shores. Sixty thousand men were then impatient to deploy on the African field of battle. Now a handful of invalids, a few wounded dragging themselves with difficulty round the bridge of our ship were its only followers…At the moment when the Guard presented arms in the customary salute to the flag, when it was raised or lowered, all conversation ceased on the bridge. I doffed my hat with the same respect I might have shown before the aged King himself. I knelt in profound tribute before the power of great misfortune at whose emblem I sadly gazed.’