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France and the Levant/Chapter 3

 

III. The Plan of Leibnitz for the Conquest of Egypt

A century's experience convinced French statesmen that the Turkish policy of Francis had been a failure in its political and commercial aspects; and the Bourbon Monarchy, which prided itself on its zeal for the faith, was under no temptation to revive it. Louis XIII repeated the old wish "to draw the sword only against the Turks, heretics or oppressors of the weak"; Père Joseph, the secret collaborator of Richelieu, dreamed of uniting Christian Europe for another Crusade; and the wealthy Mazarin left a legacy for a war against Turkey. In 1649 a letter was addressed to the Maronites, a Christian sect resident in the Lebanon, assuring them of the protection of Louis XIV; and when the young King came of age Boileau and Fénelon appealed to him to take up the cross. The Turks were at this time dominating the Mediterranean, embarking on the conquest of Crete and invading Hungary. To join them would have placed Europe at the mercy of Louis XIV; but the temptation was resisted. In 1664 French troops took part in Montecucculi's great victory at St Gotthard; and the French flag was planted on the coast of Algiers as a security against the Moslem pirates who infested the Mediterranean.

It was above all the desire to divert the Catholic zeal of Louis XIV from Protestantism to a combat with Islam that inspired Leibnitz, the German philosopher, mathematician, historian and theologian, to plunge into the region of high politics. In 1671 he composed his Fabula Ludovisia, in which St Louis appears in a dream and urges his descendant to undertake an expedition to Egypt, a command which the King, on awaking, promises to obey. The philosopher hoped for an introduction to Louis through the Elector of Mainz, to whom the scheme had been communicated; but it was agreed to begin by sending a summary of the plan. In February 1672 the French Minister of Foreign Affairs reported that his master wished for further explanations from the author. Leibnitz at once started for Paris, which he reached at the moment when France and England declared war against the Dutch. The Foreign Minister sent a message from headquarters that Holy Wars had gone out of fashion; but in June a quarrel occurred between France and Turkey at Constantinople, and a war was freely discussed. Accordingly, while awaiting the King's return to Paris, Leibnitz drew up a full statement of his design, entitled De Expeditione Aegyptiaca regi Franciae proponenda Justa Dissertatio. A shorter edition, whether a first draft or a summary, was written under the title of Consilium Aegyptiacum.

The scheme is presented as the most important undertaking on which France could enter, since its success would carry with it the military leadership of Christendom. It is also the least dangerous and difficult of large schemes, and its failure would do her no irreparable damage. Egypt is the Holland of the East, and its conquest would overthrow the Dutch enemy, whose strength lies in her colonies and in the East Indian trade. The master of Egypt could render infinite service or disservice to the world, by stopping trade as the Turks have done or developing it by means of a canal. In comparison with such gains the conquest of a few towns on the Rhine or in the Low Countries is worth very little. Assuming the general interest of Europe in the expulsion of the Turk and the advance of the Christian faith, Leibnitz urges the King to take Egypt, which falls by right to France; Syria, to consolidate the domination of Egypt; Malta, where most of the Knights are French; and finally to assume the protection of the Church throughout the East.

 

"Constantinople," he observes, "is the centre of the Turkish power; but, in the event of a sudden attack, Egypt is so distant that it could not receive timely succour. The whole East, and not Egypt alone, awaits the arrival of a liberating force on which it may rely for protection. If Egypt be conquered, the Turkish Empire will crumble to pieces in every direction. Its possession will open the road to the richest countries of the East, will unite the commerce of India with that of France, and will prepare the way for conquests worthy of Alexander. When the expedition is ready it will be well to countenance the rumour already in circulation that it is directed against the Morea or the Dardanelles; and then, while all Europe is in suspense, Your Majesty's attack will fall on Egypt like a thunderbolt. By this profound discretion you will insure the success of an enterprise which has already been undertaken by your ancestors."

 

Even the facilities for retreat, should the expedition unexpectedly fail, are explained in detail.

The memoranda never reached the King, for he never asked to see them. The two versions of the scheme remained buried among the author's papers at Hanover for a century and a quarter; but Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt in 1798 led the British Government, which had received a copy of the larger document, to publish a summary in pamphlet form in 1803. When the French seized Hanover shortly afterwards, they obtained a copy of the Consilium Aegyptiacum, which was read by the First Consul.