The Origins and Results of the Bombardment of Alexandria

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After weeks of building tension marked by a threatening European naval presence in the waters just outside Alexandria and violent civilian riots, Britain brought an end to the Urabi Revolt. In the early morning, a fleet of British ironclad ships in the port of Alexandria started furiously unleashing their artillery on armed fortifications in the city. The shelling lasted well into the afternoon, crushing the Egyptian batteries and setting parts of the city ablaze. Three days later, the Royal Navy came ashore and began their invasion of the ruined city. The British military’s landing marked not only the end of Egypt’s revolution, but also the beginning of its occupation.

In the spring of 1882, the prospects of European financial interest in Egypt were growing increasingly dire. The recently signed Joint Note, announcing France and Britain’s shared intentions of supporting Khedive Tewfik, convinced Egyptians that an armed invasion was imminent.[i]  Though the note was intended to quell the nationalist uprising, the resulting fear only strengthened nationalist power.  In the note’s wake, a growing anti-European sentiment among Egyptians catapulted the nationalist leaders to positions of power—Mahmoud Sami el-Baroudi became Prime Minister and Ahmed Urabi became Minister of War.[ii] As the future of the pro-European Khedive’s control over Egypt became less and less certain, the British and French feared their economic investments in the region were in serious jeopardy.  In May, as a show of force, the British and French navies sent warships to anchor off the coast of Alexandria.[iii] Again, the European attempt to intimidate the Egyptians into submission only served to further agitate a populace already on-edge.

Even before the European warships loomed over Alexandria as imperialist threats, the city’s rapidly changing economic, social, and cultural landscape created an increasingly tense atmosphere.  In the years leading up to the bombardment, Alexandria’s importance as a global port brought in an incredible amount of not only western finance but also Western peoples. These foreigners—largely Greek, Italian, and Maltese—came to comprise a sizeable amount of Alexandria’s population and control most of its economy.[iv]  Since foreigners could exploit immunities and seize economic advantages not available to the typical Egyptian, the native population was marginalized and—for obvious reasons—resentful.[v] As the city’s population grew, contact between the Egyptians and Europeans became more frequent and the resentment became more intense. The foreign military presence only deepened the division between the two factions. The tensions in Alexandria came to a boiling point on June 11 when a chaotic riot broke out in the streets.[vi]  While differing sides place blame for the melee on both Urabi and the Khedive, the violence ultimately arose from a single argument between a Maltese immigrant and a native coachman.[vii] As the argument grew physical, Egyptians rushed to the side of their compatriot, and Europeans did the same.  The scuffle grew into an all-out battle, with the natives and foreigners decidedly set one against the other.  When the police and soldiers—who might have taken a part in the chaos themselves—finally restored order several hours later, at least fifty Europeans had been killed.[viii] In the wake of the bloodshed, foreigners began fleeing the city, and Britain gained further incentive to finally take decisive military action.

The British officials who had been consistently campaigning for military intervention in Egypt used the events of June 11 to sway a previously hesitant government. They claimed that the forces under Urabi’s command had indeed instigated the violence in Alexandria and cited his involvement as a cause for immediate action.[ix] With Urabi and his nationalist movement now painted as not only a threat to British interests but also a threat to British lives, a small, warmongering section of Britain’s cabinet began setting the stage for the bombardment. Based on intentionally misleading reports from an eager navy commander, they were able to convince the rest of the cabinet that the warships outside Alexandria were in imminent danger from nationalists stationed at armed fortifications along the water’s edge.[x]  The cabinet unanimously voted to allow the squadron commander, Admiral Beauchamp Seymour, to deliver an ultimatum to Urabi’s forces—either disarm the forts or face an attack from the British fleet.[xi]  Despite the cabinet’s agreement, Seymour instead ordered the Egyptians to surrender the forts completely.[xii]  With the French fleet, which refused to take part in the increasingly evident case of a bombardment, gone, the British now faced their foe alone.[xiii] In failing to comply with Seymour’s demands, the Egyptians unwittingly invited the destruction of Alexandria and the colonization of all of Egypt.

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On July 11 at seven-o-clock in the morning, just one month after civilian violence had seized Alexandria, the first British cannon fired toward an Alexandrian fort.[xiv] Thus began a steady exchange of fire between the two forces, with the superior firepower and maneuverability giving the attacking force a distinct advantage. The fighting continued throughout the day until a ceasefire was issued in the early evening.[xv] During the night and into the next morning, both sides remained inactive.  But after a failed Egyptian attempt at a truce on the morning of June 12, the British continued firing and maintained a relatively irregular volley throughout the afternoon.[xvi] During all this time, a chaos unmatched by the June 11 violence tore through the city.  The deafening sound of artillery fire filled the air as both natives and foreigners hurried to evacuate the city.[xvii]  The damage from the British guns was exacerbated by the damaged caused by civilians, who reportedly took advantage of the situation to loot stores and destroy European structures.[xviii]  A fire, caused either by British cannons or rioting Egyptians, broke out around in the afternoon and began to consume much of the city.[xix]  Seymour ordered a final ceasefire, and the British waited offshore to make their next move.  While the ironclad ships patiently floated, Alexandria, destroyed both by naval guns and rioting Egyptians, lay in ruins.

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On July 14, when the fire finally died down, troops began landing at Port Said.[xx] By evening, the British military had successfully gained control of the most strategically important points of the city. In the following days, Britain established military rule in the city as a means to quell any further Egyptian resistance.  Their military presence in Egypt spread during the following months, and, eventually, the entire nation was formally colonized.  Alexandria, once, the gateway to Britain’s financial interests in Egypt, became, in fact, the gateway to Britain’s total occupation of Egypt.


[i] Reimer, Michael J. “Colonial Bridgehead: Social and Spatial Change in Alexandria, 1850-1882.” International Journal of Middle East Studies20.4 (1988): 531-53. JSTOR. Web. Dec. 2014.

[ii] Chamberlain, M. E. “The Alexandria Massacre of 11 June 1882 and the British Occupation of Egypt.” Middle Eastern Studies 13.1 (1977): 14-39. JSTOR. Web. Dec. 2014.

[iii] Chamberlain, M. E. “Sir Charles Dilke and the British Intervention in Egypt, 1882: Decision Making in a Nineteenth-Century Cabinet.” British Journal of International Studies 2.3 (1976): 231-45. JSTOR. Web. Dec. 2014.

[iv] Reimer

[v] Reimer

[vi] Chamberlain, 1977

[vii] Reimer

[viii] Chamberlain, 1977

[ix] Galbraith, John S., and Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid-Marsot. “The British Occupation of Egypt: Another View.” International Journal of Middle East Studies9.04 (1978): 471-88. JSTOR. Web. Dec. 2014.

[x] Galbraith and Marsot

[xi] Chamberlain, 1976

[xii] Chamberlain, 1976

[xiii] Galbraith and Marsot

[xiv] Royle, Charles. The Egyptian Campaigns. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1900. Print.

[xv] Royle

[xvi] Galbraith and Marsot

[xvii] Royle

[xviii] Royle

[xix] Chamberlain, 1977

[xx] Royle