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May 24, 2019


John Bowring, possibly in 1830s

Sir John Bowring (1792 – 1872) was an English politician, political economist, diplomat, and traveller. He belonged to the Radical group of politicians, and pursued a progressive agenda. In 1837,[1] he was sent by the eminent British politician, Lord Viscount Palmerston (1734 – 1865),[2] who was then Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, in a mission to Egypt. After he has accomplished the mission, Bowering submitted a report to Palmerston, Report on Egypt and Candia,[3] which was published in 1840, and in which he explains the tasks of his mission:

In the execution of the charge with which I have been entrusted by Her Majesty’s Government to report upon the existing state and future probable situation in Egypt, statistically considered, I have endeavoured to gather from every accessible source such information as I could obtain as to her population – her productions, agricultural and manufacturing – her revenues and expenditure – her commerce and commercial usages – the state of her legislation as respects persons and property – the progress made by her people in education – and, generally speaking, on all questions which have a statistical character, and a bearing, directly or indirectly, on the development of her resources.[4]

 In the 1930s, Britain was at the highest of its imperial power, Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) has just started her long reign in 1837. Britain was seriously thinking of expansion into Egypt and, as a preliminary exercise, was seeking accurate information and statistics about Egypt. And the report which takes some size A4 236 pages, with just over 30 pages dedicated to Candia, furnished the British Government with one of the best reports about Egypt, perhaps unequalled in quality except by the earlier French Description de l’Égypte, published between 1809 and 1892. Evelyn Baring (Lord Cromer), Britain’s 1st Consul-General of Egypt (1883 – 1907), clearly read it, and undoubtedly benefited from it.

From the Report, we know that Bowing visited Egypt’s main towns up and down the country, and conversed with Egypt’s ruler at the time, Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805 – 1848) and men of power; and came across all sections, religions, and races of Egypt. Amongst the Copts, he met Patriarch Peter VII (1809 – 1852), several bishops, and many of the Coptic laity.

Bowring studied the ‘motely population’ of Egypt composed of different races with different character each and each engaged in specific occupations:

To form anything like an approximative estimate of the productive powers and probable future commercial developments of Egypt, it is necessary to glance at the various races of which its motley population is composed, races as distinguished from one another as any of the Indian castes, and engaged in occupations as various as their separate character.[5]

The motley population – the various races of Egypt – he mentions, was composed of the Muslim Fellahin, the Christian Copts, the Turks, the Franks and the Levantines, and the Blacks:

Almost all the agricultural production of the country is in the hands of the Mahomedan fallahs. The Christian Copts exercise all the functions of scribes and accountants; the Turks are everywhere the paramount rulers; the Franks and the Levantines in their multitudinous varieties, traders and shopkeepers; the negroes almost wholly engaged in domestic servitude. Till of late years the Arabs and Egyptian Mussulman races never reached any post of influence or power; and even now, with the exception of the situations filled by Christians, the Turks have a monopoly of all high official functions in Egypt.[6]

Bowring complains throughout his report of the difficulty of obtaining accurate figures in just about everything in such an Oriental society as Egypt; and there seem to be no field more difficult for the student than trying to find the actual number of the country’s inhabitants. “I have found it impossible to come to anything like a certain calculation.”[7] He mentions that the government of the time estimates the population at 3,200,000. However,

The opinion of the best informed is, that the number of inhabitants is from 2,000,000 to 2,500,000. Of the Copts there may be from 150,000 to 200,000; of these there are about 6,000 who belong to the Roman church, under the care of a bishop, who is nominated by the pope. The number of Turks is between 18,000 and 20,000. There are about 3,000 Jews, somewhat under 2,000 Armenians, 7,000 Greeks, and 6,000 Catholic Franks.[8]

This puts the Copts, in the opinion of the best informed and known to Bowring, at 10% of the general population. He tells us: “The patriarch informed me that he calculated the number of Copts at about 150,000;” and adds, “I conceive this is too low an estimate.” But he observes that the Coptic population is either stationary or declining in number, compared to other races:

The Coptic race appears nearly stationary as to numbers; I have reason to believe that in some of the agricultural districts they sometimes adopt the Mussulman creed, though that subjects them to the conscription, from which as Christians they are free.[9]

The different Coptic bishops affirmed that the numbers of the Copts were diminishing, and that the baptisms were less frequent than the burials. The Copts suffer much from the great epidemics of the country, from plague, dysentery, and ophthalmia.[10]

There is no doubt that Bowring saw in the Copts a significant and important race, and that he looked upon them with respect and much understanding:

The influence of the Copts is undoubtedly an increasing influence, and they will probably occupy no small part of the field in the future history of Egypt. Theirs have been centuries of cruel sufferings, persecutions, and humiliations. In the eyes of the Turks they have always been the pariahs of the Egyptian people; yet they are an amicable, pacific, and intelligent race, whose worst vices have grown out of their seeking shelter from wrong and robbery.[11]

  Of their occupation:

They are the surveyors, the scribes, the arithmeticians, the measurers, the clerks; in a word, the learned men of the land. They are to the counting-house and the pen what the fellah is to the field and the plough.[12]

A great many of them are employed in the public offices; their average instruction is far superior to that of the Mussulmans.[13]

In the manufactories of the pacha[14] many Copts are employed as hand-loom weavers.[15]

Of their vices:

Intoxication is a frequent vice among the Copts.[16]

Though education among them is more diffused than among the Arab race, their reputation for probity and veracity is very low.[17]

They marry early in life, their girls generally at 12 years of age. The same reserve is practised among them as among the Mussulmans; in fact there is little difference in the domestic manners of the two classes. Divorce is frequent and easily obtained; indeed, divorce and the conditions of it are generally stipulated for in the marriage contract.[18]

