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Home Articles Articles High Honour for Nelson from the Caliph

High Honour for Nelson from the Caliph

Portrait of Lord NelsonNAPOLEON BONAPARTE set out for Egypt with a manpower of some 55,000, and 1,000 pieces of field artillery in May 1799. “Because it was there” was the reason he gave for invading Egypt, but undoubtedly it was because Egypt was the route to India. The 30 year old General had dismissed a direct invasion of England as impossible due to the logistical problems of supplying an invading army across the Channel. India was an alternative way of attacking the British directly.

Napoleon read from his travelling library from the quarterdecks of the French flagship L’Orient, during his sea journey across the Mediterranean to Egypt. He read the Bible, and a translation of the Qur’an. These were catalogued in his library under Politics! Napoleon’s vastly superior forces walked into Cairo almost unopposed by the Mamluk troops, who fled to Upper Egypt to continue their futile skirmishes against the French.

The first four months of Napoleon’s occupation were peaceful enough as he was careful how he dealt with the local populace. He even donated 300 French Riyals to Sheikh Al-Bakri at the Al-Azhar University towards the celebration of the mawlood, or Prophet’s Birthday. This tactic was soon to change though.

General Abdulla Jaques MenoCairo’s famous Al-Azhar, older even than Oxford or Cambridge, was, and still is, a centre of Islamic academic excellence. Its Sheikh’s and Imam’s tried daily in vain to reason with Bonaparte, and even called him to accept the faith of Islam ascribing him the name “Ali” . They went as far to say that if he accepted Islam, they would not oppose him as their ruler. They even guaranteed that there would be no further uprisings by the Egyptians against him. Napoleon toyed with the idea, after all, one of his most senior and trusted Generals, Jacques Menou, had converted to Islam going by the name ‘Abdullah Jacques Menou’ and had found acceptance with the local population as a result. He slept on the offer, but the next morning his response was to execute 20 Al- Azhari Sheikhs and a number of leading Christian and Jewish residents of Cairo, as an example to those who may consider further revolts against him.

The local Egyptian populace looked on in horror as French troops billeted on the banks of the Nile ran amok in the streets of narrow alley ways of Egypt’s ancient capital. Often drunk, they used heavy violence against any civilian who protested, as they broke into homes to take what they fancied, and defile the women. The bloom was off the ‘liberation’. Nobody was safe or spared these excesses against the various communities living in Cairo.

Whilst these troops plundered Cairo, Napoleon marched north with the remainder of his army, to seek glory in an attempt to conquer Damascus. He took Jaffa easily enough, and the four thousand prisoners, who had been promised their lives upon surrendering to the French, were marched before Napoleon’s tent. He asked peevishly, “What am I supposed to do with them?” They were herded to the beach and slaughtered in the surf. “What am I supposed to do with them?”

THE CALIPH-SULTAN SELIM III conferred with his Sheikh ul-Islam as soon as the invasion of Egypt was known, and had called upon “all true believers to take arms against those swinish infidels the French, that they might deliver these blessed habitations from their accursed hands;” and who had ordered his “pashas to turn night into day in their efforts to take vengeance.” Admiral Horatio Nelson had been cruising the Mediterranean for three months looking for the French fleet which supplied Napoleon’s army in these Muslim lands, and by chance, hit upon it in the bay of Abu Kir off the coast of Alexandria in the beginning of August that year.

His Captains and Commanders were summoned for a briefing on their plan of attack against the French fleet, and he described how they would sail straight into, and through the line of French ships anchored in Abu Kir Bay “Nelson fashion” to cut them in half and destroy them. This daring tactic had never been used before and defied all normal Naval warfare practices. They all understood well that if the French navy was destroyed, Napoleon’s activities in Muslim lands were finished, as without his navy he could not possibly supply or move his army, and surrender would have to follow.

The battle lasted for two days, and Nelson’s fleet sank 13 ships including the French flagship L’Orient which exploded causing massive casualties amongst the French. British sailors fished many wounded French sailors from the water feeling great pity for them and their suffering. One of those saved from drowning by British sailors was a young Albanian called Mohammed Ali, later to become the new ruler of Egypt and create a dynasty that lasted into the 20th century, but this is another story. Napoleon was cut off, and it was only a matter of time before his army in Egypt had no choice but to surrender to the British. Napoleon made his escape on a yacht he kept moored in the Nile to fight on another day.

The celenkHonours in profusion were awaiting Nelson at Naples, where he rested after the battle. Even the strangely natured Russian Czar Paul, presented him with his portrait, set in diamonds, in a gold box, accompanied with a letter of congratulation, written by his own hand. The king of Sardinia also wrote to him, and sent a gold box set with diamonds.

When news reached Istanbul and the ears of the Sultan-Caliph Selim III of Nelson’s victory and the deliverance of his subjects in Egypt from the French despot, there were joyous celebrations through out all Muslim lands. The Sultan listened to a detailed account of Nelson’s action and subsequent victory, and when he heard how 13 French ships had been destroyed in battle, he gave praise and thanks to Allah.

