Category Archives: History of Egypt

Ptolemys, poisons and Cleopatra

The Furies pursue a Ptolemy for matricide, from a painting by W.A.Bougereau / en.wikipedia.org

The Furies pursue a Ptolemy for matricide, from a painting by W.A.Bougereau / en.wikipedia.org

There was a lady of Egypt, I’m told

The barge she sat in was of burnished gold;

Her moral code made the sphinx perspire,

Her Roman scandals set the Nile on fire!

They tried to make her marry

Her brother Ptolemy,

She said ‘I won’t ptolerate Ptolemy

To collar me!

I only sell sell to the highest bid . . .

Now she’s hotting up the pharaohs

In the pyramid!

                                 (from Salad Days, a musical by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds)

Ptolemy was a childhood friend, confidant, soldier and general of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian King conquered Egypt in the 4th century BC, and Ptolemy was made the first of a long line of Ptolemaic Pharaohs, ruling Egypt under 30 BC.

   Ptolemy I was a man of outstanding diplomatic, military and organisational abilities. He rose from minor Macedonian aristocracy to become king of Egypt because of the absolute faith Alexander had in him. Many, many Ptolemys followed him in the dynasty he created, but they were a thoroughly bad lot.

Historians, authors and playwrights have given Queen Cleopatra a drubbing for centuries. She stands accused of murdering her brothers (among them a Ptolemy) to remain in power. If she did, and it is most likely that she did – it was nothing new in the family founded by Alexander’s great friend. Cleopatra’s ancestors were a murderous bunch, and Cleopatra herself used to amuse herself (and her maids-in-waiting) by watching the effects of selected poisons on condemned criminals, lazy servants or unsatisfying lovers. Continue reading

That Special Relationship

This is a favourite (or favorite term) used mainly by British social commentators and diplomats to describe what they like to see as special Anglo-American relations. The term reflects language ties as well as cultural ones; shared values and interests. There is no truth in it: it is nothing but a very large dose of wishful thinking on the part of wistful British statesmen. There is an astonishing lack of realism in this romantic idea of a ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Britain.

At the end of the nineteenth century and up to the beginning of the Great War in 1914, Americans regarded Great Britain’s astonishing Empire (more than a sixth of the world’s land surface) with jealousy. Many US presidents wondered openly how they could wrest it away from the Limeys, and perhaps form their own, even bigger Empire. A wonderful opportunity arose when Europe caught fire following the killing of the Austrian arch-duke and his wife in Sarajevo. War broke out in Europe in 1914, but the enormous might and weight of the States did not enter it until 1917, after three years of slaughter, when it was calculated that Britain, France and indeed Germany were so exhausted physically and economically that they could do no more. This was the moment when Uncle Sam got there, and her commanders reversed the maps to their advantage. It was indeed a ‘special relationship’. The pathetic Brits breathed a sigh of relief; they lost on average one man (or boy fresh from the classroom) from every family in the most savage and futile war that has ever been fought. ‘The Yanks are Here!’ they sang, having little or no idea of the harshness of all international relations. Continue reading

Commerce in History: the slave trade

/ freewebs.com

/ freewebs.com

Thinking people still get hot under the collar when the subject of the trade in slaves looms. But then, more nonsense is spoken about the slave trade by otherwise intelligent and educated people than one would care to admit. For those determined only to be ‘politically correct’, the trade was perfectly simple, evil of course, and typical of the many important countries which indulged in it. It consisted (for them) of wicked whites landing on the coast of West Africa, driving inland with fire and sword, kidnapping young black people from their homelands, chaining them up, and driving them back to the waiting ships with a whip ever ready in case of complaint. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In the first place, coastal African tribesmen would have taken very badly to any kind of invasion made by white people, unless they knew exactly what the white intruders were in Africa for. Continue reading

Gunboat diplomacy

Warship firing

  It might well have been Lord Palmerston (twice Prime Minister of Britain, 1855- 58, 1859- 65, q.v.) who concreted this term, though gunboat diplomacy in its various forms has been with us for centuries. The term implies diplomacy backed up by the threat of force (a gunboat for example) between countries, one state half-drawing a sword from its scabbard while talking in measured terms with another. It is all about imposing the will, and GD as I will call it was the accepted political force mostly in the nineteenth century.

British myself, I am resigned to the fact that it was Great Britain which used this kind of diplomacy to the greatest effect until the beginning of the First World War, simply because she had a superior navy, which could coerce smaller, weaker nations – sometimes big ones – to bend to her will. Continue reading

Disasters waiting to happen: General Gordon

  

Gordon meets his end at Khartoum / dailymail.co.uk

Gordon meets his end at Khartoum / dailymail.co.uk

Charles George Gordon was born in 1833. When his father discovered that the boy was wilful, obstinate, brave, selfish and over-fond of himself, he decided to send him to rough schools which would smooth things out a bit. They did not. His qualities seemed to indicate the Army, so to the Army he went.

When the Crimean War started in 1853 Gordon was already a junior field officer, and he distinguished himself at Sebastopol for being brave, wilful, obstinate etc. Later he took part in the second Opium War, and was present at the occupation of Pekin (we must learn to say Beijing) in 1860. As Gordon was annoyed with the ancient Empress of China, who had shown no interest in the murder of European missionaries, and less in the assassination of the German consul, and whose ministers had orchestrated the two opium wars anyway, Gordon decided to burn the Summer Palace to the ground, which he did. This act did not do either Gordon or Britain much good, and was to be remembered by the Chinese. Continue reading

Great War Commanders: General Allenby

Allenby, who appears played by Jack Hawkins in the film Laurence of Arabia / en wikipedia.org

Allenby, who appears played by Jack Hawkins in the film Laurence of Arabia / en wikipedia.org

Allenby’s chief claim to fame, though he would not have liked my reminding him of it, was that for a time he was Laurence of Arabia’s commanding officer. This was not easy for anyone, and Edward Allenby’s notoriously bad temper was always on a short fuse: as a Field Marshall he was known throughout the ranks as ‘The Bull’ on account of his great size and violent nature. Continue reading

Great War Commanders: Horatio Nelson

Horation Lord Nelson

Horation Lord Nelson

Like so many other men of small stature throughout history, Nelson was not only a successful seaman and admiral, he was popular with his officers and men. Given that naval authority in the 18th/19th century was backed by more than ample application of the lash, this popularity is excessively rare. Indeed, when Nelson was shot down dead during the battle of Trafalgar (1805 q.v.) half the crew of his ship Victory were in tears. You had to be really bad to be flogged in any ship under Nelson’s command. Continue reading

Great War Leaders: Kitchener needs YOU!

Lord Kitchener / es.wikipedia.org

Lord Kitchener / es.wikipedia.org

Horatio Herbert Kitchener was born in 1850. At school in Switzerland he learned perfect French, and later went to Palestine where he picked up near-perfect Arabic. After military college and commissioning he got to Egypt (where his knowledge of languages was useful for a junior officer).

The British were occupying Egypt in 1882, but this was the time of the Mahdi, an almost mythical religious and military leader who caused consternation in Britain by the brilliance of his strategy, and the blind faith in him showed by his followers. Continue reading

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Almost all our readers have heard of the seven wonders. Some might be able to name them. Fewer will know what the seven wonders of the ‘modern world’ are, and anyway naming them invariably causes dispute. The ancient wonders were the more remarkable because they were made by Man, to be seen by Man.

   I am expecting to be corrected by ardent bloggers, but I believe a list of the wonders was first made up in the second century B.C. Continue reading