A U.S. Marine on the Nile


After a month’s march by sand amid the ruins and palm bushes lining the Nubian Nile an invading Egyptian military of cutthroats and mercenaries drawn from throughout the Ottoman empire encountered its first actual resistance on the city of Kurti on Nov. 4, 1820. The formidable horsemen of the Sudanese Arab Shaigiya tribe had been decided the Egyptians would by no means take their lands.

Screaming, they fell upon the military’s scouts with sword and lance, wiping them out. It was a foul begin for the Egyptian commander, 25-year-old Ismail Pasha, whose artillery was nonetheless being shipped south by boat.

Muhammad Ali Pasha / Chateau de Versailles

Ismail introduced his troops into line in opposition to the Shaigiya, who had been led by a younger lady on a richly embellished camel. It was she who gave the order to assault, in a convention celebrating the exploits of a fearless seventeenth century feminine Shaigiya warrior.

The Arabs’ horses pounded throughout the plain, smashing into the Egyptian infantry with such violence that its line started to break down. As catastrophe loomed, the Egyptians’ formidable second-in-command, the Albanian Abdin Bey, led his horsemen in a sequence of determined countercharges. Rallying, the Egyptian infantry poured fireplace into the Shaigiya ranks. The invaders prevailed, solely to start what one among their quantity later described as “12 months of distress and hunger.”

Becoming a member of the Egyptian expedition to Sudanese Nubia had been three American mercenaries, together with former U.S. Marine Corps Lt. George Bethune English, although sickness saved him from the battlefield that day. The Massachusetts native, a convert to Islam, associated his experiences as an artillery commander in Sudan in his 1822 memoir, A Narrative of the Expedition to Dongola and Sennaar.

But practically two centuries after his demise English stays an enigma—was he a mercenary, a spy or a honest Muslim convert?

Born on March 7, 1787, to a affluent household in Cambridge, throughout the Charles River from Boston, English studied first legislation after which divinity at Harvard School. In 1813, after publicity to each the Quran and a set of seventeenth century paperwork questioning tenets of Christianity, English wrote The Grounds of Christianity Examined, by which he criticized key doctrines of the religion. The work elicited outrage in Protestant New England.

English’s option to swap the gown uniform of an American Marine officer (proven right here) for desert robes appears quixotic at greatest. / Grainger

English was excommunicated from his church. His acknowledged perception Islam was an ethical system drawn from the Outdated and New Testaments, “modified somewhat and expressed in Arabic,” proved poisonous to his scholarly repute. Leaving Harvard, he ventured to the Allegheny frontier, the place he briefly edited a newspaper. In 1808, earlier than getting into divinity faculty, he’d sought a navy appointment, placing down as a reference U.S. Senator John Quincy Adams, who taught rhetoric and oratory at Harvard. In 1815, dealing with restricted prospects and amid renewed battle with Britain, English once more utilized for a fee, with backing from then U.S. Ambassador to Russia Adams.

This time it took. President James Madison nominated English for an appointment within the Marine Corps, and the 27-year-old was commissioned a second lieutenant on March 1, two weeks after the Senate ratified the Treaty of Ghent. English served within the Mediterranean Squadron, within the aftermath of the Barbary wars, and was promoted to first lieutenant in April 1817. Quickly after he resigned his fee and moved to Constantinople, although he remained on the Naval Register till 1820. President James Monroe had since tapped Adams as his secretary of state. Was English performing as Adams’ covert agent within the Center East?

By 1820 English had reportedly transformed to Islam, altering his title to Muhammad Effendi. Relocating to Cairo, he parlayed the affect of British Consul Common Henry Salt to safe an appointment within the Egyptian military as chief of artillery. Becoming a member of him had been two American sailors who had seemingly abandoned from the Mediterranean Squadron. Remembered solely by their adopted names, New Yorker Khalil Aga and Swiss-born Achmed Aga transformed to Islam and acted as English’s servants.

Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha was planning a marketing campaign south into Sudanese Nubia, hoping to construct a dynasty to rival the Ottomans in Constantinople. (He and his sons would finally seize Sudan, Syria, Palestine, components of the Pink Coastline and the holy cities of Arabia.)

The second objective of his expedition was to exterminate the Mamluks, a navy slave caste that had dominated Egypt earlier than being treacherously slaughtered by Muhammad Ali a decade earlier. The survivors had fled to Nubia, the place they practiced slave buying and selling and compelled farmers to develop their meals on the blazing river plain whereas they basked on big rafts anchored in the course of the Nile.

Muhammad Ali’s third purpose was to create a brand new Egyptian military composed of black slaves, one thing Napoléon Bonaparte had tried throughout his regional marketing campaign. He resolved to grab hundreds of Sudanese to battle his personal wars of conquest and people he was obliged to hitch on behalf of his suzerain, Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II.

Led by Muhammad Ali’s third son, Ismail Kamil Pasha, the Egyptian invasion pressure was 4,000 robust, with 10 fieldpieces, two small howitzers and one mortar. The infantry included Turks, Kurds, Albanians, Circassians, Greeks, Syrians and 700 Maghrebis (mercenaries from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco). Turkish cavalry and a few 700 camel-mounted Bedouins accomplished the pressure.

Six cataracts lie between Aswan (the place Nubia begins) and the confluence of the White and Blue Nile rivers. Every contains a sequence of white water rapids and waterfalls over granite bedrock. Ismail would compel hundreds of Nubians to haul the expedition’s boats previous these cataracts.

Leaving Cairo in July, the Egyptian military marched up the Nile, with 120 boats carrying provides and ammunition. By mid-October they’d arrange camp in Nubia on the Second Cataract. Whereas there English was struck with extreme ophthalmia, a watch dysfunction that induced him such ache he was unable to sleep with out doses of opium. Ismail’s military pressed on with out him.

As soon as his eye ache had resolved considerably, English joined a bunch of French military surgeons headed south to hitch smail. En route they suffered the lack of a number of boats, crocodiles gathering to feast on the drowned sailors.

In the meantime, the expedition had come up in opposition to the Shaigiya, whom English described as “a singular aristocracy of brigands.” That they had dominated the Dongola area from clifftop castles for greater than a century, forcing Nubians to develop their meals and function infantry. In battle every Shaigiya warrior carried a lance, a double-edged straight sword of European origin and a protect of hippopotamus conceal or crocodile pores and skin. Holding demise in contempt, the Shaigiya had been unmoved when Ismail demanded they abandon their swords and until the soil.

The Mamluks (above), whom Muhammad Ali sought to exterminate, practiced slave trading and exploited farmers along the Nile for their sustenance. / Rumantsev Museum, Moscow
The Mamluks (above), whom Muhammad Ali sought to exterminate, practiced slave buying and selling and exploited farmers alongside the Nile for his or her sustenance. / Rumantsev Museum, Moscow

After sweeping them from the sector at Kurti, Ismail sought to please his father by providing a reward for each pair of enemy ears collected. His troopers mutilated the lifeless and wounded, then raided neighboring villages, reducing the ears from males, girls and youngsters. Ismail shipped the ears to Cairo, the place an indignant Muhammad Ali reminded him such habits was incompatible with the trendy European-style military he sought to construct. English stated nothing of those atrocities. However others bore witness.

A pair of Englishmen, Cambridge-educated scholar George Waddington and the Rev. Barnard Hanbury, had been touring up the Sudanese Nile once they encountered the southbound military at Merowe on November 26. Whereas English was happy to see them, Waddington later wrote he had no respect for a person who would abandon his faith. The scholar additionally famous the deathly silent countryside behind the Egyptian military, strewn with the rotting carcasses of beasts and mutilated males, lots of its wells fouled by decaying corpses. The odor was gagging.

