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In transcribing the following passage I have relied on the Hathi Trust’s online version of an essay that begins with a review of Edmond Plauchot’s L’Egypte et l’Occupation Anglaise (1889). Please notify the webmaster if you encounter transcription errors. — George P. Landow

Decorated initial T

It is not easy to give, within the limits of an article, a true picture of the state of Egypt and its population at the time of the British occupation. The condition of affairs was such as would appear almost incredible to those who have had no experience of the capacity of an Oriental administration for misgovernment. The evils from which the people suffered were of two kinds — first, quasi-social evils, i. e. evils deeply rooted in Egyptian society; and, secondly, evils of recent growth due to the Arabi movement and other special causes.

The Courbash and Other Forms of Torture

The former were the fruit of long years of misgovernment and oppression under a system combining all the vices of an Oriental with the worst features of a bad European administration. The three capital abuses which demoralised the governing classes and pressed grievously upon the people were the employment of the courbash, the corvée, and the corruption that existed amongst the official classes. The courbash and other forms of torture, reinforced by the power of arbitrary imprisonment, were the only instruments by which the agents of the Government attempted to exercise their authority. The two main objects for which the courbash was employed were the collection of taxes and the extortion of evidence. The result of such a system was what might have been expected. By long and painful experience the fellah had learnt the futility of paying his taxes until he had received a sufficient number of blows from the courbash to convince the authorities that there was nothing more left to extract. Nor did he care to risk his skin by giving evidence displeasing to those in power. It is unnecessary to give instances in support of these assertions. The earlier blue books and accounts of Egypt of a few years back are full of examples of the cruelty practised on the fellaheen. From the village sheikh downwards there must have been few of the agricultural population who could not have borne witness to the truth of these facts from personal experience.

The Corvée System of Forced Labour

The system of forced labour, known by the name of corvée, though not altogether indefensible in theory, also pressed very hardly upon the people in practice. From time immemorial it had been the custom to perform the annual works in connexion with the rise of the Nile, upon which the prosperity of the whole country depended, by forced labour. The chief of these works consisted in clearing the canals of the mud deposited during high Nile, and repairing the dykes and embankments by which the food was con trolled. The task was for the benefit of all, and all were, therefore, supposed to take a part in its execution. As a matter of fact, the burden fell almost entirely upon the poor; the benefits were reaped almost entirely by the rich. All who could afford to do so purchased their exemption by bribing the officials entrusted with the selection of the corvée. The unfortunate individuals who were too poor to give the accustomed gratification were dragged away, and compelled, under the harsh rule of the courbash, to work for months, unpaid and unfed, often at a considerable distance from their homes. They had not even the consolation of feeling that they were labouring for the common good. The work was usually apportioned with a view to the interests of the wealthy proprietor. The peasant, when, the corvée over, he returned to his village, found but too often that his own small plot of land was perhaps the only one in the district that had not been irrigated.

Universal Corruption

Great as was the distress caused by the courbash and the corvée, it was, perhaps, in the long run equalled by that due to the universal corruption that existed in every branch of the administration. From the Minister of the Khedive at Cairo down to the humblest employé in the provinces the system of receiving bribes ruled supreme. Each grade in the public service gave 'backsheesh' to the one above, and recouped itself with interest from the one below. The miserable cultivator, being at the bottom of the scale, had, therefore, in the end to bear the whole burden. The landed proprietor bribed the irrigation officer in order to obtain an undue share of the water that should have been for the benefit of all alike; the rich man bribed the tax-collector in order to shirk the payment of his taxes; the criminal bribed the police officer, and the suitor the judge. The Egyptian Government was itself in no small degree to blame for this state of things. The salaries of those in responsible positions were frequently miserably inadequate, and payment of them still more frequently irregular and intermittent. It was hardly to be expected that they would not exact froin their subordinates the arrears due to them from the Government.

Slavery and Slave-Trading

There were, besides the above, certain other evils, which had so long been prevalent in the country that the question of eradicating them presented very great difficulty. In spite of the Convention of 1877 the slave-trade was by no means suppressed. Slaves were more or less openly sold in Cairo, and it is stated that in 1882 thirty-two slave-dealers were known to exist in that town alone. The trade was also extensively carried on from the ports on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea. The efforts made by the Egyptian authorities to carry into effect a convention, that was disliked by orthodox Mahommedans, and opposed to the interests of the wealthy classes, were but half-hearted. In any case, so long as slavery continued to be a legal institution, it was vain to expect that the supply of slaves would not be kept up, The evil was not, of course, one that interfered with the prosperity of the country. The slaves, with the exception of a certain number of female Circassians, were imported entirely from Abyssinia and the interior of Africa. But an institution, repugnant to the first principles of humanity, and condemned by all civilised nations, could not be allowed to continue under the protection of a European Power.

The Accumulation of landed property in the hands of the State

Another evil of an economic character which greatly hindered the developement of the country was the accumulation of landed property in the hands of the State. The vast territories known as the Daïra Sanieh and Domains lands, which were acquired in various ways by the ex Khedive, Ismaïl Pasha, and other members of his family, amounted to nearly a million feddans [A feddan is nearly equivalent to an English acre.] — a fifth of the whole cultivated area of Egypt. These estates had been ceded to the Government prior to the British occupation, and were each of them administered by a commission consisting of an Egyptian, an Englishman, and a French man. Apart from the distress caused to the fellaheen by their expropriation from so large a portion of the soil, it is evident that the attempt to administer this territory from Cairo could not be otherwise than a failure. In Egypt, more, perhaps, than in any other part of the world, the social and economical conditions of the case were hostile to the success of such an experiment. Egypt is essentially a country for 'la petite culture.' In a report compiled at Lord Dufferin's request by M. Suarès, head of the Crédit Foncier in Egypt, it is estimated that in the case of large properties the average net return from the land amounted to 9½ per cent.; whereas in the case of small properties, owned by the fellah himself, it amounted to 12¼ per cent. This calculation, moreover, leaves out of account the cost of a highly paid central administration such as existed — and still exists under the system in question.

