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The Discovery of Egypt
Vivant Denon's Travels with Napoleon's Army
By Terence M. Russell
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Terence M. Russell
All rights reserved.
The French Armada
Dominique-Vivant Denon opens the account of his adventures with the French army with the observation that he had longed to travel to Egypt from his earliest years. When the opportunity to do so arose, he seized it eagerly:
I had from infancy wished to make a voyage to Egypt but time, that softens every impression, had weakened this desire. When the expedition which was to render us masters of that territory was in hand, the possibility of executing my old project awakened the wish to undertake it. In a word, the hero who commanded the expedition [Bonaparte] decided on my departure. He promised to take me with him and I had no anxiety about my return.
It was a courageous decision. At fifty-one years of age Denon was twice as old as many of the soldiers in Bonaparte's Army of Egypt and like them he was venturing into a little-known country. Just how little known can be inferred from the fact that the loved ones of many of the military sent their men on their way with warm winter clothing to supplement their heavy uniforms. They could not have imagined that within a few weeks their men would be throwing off these uniforms in a desperate bid to keep cool and would be fighting each other to gulp a mere mouthful of muddy water at a brackish oasis. Yet, these men would also experience the adventures of a lifetime and stare in wonderment at the majestic ruins on the bank of the River Nile, calling out 'Hurrah!' But this is to anticipate events. For the present we need to trace Denon's departure from Paris.
First, he made his preparations. These entailed gathering together the artists' materials he needed to measure and record the ancient antiquities, including supplies of paper, pencils, drawing instruments and the portfolio that accompanied him everywhere. His next task was to fulfil his obligations to his family. He made the necessary provisions for their well-being and then strove to calm himself for the project in hand: 'I became tranquil as to what was past and devoted myself to the future. I no longer reflected on the obstacles that were in my way. I felt within myself all that was necessary to surmount them.'
Although outwardly serene, the enormity of Denon's project preyed on his mind. He experienced palpitations without being sure whether this was from the joy of anticipation of the adventures that lay ahead, or from the apprehension of leaving loved ones behind. For some days he was agitated. He shunned contact with others and busied himself with his preparations.
Denon's journey from Paris to the port where he was to embark was uneventful. He and his travelling companions arrived at Lyons without quitting their carriage, and from there they journeyed down the Rhône to proceed to Avignon. Staring at the river banks Denon reflected that in Russia he had seen the Neva, in Italy the Tiber and now, venturing to Egypt, he was to go in search of the Nile. He spent a day at Marseilles from where he set out on 13 May 1798 for Toulon.
The following day he embarked the frigate La Junon which, in company with two others, was to reconnoitre ahead of the main French fleet. The wind was foul and the small ships quitted the port with difficulty. Towards the evening of the 16th, the main fleet was sighted and was deployed in order of battle to leeward of La Junon. This situation enabled Denon to gain insights into eighteenth-century naval procedures in times of war. Guns were manoeuvred into position. Silence and terror, the preparatives for slaughter, gripped the men.
Night came on but did not restore the tranquillity of Denon and his fellow savants. Their position as men of letters did not relieve them from being allocated duties by their naval and military commanders. The scientists in the group were considered to be the most useful to the expedition and were given the rank of senior officers. Their engineer-companions were accorded the status of lieutenants, which was the cause of some resentment. The most senior of the savants enjoyed the privilege of dining at the captain's table; others took meals with the generals. The most junior of the noncombatants had to rough it with the rest of the crew – and suffer their indifference and occasional caustic remarks.
At daybreak the frigates took advantage of the wind. Distant vessels were sighted but were so remote that Denon could not make out if they were French ships of the line, fighting ships, or, like La Junon, small frigates. In the cold morning air he occupied himself by looking about his ship. He noticed how much of the deck was encumbered with artillery – a chilling reminder that he, an artist and man of letters, was now embroiled in a great military expedition.
On the morning of the 19th, the main French ships of the line and the convoy of support vessels quitted port. By noon the sea was covered with vessels. How grand a spectacle that must have been! Denon was captivated: 'Never can any national display give a more sublime idea of the splendour of France, of her strength and of her means'. He had reason to feel proud of his country and the great armada that, incredibly, had been assembled in only a matter of months. Moreover, the thousands of men taking part in the expedition – soldiers, cavalry and support personnel – had all had to make their own way to the ports from numerous locations throughout France. And all were ignorant as to their destination. They had left behind wives, children and friends to follow Bonaparte.
The next day the French flagship L'Orient put out to sea with her accompanying vessels taking station in their order of sailing. The squadron of frigates was ahead. Next came the Commander-in-Chief with his advice-boats and then the line of battleships, which extended for a league and a half. The circle formed by the convoy was no less than 6 leagues in extent. L'Orient had three gun-decks, each equipped with forty cannon. She was a veritable floating fortress. Bonaparte was on board L'Orient and looked intently at each of his vessels as they passed by his flagship. They saluted and went on their way, unsure of their ultimate destination; it was known only to Bonaparte and the senior officers in whom he had confided his plans.