Sultans were accustomed to wearing a broach in their turbans of precious stones, often in the form of a diamond aigrette, and in Turkish, called a Çelenk (pronounced chelenk), or ‘Plume of Honour’. Sultan Selim wore a broach consisting of 40 perfectly matched Brazilian diamonds radiating as 13 sprays, from a large central diamond which was set on a very fine watch mechanism to cause it to rotate slowly with dazzling effect as it caught the light. The 13 sprays were coincidentally the same number of ships Nelson had sunk at Abu Kir. The Sultan removed the broach from his turban on hearing the account of the battle, and ordered it to be sent with other gifts to Nelson as a mark of his high esteem for the Admiral. His court were astonished, and his own Ottoman Admirals felt snubbed, as never before had this highest honour from any Sultan been given to a non-Muslim.

The presents of “his imperial majesty, the powerful, formidable, and most magnificent Grand Seignior,” was the first of many to be received by Nelson from various grateful heads of state inEurope for their deliverance from Napoleon.

Sultan Selim’s gifts also included a pelisse of black sables, with broad sleeves, of great value, and various ceremonial swords. Even the Sultan’s Mother, the Valide Sultana, Mihrishah Gürcü, sent him a box, set with diamonds, valued at £1,000.

Nelson much valued the Çelenk bestowed upon him by the Sultan because it was “the most honourable badge amongst the Turks because it was taken from one of the royal turbans, and not merely for its worldly worth”.

“If it were worth a million,” said Nelson to his wife, “my pleasure would be to see it in your possession.” The Sultan also sent a purse of 2,000 sequins of gold, to be distributed among the wounded from the battle.

So significant was this honour, bestowed upon Nelson by the Caliph and Sultan, that Nelson wrote first to his King, George III, for permission to accept them, as these gifts could be interpreted in some quarters that Nelson had in fact “turned Turk” i.e. accepted Islam, and was now in the employment of the Sultan himself.

King George III naturally gave his permission deeming the honours bestowed by Sultan Selim III, wholly appropriate. The King issued a warrant, permitting Nelson to accept the newly formed Imperial Order of the Crescent conferred upon him by the Sultan. It is dated the 20th of March 1802, and stored at the Royal College of Arms.

Nelson was granted a coat of arms by the king, and these honourable augmentations to his armorialCoat of arms ensign: a chief undulated, Argent: there on waves of the sea; from which a palm tree issuant, between a disabled ship on the dexter, and a ruinous battery on the sinister all proper; and for his crest, on a naval crown, or, the chelenk, or plume, presented to him by the Turk, with the motto, Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat. And to his supporters, being a sailor on the dexter, and a lion on the sinister, were given these honourable augmentations: a palm branch in the sailor’s hand, and another in the paw of the lion, both proper; with a tricoloured flag and staff in the lion’s mouth.

He was created Baron Nelson of the Nile, and of Burnham Thorpe, with a pension of £2000 for his own life, and those of his two immediate successors. When the grant was moved in the House of Commons, General Walpole expressed an opinion that a higher degree of rank ought to be conferred. Mr. Pitt made answer, that he thought it needless to enter into that question. “Admiral Nelson’s fame,” he said,”would be coequal with the British name; and it would be remembered that he had obtained the greatest naval victory on record, when no man would think of asking whether he had been created a baron, a viscount, or an earl.”

The Imperial Order of the Ottoman Crescent was awarded to other British Officers after Nelson, who was the first to receive the Order in August 1799. The Sultan also awarded this highest military honour to Generals Abercromby and Hutchinson for fighting the French on the plains of Egypt in 1801. Lord Hutchinson, Major General Sir Eyre Coote, Lord Keith, Sir Richard Bickerton, and several other military and naval officers of rank, have been invested with the insignia of the first class; and a great many British officers of subordinate rank have had the badge, assigned to the second class, conferred upon them.

In the Articles of Capitulation entered into with the Court of Denmark, on the 9th of April 1801, Lord Nelson described himself as “a Knight of the Imperial Order of the Ottoman Crescent”. When this news reached the ears of the Sultan, he was so highly pleased, that headded a ribbon and gold medal to the star for distinction. Nelson had acquired something of a reputation for vanity, and he embarrassed his fellow officers when ever he wore his cocked-hat with the diamond chelenk on ceremonial occasions, and they described him as more like a prince of the opera than the hero of the Nile. Caricaturists such as James Gillray made fun of Nelson’s desire to cover himself in medals and orders in public.

Nelson is dead signAs every schoolboy knows, Nelson was shot by a French sniper at the Battle of Trafalgar and subsequently died of his wounds. This sombre notice of Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805 reflects the grief of England. News of Nelson’s death stunned England, and King George III whodisapproved of his private life “wept unashamedly”. An officer in the navy reported that men who had served with him were “useless for duty for days. Chaps that fought like the devil sit down and cry like a wench”. Cockneys and tradespeople throughout London drank to the passing of “our Nel”. His funeral procession down the River Thames was viewed by most of London, and the service held in St. Paul’s Cathedral where he is buried was spectacular and attended by 15,000 people, many of whom lingered on until the following day after the service.


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