Problems in Governing Egypt

Bonaparte’s young secretary was a firsthand, if uncritical, observer who took detailed notes and left his memoirs for posterity. He was clearly enthralled by the young general. Here he describes the difficulty of convincing the Egyptians of French superiority in science.


The art of imposing on mankind has at all times been an important part of the art of governing; and it was not that portion of the science of government which Bonaparte was the least acquainted with. He neglected no opportunity of showing off to the Egyptians the superiority of France in arts and sciences; but it happened, oftener than once, that the simple instinct of the Egyptians thwarted his endeavors in this way. Some days after the visit of the pretended fortune-teller he wished, if I may so express myself, to oppose conjurer to conjurer. For this purpose he invited the principal sheiks to be present at some chemical experiments performed by M. Berthollet. The General expected to be much amused at their astonishment; but the miracles of the transformation of liquids, electrical commotions and galvanism, did not elicit from them any symptom of surprise. They witnessed the operations of our able chemist with the most imperturbable indifference. When they were ended, the sheik El Bekri desired the interpreter to tell M. Berthollet that it was all very fine; “but,” said he, “ask him whether he can make me be in Morocco and here at one and the same moment?” M. Berthollet replied in the negative, with a shrug of his shoulders. “Oh! then,” said the sheik, “he is not half a sorcerer.”

Source: Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte by Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne edited by R.W. Phipps. Vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1889) p. 173-174.