The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848

By Paul W. Schroeder | Go to book overview

4 The Second Coalition, 1798-1802

AFTER Campo Formio and the breakdown of Anglo-French negotiations, the war could have simmered on inconclusively between Britain and France. Instead, it flared up quickly into another great Continental struggle. The reasons begin with one of the strangest episodes of the era.


I. EGYPT AND THE MEDITERRANEAN

Behind the French expedition to Egypt lay the difficulty France had in getting at England. Following the collapse of the peace talks at Lille, the Directors, particularly Reubell, again took up the idea of a cross-Channel invasion, despite the failure of an earlier effort and the fact that France did little to support the insurrectionary plans of the United Irishmen led by Wolfe Tone. But Bonaparte, given command of the proposed invasion force, soon decided that he would not sacrifice his popularity in this hopeless enterprise. With invasion infeasible and revolutionary subversion and raids on British commerce clearly inadequate, the idea of undermining Britain's will and capacity to fight by seizing Egypt and threatening the route to India seemed more attractive.1 Other purposes, however, were at least as important. The Directors wanted Bonaparte out of France, while Bonaparte was eager for

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1
Nabonne ( 1951: ch. 7); Lean ( 1970: 6-7); M. Elliott ( 1982; 1989: 202-15); Bertaud ( 1988: 225-8). Historians still debate whether the expedition was seriously intended to threaten the British in India or presented an actual threat. Edward Ingram ( 1981: 42-52, 292-303, 312-13, and passim) defends the view of Henry Dundas that it genuinely menaced India, arguing that the French could have advanced on India from Egypt and that Egypt could have become a base for French domination of the Arab world, which would threaten the routes to India even though Britain controlled the seas. This certainly has some validity; the British were bound to consider the French move a threat and to tighten their hold on India in response, as actually happened. However, Ingram's impressive body of evidence seems to me on the whole to support Grenville's view that the expedition was a strategic blunder and that the French army should be trapped in Egypt and allowed to die on the vine. Arthur Wellesley, the British commander in India, believed that France's position in Egypt was too weak and risky to endanger India or to serve in the long run as a base for any other conquests.

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