Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Four pashas of Egypt

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Whatever may be happening elsewhere, the Mediterranean will not let itself be forgotten for many days together. My last survey from my Mountain was of Greece; and now it must be Egypt.

We have seen the accession of a good many Viceroys of Egypt; but I doubt whether the present be not more important than any of the rest, or all together.

Sixteen years ago, one might see in Egypt one or other of the following personages, whichever way one turned. In the Ezbekeeyeh (the great square at Cairo) or on the road to Shoobra,—the Pasha’s great garden,—the Pasha’s carriage might be met, and in it might be seen the far-famed old Mehemet Ali, with his white beard resting on his breast, and his bright eyes telling of a youthful spirit under his weight of years. Here was the reigning sovereign, as he was in fact, though he bore the title of Viceroy.

Up the river, at a cotton factory in one place or a sugar refinery at another, might be met the stout figure and stern searching face of Ibrahim Pasha, the next heir, and so-called eldest surviving son of the old man. It was understood, however, that he was only stepson to the Pasha, having been four years old when his mother was received into the hareem of Mehemet Ali. He had always been a great favourite with his stepfather; had been publicly destined to the succession from the time when Tussoun Pasha, the eldest son, had perished in an expedition into the interior; and had lately gained a high military reputation by his Syrian campaigns, though they proved unavailing to keep Syria under Egyptian rule. Ibrahim might be met in his factory, or visiting his sugar-boilers, almost before it was light, making everybody tremble by the sharpness of his observation, and the smartness of his investigations. Though he was stout, and his step was quick, there was an impression abroad that his health was bad, and his life precarious. The question which interested every human being, from one end of the Nile valley to the other, was—who would succeed if Ibrahim should die? If ever a life was devoutly prayed for in that valley, his was now. It was not so much from any popularity of his own, as from hope and fear about who should succeed Mehemet Ali if he did not. The candidates on whom hung so many fears and hopes were to be seen also.

Mehemet Ali had an unpardonable habit of giving away villages, with all the people in them, to anybody who won upon him by services or otherwise. He would bestow one or a dozen as might happen: and this want of consideration for the people—this breach of the very first condition of social advancement,—security of person and property—rendered his many boasted improvements ineffectual. Nothing could be done while the people were always running away and hiding themselves as soon as princes or officials, military or civil, approached. If, among the Pyramids near Memphis, the people ran particularly fast, or the dwellings and fields were found deserted, it was a sign that Abbas Pasha was at hand. He was the owner of this district, and the most unwelcome person who ever entered it. His father was the Tussoun Pasha who had gone up against the Arabs in the interior, and never returned. There was some mystery about his death; but the story given out is that the Arabs built up with bushes the house or tent in which he slept, and set it on fire, so that no one escaped from within. His son was watched with a fearful sort of curiosity as he grew up,—his evil tendencies being unconcealable, and the probability of his excluding the sons of Ibrahim from the succession seeming to increase as the race between the two lives of the aged Viceroy and the unhealthy Ibrahim grew more doubtful. Men and frightened women and children peeped at Abbas as he ordered his boat to shore at Masgoon, or as he sat under a palm clump awaiting the people whom he had sent for, and who were not to be found. All Cairo had its eyes on him at another time when, amidst bursts of wild music and the banging of guns, he took charge for a minute or two of the sacred camel which had brought back the Mahhmil from Mecca. Abbas, as he led the camel hither and thither, and then out of the square formed by the troops, was regarded, as by this act too probably indicated, as a future ruler of the country. He was more of a Greek in appearance than his grandfather, and the people never lost the impression of their being foreigners.

At that time there were two lads riding about Cairo and the neighbourhood who set all eyes sparkling, and all countenances smiling wherever they appeared. The popular love for those youths seemed to be a perpetual sunshine about them. These were the alternative candidates—the sons of Ibrahim Pasha. He had married a native wife, and their children were dark; and the longing of the people for rulers who should be of their blood, though also of the able and ambitious Greek family, was very striking at that time to strangers.

One element in the case was the policy of certain European governments. The whole issue might depend on whether the French or the English Consuls, or somebody else, should obtain the preponderant influence over the old pasha; and many and keen were the eyes that were bent on the transactions and the intercourses between Mehemet Ali and the foreigners in and about his court.

