After a long, detailed relation of Mehemmed Ali’s rise from an Albanian peasant to tax collector, tobacco merchant, and military leader who successfully led an insurrection that made him the ruler of Egypt, the Britanica article lists the many ways he improved not only the Egyptian army but many other aspects of the country’s government. — George P. Landow

The individual by whom all this and more has been accomplished would, even under the most favourable circumstances, have been accounted an extraordinary man; and amongst Turks he is certainly to be regarded as little less than a prodigy. His own greatness, indeed, is the immediate result of a creative power vigorously but skilfully exerted, and almost invariably directed towards the accomplishment of some object calculated to promote im provement and advance civilization; nor has the general policy of his government been less distinguished for ability, address, and energy, than was the conduct of those great measures by means of which he regenerated Egypt, and laid the foundations of his own supremacy. His army alone is a wonderful achievement; his fleet scarcely less so: and if the brilliant victories of the one have rewarded that wisdom which knows how to amend a fault, and that liberality which, when judiciously exercised, is all powerful in its influence on the human mind, the day is probably not distant when the triumphs of the other will cause the flag of Egypt to be alike respected in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. But it is not by the splendour of his winged victories, nor the extent of his rapid conquests, that the name of Mehemmed Ali will be honoured and distinguished. His are much higher and more difficult achievements than mere feats of arms; his is a nobler and more enviable glory than that which is reaped amidst the strife and carnage of the battle field.

It was the proud boast of Napoleon that he found France in the kennel, and placed her in the van of Europe. But with more truth and less ostentation might Mehemmed Ali say the same thing concerning Egypt. Napoleon, indeed, found confusion, but, as observed by an able writer, still it was the confusion of brilliant materials. Not so the Albanian, who out of a mere chaos of ignorance, treachery, and ferocity, has formed a kingdom possessing a disciplined and victorious army of seventy-five thousand regular troops, with a respectable marine of twelve ships of the line and more than thrice that number of frigates and other vessels of war.

Nor is this all. He has organized a vigilant police, by means of which Egypt, formerly a land of violence and blood shed, has been rendered as safe as any part of England or France; he has established an active and vigilant ad ministration of the laws, by which persons and property enjoy security; he has constructed roads, formed canals, and introduced manufactures; he has improved agriculture, extended commerce, and reared an industrious po pulation; and, notwithstanding all the cost of his various establishments, and the heavy expenditure incident to a state of frequent warfare, he has forestalled none of his ordinary revenues.

During his reign the exports and imports of Egypt have accordingly risen from a mere trifle to several millions annually. Eager to obtain useful information himself, he has diffused a thirst of knowledge amongst his subjects, by making the possession of it the indispensable condition of advancement either in civil or military employments; he has ministered to the men tal wants of his people by the erection of schools and col leges in various parts of his dominions: and he has, from time to time, sent young men into Europe, not to ape its fashions or copy its manners but to study the laws, institutions, and practical working of modern civilization, and to carry back the results of their observation for the improvement of their own country.

His government, it is true, is a naked despotism, and, with all its general wisdom and beneficence, exhibits some of the worst features of that species of government; whilst the unhappy Fellahs are still ruled, if not oppressed, by a rough coercive hand, and exposed to exactions indicating a short-sighted cupidity on the part of their rigorous taskmaster. But, on the other side, it must be admitted that the strong arm of absolute power, guided by a stern and resistless will, could alone have effected that renovation which has been produced in Egypt; and as to his exactions and monopolies, Mehemmed Ali may easily silence rebuke on this head by pointing to many scarcely less odious or objectionable than his own which are still selfishly upheld in some of the most enlightened communities of Europe. And let it also be remembered that, as establishments must be maintained, the chief cause of the severity of his imposts has been the extent of his improvements, by which in time their rigour will be mitigated; and that monopoly is the price which must in the first instance be paid for the in troduction of new and more effective modes of industry. Nor have the actual results belied the calculations on which this enlightened and vigorous ruler has proceeded. A country long devoted to misrule now teems with labour, and produces cotton and flax which may compete with the best in our markets; it exports silk, sugar, tobacco, and various other commodities, besides grain; and as long as personal security is maintained by an impartial administration of the law, these will continue to multiply in a land where an annual renewal of the soil, irrigation, and sunshine are certainties. Such are the triumphs which have been effected by the Albanian peasant, who has established an independent empire in Egypt. [VIII, 504-05]

Related material


“Egypt.” The Encylopædia Britanica or Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black: 1842. VIII, 458-560. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Chicago Library. Web. 13 August 2020.

Robinson, Ronald, John Gallagher, and Alice Denny. Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialism (1961). Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1968.

Last modified 13 August 2020