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Monday 23 October 2023

Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt - an eyewitness history by Jonathan North - book review

Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt By Jonathan North

Did Napoleon’s troops fire cannons at the pyramids of Egypt? And what was his army doing there?

Those were questions provoked by the teaser trailer for the 2023 movie Napoleon. The second of these questions is answered by this new book by Jonathan North, Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt.

The book’s subtitle, ‘An Eyewitness History’, promises a wealth of firsthand accounts from the French invasion and occupation of a corner of North Africa. It delivers on that promise. This is a compelling account of that French adventure, told in the words of many who were there.

Napoleon at Arcole from The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte by WSloane 1896
Napoleon at Arcole from The Life of Napoleon
by W Sloane 1896

An introduction to Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt

While it’s titled the ‘Invasion of Egypt’, Jonathan North’s book covers the full period of the French occupation. Napoleon and his army arrived in July 1798 and the survivors left three years later, in 1801. Bonaparte himself effectively abandoned his troops in late 1800, sailing back to France, somehow evading the British Royal Navy.

The expedition was sent by the Directory, the committee that ruled revolutionary France. Their star general, Napoleon, proposed it, with a view to opening a land route to India.

It was also to be a scientific expedition, taking scholars to examine the marvels of ancient Egypt. Their discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering Egyptian writing, helped to open up the field of Egyptology.

Napoleon and his army landed in Egypt on 1 July 1798 and was immediately engaged in fighting the occupying Mamelukes, rulers of Egypt under the distant auspices of the Ottoman Empire.

‘The boats were rowed to the shore and a mass of cavalry showed itself and seemed ready to wade into the sea to oppose the landing. A few rounds of artillery saw them off,’ wrote 18- year-old soldier Joseph Laporte.1

The Battle of the Pyramids on 21 July inflicted a heavy defeat on the Mamelukes, allowing Napoleon to enter Cairo and commence his occupation of Egypt.

Despite sweeping in as victorious invaders, in only days the French became a beleaguered garrison. On 1 August 1798 a British fleet, under Horatio Nelson, defeated the warships of the French fleet that had transported the army across the Mediterranean, at the Battle of the Nile. The victory put the British in command of the sea, making it unlikely that the plan to reach India could be fulfilled.

‘We realised that any communication with Europe would now be impossible,’ wrote Captain Etienne Louis Malus in his journal. ‘We began to lose hope that we would ever see our homeland again.’2

The Destruction of L'Orient at the Battle of the Nile 1 August 1798 by G Arnald 1825-7 at National Maritime Musuem AKnowles photo2022
The Destruction of L'Orient at the Battle of the Nile
1 August 1798
by G Arnald (1825-7)
at National Maritime Musuem Photo A Knowles (2022)

Occupation and assimilation

Napoleon set up a French administration of Egypt that included some of the local rulers, and established a scientific Institute. During their time in Cairo the French attempted to replicate something of their culture from home, including street cafes. Some adopted a local style of dress, partly because of the climate.

The French invasion force was almost exclusively male. It wasn’t long before soldiers began to find mistresses among the local population. General Menou married a Muslim woman and converted. He seemed to be one of the few who would have preferred to remain in Egypt indefinitely.

Most did not feel the same way. Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a young scholar, wrote:

The soldiers yearn for the delights of France. Their hatred for Egypt stems from being denied essentials. They have only water to drink. They cannot be attracted to women who hide themselves in veils.3

North’s book goes into considerable details about the challenges faced by the French as they experienced life in a different climate and culture. Scorpions, slavery, plague, mirages and mummies are all discussed, often in the words of eyewitnesses.

The end of the Egyptian adventure

To help protect Egypt, Napoleon’s army ventured into Syria and reached the Holy Land in 1799. Unable to capture the city of Acre, defended with British help, he had to turn back.

By now Napoleon sought a return to France, knowing he would be welcomed by the people. His departure was kept secret from almost all his officers and when they discovered he’d gone, many felt abandoned in a strange, unwelcoming land.

