Africa and the Africans in the Nineteenth Century: A Turbulent History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Mary Baker | Go to book overview

3
Political and Merchant Islam
East Africa

Modernity as an Option: Egypt

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Egypt was a special case, a precocious attempt to establish a modern state. The case is all the more intriguing because at first sight the revolution did not occur in an independent nation but in a colonial province of the Ottoman Empire, which Egypt had been since the Mamelukes were conquered in the sixteenth century. The Mamelukes, who were originally converted Caucasian slaves, had been transformed into a corps of approximately 12,000 privileged soldiers and bureaucrats who continued to maintain their numbers through the purchase of boys. They formed an “order” bound together by a community of status and function. Nonetheless, beginning in the eighteenth century, merchant, agrarian, and urban capitalism had been growing, and it was relatively widespread when Napoleon Bonaparte led the French expedition in 1797.


Bonaparte’s Legacy

It is well known that Napoleon Bonaparte saw his expedition as an interlude in the pursuit of his ambitions in France. What was special about his undertaking was that Bonaparte, a son of the Enlightenment, brought with him a remarkable team of researchers and scientists, some of whom remained in Egypt as advisors to the future Muhammad-Ali. Thirty-five thousand men, including 2,000 officers, landed simultaneously in Egypt’s three main ports, Alexandria, Damietta, and Rosetta, on June 27, 1798. The Mamelukes had never faced a modern army, and it took the French only three weeks to conquer Cairo. Bonaparte skillfully made alliances with Egyptian notables against the existing regime, and solemnly founded the Institute of Egypt to “spread the Enlightenment in Egypt, and study Egypt’s land, industry and history.”1 It was through his impetus that the first newspaper was published: Le Courrier de l’Egypte. However, Bonaparte soon found himself trapped in Egypt when British Admiral Nelson destroyed his fleet in Aboukir Harbor (July 1898).

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