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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Biographies

Napoleon's Proconsul in Egypt: The Life and Times of Bernardino Drovetti

By Ronald Ridley

Ridley, Ronald. Napoleon's Proconsul in Egypt: The Life and Times of Bernardino Drovetti. London: Rubicon Press, 1998. 372 pages. ISBN# 0-948695-59-5. $36. Paperback.

Napoleon's Proconsul in Egypt cover

Most histories of Napoleonic Europe have at least a chapter on Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. Yet once Napoleon returned to France, few histories contain information on subsequent events in Egypt. The events that occurred there often mirrored those in Europe and had as big of an impact on the region as Napoleon had on Europe. Until Napoleon arrived in Egypt, the Mameluks had ruled there for almost 500 years. Although Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, the Mameluks controlled the country. Napoleon broke their hold and when he departed, he left a power vacuum. Over the next two decades there would be numerous insurrections, attempted coups, and an invasion by the British.

Throughout much of this period, the French interests were guarded by Bernardino Drovetti, a former officer in the Piedmontese army, who served first as the assistant consul general and then as the consul general. During the twenty-six years (1803 - 1826) he lived in Egypt, Drovetti was a diplomat par excellence. He worked ceaselessly to undermine British attempts to gain influence over the Egyptian rulers, to protect European citizens from rampaging mobs, and to set up a government that was friendly to France. He was instrumental in ensuring Mehemet Ali remained in power, despite numerous attempts to overthrow him. He was successful, and Mehemet Ali's dynasty ruled until 1952! In his spare time, Drovetti became a noted Egyptologist and was among the first Europeans to explore Abu Simbel. An avid collector of antiquities, he donated many of his pieces to the Louvre and the Berlin Museum and his donations to the Torino Museum formed the basis for its collection.

Mr. Ridley's Napoleon's Proconsul in Egypt is the first biography in English of this remarkable individual. The author draws heavily from Drovetti's massive correspondence to paint a fine portrait of this multi-talented man. His story is easy to read and profusely illustrated. Although essentially a biography, Mr. Ridley also analyzes Drovetti's impact on the Egyptian government and its attempt to modernize its feudal society. Additionally, he examines Drovetti as a collector of Egyptian antiquities and his contributions to the field.

Napoleon's Proconsul in Egypt is the Second Place winner of the International Napoleonic Society's 1998 Literary Award. This book will be invaluable to anyone who is interested in French Napoleonic foreign policy or in 19th Century Egypt. It is detailed enough to appeal to those who specialize in the subject, but is broad enough for a casual reader to enjoy.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham, FINS