Tuesday 31 March 2020

Kinglake's 19 days in Cairo in 1835, at the worst point of the plague

I loved Eothen when I was, I bitterly regret to say, an idle undergraduate reading anything that was not on my syllabus. I am now rereading Alexander Kinglake's account of surviving the plague in Cairo, attended, if my memory serves me, by a man who had been Byron's servant. 

I thought it was one of the books that one 'had to read', though anything but a chore, but like most of those books my life experience has taught me that nobody else has. Dr Johnson said, talking of Greek and Latin authors, that it is remarkable how little literature there is in the world. Nowadays that's true too of English classics.

Kinglake's nineteen days in Cairo must have been at the high point of the plague, when the death rate rose from 400 to 1,200 a day. He ignored the advice he was given that touching someone with the infection meant catching it. All the people he had anything to do with in the city, including his banker, his doctor and even his magician, died of the plague in those nineteen days. When he did develop a fever he was the very epitome of sang-froid, a French expression for an English thing. He hid the food he had no appetite to eat from his servants and, in the end, a cup of tea made him feel better.
"When first I arrived at Cairo the funerals that daily passed under my windows were many, but still there were frequent and long intervals without a single howl. Every day, however (except one, when I fancied that I observed a diminution of funerals), these intervals became less frequent and shorter, and at last, the passing of the howlers from morn till noon was almost incessant. I believe that about one-half of the whole people was carried off by this visitation. The Orientals, however, have more quiet fortitude than Europeans under afflictions of this sort, and they never allow the plague to interfere with their religious usages. I rode one day round the great burial-ground. The tombs are strewed over a great expanse, among the vast mountains of rubbish (the accumulations of many centuries) which surround the city. The ground, unlike the Turkish “cities of the dead,” which are made so beautiful by their dark cypresses, has nothing to sweeten melancholy, nothing to mitigate the odiousness of death. Carnivorous beasts and birds possess the place by night, and now in the fair morning it was all alive with fresh comers—alive with dead. Yet at this very time, when the plague was raging so furiously, and on this very ground, which resounded so mournfully with the howls of arriving funerals, preparations were going on for the religious festival called the Kourban Bairam. Tents were pitched, and swings hung for the amusement of children—a ghastly holiday; but the Mahometans take a pride, and a just pride, in following their ancient customs undisturbed by the shadow of death.

"I did not hear, whilst I was at Cairo, that any prayer for a remission of the plague had been offered up in the mosques. I believe that however frightful the ravages of the disease may be, the Mahometans refrain from approaching Heaven with their complaints until the plague has endured for a long space, and then at last they pray God, not that the plague may cease, but that it may go to another city!

"A good Mussulman seems to take pride in repudiating the European notion that the will of God can be eluded by eluding the touch of a sleeve. When I went to see the pyramids of Sakkara I was the guest of a noble old fellow, an Osmanlee, whose soft rolling language it was a luxury to hear after suffering, as I had suffered of late, from the shrieking tongue of the Arabs. This man was aware of the European ideas about contagion, and his first care therefore was to assure me that not a single instance of plague had occurred in his village. He then inquired as to the progress of the plague at Cairo. I had but a bad account to give. Up to this time my host had carefully refrained from touching me out of respect to the European theory of contagion, but as soon as it was made plain that he, and not I, would be the person endangered by contact, he gently laid his hand upon my arm, in order to make me feel sure that the circumstance of my coming from an infected city did not occasion him the least uneasiness. In that touch there was true hospitality."

He visits a slave market looking for white women, from a tourist's curiosity.

