Being British in old Cairo

The Nile at Old Cairo

Image via Wikipedia

An Englishwoman on a voyage to India in the 1830s describes her impressions of Cairo: thanks to Project Gutenberg, here are two extracts, the first extolling the beauty of the city, the second recording her anger at the sight of British arrogance and insensitivity:

“Mounting on the embrasure of one of the guns, I feasted my eyes upon one of the finest and most interesting views I had ever beheld. The city, with its minarets, towers, kiosks, and stately palm-trees, lay at my feet, displaying, by its extent, the solidity, loftiness, and magnificence of its buildings, its title to the proud name of “Grand Cairo.” Beyond, in one wide flood of silver, flowed the Nile, extending far as the eye could reach along a plain verdant with its fertilizing waters. To the left, the tombs of the caliphs spread themselves over a desert waste, looking, indeed, like a city of the dead…”

“I afterwards saw a drunken Englishman, an officer of the Indian army, I am sorry to say, beat several natives of Cairo, with whom he happened to come in contact in the crowd, in the most brutal and unprovoked manner, and yet no notice was taken, and no complaint made. It was certainly something very unexpected to me to see a Frank Christian maltreating the Moslem inhabitants of a Moslem city in which he was a stranger, and I regretted exceedingly that the perpetrator of acts, which brought disgrace upon his character and country, should have been an Englishman, or should have escaped punishment. No sooner have we been permitted to traverse a country in which formerly it was dangerous to appear openly as a Christian, than we abuse the privilege thus granted by outrages on its most peaceable inhabitants. I regret to be obliged to add, that it is but too commonly the habit, of Englishmen to beat the boat-men, donkey-men, and others of the poorer class, whom they may engage in their service. They justify this cowardly practice—cowardly, because the poor creatures can gain no redress—by declaring that there is no possibility of getting them to stir excepting by means of the whip; but, in most cases, all that I witnessed, they were not at the trouble of trying fairer methods: at once enforcing their commands by blows. The comments made by the janissary and our own servant upon those who were guilty of such wanton brutality showed the feeling which it elicited; and when upon one occasion Miss E. and myself interposed, declaring that we would not allow any person in our service to be beaten, they told us not to be alarmed, for that the rais (captain of the boat), who was an Arab, would not put up with ill-treatment, but had threatened to go on shore at the next village with all his men.”

Notes of an overland journey through France and Egypt to Bombay, by the late Miss Emma Roberts… 1841

About rimboval

Writer, thinker and proud grandfather
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