Napoleon, Failing To Conquer Palestine, Orders The Ransoming Of Prisoners: August 1799

August 12, 1799

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Napoleon, Failing To Conquer Palestine, Orders The Ransoming Of Prisoners: August 1799
Letter Signed
1 page | SMC 236

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      Poussielgue - variously known as Matthius, Jean-Baptiste, but most likely Emile, and generally called, in the parlance of Revolutionary France, “Citizen Poussielgue” - was Napoleon’s financial administrator in Italy, his spy in Malta and, in newly-conquered Egypt, his representative on the council established to ensure a smooth administration.  This task, however, would prove thankless – for Napoleon had no interest in Egypt, save to conquer it, and then use it as a launching pad to invade Palestine. 

      Napoleon, after all, was in a bind. A month after his triumphant arrival in Egypt, Nelson destroyed his fleet, leaving Napoleon both cut off from France and land-bound – which, all told,  anyone but Napoleon might have found daunting. Instead, imagining himself a cross between an Eastern potentate and Alexander the Great, he resolved to invade Ottoman Syria (then comprising the modern states of Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria). Setting off in February 1799, Napoleon confidently predicted that he would soon be standing in the ruins of Solomon’s Temple – once, that is, he crossed the desert for nine days, devoid of water, proper supplies, or enough money to fully pay his troops. Gaza surrendered on the 25th, but when he arrived at Jaffa on March 3rd, the town refused to capitulate. The French attack was brutal: indiscriminately slaughtering young and old, Jew, gentile and Moslem. 4000 prisoners were shot, bayoneted or drowned. And yet, somehow, Napoleon sought to build on this “victory”, by making diplomatic overtures to complete the occupation of the Holy Land peaceably, or else make military alliances to ease the prospect. To this end – whilst laying siege, unsuccessfully, to Acre – it was reported in a Paris newspaper on May 22, 1799 that "Bonaprate has published a proclamation in which he invites all the Jews of Asia and Africa to gather under his flag in order to re-establish the ancient Jerusalem. He has already given arms to a great number, and their battalions threaten Aleppo." Whether this document was strictly for propaganda purposes, or whether in fact it never existed and was nothing more than a rumor, it is nonetheless credited with being the first de facto recognition of the Jews as a potential factor in Mideast policy in modern times.

      But Jews or no Jews, Acre would be lost to Napoleon, and in June, with his army devastated by disease and in terrible disarray, he headed back to Egypt – there to announce a great triumph. "[I] am returning [to Cairo] with many prisoners and flags," he proclaimed. "I razed the ramparts of Acre. There is not a stone left standing." The only thing left for him to do, then, was leave – and this he secretly prepared to do, on August 23, 1799.

      This document, signed on August 12th, refers to hostages, held for ransom, from the Syrian campaign being held in Cairo’s citadel. As much a ruse, probably, as yet another way to raise money for his distressed and about to be abandoned troops, Napoleon demands here that Poussielgue collect monies for the hostages or he, Napoleon, will “declare that if they do not pay what they owe in the shortest time” he “will increase their fees.” The sums which follow below would seem to be Poussielgue’s accounting of hostage fees. By the time, however, that these or any hostages were ransomed, it is likely that Napoleon was long gone, having left Egypt, his army, and his finance administer Poussielgue, all holding the bag. Once again, he had bigger plans: in November, back in Paris, he executed the coup d'état that overthrew the Directoire and established the French Consulate, with himself, quelle surprise! as First Consul.

      Letter Signed (“Bonaparte”), in French, 1 page, quarto, Headquarters, Cairo, on letterhead of Bonaparte, Commander in Chief, 12 August 1799. To Citizen  Poussielgue, Napoleon’s financial advisor and confidential agent


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      Liberty, Equality,
      French Republic

      Headquarters, Cairo, 12 August, 1799
      Bonaparte, Commander in Chief

      To Citizen Poussielgue ad.[-ministrator] of finances

      Several hostages from Jaffa and from Gaza, citizen administrator, must be detained at the Citadel for payment of fees that are imposed.
      Please send word to them all and declare that if they do not pay what they owe in the shortest time, I will increase their fees.


      20 175.
      5. 155. 175
      52 44

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