'In the open slave-market I saw about fifty girls exposed for sale, but all of them black, or “invisible” brown. A slave agent took me to some rooms in the upper storey of the building, and also into several obscure houses in the neighbourhood, with a view to show me some white women. The owners raised various objections to the display of their ware, and well they might, for I had not the least notion of purchasing; some refused on account of the illegality of the proceeding, and others declared that all transactions of this sort were completely out of the question as long as the plague was raging. I only succeeded in seeing one white slave who was for sale, but on this one the owner affected to set an immense value, and raised my expectations to a high pitch by saying that the girl was Circassian, and was “fair as the full moon.” After a good deal of delay I was at last led into a room, at the farther end of which was that mass of white linen which indicates an Eastern woman. She was bid to uncover her face, and I presently saw that, though very far from being good-looking, according to my notion of beauty, she had not been inaptly described by the man who compared her to the full moon, for her large face was perfectly round and perfectly white. Though very young, she was nevertheless extremely fat. She gave me the idea of having been got up for sale, of having been fattened and whitened by medicines or by some peculiar diet. I was firmly determined not to see any more of her than the face. She was perhaps disgusted at this my virtuous resolve, as well as with my personal appearance; perhaps she saw my distaste and disappointment; perhaps she wished to gain favour with her owner by showing her attachment to his faith: at all events, she holloaed out very lustily and very decidedly that “she would not be bought by the infidel.”'
The chapter ends with this very British account of the moment he felt himself feverish.
It is a thoroughly well believed theory, that during the continuance of the plague you can’t be ill of any other febrile malady—an unpleasant privilege that! for ill I was, and ill of fever, and I anxiously wished that the ailment might turn out to be anything rather than plague. I had some right to surmise that my illness may have been merely the effect of the hot wind; and this notion was encouraged by the elasticity of my spirits, and by a strong forefeeling that much of my destined life in this world was yet to come, and yet to be fulfilled. That was my instinctive belief, but when I carefully weighed the probabilities on the one side and on the other, I could not help seeing that the strength of argument was all against me. There was a strong antecedent likelihood in favour of my being struck by the same blow as the rest of the people who had been dying around me. Besides, it occurred to me that, after all, the universal opinion of the Europeans upon a medical question, such as that of contagion, might probably be correct, and if it were, I was so thoroughly “compromised,” and especially by the touch and breath of the dying medico, that I had no right to expect any other fate than that which now seemed to have overtaken me. Balancing as well as could all the considerations which hope and fear suggested, I slowly and reluctantly came to the conclusion that, according to all merely reasonable probability, the plague had come upon me. 

You would suppose that this conviction would have induced me to write a few farewell lines to those who were dearest, and that having done that, I should have turned my thoughts towards the world to come. Such, however, was not the case. I believe that the prospect of death often brings with it strong anxieties about matters of comparatively trivial import, and certainly with me the whole energy of the mind was directed towards the one petty object of concealing my illness until the latest possible moment—until the delirious stage. I did not believe that either Mysseri or Dthemetri, who had served me so faithfully in all trials, would have deserted me (as most Europeans are wont to do) when they knew that I was stricken by plague, but I shrank from the idea of putting them to this test, and I dreaded the consternation which the knowledge of my illness would be sure to occasion. 

I was very ill indeed at the moment when my dinner was served, and my soul sickened at the sight of the food; but I had luckily the habit of dispensing with the attendance of servants during my meal, and as soon as I was left alone I made a melancholy calculation of the quantity of food which I should have eaten if I had been in my usual health, and filled my plates accordingly, and gave myself salt, and so on, as though I were going to dine. I then transferred the viands to a piece of the omnipresent Times newspaper, and hid them away in a cupboard, for it was not yet night, and I dared not throw the food into the street until darkness came. I did not p. 229at all relish this process of fictitious dining, but at length the cloth was removed, and I gladly reclined on my divan (I would not lie down) with the Arabian Nights in my hand. 

I had a feeling that tea would be a capital thing for me, but I would not order it until the usual hour. When at last the time came, I drank deep draughts from the fragrant cup. The effect was almost instantaneous. A plenteous sweat burst through my skin, and watered my clothes through and through. I kept myself thickly covered. The hot, tormenting weight which had been loading my brain was slowly heaved away. The fever was extinguished. I felt a new buoyancy of spirits, and an unusual activity of mind. I went into my bed under a load of thick covering, and when the morning came, and I asked myself how I was, I found that I was thoroughly well. 

I was very anxious to procure, if possible, some medical advice for Mysseri, whose illness prevented my departure. Every one of the European practising doctors, of whom there had been many, had either died or fled. It was said, however, that there was an Englishman in the medical service of the Pasha who quietly remained at his post, but that he never engaged in private practice. I determined to try if I could obtain assistance in this quarter. I did not venture at first, and at such a time as this, to ask him to visit a servant who was prostrate on the bed of sickness, but thinking that I might thus gain an opportunity of persuading him to attend Mysseri, I wrote a note mentioning my own affair of the sore throat, and asking for the benefit of his medical advice. 
He instantly followed back my messenger, and was at once shown up into my room. I entreated him to stand off, telling him fairly how deeply I was “compromised,” and especially by my contact with a person actually ill and since dead of plague. The generous fellow, with a good-humoured laugh at the terrors of the contagionists, marched straight up to me, and forcibly seized my hand, and shook it with manly violence. I felt grateful indeed, and swelled with fresh pride of race because that my countryman could carry himself so nobly. He soon cured Mysseri as well as me, and all this he did from no other motives than the pleasure of doing a kindness and the delight of braving a danger. 

