Good old-fashioned imperialism

>In the spring of 1798, a young Napoleon was looking for a new foe to conquer. Lionized by salon society in the wake of several victories over the Austrian army, the twenty-eight-year-old general knew that inaction would soon cause his fame to ebb. England was the natural target, but he deemed an invasion unfeasible. Instead, Napoleon outfitted for a campaign in Egypt. The idea was to strike at England by cutting her trade routes to India, and also to take the first step toward founding a French empire by seizing vast parts of Africa and Asia.

Journalist Nina Burleigh’s Mirage is an eminently readable account of this brazen and ill-timed expedition, which brought 34,000 soldiers, 16,000 sailors, and 151 savants (artists and scientists) to the Alexandrian shore in July of 1798. A month later, the British destroyed the French fleet in the Battle of Abukir Bay, cutting off all communications with France. During the next three years, every Frenchman in Egypt would suffer from disease (including bubonic plague), privation, or violence. Only half of them would make it back to France alive.

And yet, the venture was considered a victory—mostly because of the “spin” put on it by Napoleon, who abandoned his men to their fate after a year, stealing back to France with a small coterie of favorites when it had become obvious that military success was impossible. The real success of the venture was cultural, triggering what has since been termed the “rape of the Nile” by later writers—a century and a half of tomb-plundering by both Europeans and Egyptians.

Europe became fascinated with Egypt, and ancient artifacts were sought after by collectors to the extent that a brisk trade was born. The most famous artifact from the expedition was the Rosetta Stone (the linguistic key which unlocked Egyptian hieroglyphics), discovered when the French attempted to dig a canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, and subsequently seized by the British.

The massive literary monument of the expedition, entitled La Description de l’Égypte (the Description of Egypt), was not finished until long after Napoleon’s death (it took twenty-six years to complete). It was the most comprehensive view of a single subject published to date. Rhode Islanders can view this magnificent twenty-four volume work at the Providence Athenaeum, but if you are pressed for time, pick up Burleigh’s book.

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