Waddington’s revealed account, Journal of a Go to to Some Components of Ethiopia, included scathing criticism of English and his non secular pretensions. The creator described his host as a pale and delicate-looking man who had taken on the grave and calm demeanor of the Turks. Noting that English was a Protestant who had adopted numerous strains of Christianity earlier than turning into a Jew and an orthodox Muslim in succession, he instructed the adventurer would quickly flip Hindu in his “tour of the world and its religions” and would finally die an atheist. English claimed Waddington later apologized, however the remarks caught.

On December 2 the Shaigiya once more challenged Ismail, throughout the Nile at Jabal Daiqa. Though their reconstituted Nubian infantry was spectacular, the Shaigiya had misplaced skilled fighters at Kurti. To embolden the replacements, holy males showered them with magic mud stated to render them impervious to bullets. What they didn’t know was that Ismail’s area artillery had lastly caught as much as the military (English remained absent). Because the Nubians charged the Egyptian line, artillerymen touched off their weapons, blasting the foot troopers to items at point-blank vary. Because the assault faltered, the Shaigiya fled the sector, leaving the Nubians to be slaughtered by Abdin Bey’s cavalry. (The defeated Shaigiya later proposed getting into Egyptian service as irregular cavalry somewhat than taking on the shameful occupation of farmer. The provide was accepted.)

English described Shaigiya Chief Shouus, seemingly the best warrior on the Higher Nile, as “a big stout man of a satisfying physiognomy, although black.” The American was surprised by the chief’s potential to repeatedly swim his complete cavalry pressure throughout the Nile.

English relied on Henry Salt (above), the British consul normal in Cairo, to achieve him a place with Muhammad Ali. A famous Egyptologist, Salt requested English and others to find and safe artifacts for cargo to Britain. / Bridgeman Photos

Whilst English recovered from his ophthalmia, he was struck by dysentery that left him extraordinarily weak. As his situation improved, English visited the temples, castles and pyramids lining the Nile. On a number of such historical monuments he inscribed the title of Salt, a famous Egyptologist—on the time a typical means of building declare to an antiquity for retrieval and cargo to Europe. In the meantime, sailors within the occasion spent their time ashore pillaging villages, robbing and murdering native males and raping girls. The “insolence” of villagers who demanded recompense for grain angered English, who instructed the troopers’ conduct “was not a lot to be blamed.”

As the military continued downriver in February 1821, Muhammad Ali ordered Ismail to march on the Blue Nile sultanate of Sennar and its fabled riches. The primary leg of the journey entailed a pressured march throughout the Bayuda Desert to Berber, bypassing the Nice Bend of the Nile. A baggage delay stranded English for a couple of days. When he did cross the desert, the ordeal left the New Englander with extreme sunburn and a recurrence of ophthalmia.

The boats had been left to make their means again upriver by the 2 worst cataracts—the fourth and fifth—in a punishing journey of 57 days. Separated from English by the luggage delay, Khalil and Achmed had been pressured to accompany the boats. Each suspected the machinations of Ismail’s private physician (or protomedico), a Smyrniote Greek and skilled poisoner, however their abilities as sailors could have prompted their task. Thus, with out desiring to, Khalil grew to become the primary Westerner to journey upriver so far as Sennar.

Achmed died on the Fourth Cataract, Khalil suspecting he’d been poisoned by the protomedico after a quarrel. Probably the most competent doctor on the expedition, the Genoese Dr. Andrea Gentile, had met the identical destiny when the protomedico determined it was simpler to poison his colleague than repay a mortgage. The protomedico had offered off the contents of the expedition’s drugs chest in Cairo to cowl money owed and surrounded himself with a cadre of thugs. Different Europeans on the expedition feared for his or her lives, together with French geologist Frédéric Cailliaud, who’d joined the expedition to report the legendary pyramids of Meroe. “Loss of life,” he wrote, “appeared to need to declare all of the gents round me.” Ismail’s Italian tutor and translator, Domenico Frediani, died as a “chained maniac” in Sennar after a dispute with the protomedico. Ismail was apparently conscious of the physician’s transgressions however discovered him helpful as a spy and henchman.