The destination of the French convoy was Egypt. The route taken by the majority of the French ships was: Toulon, the west coast of Corsica and Sardinia, the Straits of Sicily, the Malta Channel, the Mediterranean Sea and Alexandria. Other French ships sailed independently from Ajaccio and the Italian ports of Civitavecchia and Genoa. They later united with the main fleet in the vicinity of Malta.
Perhaps some men thought they were destined for England, where the prospect of a French invasion was the subject of fevered conversation. Such was the fear of a French incursion on to English soil that the British government had recommended London's principal streets be barricaded and its houses fortified. At the same time the Admiralty ordered a squadron to embark for the Mediterranean to gain information about French naval activity in Toulon, a task entrusted to Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson. He set sail on 2 May with three battleships, two frigates and a sloop. Nelson was then more than ten years older than Bonaparte and had already lost an eye and his right arm. His naval forces were later augmented with eleven more ships of the line providing a fighting force that included thirteen battleships, each equipped with seventy-four guns and one with fifty giving a combined firepower to rival that of the French.
Observing the movements of the French ships, Denon counted 160 vessels 'without being able to reckon the whole'. About 180 ships are thought to have departed from Toulon. On the morning of the 24th, the frigates were off the eastern coast of Corsica, opposite Bastia. Next in sight came the island of Elba which seemed to Denon like 'a rock of ferruginous earth whose crystal portions presented all the colours of the prism'.
At five in the afternoon the island of Pianose could be seen to the east, its flat lowlying terrain presenting a hazard to an unwary captain. Denon observed how the bleak landscape appeared to be abandoned to wild goats. The wind died away and the sluggish convoy, laden to the gunnels with ordnance, made slow progress. This state of torpor provided Denon with an opportunity to contemplate his fellow voyagers. The ship's crew were brave lads but, to his Parisian sensibilities, they were a rough lot. Reduced to sloth, they voiced their complaints and demanded double their allowance of water and provisions. Things grew worse: 'The most greedy among them sold their effects or disposed of them by way of lottery. Others, with a strong propensity to gamble, played and lost more in a quarter of an hour than they could pay in their lifetime. Those who had lost their money staked their watches, six or eight of which I have seen depending on the chance of a dice.' When night came on it put an end to gaming and a matelot played his fiddle. An indifferent singer did his best to entertain the men who, in response, cleared a space on the decks and made merry. Then it was the turn of a storyteller who held his audience with the tales of the prodigious valour and marvellous adventures of Tranche-Montagne, a tale similar to 'Jack the Giant Killer'.
On the evening of 31 May the fleet was joined by the Bodine. Reassuring information was obtained. The French captains were advised they would reach Cagliari Point without being intercepted by the English navy that was thought – correctly – to be searching for them in the vicinity. Nothing much occurred over the next few days but, by 4 June, the ships' provisions were nearly exhausted and the water had become so fetid as to be scarcely drinkable. Denon wryly observed: 'The useful animals had disappeared while those that fed on us were multiplied a hundred fold!' The following day orders were received to form a fresh line of battle in anticipation of enemy action. La Diane led and made signals to La Junon that were relayed to the supporting sister-ships L'Aquilon, L'Alceste and La Sportine. In effect, these ships were a form of 'flying squadron' whose role was to hasten and crowd the enemy should she show her sail. Amid these dramatic developments Denon's roving eyes cast a glance overboard: We saw several small dolphins playing before the head of the ship. To our mortification they disappeared while we were preparing to harpoon them. I had a close view of them. Their progress resembles the pitching of a vessel. They leap out of the water and dart forward twenty feet. They are elegantly shaped and their rapid movements rather resemble a sportive gaiety than announce the voracity of an animal in quest of its prey.
In the evening the wind picked up and, shifting round from east to west, it collected the convoy in such a way that the many ships' lights crowded together like stars, prompting Denon to record: 'I fancied I saw Venice hovering on the waves'. At sunset Martimo was discerned and orders were received for the convoy to close-form and to pass the night as a floating fortress and thereby be better prepared for any surprise attack. The night, however, passed uneventfully.
On 6 June the order of sailing was resumed. Martimo was still in sight and to Denon it resembled 'a mole at the western point of Sicily'. This was one of the locations in the Mediterranean where the English might be expected to rally their fleet and therefore a place to be navigated with some trepidation. A freshening wind stepped up the French ships' rate to 'two leagues an hour'. Good progress was made and the danger passed. The men's spirits rose and Denon mused: 'Under such circumstances as these the inconveniences of sea life are forgotten and nothing is felt but the advantage of having such an agent as the sea, for the transport and conveyance of forty thousand men.'
The fleet was now off Martimo. Favignana could be made out as a mere rock situated before Trapani and Mount Erice that overlooks the city. In antiquity, a temple was raised there to Venus and was celebrated for the sacrifices made to her. Denon spied the coast of Sicily through his telescope. He judged the land to be 'agreeable, productive and well cultivated'. The scene held other enchantments for him. It called to mind his youthful wanderings in Sicily and in his imagination he fancied he saw Marsala, formerly Lilybaeum, from where the Greeks and Romans discerned the fleets sent out from Carthage to attack them. More distant was the aspect of Selinuns with its temples and still upright columns resembling 'so many towers'. Now strengthening wind bowled the fleet along 'at three leagues an hour'.
