The domestic contentions by which Egypt had so long been distracted were now [1798] to be succeeded by foreign invasion. — The Encylopædia Britanica

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rom an exaggerated notion of the importance of the British dominions in the East, which were regarded as a source of inexhaustible wealth to this country [i.e. England], the possession of Egypt, the channel through which the commerce of India anciently flowed into Europe, had long been viewed by the statesmen of France as a most desirable acquisition for that country. Various arguments, some of them plausible enough, were accordingly advanced in support of this conclusion. In particular, it had been contended that the communication between India and the southern parts of Europe, by the channel of the Red Sea, was the shortest, the safest, and the most economical; that the Nile might be connected with the Arabian Gulf by means of a canal cut across the isthmus of Suez; that, independently of the commerce of India, the country on the eastern shores of the Red Sea abounded in spices, perfumes, and other valuable products; that Africa had gold dust and ivory to give in exchange for the more bulky commodities of Europe; and therefore that Egypt, if occupied by one of the maritime powers of the Mediterranean, would prove a more valuable possession than all the British territories in India.

From the time of Leibnitz, who addressed to Louis XIV. a memorial recommending the occupation of Egypt for the purpose of destroying the maritime and commercial ascendency of the Dutch, the speculation which he had in some measure originated continued to find favour with the statesmen of France; and when the naval pre-eminence of Britain, which a series of unexampled triumphs had placed on a firm basis, means of armies transported by fleets, the project of seizing upon Egypt began to be anxiously discussed and seriously meditated. Nor was this scheme viewed merely in con nection with objects of commercial enterprise, or even the extension of the colonial possessions of France. To the bold and ardent minds that now predominated in the French councils, it promised other and still more import ant advantages.

The subjugation of Egypt by a nation whose territory bordered on the Mediterranean was considered as the most effectual blow which could be struck against the power of Turkey; whilst, by occupying that country with a powerful military force, and, as a neces sary consequence, adding to it the possession of Syria, a position would be obtained from which the British possessions in India might be threatened, and perhaps in due time attacked. Ideas the most gigantesque were formed, and to men flushed with the confidence inspired by vic tory all things seemed possible. It is not certainly known with whom originated the project of sending an expedition at this time to Egypt, and various persons have claimed or received the merit of the suggestion. It is beyond all doubt, however, that the ardent mind of Napoleon entered into the scheme with characteristic energy, and that the executive directory acquiesced in it with a readiness which perhaps arose as much from policy as conviction. The young soldier of Italy had already become too great for a republic. In a country which had recently witnessed so many revolutions, and where all distinctions are so liable to be eclipsed by military glory, the man who had dictated to Austria the preliminaries of Leoben could not but be an object of dread to a feeble and unpopular government; and hence it is at least a reasonable presumption, that the immediate advantage of removing to a safe distance a dangerous army and a still more dangerous military chief, weighed fully as much with the executive directory as any of the speculations to which we have alluded. [VIII, 488].

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.

Last modified 14 August 2020