France’s Imperialism And Competition In Egypt

Britain and France’s Imperialism And Competition In Egypt

Britain and France locked horns over Egypt at the dawn of the New Imperialism. Both nations had significant interest in Egypt for reasons of money, pride and power; both nations staked claims to the area before the turn of the twentieth century. From those years up to the “scramble for Africa” and Suez Canal, imperial possession gained greater and greater importance for nation states.

With Britain being the most powerful nation in the world, and France steadily gaining ground, disputes over the lands of Egypt were heated and ego-driven. This competitive, power-hungry spirit lingered in Egypt for a century after, and has become strikingly relevant today.

What is Imperialism?

Imperialism has been awarded many definitions over the years, and experts argue its true meaning has been lost in the process

. For purposes of studying the imperial rivalry over Egypt between Britain and France, it is important to redefine imperialism in terms of its significance during that era. While the word is rooted in the Latin word “imperator,” roughly meaning “commander,” it was first used in connection with dictatorships

. Years later in 1830s France, it was strongly associated with Napoleon’s empire, and later became a derogatory reference to the power-hungry pretensions of Napoleon III

. The word then became popular in Britain in the 1870s, when used to refer to the aggressive colonialism of Prime Minister Disraeli

. In the late 1800s, the word grew in popularity alongside the British Empire, and became roughly equivalent to the word “colonialism”

. Interestingly, however, “imperialism” was not used to describe the takeover of contiguous lands, such as Russia’s distension over the lands of central and eastern Asia

. By the turn of the century, “imperialism” was specifically used to refer to overseas colonialism, such as that pioneered by Spain and Portugal and later adopted by Britain, France, and America

. Since then the term has taken on more and more economic and ideological connotations

According to historian Benjamin Cohen, imperialism should be defined as: “any relationship of effective domination or control, political or economic, direct or indirect, of one nation over another”

. This definition is the most practical when discussing history, as it encompasses and clarifies the meaning as it changed form over the years, and is still relevant today.

Napoleon and Egypt

Napoleon had several reasons for leading his expedition to Egypt in 1798: an interest in science, history, art, anthropology and archaeology; a lust for exotic Egypt to be claimed as a French colony; a desire to cut off Britain’s lucrative trading position with Asia, and the promise of victory (which could not be had with a war against Britain herself)

. Napoleon said himself that: “as soon as he has conquered Egypt, he will establish relations with the Indian princes, and, together with them, attack the English in their possessions”

But although Napoleon did succeed in bringing along scientists to amass a great encyclopedia in Egypt known as the Description (containing 7,000 pages, over 800 copper engravings, and over 3,000 illustrations) that would later serve as a monument to France’s great aspirations and the magnificence of the Napoleonic empire, he did not succeed in conquering Egypt, or for that matter, England

In July 1798, however, Napoleon did conquer and occupy lower Egypt for a time via the famous “Battle of the Pyramids” against the Mamelukes

. But as history would repeat itself so many times in the future, France was eventually ousted from Egypt at the hands of the British in 1801.

The Origins of an Imperialist Rivalry

By the mid-1800s, Britain had taken firm hold of the honor “most powerful nation in the world.” This rise to power was driven by the Industrial Revolution and expanded by way of imperialist expansion. Concurrently, France was considered a major rival to British interests, particularly as it staked claims to the coveted lands of Africa. In fact, by the turn of the twentieth century, France’s empire ran second in line to Britain’s, and all European countries saw the expansion of their empires as central to national pride and economic prosperity

. In addition, imperialism was motivated and stimulated by cultural attitudes, the low levels of technology in conquered nations, British and French control of the seaways and powerful militaries, the British railway system, British anti-slavery campaigns, Christianity, African palm oil, and medical advances such as the cure for malaria

. Many of these motives were advantages led countries such as Britain and France to view themselves as superior to their colonies, and in many cases imperialist leaders hid behind a humanitarian and/or Darwinist stance

. Naturally, this caused the “fittest” nations to enforce hierarchies in which European powers towered over subservient Africans. Additionally, Europeans at first claimed to be primarily interested in raw materials, but soon began systematically exploiting and controlling African resources. This practice led to significant destruction to Africa’s environment

France’s humiliation in the face of British power had its origins in the once-French colonies in India, lost to the British in a bitter defeat. Over the years France’s desire to reclaim its pride by reclaiming India intensified. Later, France’s humiliation at the hands of the Prussians and Germans further inflamed their lust for power, and the imperialist rivalry between France and Britain was exacerbated when Britain took control of the Suez Canal in Egypt. In fact, this takeover was a major blow to France, who had “masterminded” the Suez canal and considered Egypt one of its own since Napoleon’s expedition there at the turn of the nineteenth century, and their control of nearby Algeria since 1830. The stage was set for a legendary rivalry between France and Britain over the lands of Egypt.

