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by Samir Raafat
Egytpian Mail, 25 June 1994


A year before Viceroy Ismail (later Khedive; r.1863-79) ascended Egypt's throne, France, Britain and Spain sent expeditionary forces to Mexico to prop up what would later be known as France's 'Mexican folly' that culminated with the assassination of Emperor Maximilian. He was the first and last European Emperor of Mexico.

European troops under the command of Jurien de la Gravière were decimated by Mexico's harsh tropical climate and their numbers reduced to less than half. Because 'white man' could not fare well in Tierra Caliente, Gravière recommended the importation of reinforcements from Senegal and the West Indies. Thereupon, the French emissary in Egypt approached Viceroy Saïd Pasha (r. 1854-63) requesting the loan of a Negro regiment to serve under the French flag.

On 9 January 1863, nine days before the Viceroy's death, the troopship "Seine" sailed from Alexandria with 447 men on board. The 'Ottoman Auxiliary Battalion' under the vicregal flag consisted of four companies commanded by officer Yarbit-Allah.

The battalion consisted of Egyptian officers and troops serving in the Sudan (then an Egyptian protectorate) and Upper Egypt. Hence the different shades of black from inky to Mediterranean olive. According to contemporary reports, some men were practically naked having been gazetted into the army the eve of their departure. With them aboard the Seine were several interpreters.

Forty-four days later, the contingent less those who died from a typhus breakout during the crossing, disembarked in Vera Cruz.

Once in the Americas, the Egyptian battalion was placed under the command of French commandant Mangin of the 3rd Zouaves Regiment. To facilitate the chain of command, Algerian soldiers were brought in to help with the language barrier.

The going was bad even as the troops landed in Mexico. To begin with the area around Vera Cruz was infested with both guerrillas and banditos led by Mexican nationalist Pablo Juarez (1806-72). Then, in May 1863, Yarbit-Allah and several of his troops succumbed to a fatal bout of yellow fever. Yarbit was replaced by his second, Captain Mohammed Almaz.

A subsequent spreading of dysentery knocked out 1/5 of the battalion. And the combat hadn't even begun!

By early 1864 the Egyptian Battalion had lost 22 more men. Cause of death: pulmonary complications and dysentery.

Following the successful June 10 attack on the town of Mexico (afterwards, Mexico City), General Elias Frederic Forey continued his advance on Tlaliscoyan where Juarez had regrouped. Accompanying Forey on his campaign were 80 members of the Egyptian infantry. Referring to these soldiers a French commander remarked "these were not fighting men, these were lions."

In the meantime, Juarez who by now was acclaimed a national hero, was propped up with American money and diplomacy. The United States was not about to welcome an imperialist European implantation in its backyard. In fact, France's request to Khedive Ismail (who had replaced his Uncle Saïd Pasha) for the enlistment of more Egyptian battalion had met with violent protest from the US government on the grounds that "it would increase the Negro population in America".

As war dragged on, the French government started to feel the financial pinch. Moreover, the flack from the opposition at home had grown to intolerable levels. Napoleon III was ready to bail out abandoning his fellow monarch to the mercy of the Mexican republicans.

The 326 survivors of the Egyptian Battalion left Mexico in 1867. Since many among them had learned French during the Mexican campaign it was with perfect ease that they spent time in Saint Nazarre, France, on their return journey home.

On 9 May 1867 at 15:00, Emperor Napoleon III accompanied by Shahin Pasha, the commander in chief of the Egyptian army, reviewed the Egyptian battalion during its passage through Paris. Fifty-six men were decorated with the Legion d'Honneur while Mohammed Almaz received the Officer's Cross pinned on him by the the French Emperor himself.

Egypt's returning combatants were greeted by a jubilant population in Alexandria two weeks later. The following day they were reviewed by Viceroy Ismail at a special banquet in Ras al-Tin Palace on May 26. Thereupon Almaz was promoted to colonel and the rest of the troops were collectively upgraded.

Meanwhiule in Mexico Emperor Ferdinand Joseph Maximilian, 35, was executed on June 19, 1867 and Juarez duly elected president of Mexico.


Fifteen years after Egypt's expedition to the Americas

The British Empire was in its colonial heyday, its dominions and crown territories stretching from Canada to India and Australasia. Trouble spots threatening Britain's world hegemony were dealt with swiftly and mercilessly. One such insurgency occurred in Khartoum.

The Mahdi (1844-85), considered by the British a nationalist religious zealot had become a nuisance making life intolerable for Sudan's Anglo-Egyptian administration then under the leadership of Major-General Charles Gordon Pasha. An expeditionary force was speedily put together with a twofold objective: to relieve the British governor-general and to teach Mohammed Ahmed al-Mahdi the meaning of gunboat diplomacy. Even if it was only a river gunboat!