The remaining French army, significantly reduced by death and disease, began looking for its own way home. They continued to fight off local revolts and attacks by the Ottomans. On 21 March 1801 they were defeated by the British at the Battle of Alexandria, after which many were repatriated to France in British ships.

The British kept many of the artefacts discovered by the French in Egypt, including the Rosetta Stone.

A page-turning eyewitness account

This is my kind of history book—a strong story illustrated with an extensive tapestry of quotes from those who experienced it firsthand. Letters, journals and reports provide a rich seam of material which North has used to great effect.

I would like to have heard more from those being occupied. How did they feel about this French army inserting itself into their world? I’m guessing that sources for this are limited, hence their scant use.

The book contains a number of illustrations and maps, along with a detailed bibliography. The index only seems to include names of people—not places or key subjects. There’s a separate list of the around 40 eyewitnesses whose words are included in the book (presumably all translated).

This book has a high, and sometimes gruesome, body count. Thousands died, both soldiers and civilians. Battles, executions, revolts, raids, assassinations and plague all contributed to the carnage, and both sides carried out massacres.  

I recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the history of Napoleon or that of France or the Middle East in the period. It’s packed with fascinating details and has certainly helped me better understand Bonaparte himself, along with how Egypt became a subject of fascination during the Regency period.

Napoleon's Invasion of Egypt is available from Amberley Publishing.

Andrew Knowles
 researches and writes about the Regency and late Georgian period. He's also a freelance editor and writer for business. He lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with his wife, Rachel.

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Notes – all quotes from Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt

1. p49

2. p99

3. p114

All photos © A Knowles

Friday 6 October 2023

What the Regency newspapers say

The Newspaper by Thomas Rowlandson (1808)
The Newspaper by Thomas Rowlandson (1808)

In Regency England news was passed by word of mouth, by private letter and in the newspapers. This meant newspapers were highly prized as a source of printed information.

As today, a wide variety of newspapers were published. Most were distributed locally, although some found their way across the country and even abroad. Copies were passed from reader to reader, each of whom would avidly devour the contents even if it was a few months old.

Newspapers are an excellent resource for historians and writers wanting to learn more about the late Georgian and Regency era. They offer a wealth of detail about the period, from stories of international events through to snippets of insight into everyday life.

Not all newspapers have survived, and it must be remembered that then, as now, they weren’t always reliable. A number of well-known Regency personalities were amused to hear their deaths being reported as facts. 

Three Regency newspapers compared

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare three Regency newspapers, all published on the same day. I decided to take one from London, one from a fashionable resort and one from a more distant part of the country—in this case, Scotland.

The papers are:

     London Courier and Evening Gazette

     Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette

     Perthshire Courier

I selected the 7 February 1811, the day after the Prince of Wales was sworn in as Prince Regent, following the passing of the Regency Act. 

George, Prince Regent, by Thomas Lawrence c1814 NPG
George, Prince Regent, by Sir Thomas Lawrence
c1814 © National Portrait Gallery

Differences between Regency and modern newspapers

Regency newspapers look unfamiliar to the modern eye. They lack bold headlines, have very few images, and news stories often flow in quick succession with little separation.

Pictures didn’t regularly appear in newspapers until the 1830s. There are three tiny illustrations in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, but none are representations of news stories.

The front page of the newspaper is mostly advertisements and notices. While each newspaper does have some marked sections (such as ‘Naval Intelligence’), there’s a sense that much of the content was added as it arrived.

Consistent features between all three newspapers

Reading one Regency newspaper is fascinating. Looking at three in close succession reveals some distinct similarities between them.

All three newspapers relied heavily on other publications and letters as the source of their material, and they revealed these sources. There’s little of what we could consider to be journalism.

Both the London and Perthshire newspapers gave considerable space to the Regency, which came into effect on 5 February 1811, two days before publication. The Perthshire news only went up to 1 February. There’s no surprise it was behind the London papers, given that it’s over 400 miles north of the capital city.

All three newspapers give space to announce births, deaths and marriages. There are no announcements of engagements or betrothals. I’m unsure when it became the fashion to announce these, but I’ve never seen examples in Regency newspapers.

