Eça de Queiroz: The English in Egypt, a case study
José Maria de Eça de Queiroz
From The English in Egypt (1882)
Letters From England
Translated by Ann Stevens
What did suit England’s convenience was to magnify this local disturbance to the proportions of a general state of national anarchy, and to offer, or impose, her aid not to punish a few local criminals but to pacify a whole country which was in a state of turmoil. So she jubilantly greeted this long-desired day, so patiently awaited since the beginning of the century, so anxiously hoped for since the opening of the Suez Canal – the day when she would finally be given a pretext to place her iron-shod foot on Egyptian soil, to place on it her great Anglo-Saxon paw which, once put on foreign soil – whether it be a rock like Gibraltar, or a stretch of sand like Aden, or an island like Malta, or a whole world like India – no human effort could ever again hope to budge.
And, stripped of their humanitarian adornments, these noble words meant that England, under this pretext of pacifying Egypt, would disembark in Alexandria and occupy for military purposes Port-Said and Suez – the Canal’s two ports; and then, never again would the English flag be struck from these two vital steps on the route to India!
And that would mean the fulfillment of Britain’s great dream: absolute possession of the route to India; John Bull on guard duty at all the successive gateways that lead to her Empire in the East: at the entrance to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar and her invincible rock; in the Mediterranean, Malta and Cyprus, two islands, two colossal war depots; at the entrance to the Canal, Port-Said; at the end of the Canal and at the mouth of the Red Sea, Suez; at the edge of the Persian Gulf, Aden; and from there onwards her squadrons sweeping the seas.
And in the midst of all this, what about Europe? Oh! England invited Europe with fine disinterested gestures, to share with her the honour of pacifying Egypt! But she was well aware that not one of the Great Powers would send one soldier to help: not even France, who had a fleet in the bay of Alexandria and had collaborated in those Platonic demonstrations; France, governed by a bourgeois democracy which had grown rich and become one vast business concern, did not want, at any cost, to disturb that sweet calm peace in which her millions were ripening.
Apart from this, the powers had already salved their dignity as, seated around the green conference table beside the luminous waters of the Bosphorus, they meditated, heads in hands, on possible solutions to the Egyptian question. As for the rest, they were watching, armed to the teeth, suspicious and jealous, hating each other but reciprocally immobilized by the very magnitude of the armaments.
That they all fancied Egypt’s spoils no one can doubt unless he ignore the instinct to rob, pillage and cheat which nests in the soul of every civilized race…
When those who fancy the riches contained in a locked-up house stand outside, pen in hand, discussing the best way of getting in, the prize goes to the one who arms himself with a hatchet instead of a pen and aims the first blow at the door. That is what England did. While the others drew up theoretical plans, she opened fire on Alexandria.
Although not at war with Egypt, she considered that she had the right to assemble a threatening fleet in front of Alexandria; but she would not allow the authorities of Alexandria even to repair the breaches in the old fortifications erected by Mohammed-Ali!
And what fantastic explanations Mr. Gladstone gave Europe, to justify her casus belli! The batteries that Arabi was setting up, he said, the new cannons he was positioning, were putting the English battleships in peril! And were the battleships not endangering the forts? But beside the English squadron there were French, German, Italian, Greek and Austrian warships – as exposed to Arabi’s cannons as those that hoisted the British flag; and these did not consider themselves ‘in peril’!
What would England say if the captain of one of those French or German battleships, which from time to time are anchored in the waters of Portsmouth or Southampton, suddenly forbade the governor of one of these fortified places to continue the defence-works which they are incessantly perfecting, on the pretext that these batteries could damage the ship under his command?…With such a precedent English admirals, who frequently honour the humble port of Lisbon by the presence of their flags, would be authorized to demand the destruction of the Towers of St. Julian and Bugio and Belém!
Finally night descended and the stars came out; at the edge of the calm water the lights of Alexandria shone; everything was silent in the bay.
They were alone, face to face, under the peace of the heavens, a large English squadron and the inoffensive city which, the following morning, to satisfy the greed of a nation of shop-keepers, it was going to raze to the ground in cold blood.
Admiral Seymour had declared some days before that in two short hours he would demolish the forts of Alexandria. However, after nine long hours, he had still not silenced the Egyptian batteries; and a shell had even blasted open the captain’s cabin in the Inflexible.
Sir Beauchamp Seymour recognized, in his despatches to the Admiralty, that ‘the best artilleries in Europe could be proud of such a fine resistance.’ But neither courage nor granite walls could prevail against those black monsters which disfigure the seas – the Monarch, the Alexandra, the Superb, the Sultan, the Invincible, the Minotaur, and the rest that were there – mobile castles of iron, served by the combined forces of steam, hydraulics and electricity, as devastating as a cataclysm and exact as a science.
The English had possession of, and governed, Alexandria, as naturally as if it were situated in Yorkshire; and opposite Alexandria, on that sort of sandy isthmus which connects it to the land of the Delta, Arabi’s encampment was dug in, controlling from this position all the valley of the Nile and the desert as far as the sea. The English received incessant reinforcements from home and from India. Arabi called up all the Fellahin to war against the English. England prepared to mount an invasion. Arabi organized a great national defence. Nothing clearer. The question is between England, trying to establish a protectorate in Egypt and snatch its strategic cities which control the Canal, and Arabi Pasha, a patriot, who wants Egypt for the Egyptians, who fear the protection of the foreigner as the worst disgrace for a weak country, and who cannot believe that the fact of Alexandria, Port-Said and Suez unfortunately being on the route to India is a motive for their being turned into English garrisons.
With the question concentrated now between a powerful invading nation and a patriot defending his soil, Europe took her traditional attitude: that is, she murmured a few mild words of warning and retreated afar to watch how a strong arm makes the best of her strength, and study how a weak one is stripped of its rightful possessions.
John Bull will not be satisfied with anything less than a solid, long-lasting result: an English Egypt, and running through its territory, like a corridor in a private house, the Suez Canal, the route to India. A government which, after burying millions of English pounds and thousands of English lives in the sands of Africa, will not offer this, will instantly receive John Bull’s boot in his posterior.