4 days after setting out throughout the desert, the military reached Berber, dwelling to 100 fugitive Mamluks. Whereas most fled, the rest submitted, accepting a proposal both to return to Cairo or function Ismail’s bodyguards. What English noticed on the town disturbed him. The Berbers proffered feminine slaves to the troopers for mere cash, whereas a chief’s spouse provided the American the selection of bedding both of her married daughters—episodes he recorded as “irreconcilable with the precepts of the Quran.” He later claimed sunstroke spared him from temptation. The offended daughters dismissed him as a rajil batal (“good-for-nothing man”).

An Egyptian sarcophagus dropped at England. / British Museum

The military was quickly joined by Nimr, the Sudanese Arab malik (king) of Shendi, “very dignified in his deportment and extremely respectable for his morals,” in line with English. To spare the artillery horses for the approaching battle, English ordered the weapons pulled by camels. Tough therapy would result in their loss in nice numbers.

After a three-week slog down the west financial institution of the White Nile, Ismail spent little greater than two days ferrying his military throughout the mile-wide river by boat. Following type, the Shaigiya swam their horses throughout, as did the Bedouins with their camels. A Turkish officer who determined he may do the identical misplaced 70 horses and quite a lot of males. (Khartoum, the present-day capital of Sudan, marks their touchdown web site.)

The march down the south financial institution of the Blue Nile to Sennar took 13 days, the boys on the transfer from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m., at which level the warmth grew to become too intense. Their solely sustenance was durra, an area grain requiring a lot preparation.

As the military approached Sennar, Badi VII, the 26-year-old sultan, greeted Ismail with overtures of peace and escorted the pasha into the legendary metropolis. The magnificent trappings and mounts of the royal entourage appeared promising, assuring the troops they’d reap due rewards after their brutal 1,250-mile march from Cairo. They approached the town with cries of pleasure and volleys of musket fireplace. Their delight was dashed once they realized the glory days of Sennar had lengthy been over. After a long time of decline, the town was little greater than a heap of damaged ruins, its inhabitants inhabiting some 400 squalid huts. The one buildings of any substance had been the half-ruined brick palace and mosque. There have been no riches, no gold.

With no pay for eight months and solely durra to eat, the troopers started to promote their clothes to purchase meals and pilfer provides to hawk available in the market. Ismail’s worsening temper was mirrored within the rising numbers of headless our bodies dumped within the streets. Troopers impaled anybody who confirmed the slightest signal of resistance. English overheard scandalized feminine observers declaring such punishments match just for Christians. Just like the troopers, he had little use for the inhabitants, describing them as “a really detestable folks,” their girls as “the ugliest I ever beheld.”

Flying columns raided the still-defiant hinterland, the Egyptians taking pictures down lots of of armored warriors and transport hundreds of males, girls and youngsters north to the Cairo slave markets. Although a local of abolitionist New England, English acquired a “black slave” of his personal. The onetime Marine sat out the slave raids. He as a substitute spent his time demanding Ismail enable him to return to Cairo on well being grounds earlier than the onset of the depressing four-month wet season.

Within the meantime, Ismail ordered two captured chiefs impaled. The primary awaited his finish by reciting the Muslim career of religion. The second insulted and cursed his executioners. When he may now not converse, he spat at them. The executions disgusted English, who was shocked on the darkish flip Ismail had taken.

After a harrowing return journey to Cairo, English went to see Muhammad Ali to gather the funds he was owed for his navy service. The American adventurer discovered the pasha in a foul mood. He’d simply acquired phrase that son Ismail had been burned alive in Shendi by Malik Nimr, whom Ismail had offended and struck. Broke and determined, English referred to as on Consul Common Salt, who offered him with the funds to return dwelling in alternate for his narrative manuscript and numerous artifacts. Salt revealed the work, which the creator devoted to him, “my fatherly good friend in a overseas land.” Khalil Aga composed his personal unpublished journal of the expedition, solely not too long ago found amongst Salt’s papers on the British Library. He remained in Egypt, residing as a Muslim and persevering with to serve Muhammad Ali.