The ensuing night was fine and the diminutive La Junon found herself in the midst of the great fleet. Denon rose early the next morning and was soon on deck. He watched dawn break and observed the convoy begin its complex series of co-ordinated manoeuvres to leave the security of the shoreline and put out to sea. The French vessels were soon making good progress for Malta. Sicily was passed and, to the south-east, Denon fancied he could see the volcanic island of Pantelleria shrouded in the thick clouds in which it is frequently enveloped. It was there the Romans banished prominent persons and errant members of the imperial family.
The night of the 7th was clear but the wind slackened and the rate of progress of the fleet slowed. Calm weather prevailed and little distance was made the next day but the monotony was relieved by the sight of Mount Etna towering above the horizon to the north. Smoke could be seen issuing from its eastern slopes and the crew became excited at the prospect of witnessing an eruption – of which Denon's account, however, makes no mention. Denon estimated the volcano to be some fifty leagues distant and noted that it so commanded the horizon that it appeared to be 'taller than mountains only twelve leagues away'. At six in the evening the island of Gozo, still some seven leagues distant, came into view bathed in the reddening glow of sunset.
La Junon and her sister ships laid to and waited for the heavily laden convoy to catch up. Denon could not resist taking out his telescope to have another look at Etna, reckoning her smoke pall hung in the air for a distance of more than twenty leagues 'like a long sheet of vapour'. In due course the men-of-war passed under the stern of the vessel of the Commander-in-Chief. A course was then steered towards the north side of the island of Gozo. Although the coastline was forbidding, Denon thought he could see cotton under cultivation in the fields and considered that the valleys resembled 'so many gardens'. At eight the next morning a signal was made that several unidentified ships had been sighted at a distance – perhaps as many as thirty sail. Was this the English enemy reconnoitring? There was a moment of alarm until it was realised that they were the anticipated contingent of French ships sailing to meet them from Civitavecchia. On board was General Desaix's military division complete with field guns, small arms and equipment, this impressive convoy having crept along the coast of Italy, passed through the Straits of Messina and reached the waters off Malta before Denon and his companions. The French fleet was now united and in Denon's eyes constituted an awesome force: 'As an impetuous torrent, that has increased its bulk in passing over mountains covered with snow, threatens in its course to sweep away forests and cities, so our fleet now became immense [and] unquestionably spread terror and dismay wherever it was descried.'
The first stage of the Egyptian campaign had been achieved without major incident. By good fortune the French armada had run clear of the English men-of-war. The French had even departed from Toulon unnoticed by Nelson. His ships had suffered the effects of heavy weather and did not arrive at Toulon until eight days after the French fleet had slipped away. For the moment the combined French naval and military forces were safe. They now faced their first major challenge. They must secure Malta in order to achieve naval supremacy in the Mediterranean.CHAPTER 2
The Conquest of Egypt
At five in the afternoon on 9 June 1798 the French fleet was off Comino and Cominotto, the two islets lying between Gozo and Malta. At the time of the French conquest of Egypt these islands constituted the dominion of the Knights of Malta, the former Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem. They were renowned for their courage, chivalry and splendid uniforms. The brotherhood of knights, which dated from around the time of the first crusade (1096–9), was presided over by a Grand Master. If the French were to take Malta, which was a prerequisite for conquering Egypt, the brotherhood and their allies would first have to be won over – or be subjugated.
Bonaparte held the Knights Hospitaller in contempt. Notwithstanding his sense of history, he regarded them as an anachronism in the modern era. Storming their fortress, though, was another matter. In the late eighteenth century a number of fortresses defended the Mediterranean islands around Malta, and Malta herself was – and remains – strongly fortified by the formidable fortress of St Elmo that defends the township of Valletta at its coastal promontory. The principal marauders in the eighteenth century were the infamous pirates who plagued the Barbary Coast and the defensive works had been constructed to prevent them acquiring a base from which to threaten the Maltese galleys. These same defences, equipped with cannon, now faced the French fleet.
Excerpted from The Discovery of Egypt by Terence M. Russell. Copyright © 2013 Terence M. Russell. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface: Dominique-Vivant Denon,
1 The French Armada,
2 The Conquest of Egypt,
3 The Storming of Alexandria,
4 Rosetta and the Battle of the Pyramids,
5 Abukir Bay and the Battle of the Nile,
6 The People of Rosetta,
7 The Delta,
8 Cairo and the Pyramids,
9 On the Plain of Saqqara,
10 In the Province of Fayum,
11 Under the Shadow of the Libyan Mountains,
13 To the Cataracts,
14 Upper Egypt,
15 Tribulations of an Artist,
16 Karnak and Luxor,
18 To the Red Sea,
19 The Tombs of the Kings,
20 The Splendours of Middle Egypt,
21 Departure from Egypt,
Postscript: The French Legacy,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Badly researched and boring. Basically the author has rewritten uncritically Denon's "Travels in Egypt"... when you do that you are supposed to add something extra of interest. I want my money back.