The Sudden Application of the Credit System

A third evil under which the agricultural population had for some time been suffering severely was caused by the sudden application of the credit system to an ignorant and thriftless people. In former times, under Mahommedan law, which, as is generally the case in half-civilised communities, viewed with disfavour the operations of the money-lender, the creditor found considerable difficulty in recovering his debts. It is stated that he did not possess the power of foreclosing and expropriating the debtor from his holding. It was consequently only possible to borrow on conditions which were quite beyond the reach of the mass of the population. The institution of the Mixed Tribunals in 1876 changed this. The fellah discovered that his land had become a legal security. The exactions of the last few years of Ismail's reign, followed by the fall in the price of agricultural produce which began in the year 1880, pressed heavily upon him, and drove him into the hands of the money - lender. On the other hand, the mortgagee was invested with far too immediate and extensive powers of selling up the defaulting owner. By a forced sale he was frequently able to obtain possession of the land at a price considerably below its value. Cases even occurred in which the fellah, after being expropriated from his holding, was dismayed to find that he still owed the greater portion of his debt, the land having been bought in by the creditor at a nominal price. The amount of the indebtedness of the fellaheen at the time of the British occupation is somewhat difficult to estimate. Lord Dufferin, in his report, considers that the mortgage debt of the fellaheen amounted to between four and five millions sterling, and that a further sum of from three to four millions was owed to the village usurers. Of course the greater part of this enormous sum had never reached the fellah's hands, but represented the accumulation of interest, the usual rate of which was from 3 to 5 per cent. per month. The burden was too great for the land to support. Expropriations were frequent.

The soil began to pass out of the hands of the cultivator into those of the foreign usurer. Up to the end of 1882 the amount realised by judicial sales of land under the orders of the Mixed Tribunals was about 240,000l. [Note: This and most of the figures which follow are given in Egyptian pounds, which are worth a trifle more than pound sterling.] In the following year the tendency to foreclose continued, and there was a large increase in the number of forced sales. The discontent among the native population at this state of things was very great, and was, perhaps, the chief cause of their hatred of the European and the institutions which he had introduced.

The System of Military Conscription

One further hardship, which contributed in no small degree to the miserable condition of the people, may be mentioned — namely, the system of military conscription. The men required for the army were obtained through the agency of the moudirs and village sheikhs. A large field was open for corruption and favouritism, and the local authorities were not slow to avail themselves of the opportunity. The nominal rate for exemption from military service was fixed at 80l., but the security that such a privilege would be respected was slight. No account was taken of age, marriage, or family circumstances. There was no limit assigned to the length of service; and in case of desertion the relatives, or, failing these, the village, of the deserter were held responsible.

Enough has been said to show that the state of the country during the last few years preceding the British occupation, though probably an improvement on what it had been, was still, to say the best of it, extremely unsatisfactory. It says much for the natural fertility of the soil and the patient in dustry of its cultivators that the latter were able to support life under such unfavourable conditions. Indeed, in Upper Egypt, where, as a general rule, but one crop was drawn annually from the land, the greater part of the people lived habitually at starvation point, and any abnormal circum stance, such as a low Nile, resulted in numbers perishing of famine.

The state of affairs which we have just described was further aggravated by a variety of complications which were partly the natural fruit of a long period of misgovernment, and partly occasioned by the events which were the immediate cause of the British occupation. In the first place, the occurrences of the last two or three years had greatly diminished the prestige of the Khedive. The establishment of the Dual Control followed by the deposition of Ismail Pasha, at the instigation of the Powers of Europe, tended to dispel those feelings of reverence and fear on the part of the people towards their sovereign which, under the Oriental system of government, are a necessity. The insurrection of Arabi and the spectacle of the Khedive as practically a prisoner in the hands of those who were in rebellion against his Government, and obliged to comply with their behests, increased this tendency. The fact that he was replaced in authority by the help of a foreign and a Christian army could not fail to impress the minds of a fanatical population. Again, the insurrection of Arabi had thrown the whole machinery of administration out of gear. The utmost confusion reigned throughout all the departments of the Executive. The army and police were totally disorganised. The instruments by which, however inefficiently, a semblance of law and order had hitherto been preserved existed no longer. At the same time there was a recrudescence of fanaticism ignited for their own purposes by the leaders of the rebellion, and fanned into a flame by the massacres of Christians which had taken place at Alexandria, Tantah, and other places. It would be an error, however, to suppose that the very strong feeling against Christians, which undoubtedly existed in 1882, was entirely due to religious fanaticism. The great , and in Lower Egypt predominating , cause was the fact that the majority of the village usurers were Christians. [279-74]

Related Material: Selected Parts of Articles from the Magazine


“The English in Egypt.” The Edinburgh Review. 159 (January 1890): 267-306. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 9 September 2020.

Last modified 9 September 2020