The state lottery features in the Bath and Perthshire newspapers, with an identical announcement headlined ‘The Regent’s Procession’. The next line follows on from the heading: at this crisis interesting to the country; and this memento is at this time interesting to ourselves: for if the New Administration adopt the expected new measures, there will be No More LOTTERIES; therefore the ONLY opportunity we may ever have to gain an independent Fortune by the risk of a small Sum of Money, is the Present STATE LOTTERY.

The lottery is also advertised in the London newspaper, but without the announcement.

Lottery Drawing, Coopers Hall from The Microcosm of London Vol 2 (1808-10)
Lottery Drawing, Coopers Hall
from The Microcosm of London Vol 2 (1808-10)

Read another Regency newspaper for free

All three newspapers I’ve mentioned here are in The British Newspaper Archive, an online resource containing hundreds of papers. Many are protected by copyright, meaning you need a subscription to get access and you can’t publish screenshots.

All three papers I’ve chosen are copyright protected (links in the notes below). However, you can read other papers from 7 February 1811 for free, because they are not subject to copyright.

You can open a free account at The British Newspaper Archive and read papers such as  The General Evening Post.

Newspapers that can be read for free are marked as being in the Public Domain. However, you still can’t publish screenshots because the photos of the newspapers are also copyright protected.

Stories that caught my eye


From London Courier and Evening Gazette

An advertisement: NERVOUS DISORDERS - Doctor FOTHERGILL’s NERVOUS CORDIAL DROPS have been the happy means of restoring thousands from the following Disorders: Lowness and Nervous Affections, Consumption, Hypochonoriaism, Hysterics, Spasms, Palsy, Apoplexy, Loss of Appetite, Bilious Complaints, Convulsions and Fits attending Pregnancy proceeding from a disordered state of the Stomach, and Indigestion accompanied by Sick Head aches, Heartburns, &c &c.

From Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette

A curate of a parish in Sussex was, on Friday, committed to the county gaol, under the charges of writing a threatening incendiary letter to Mr R Jenner, of Maresfield, and of setting fire to his house, with the view of defrauding the Union Fire-Office.

From the Perthshire Courier

Thursday, a young man, a wright, having failed in an attempt to split a piece of hard wood, blew it up with gun-powder; but unfortunately was struck with so much violence by the splinters, on the head and breast, as to occasion his death the next morning.

A fun insight into how the newspapers collected some of their news (or in this case, didn’t):

We are obliged to our “Reader,” in Dunkeld, for his desire to acquaint us with the transactions of his neighbourhood. He should however, have subscribed his letter, that we might thus have been more able to conjecture, whether it was the wish of the parties to have their names, offices and success in the “Curling Match,” communicated to the public. He should also have paid the postage.

A Man of Fashion's Journal by Thomas Rowlandson (1802)
A Man of Fashion's Journal by Thomas Rowlandson (1802)

A summary of each newspaper


London Courier and Evening Gazette

This is a 4-page newspaper. The first page header reads ‘The Courier’, dated Thursday February 7, 1811. It’s issue number 4,911 and the price is six pence halfpenny.

This was a daily newspaper.

The four pages are dense with text, arranged into four columns of equal width.

Page 1

Articles about an intended canal, an appeal to support British prisoners of war in France and a mix of advertisements ranging from the state lottery to sale of cucumber seeds.

What we would consider to be the headline item, top left of the page, is about a meeting to object to a proposed canal in a town more than 80 miles from London. There is no headline to inform the reader what the piece is about. The article reads as minutes of a meeting.

Page 2

There’s much more news on this page, opening with information about Spain and Portugal. These were areas of interest because of the Peninsular War being fought against the French. Much of the information is cited as coming from Spanish newspapers and private letters.

The second two columns of this page deal with events in the British parliament. There’s a detailed report of the ceremony of installation for the Prince Regent, which occurred the day before.

Page 3

Information about the installation continues, along with a bulletin headlined ‘The King’. It simply reads: ‘Windsor Castle Feb 7, His Majesty seems to be making gradual progress towards recovery.’

