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Maximiliano’s coalition of the unwilling

1 August 2013

Latin Americans owe their independence to military leaders who took advantage of the power vacuum created when Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Spain.  But, the Americas were not to only place where a military strongman was able to carve out an independent state in the name of resisting French hegemony over their empire.

In 1798, still a General in the army of the French Republic, Napoleon seized Egypt (for complicated reasons having to do countering British trade in India), a badly administered “vice royalty” of the Ottoman Empire.  Napoleon went to great lengths to show respect the local beliefs, and proclaim “we are true Muslims too,” and managed for a short time to implement a French administration.

Although Napoleon’s withdrawal from Egypt would have more to do with the situation in Europe egyptiansthan with Egyptian resistance, as in Mexico, local clerics fomented uprisings against what they claimed were “foreign atheists” and were joined by intellectuals and elites who recognized that their Egyptian interests outweighed their loyalty to the imperial power.

With the French withdrawal in 1801, the Ottomans sent a force to re-occupy Egypt, led by an Albanian commander, Mohammad Ali.  Much like Agustín Itubide, the Mexican royalist general who struck a deal with the Republican leaders Guadalupe Victoria and Vicente Guerrero, Ali struck a deal with the various insurgents and anti-Ottoman forces within Egypt, seizing control of the local government himself.  Although technically only the viceroy (khedive), Egypt under Mohammad Ali became an independent country with it’s own army and foreign policy.  And even its own imperial ambitions, taking control of the Sudan in 1821.

Like Iturbide, Ali was an admirer of the man who made it all possible… Napoleon Bonaparte.  The French were welcome foreign advisers and Egyptian policy was pro-French.  Unlike Iturbide, Mohammed Ali was able to establish a dynasty.  Under Said the First, when the French were given concessions to build the Suez Canal, Egyptian-French relations were particularly close… so much so, that when Napoleon III decided to invade Mexico in 1862, Said offered to send Egyptian troops.

Although the French had at the time the best army in the world, they were powerless against the Mexican’s secret weapon… one the Mexicans themselves didn’t quite understand.  As the French learned from their attempted invasion in 1838, the Mexicans could decimate a foreign invader by bottling them up in Veracruz, and letting the secret weapon — yellow fever — do the dirty work.  At the time, the link between mosquitoes and yellow fever weren’t know (and wouldn’t be until the early 20th century), but it was noticed that the people in yellow fever regions tended to be dark skinned, so — based on the racial assumptions of the time — it seemed logical for the French to send the darkest skinned guys they could find.

SO… the Egyptians “contributed” 500 Sudanese soldiers to the glorious enterprise, of putting the former viceroy of Austrian Italy on the throne of Mexico.  Having only 400 Sudanese troops available when the call came to embark for Mexico, the Egyptian officers didn’t panic… they simply went out in the streets and “recruited” another 100 guys that might look presentable in uniform.  They didn’t have any musical instruments with them, but the force included 22 “boy musician’s apprentices”.  Less the boys, who were disembarked at Martinique and eventually sent back to Egypt (one hopes to get their flutes and drums and horns), the “undisciplined, insolent and filthy” (in the words of General Forey) soldiers of the “Egyptian Battalion” landed in Veracruz on 24 February 1863.

Where their commander, Yabritallah Effendi, promptly died of yellow fever, along with a number of the soldiers.  And the unit started to fall apart.  With “86 dead, 15 sick and the rest very tired… living in isolation with a bad reputation among the people” (quoting from General Forey), the French realized they had to do something.   French officers and Algerian translators were brought in to shape them up, and the Sudanese were fairly well regarded by the French, if only for their brutality against civilians in response to guerrilla attacks.  They were mostly used for garrison duty and guarding railways in the Port of Veracruz and the east coastal lowlands,

And, that lover of the exotica,  the Emperor Maximiliano, thought they made a showy honor guard.

Back of the bus… er… boat.  The Egyptians were the last of the French Expeditionary forces to be evacuated from Mexico in 1867.  Despite that “bad reputation among the people” some of the Sudanese must have found something they liked in Mexico.  Of the 326 of them that were still alive, only 200 sailed for home.

(Mexico Armado; Louis Napoleon’s African Allies; miscellaneous sources)

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