In January 1822 Pliny Fisk, an American evangelical missionary working in Egypt, reached out to English after listening to the American was able to “return to his nation and the faith of his fathers.” The penalty for abandoning Islam or the military was demise, however English made his option to Salt’s consulate, the place a community stood able to smuggle remorseful converts out of Egypt. On April 1 English joined Fisk aboard a Malta-bound ship, taking part in the a part of the missionary’s servant. Fisk, who usually recorded every part, shared nothing of his lengthy shipboard conversations with English, solely that the latter exhibited “obstinate hostility to the reality.” Apparently the lapsed Christian had not completely deserted Islam.

Muhammad Ali’s hatred of the Mamluks was well documented even before the 1820 expedition in which English took a nominal part. In 1811 the pasha had ordered the slaughter of all Mamluks in Cairo. / Royal Collection Trust
Muhammad Ali’s hatred of the Mamluks was nicely documented even earlier than the 1820 expedition by which English took a nominal half. In 1811 the pasha had ordered the slaughter of all Mamluks in Cairo. / Royal Assortment Belief

English’s account of his adventures in Sudan went largely unremarked. Studying extra like an intelligence report, it revealed nothing of its creator, who freely admitted he’d missed the principle engagements of the marketing campaign. English assured readers of the excessive regard by which he was held by Ismail, however his service report suggests in any other case—he had missed the 2 main battles of the marketing campaign, sometimes lagged behind the principle physique of the military, eschewed the slave-raiding events out of Sennar and demanded a return to Cairo.

English’s father and pals sought to ease his return stateside by writing letters to newspapers, praising his “achievements” in Sudan and disputing the sincerity of his conversion to Islam.

English didn’t overtly follow Islam on his return to the US, however he did publish yet one more work essential of Christianity, in opposition to the objections of his remaining pals. Secretary of State Adams continued to behave as his patron, sending English on a commerce mission to Constantinople in 1822, the place he seems to have resumed life as a Muslim.

As president, Adams continued to search out employment for English. On July 22, 1828, he engaged him as a bearer of secret dispatches to Commodore William Crane, commander of the Mediterranean Squadron. Two days later, nevertheless, English was pushed off in shame. There isn’t a report of what occurred, solely an entry in Adams’ journal referring to “mortifying” misconduct by English. “However his eccentricities, approaching to madness, have continued to favor him until now,” the president wrote. “I can now now not maintain him.”

Had English labored for the British, the Individuals, each or neither? Had he sincerely transformed to Islam, or had that been a method to infiltrate Muhammad Ali’s expedition to Sudan, a area of rising curiosity to Britain? Some U.S.-based Islamists keep English was “America’s first Muslim” and saved true to his adopted religion.

English’s demise on Sept. 19, 1828, simply two months after his dismissal, deepens the thriller. His obituary supplies no clue as to how the 41-year-old perished. Suicide or sickness appear attainable. His memoir sheds no mild on his motivations. His non secular works handed into obscurity with him. No portrait appears to outlive of the shadowy American mercenary—becoming for a person who took so many secrets and techniques with him to the grave. MH

Andrew McGregor is the director of Toronto-based Aberfoyle Worldwide Safety, specializing in safety points within the Islamic world. For additional studying he recommends
A Historical past of Conversion to Islam in the US, Vol. 1: White American Muslims Earlier than 1975, by Patrick D. Bowen; Individuals in Egypt, 1770–1915, by Cassandra Vivian; and American Vacationers on the Nile: Early U.S. Guests to Egypt, 1774–1839, by Andrew Oliver.

This text appeared within the January 2021 concern of Navy Historical past journal. For extra tales, subscribe right here and go to us on Facebook:

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