This is followed by a number of short items relating to the war. Again, these are drawn from other sources, such as letters and other newspapers. The page continues with political news and opinion.

The final column is headed ‘Naval Intelligence’. It includes more information about the war, and ends with the story of a man stealing from various hotels.

Page 4

Unlike modern newspapers, sport does not occupy the back pages. The varied mix of content continues, with political and legal news. These are followed by announcements of births, marriages and deaths, and then more advertisements.

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette

This is also a 4-page newspaper. The first page header reads ‘The Bath Chronicle’, dated Thursday February 7, 1811. It’s issue number 2,554 in volume 54, and the price is six pence halfpenny. There’s a detail that the price is broken into Stamp Duty of three and a half pence, with paper and print being what looks like 8C.

The four pages comprise five columns of text. There are a couple of small illustrations—effectively logos—at the top of advertisements.

Page 1

The first column is headlined as ‘Friday and Saturday’s Posts’, indicating that it’s news from London, from about a week earlier. This news, in turn, opens with items from American newspapers from late January.

The opening news items are followed by a host of adverts and public notices, including the ‘Rates for Carrying Soldiers’ Baggage’.

Page 2

This follows a similar pattern to page 1, being headlined ‘Sunday and Tuesday’s Posts’. This is a mix of items about the war, a summary of the short bulletins about the King’s health, and about politics in the light of the new Regency.  

There’s a note about ‘Ladies fashions for February’ and notice of a marriage and a death. A section headed ‘Market Chronicle’ gives prices for grain, flour, hops and other goods.

The rest of the page is given over to more advertisements and notices.

Page 3

Yet more news gleaned from London newspapers, more marriages, births and deaths, notices of concerts and plays in Bath, and—the most essential item for the fashionable—a list of the recently arrived in the city. Yet more advertisements.

Curiously, a short section on horse races opens: ‘Nothing can be more dull and unedifying than the accounts of sports and pastimes of the present day.’

Page 4

This opens with political news, then it’s back to military updates and sundry other news items. Yet more births, marriages and deaths, and a list of bankruptcies. This back page concludes with another couple of columns filled with advertisements.

Perthshire Courier

Again, this newspaper covers 4 pages. The first page header reads ‘Perth Courier’, dated Thursday February 7, 1811. It’s issue number 157, and the price is sixpence.

It seems to have been a weekly newspaper, published on a Thursday.

The four pages comprise five columns of text. Unlike the other two papers, the front page has a headline that stands out: ‘The Regent’s Procession’, which I mentioned above.

Page 1

The government or state lottery features heavily at the top of this page, with two advertisements from brokers promoting the lottery. The rest of the page is given over to adverts and notices.

Page 2

This page is packed with news. It’s headed ‘Foreign Intelligence’ and comprises extracts from official dispatches and private letters relating to the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal. There’s a short section about America and Mexico.

Under ‘Domestic Intelligence’ it shares information from the London Gazette, from late January. There’s a section on the average prices of British corn, then a report from the ‘Imperial Parliament’ about the Regency Bill, dated 28 January.

Page 3

The Regency Bill discussions in Parliament take up half of this page, following its progress until 1 February. There’s a section on the health of King George III and further discussion about the Regency.

All this is followed by short news items about deaths and a shoplifting incident in London. The page ends with various news items from the Royal Navy.

Page 4

This page includes news from Scotland and Perth—typically short reports about crimes or unfortunate deaths. A reasonable number of births, marriages and deaths are listed.

The page concludes with more notices, prices of grain and other commodities, and finally  the ‘State of the barometer and thermometer taken at nine o’clock morning’ each day. This tells us that for the last week, it’s been cold with snow and rain.

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes faith-based Regency romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew, who wrote this blog.

Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.

If you have enjoyed this blog and want to encourage us and help us to keep making our research freely available, please buy us a virtual cup of coffee by clicking the button below.


All three newspapers are available to read if you subscribe to The British Newspaper Archive.

You can find the copies I looked at here:

London Courier and Evening Gazette

Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette

Perthshire Courier