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France and the Levant/Chapter 5


V. The Revolution and Napoleon

The propaganda of Revolutionary France extended as far as Turkey; and in 1793 the representatives of Austria, Russia and Prussia complained that a "Tree of Liberty" had been planted in the court-yard of the French Embassy in Pera, and that throughout the Levant French cockades were being displayed. They demanded, though in vain, that the obnoxious tree should be cut down and that the Republican fêtes and demonstrations should be forbidden. When the tide of invasion had been rolled back from her frontiers, Republican France reverted to the old aggressive policy of the Monarchy. Her Consuls and commercial agents never lost sight of the Egyptian plan; and in February 1798 one of them sent in a detailed report. In the same month Talleyrand, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, presented a memorandum to the Directory setting forth the advantages of an attack on Egypt. The document had probably been prepared with the aid of Bonaparte, who, at any rate, stood ready to carry out its policy.

The plan appealed to the Directory, which hoped to inflict a staggering blow on Great Britain by attacking her possessions and commerce in the East and founding a colonial Empire on the ruins. The expedition was approved in March, and in April the Government signed its instructions to Bonaparte.


"The Army of the East shall take possession of Egypt. The Commander-in-Chief shall chase the English from all their possessions in the East which he can reach, and in particular he shall destroy all their comptoirs in the Red Sea. He shall have the isthmus of Suez cut through, and he shall take all necessary steps to assure the free and exclusive possession of the Red Sea to the French Republic. He shall ameliorate the lot of the natives of Egypt and shall maintain a good understanding with the Sultan and his subjects."


An excuse for the enterprize was found in the oppression of French merchants at the ports by the Mamelukes who ruled the country subject to the nominal sovereignty of the Sultan. Alexandria fell after a slight resistance, and the Battle of the Pyramids laid the country at the conqueror's feet. But if the French General had formed the gigantic projects which he afterwards put forward of conquering India and returning home by Constantinople to "take Europe in the rear," the possibility of their realisation vanished with the destruction of the French fleet at Aboukir.

During the autumn and winter of 1798 Bonaparte busied himself with the suppression of revolts and the administration of the country, in which he received aid from the distinguished scholars and men of science whom he had brought with him and who formed the Institute of Egypt. But his hope that the Porte would not regard the seizure of Egypt as a casus belli was disappointed, for by September Turkey was at war with France. He determined to forestall an attack from the combined forces of the Sultan and the Mamelukes by invading Syria, and early in 1799 he fought his way by El Arish, Gaza and Jaffa to Haifa, whence he could discern two British men-of-war lying off Acre. After fierce fighting he abandoned the siege of Acre and led his reduced forces back to Egypt amid terrible hardships, entering Cairo in June, after an absence of six months. A month later he routed a Turkish army which had been brought by sea to Aboukir. But in the moment of his triumph he slipped away from Egypt to push his fortunes at home and to defend France against the Second Coalition, leaving the command to Kléber. In August, 1801, the last French troops surrendered to a British force, and the three years’ experiment in oriental conquest came to an inglorious end.

In June 1802, shortly after the Peace of Amiens, France and Turkey signed a treaty by which France recognised the Sultan's possession of Egypt. But the First Consul had no intention of abandoning his schemes in the East. In the autumn of 1802 he sent Sébastiani on a "commercial mission" to the Levant, in the course of which he visited Alexandria and Cairo, Acre, Smyrna, and Constantinople. Returning home he reported that Turkey was weak and that 6000 troops could retake Egypt. Bonaparte's policy, however, at the moment was to maintain friendly relations with the Sultan. The Government's intention, he wrote in 1802 to the French Ambassador in Constantinople,


"is that the French Ambassador shall regain by all possible means the supremacy which France possessed in that city for 200 years. His palace is the most beautiful in Pera. He must assume a rank above that of all other Ambassadors, and must never appear without great state. He must again take under his special protection all the Christians and all Christian institutions in Syria and Armenia, and all Christian pilgrims to the Holy Places. On every possible occasion he must endeavour to attract the attention of the Turks to France. Thus the French Embassy may be illuminated on the birthday of the prophet."


Sultan Selim returned these civilities by presents to Josephine, and by giving instructions that in all future official decrees Napoleon should be described as "Padishah" and Emperor of France. In 1805, however, when Turkey renewed her treaty of 1798 with Russia, Napoleon turned from flattery to threats.


"How can you permit Russia to dictate to you?" he wrote. "If you persist in refusing me what France has always had, namely, the first place at Constantinople, I shall range myself on the side of your enemies. Trust only to your true friend, who is France, or you and your religion and your family will perish."


In the following year he ordered Cambacérès to prepare an onslaught on Russia in the shape of a brochure entitled Un Vieil Ottoman à ses Frères. This was translated into Turkish, and a thousand copies were despatched to Dalmatia, Vienna and Constantinople respectively, while another thousand were sent to Marseilles for distribution among the ships trading with the Levant. In 1806, after Jena and Austerlitz, the Emperor despatched Sébastiani to persuade the Sultan to declare war against England and Russia. The mission succeeded, and French aid was sent against attacks by land and sea. But Turkey was a mere pawn in the Emperor's game, and at Tilsit he abandoned his ally to the tender mercies of Russia, finding an excuse in the deposition of Selim, the news of which arrived during the discussions. The Franco-Russian compact aimed at the spoliation of the Ottoman Empire, Napoleon, however, stipulating that the Tsar should not take Constantinople. The execution of their plans was prevented by the quarrels which succeeded their momentary reconciliation.