They adopt with the Mussulman all the superstitions of the country, whether the superstition be of Mahometan or Christian origin. It was a Christian Copt at Minieh who assured me that a certain miraculous column in the Mosque there ran down with perspiration every Friday. The Mussulmans are less prompt to credit Christian superstitions than are the Copts to adopt those of the Mussulmans.[19]

[B]etween them and European settlers there is scarcely any intercourse, and as little is known of their domestic habits as of those of the Mahamedans. Their females are equally secluded, and they have their harems like other Orientals. In the remoter parts of Egypt they practise polygamy, and circumcise their children.[20]

In the rural districts the habits of the Copts are scarcely distinguishable from those of the Arabs.[21]

I am not sure what Bowring means exactly by the intoxication in the Copts: Is that in comparison with the Victorian Britons or with the Muslims of Egypt? Copts, not all, did drink alcohol, for it is not forbidden in Christianity, and the majority drank it in modest amounts at their homes, perhaps to numb their feelings and reduce the pain of their suffering. One wonders if Bowring was not repeating Muslim propaganda against the Copts. We must remember that the bigoted and anti-Copt, Edward William Lane, had written in 1836 similarly about the Copts; his information being taken from a converted Copt to Islam with much hatred towards his own people: “[T]hey [the Copts] indulge in drinking brandy at all hours of the day; and often, to excess.”[22] Bowring may have based his information on the discredited Lane who has influenced many subsequent English writers. This particular unfair accusation was taken later by Lord Cromer, 1st Consul-General of Egypt, who repeated it to belittle the Copts.[23] The reputation of Coptic probity and veracity I must also attribute to Muslim propaganda; the criticism in this matter does not tarry with the experience of other Westerners or even many Arabs. However, the Copts have often been unscrupulous in their dealings, but that cannot be taken as a general trait. However, Bowrings’ writing about the Copts’ take to superstition, their laxity in divorce law, polygamy, seclusion of women, and in following similar domestic manners like those of the Muslims, is right, though some, like polygamy and seclusion of women, are hugely exaggerated. The Coptic Church and many Copts fought against these problems, many of them resulted as a matter of assimilation to Muslims to shield off oppression, with varying success.

Bowring says: “Persecution of the Copts by the Mussulmans has almost wholly ceased.”[24] We can agree with him on this to a certain extent: officially, Muhammad Ali Pasha did not follow a policy of active persecution; and indeed his rule was tolerant to a large extent compared to the Mameluke Beyes before him. But, it must be remembered that persecution at a societal level and the maintaining of several discriminatory practices, such as the Jizya tax and the specific dress to differentiate Copts from Muslims, continued under the Pasha. Bowring himself testifies to this. After praising the security measures Muhammad Ali had introduced, he says:

But while an improved administration of justice, and the better police which have been introduced into Egypt, much remains of the old leaven of tyranny – much local despotism and individual religious intolerance.[25]

One of Bowring’s interesting observations is the following

A certain sympathy, perhaps the result of common sufferings, exist between the Copts and the Arabs.[26]

This is correct: both the Fellahin and the Copts suffered under the yoke of the Turks. The sympathy between the two is natural. But we must remember that the two stayed separate, and the Copts were exposed to double the oppression that was allocated to the Muslim Fellah (as Bowring has said earlier: “In the eyes of the Turks they have always been the pariahs of the Egyptian people.”)

Again, in another interesting comment, Bowring writes:

The Copts profess to be exclusively the descendants of the ancient Egyptians, and consider the rural agricultural population, who are almost wholly Mussulmans, as an inferior race;[27] but there is no sufficient reason for believing that the Christian Copts alone are of the old Egyptian family.[28]

This may or may not be correct: whether the Fellahin share with the Copts their Pharaonic blood is a controversial matter, and at best it can be said that the share in blood is limited. Myth or not myth, it is always good, in the name of peace and harmony, to embrace it even if it is not entirely accurate, and also the sympathy mentioned above between the Copts and the Fellahin should be cultivated and promoted; but it must be agreed that – even though the situation is now different: the Fellahin since the 23 July 1952 Revolution are in power and the hated Turks have been removed and demoted – the persecution and oppression of the Copts, the attacks and massacres, continued unabated. We must ponder upon why this is.



[1] Bowring spent part of the years 1837 1nd 1838 in Egypt. It seems that he was sent in that mission to Egypt shortly after he had lost his Kilmarnock Burghs parliamentary seat in 1837 which he had served since 1835.

[2] Palmerston was a major figure in the politics of Britain between 1830 and 1865, both internally and externally. He was Foreign Secretary three times (1830 – 1834, 1835 – 1841, 1846 – 1851) and Prime Minister twice (1855 – 1858, 1859 – 1865).

[3] John Bowring, Report on Egypt and Candia, addressed to the Right Hon. Lord Viscount Palmerston (London, 1840). Candia is Crete, to which he went and reported about too.

[4] Report on Egypt and Candia, p. 3.

[5] Ibid, p. 6.

[6] Ibid, pp. 6-7.

[7] Ibid, p. 4.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, p. 8.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, p. 7.

[12] Ibid, p. 8.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Muhammad Ali Pasha.

[15] Report on Egypt and Candia, p. 8.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Edward William Lane: An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, written in Egypt during the years 1833, -34, and -35; Charles Knight & Co.; London; 1936; Volume II, p. 330.

[23] Modern Egypt by the Earl of Cromer, V. II (1908), p. 206.

[24] Report on Egypt and Candia, p. 8.

[25] Ibid, p. 123.

[26] Ibid, p. 7.

[27] I guess the feeling of supremacy was bilateral – the Muslims thought they were superior by way of religion; the Copts thought they were superior by reason of their intelligence.

[28] Report on Egypt and Candia, p. 8.

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