The Suez Canal

Construction of the Suez Canal began in Egypt in 1858, under the monarch Mohamed Said at the urging of a French ex-diplomat — Ferdinand de Lesseps

. De Lesseps had no difficulty convincing Said to agree to the project, since “like the other monarchs of that period he was fascinated by railways and steamboats”

. In addition to masterminding the project, France gained significant power in Egypt by offering financial aid. At the beginning, Britain wanted nothing to do with the venture and declined any shares; a British boycott resulted in Egypt itself claiming 44% of the interest

. Ten years later, the canal was completed and a statue of de Lesseps overshadowed the harbor, yet British ships dominated the waterway from day one

. The new canal linked the Mediterranean and Red Seas, allowing passage to the Indian Ocean without a painstakingly long voyage around Africa’s southern tip.

Upon Said’s death, his nephew Ismail took over power and immediately began spending lavishly on a quest to further modernize Egypt, with help from “often unscrupulous European bankers and moneylenders all too willing to encourage their profligacy, thereby paving the way for western commercial and financial penetration”; as a result, the country fell deeply into debt and was forced to put the Egyptian interest in the Suez Canal up for sale

. By this time Britain was certainly interested and quickly snatched up the entire 44% of shares, striking a painful blow to France’s still-beaming ego

Britain had grown more insecure in the face of France’s recent claims to Egypt via the canal, which for the British was an indispensible route to its Eastern interests and empire, as well as a passageway to the Persian Gulf oilfields. Moreover, stirrings of unrest in Egypt made Britain increasingly anxious about their control. According to historian James Olson:

“The Western presence in Egypt benefited from the capitulation system, in which Europeans enjoyed privileges of extra territoriality and exemptions from taxation and tariffs which were economically detrimental to local business interests. But soon the disastrous level of Egyptian indebtedness and European financial interference led to nationalist stirrings and a revolt by an army officer, Ahmed Arabi.”

This revolt put fear in both the British and French, yet the French were too preoccupied with matters in Tunisia to get involved. In response to the revolt, a panicked Britain sent soldiers swooping into Alexandria and Cairo, and took Egypt as their own

. This takeover naturally infuriated the French. From that point until 1907, Egypt was “autocratically” ruled by Sir Evelyn Baring, a British general, and “British advisers were placed in key ministries, notably a financial adviser in charge of fiscal matters”

. Additionally:

“Civil and criminal codes were established by the British, and the police and the army were reorganized with a British commander in chief. Irrigation was developed with the building of the first Aswan dam. The financial situation remained chaotic as long as the French, who resented the British unilateral occupation, blocked British attempts at improvements through their participation in the liquidation of the Egyptian debt, as a consequence of the Treaty of London.”

Although the financial crisis in Egypt had somewhat waned by 1889, the British were not ready to surrender power; soon after, the British seized control of the Nile basin as well.

At the start of the 20th century, France was still bitter about their loss of power in Egypt and continued fighting for African lands, including Morocco. Further fighting erupted over the canal, now between Britain and the newly alligned Germany and Turkey; however, the attempts at seizure were not successful. Soon after, France divided up a large portion of the Ottoman empire with Britain after the fall of Turkey in 1918.

The two rivals were still neck and neck in competition.

A New Imperialism and the “Scramble for Africa”

After a period in which the drive to conquer was partially put on the back burner (1860 -1880), a new lust for the expansion of empires took hold of Europe in the late 19th century. There were multiple reasons for this new wave among Europeans — many of them similar to the reasons for the first rise of imperialism — including: the need for raw materials, a desire to end the slave trade, a place to market new products, a desire to invest overseas, a need to protect the interests of trading companies, a place for soldiers, politics, prestige, power, pride, strategy, the desire to spread the message of Christianity, room to settle newly unemployed citizens (as a result of the Industrial Revolution), a desire to help fight disease with modern medicine, and limited areas left to conquer in Europe.

Known as the “New Imperialism,” this time was marked by a frantic “scramble” for the lands of Africa

. In the span of twenty years, the race took European control of Africa from 10% to the exclusion of only Ethiopia and Liberia.