At length the great difficulty which I had had in procuring beasts for my departure was overcome, and now, too, I was to have the new excitement of travelling on dromedaries. With two of these beasts and three camels I gladly wound my way from out of the pest-stricken city. As I passed through the streets I observed a fanatical-looking elder, who stretched forth his arms, and lifted up his voice in a speech which seemed to have some reference to me. Requiring an interpretation, I found that the man had said, “The Pasha seeks camels, and he finds them not; the Englishman says, ‘Let camels be brought,’ and behold, there they are!” 

I no sooner breathed the free, wholesome air of the Desert than I felt that a great burden which I had been scarcely conscious of bearing was lifted away from my mind. For nearly three weeks I had lived under peril of death; the peril ceased, and not till then did I know how much alarm and anxiety I had really been suffering.
I just reread his account of meeting Pitt the Younger's magnificent niece Lady Hester Stanhope, a spinster of sixty dressed in trousers who exercised sovereignty over a tribe of Arabs, somewhere between Beirut, Damascus and Palmyra.


  1. Replies
    1. Isn't it, BKop? The whole of Eothen is on the internet. It used to be considered a classic but no-one seems to read it any more.

  2. Fascinating account of the slave market in Egypt. It makes me wonder when and whether it was abolished...

    1. It was abolished after the Khedive became a British client but only because Egyptian society eventually accepted the abolition. Slavery had been an essential part of Egyptian life. In 1882 opposition to European control from nationalistic army officers in 1881 forced the Khedive Tewfiq to dismiss his Prime Minister. By June 1882 Egypt was in the hands of nationalists opposed to European domination of the country and a British defeated the Egyptian Army in September and took control of the country putting Tewfiq back in control. Occupation continued until the Sultan declared war on us at which point Egypt was made a British protectorate, on 19 December 1914. I hope you see how misguided those protesters in England who complain about colonialism and slavery at the same time.
      I came across this on the net:

      “In nineteenth-century Egypt Circassian females were mostly kept in the harems of wealthy Turks, the concubines of ‘middle class’ Egyptians generally were Abyssinians, while male and female Negro slaves were used for domestic service by almost all layers of Egyptian society. In addition to domestic service, black slaves were used as soldiers by Egypt's rulers and, contrary to the prevalent assumption, as agricultural workers on the farms of the Muḥammad Alī family and elsewhere in Upper Egypt and during periods of prosperity and shortage of labour also in Lower Egypt. Apparently there were at least 30,000 slaves in Egypt at different times of the nineteenth century, and probably many more.
      “White slaves were brought to Egypt from the eastern coast of the Black Sea and from the Circassian settlements of Anatolia via Istanbul. Brown and black slaves were brought (a) from Darfur to Asyūṭ, directly or through Kordofan; (b) from Sennar to Isnā; (c) from the area of the White Nile; (d) from Bornu and Wadāy via Libya and the Western Desert; (e) from Abyssinia and the East African coast through the Red Sea. The slave dealers in Egypt were mainly people from Upper Egypt and the Oases, beduin and villagers of the Buḥayra province. They were divided into dealers in black and in white slaves and organized in a guild with a shaykh. Cairo was the great depot of slaves and the centre of the trade, but a very important occasion for trading in slaves was the annual mawlid of Ṭanṭā.

      “Official measures taken against the slave-trade were among the important causes for the final disappearance of slavery in Egypt. These were, amongst others, the appointment of foreigners, mainly British, as governors of the Sudan and commanders of special missions to suppress the trade; two Anglo-Egyptian conventions, of 1877 and of 1895, for the suppression of slavery; and, from 1877 on, the establishment of offices and later a special service for the fight against the trade and for the manumission of slaves. However, were it not for the internal development of Egyptian society, these measures could never have succeeded; this is illustrated by the tremendous obstacles they encountered and their ineffectiveness for a long time. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century most of these impediments vanished. In addition to the Mahdist revolution and the reconquest of the Sudan, the most important change was the emergence of a free labour market as a result of accelerated urbanization and the collapse of the guild system. At the same time a small but important section of Egyptians had changed their attitudes towards slavery as a result of their cultural contact with Europe.”