Alexandria 1882: The British Bombardment

By Norbert Schiller

On 20 May 1882 two Englishmen, Kusel Bey, Controller General of the Egyptian Customs and his friend Morice Bey, Inspector General of the Coastguard Service, stood on the roof of the coastguard office in Alexandria, Egypt, and watched the arrival of the British and French fleets (the French warships would leave before the bombardment began). As much as both men were proud to see their navy, they were equally aware that this was not a good sign. “Ah, Kusel, they are magnificent, they are British, you and I feel infernally proud of them, but this I am afraid will be a bad day for us,” warned Morice Bey. Nearly two months later, on the morning of 11 July, the British fleet, consisting of 15 warships, launched its attack and over the course of the day systematically silenced the 297 canons that Ahmed Urabi and his Egyptian army had set up to defend Alexandria.

The Grand Square before and after the British Bombardment of Alexandria on 11 July 1882 Phot. Zangaki

Several causes merged together leading to this battle, which also became known as the Anglo-Egyptian War, but the underlying reason was French, English, and Ottoman intervention in Egypt dating back to 1798. That was when Napoleon Bonaparte defeated the Mamlouks at the Battle of the Pyramids (Battle of Embabeh). After this victory, the French took control of Egypt for a few years until the Ottomans, who still laid claim to Egyptian territory, sent a young Albanian general, Mohamed Ali, with a contingent of soldiers to wrestle Egypt back from the French and establish himself as leader. After negotiating with the French and battling remnants of the Mamlouks, Mohamed Ali succeeded in his mission establishing his reign in 1805 under Ottoman auspices. From that day until the 1952 revolution which ended the 148-year reign of the Mohammed Ali Dynasty, political and economic life in Egypt were practically controlled by the Ottomans, French, and British who were competing for influence in the region.

Mohammed Ali Phot. unknown

Mohammed Ali’s obsession with modernizing Egypt resonated well with European financial institutions who in turn opened lines of credit. In the beginning, the projects focused mainly on infrastructure and expanding irrigation canals to increase the yields of cash crops, namely cotton. One of Mohammed Ali’s aspirations was that Egypt would become the major transit hub to move goods and people from Europe to the Far East replacing the much longer route around the southern tip of Africa. Even though Mohammed Ali never saw the Suez Canal come to fruition, his vision was realized 20 years after his death. On 17 November, 1869, the isthmus linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea was finally split. However, Mohammed Ali’s dream of linking Europe with the Far East came at a very high cost, one that would undoubtedly play a role in the 1882 bombing of Alexandria.

Samuel Selig Kusel, (later given the title of Bey in Egypt and Baron by King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy) arrived in Egypt in 1863. The 15-year-old had just finished his studies in England and set out to work with a family friend who owned a cotton ginning factory. Over the course of his 24 years in Egypt, Kusel Bey climbed his way up the social ladder holding several high-profile positions in the government. Besides his native English, he mastered Arabic and Italian which helped him move easily in different circles. During the British bombardment, Kusel Bey remained in Alexandria to assist in securing British interests.

In 1915, over a quarter of a century after leaving Egypt, Baron de Kusel (Bey) wrote a memoir, An Englishman’s Recollections of Egypt 1863 to 1887, where he gives an excellent first-person account of what it was like in Alexandria before, during, and after the bombardment. In this article, I use his narration wherever possible to describe what he observed during this critical period.

All the historical images and illustrations used in this exhibition, to mark the 140th anniversary of the British bombardment of Alexandria, come from my personal collection.



Alexandria 1882: The British Bombardment

Alexandria 1882: The British Bombardment


Alexandria Before And After The Bombardment

Baron Empain Palace During its Glory Days

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