British motivations for this race were many, but primarily revolved around protection of the existing British Empire and its control of the Suez Canal. Other driving forces did include colonization and prestige, but Britain was mainly put on the defensive when France and Germany gained ground in Africa.

France and Britain engaged in a fierce competition for control of the Niger in 1883, ending with an agreement which gave Timbuktu to France and Lagos to Britain.

Then in 1888, after the Suez Canal humiliation at the hands of the British, France took an aggressive stab at Britain’s control of the Nile, setting off more fireworks between the already-contentious nations. By 1893, France still had not recovered its pride and attempted again to sabotage the Nile basin.

In 1896, Philip Gilbert Hamerton remarked in an essay on the turmoil between Britain and France:

“Nor does the world-rivalry of France and England show any sign of coming to an end. Their policy at Constantinople and St. Petersburgh has quite recently been antagonistic. It is steadily antagonistic in Egypt, and although the wisdom of rulers (happily greater than that of populations) has led to an agreement about the Suez Canal and the New Hebrides, there may at any time arise the contention that leads to war. Although France is now incomparably inferior to England as a colonial power, the English are still as jealous of French influence as if it might ultimately regain Canada and India.”

Jean-Baptiste Marchand did in fact lead French troops into the Nile city of Fashoda; Britain responded by sending Herbert Horatio Kitchener to overtake the Sudan and Khartoum in 1898.

He then proceeded to Fashoda, and war between the two rivals was narrowly avoided.

France would refuse to fully give up on reclamation of Egypt until 1902, when the French agreed to abandon the Sudan in exchange for full control of Morocco.

France’s rush for control of African lands was mostly a matter of national pride. As author Michael Doyle explained in his book, Empires, the British and French motives during the New Imperialism were fundamentally different:

“After 1870, & #8230;all the European powers sought out extra-European conquests in the global periphery where increases in territory, resources, and military bases, each adding to power and prestige, could readily be acquired. For the British this impulse meant protecting the route to India through Egypt and the Suez Canal, which necessitated control over the headwaters of the Nile and a predominant position in East Africa. For the French and the Germans the impulse meant acquiring “places in the sun” to demonstrate national prestige. Colonialism, according to a.J.P. Taylor, became a “move” in the European game of the balance of power.”

A Humiliated France

Still unsatisfied with her fallen status, France went on to wage yet another unsuccessful “battle” with British forces over the Niger River.

And following soon after, events in Morocco poured salt on France’s already wounded ego when the French were forced to seek aid from the British against a determined Germany. This round was settled, but later, to add insult to injury, the Germans made another attempt at power over Morocco, and once again Britain stepped in to save the day.

This time, however, France was forced to concede control of her Congo colonies.

At the same time, domestic issues in France were no more successful, and in a final blow to their attempts at power in Africa, the Insubordinate Army began to rebel in Western Africa.

The Suez Crisis of 1956

By 1922, after another Egyptian uprising led by Saad Zaghlul, Britain was willing to hand the power over an “unprofitable” East Africa back to the Egyptians, on condition that British troops could remain there to protect the canal.

Yet even in 1936, when an Anglo-Egyptian treaty was signed, British troops remained and the Egyptian army was still commanded by the British.

More tensions led to another outbreak of violence, and in 1952 Cairo was burned at the hands of angry rebels.

In 1954, Gamal Abd al-Nasser usurped the presidency and signed a new treaty with Britain, forcing them to abandon the Suez Canal area “after 72 years of occupation.”


The intense rivalry between Britain and France for control of Egypt was inevitable given the many blows to France’s national pride over the years, from Britain’s taking of “the jewel of the British crown (India)” in the early nineteenth century, to its sly seizure of the Suez Canal in 1875.

As the defeats accumulated thereafter, France’s determination to ultimately steal back the “jewel” of India from British power and redeem herself became an all-consuming obsession. This obsession led the French to imagine fantastic scenarios in which they diverted the Nile into the Red Sea, crippling Egypt and “killing” Britain’s power in India.

But as with so many previous lofty dreams, perhaps pioneered by Napoleon a century earlier, the French failed at their mission. Yet Egypt managed to break free from Britain anyway by 1956; but to what advantage? Today, in light of the recent revolution in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak, one must again consider the meaning and significance of the word “imperialism,” particularly when history has shown how easily it can be applied at home rather than abroad.


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