The expeditionary force included 386 lumbermen and Caughnawaga Indians from the province of Manitoba in Canada. In overall command General Lord Wolseley described the "Canadian voyageurs" as a necessary component of the expedition. "These able Canadian boatmen were needed to transport the British troops up the Nile."

Wolseley (1833-1913) was regarded as the Empire's chief trouble-shooter. He had been in charge of the 1870 Red River Expedition, which stamped out independist Louis Riel and his self-proclaimed Republic of Manitoba. More recently in Egypt, on 13 September 1882, Wolseley had defeated Orabi Pasha at the battle of Tal al-Kebir thus apving the way for a 120 year British occupation of the Nile valley.

Under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Charles Denison (a scion of an influential military family from Toronto), the Canadians Voyageurs sailed from Port Arthur (Lake Superior) to Alexandria aboard the Algona.

Like Egypt's troops in Mexico, the Voyageurs saw their stay extended again and again so that their service period was lengthened beyond the original six months. And since the men had not been recruited as regular soldiers they were not regarded as a typical army military unit. Which is why many chose not to remain and were shipped home.

The 89 volunteers who remained were the ones who saw actual duty and then not quite. For by the time they had reached the ouskirts of Khartum, Charles George Gordon, 52, governor general of Sudan had already been executed two days earlier by the victorious al-Mahdi. A theocratic state had been established in Omdurman.

Nevertheless, Lord Wolseley referred to Canadian volunteers in glowing terms. "The services of these voyageurs has been of the greatest possible value, and further, that their conduct throughout has been excellent. They have earned themselves a high reputation among the troops up the Nile."

Another positive testimonial was that of Colonel Grove, himself a member of the Nile Expedition. "The employment of the Voyageurs was a most pronounced success. Without them it is to be doubted whether the boats would have got up at all."

They were Voyageurs were decorated with the Kirbekan clasp even though as unarmed combatants serving under the British, they had not taken part in the actual fighting at Kirbekan.

Contrary to the much maligned Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, Gordon of Khartoum entered history as a martyred warrior-saint. General Lord Garnet Joseph Wolseley meanwhile was made a peer of the British realm for having extended the empire another half continent

Reader's Comments

Subject: Egyptians in Mexico!
Date: Sun, 21 May 2000 12:55:05 +0300
From: Hector Cardenas, Ambassador of Mexico to Egypt

I read your article on the Egyptian troops sent to Mexico to fight against President Benito Juarez, who had been already in that post long before Napoleon III started his disastrous adventure. For your information Juarez promulgated a new constitution, which separated the Church from the State, apart from legislation to create the Civil Register and the nationalization of the Church' s fantastic properties in Mexico. It was precisely these legislations that infuriated the conservatives and the clergy, who promptly requested the help of the Vatican and France to "restore" order in Mexico. That is how poor Maximilian was sent to Mexico and why President Juarez defended my country from foreign intervention until the end.
The Americans' involvement was a wonderful diplomatic deal which helped them and us. Maximilian was executed as he deserved and Napoleon was thrown in the dustbin of history as a mediocrity.
Juarez as well as Lincoln are great examples of patriotism. I think the whole episode of the Egyptian troops sent to Mexico is a proof of the worst of French imperialism using other countries to fight in an unfair war against a nation invaded by a powerful country to undermine its independece.

Thursday 11 January 2001
Some Canadian boatmen left graffiti in Egypt
David Kirkwood
The Ottawa Citizen

My wife and I read with interest the Jan. 3 article "Voyageurs on the Nile." Our interest was combined with surprise, because the article showed no awareness, on the part of the writer or of Carleton University historian John Taylor, of an excellent book giving a detailed account of the role played by Canadian boatmen.

"Canadians on the Nile" was published in 1978 by the University of British Columbia Press. It was written by Roy MacLaren, formerly a federal cabinet minister and subsequently Canadian high commissioner to London.
Mr. MacLaren's multi-faceted career includes the authorship of a number of well-researched and very readable books on lesser known aspects of Canadian history. On a visit to Egypt some years ago, we were able to identify the signatures of a number of Canadian members of the expeditionary force, scratched during their return from Khartoum to Cairo in the stone ruins of the temple on the island of Philae, in Upper Egypt near Aswan.
Many other travellers before and since had left similar records at that site, and we would not have searched for, and found, these vestiges of Canadiana, had it not been for reading Mr. MacLaren's book.
David Kirkwood,

articles posted on were published in the following books by Samir W Raafat: THE EGYPTIAN BOURSE, Zeitouna, Cairo -- CAIRO THE GLORY YEARS, Harpocrates, Alexandria -- HISTORY & SOCIETY IN A CAIRO SUBURB; MAADI 1904-1962, Palm Press, Cairo -- PRIVILEGED FOR THREE CENTURIES, printed digitally and bound by Elias Printing, Egypt

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