There was something humiliating as well as amusing in the spectacle of the time. Of course everybody boasted of particular intimacy with the Pasha, except the discreet and gentlemanly Consuls-General, who, in Egypt, held the real rank of ambassadors, as the Viceroy held in fact that of sovereign. Adventurers from various countries were there—English as well as others; and the most vulgar among them were wont to speak in a patronising tone of the old gentleman whom they could wind round their finger, and who liked nothing so much as to be amused by them. They played off their inventions, and puffed their schemes, and pretended that their way was clear, when the shrewd old man had been picking their brains, sounding their projects, and amusing or irritating himself with their impertinence. It was really agonising to hear a braggart Englishman telling stories of the Pasha’s silly simplicity, or of his temper and manners, in the Pasha’s own palace, in the presence of his attendants, some of whom seemed to us, by their countenances, to know something more of English than the low-bred gossip imagined. As for the practical evidences,—the old man let himself be surrounded by obsequious Frenchmen, accepted the most affectionate letters from the King of the French, and allowed his palaces to be filled with clocks, tables, &c., from Paris; but he could never be got to say “Yes” to the proposal of the Suez canal. He listened to English praises of a particular railway made of some very particular rails; and he did not let out that he knew that such rails were lying ready, locking up capital most inconveniently, while he was so long making up his mind. He simply kept silence on important matters while conscious of not fully understanding them; and thus he never could be got to make promises about the Suez canal, and many other artful and unsound projects. He did a few foolish things in his unconscious ignorance of some of the first principles of government; and he also showed the highest intelligence and steadiness in important affairs which he fully comprehended. His fidelity to England in the matter of transit to India is a strong evidence of this: and we may see another in the temper and prudence with which he conducted himself after the new arrangement of his relations with the Porte which deprived him of Syria. On the whole, he was pronounced to be French in his leanings; and the French official world assumed this as an established fact. Some frightened Englishmen insisted, abroad and at home, that the French would thenceforward appropriate more and more rapidly the whole north of Africa, and bar our passage to India by Egypt. The jealousy and wrath that were raging at Alexandria and Cairo when I was there exceeded any such manifestation as I ever witnessed in the Slave States of America, or anywhere else. It must be understood that the consuls-general of England and France were far above this. They were sincerely cordial, while each aware that the interests of coming generations might hang on the decisions, the policy, and the conduct of the old Pasha and his immediate successor.

They were aware of this: but they little anticipated the changes that were close at hand. Within two years, Ibrahim Pasha was in his grave; the King of the French and his family were exiles from their country; Mehemet Ali was dead; and Abbas was the ruler of Egypt. No doubt the people mourned the overthrow of their hope that they should be ruled by a Pasha of their own colour; but they had to weep in secret. They had, to be sure, a ruler who abundantly hated foreigners. Abbas was as eager to run away from the European Consuls as his villagers had been to hide from him: but what the people of Egypt dislike is not foreign merchants, or travellers, or ambassadors, but a Greek race to reign over them. Thus, nobody seemed glad of Abbas. The Consuls could get no business done, even though they wooed him with sports, and humoured his tastes. His own officers of state were in constant perplexity, from his evasion of affairs; and, from time to time, the merchants, the townspeople, and the peasantry were thrown into panic or rage by some illicit act of power,—some trick played with corn, or duties, or with the rights of the peasants. He is probably remembered in England chiefly by his having helped us to the hippopotamus, and by the horse-races which he set up under the Pyramids. It may be remembered, too, how he latterly vanished almost entirely from sight. He had more and more frequently been found inaccessible when business was urgent, and absent in the desert when the mails were expected; and at length he vanished. There was some report put about of a valuable discovery of coal near Mount Sinai, which the Pasha was gone to see about; but he never reappeared, and we have heard no more of the coal. It is believed that he led a life of debauchery in the palace he had built for himself in the Arabian desert, and that he died in consequence. A fit of apoplexy was the alleged form of death: but it will always be said in Egypt that he was murdered. Perhaps some of us may remember his son, who had just then arrived in England. We may remember his splendid yacht, and the state which surrounded him, and the wonderful reports of his wealth, and the speculations as to whether French influence would win him over to the scheme of the Suez canal,—the innocent supposition being that this El Hhami Pasha would succeed his father, whose life was not expected to be long. The youth knew better. We cannot have forgotten the tale of how the news of that apoplectic fit arrived on board the yacht, and how it completely overwhelmed the young prince, who was carried to his cabin in convulsions of grief. He knew his own case, if his father’s career closed thus early; and so did every servant in his train. There was no more homage for him. His dream of greatness was over, after being held much more confidently than the sons of Ibrahim could ever have held theirs. We have since heard of him by his debts, his lavish waste of his vast wealth, and his early death.

He found in the seat of power when he returned his father’s uncle, who had been postponed to Abbas because he was younger. Said Pasha was the youngest son of Mehemet Ali, by a Circassian mother,—and so far, not favoured by the prepossessions of his Egyptian subjects. I need not describe him or his reign,—his reign of eight years which, in Egypt, looks almost like stability. His term of power has been long enough to give a fair chance to the French for their great scheme; and Said Pasha is understood to have imperilled his private affairs by his great advances and engagements on behalf of the project. Whenever the impracticability of the enterprise should become unconcealable, it was certain that the failure would be ascribed to some accident of the time; and it is probable that the world will be asked to believe henceforth that there is no Suez canal because Said Pasha died at a critical juncture. But the real object has for some time been attained. A French military colony is established in Egypt, and French officials have acquired a great influence over the native inhabitants. The fact is, Said was less shrewd than his old father, while far more highly educated. He knew less of the soil on which the experiment was to be tried, and more of the European way of viewing the advantages of a ship-passage to India, without appreciating the difficulties. His French training exposed him to a too ready sympathy with French enthusiasm and ambition; and hence the embarrassment to his private fortune which caused some anxiety about the safety of the public revenue. We know by what we saw and heard of him last year how lavish his method of expenditure is. We remember his pleasant bearing at Liverpool and elsewhere, and are, no doubt, grateful to him for his promises about an augmented and ever-increasing supply of cotton from the Nile valley. There was a time when we should have placed first in his series of good deeds his interdict on slavery, along the whole valley of the Nile, and wherever his frontiers extended; but there was more and more evidence of hollowness in this boasted reform as time passed on; and now the last transaction of his life has cast a dense gloom of disreputableness on the whole pretension. The transportation of some hundreds of negro soldiers, by mixed fraud and force, to Mexico, for the convenience of the Emperor of the French, is a deplorable act to be the last, or the latest known, of a man’s life, even if he had not professed to be an enemy to slavery and the crimes which it necessarily involves. It may be true, as we hear on all hands, that the guilt abides chiefly with the tempter. In him it can be no surprise to anybody, after his professions and practices in regard to slavery. It would have been no surprise in Mehemet Ali, with his barbaric training, and after his annihilation of the Janissaries. In Said Pasha, whom we saw here so lately, and who seemed so like ourselves when he discoursed of free-trade and the prosperity of peasant industry in growing cotton, such an act as that of the betrayal of these negro soldiers to misery and death, to please a cajoling and exploiting patron, is one which we are glad to lose sight of by turning to a new reign.

And whose is this new reign? Who is this Ismail Pasha who has spoken the most surprising and promising address that ever came from any member of his house? It is no other than the eldest son of Ibrahim. Thus has the wheel of Fortune gone its round, (or rather the course of retribution made its circuit), so that the youth who was so beloved in Cairo sixteen years ago is now in a position to show whether he is worthy of the love and hope of the people.

His manifesto,—his reply to the Consuls,— seems to show that his sixteen years of manhood passed in privacy, till his regency of last summer, have been well spent in studying the course of public affairs at home and abroad. This is, no doubt, what is meant by the complaint on the spot that he is too English. If he is of like mind with us, what has made him so? It can be nothing but the spectacle before his eyes: for he is no pupil of ours. Moreover, the English have no projects, no speculations, no adventurers in Egypt. The French have; and thus, to be too English, can mean only that Ismail Pasha does not think well of the great French speculation. The main interest to us in the matter is that the new ruler declares his intention to put an end to forced labour,—the crowning curse of Egyptian misrule. Mehemet Ali saw 23,000 of his subjects perish in six months under the system of forced labour by which he made his canal (the Mahmoudieh). It is believed all over the world that it is labour on similar terms of compulsion which has carried on the French works so far, though there has not been the same mortality from want and hardship. If Ismail fulfils this one promise, he will have the blessings of every man who pays the tax upon a palm-tree, and every woman and child who sits under it. If he further watches, as he promises, over free trade, over education, and over the development of agriculture, promoting it by funds saved from the personal expenses of princes, he will make his subjects think that it was worth while to wait sixteen years, and to endure an Abbas, and be patient with a Said, to have at last an Ismail, born of an Egyptian mother, and able to sympathise with native subjects, while bringing to their relief the resources of European wisdom. If his will does but prove as strong as his convictions are clear, a new day may be dawning on Egypt; and this man’s days will probably be long in the land. There was a time when eight millions of prosperous people lived in that valley. Now, there are at most two millions and a half. The wonder is that, without security of person and property, there are so many, even though manufactories and schools may be attempted and boasted of. Ismail will be one of the world’s great rulers if he does what his people fondly hope,—if he gives Egypt to the Egyptians, and takes care that they hold their possession in peace and quiet. As I write this, I think of him as I saw him in his sprightly young days, when his father and all the people were proud of him, and the only doubt about the fate of the country was whether there would not be a war of succession if any other should be thrust before him. He has seen others preferred before him: and now his turn has come. May he so live and rule as that his name may be as great as his grandfather’s, without any disgraces of barbarism, or treachery, or ferocity! In his reign may every man dare to be seen in his own field by day, and in the evening sit amidst his own melon beds and under his own palm-tree, with none to make him afraid!

From the Mountain.