Arabi Pasha's Revolt
The Khedive - Tewfik Pasha
In September, 1881, an Egyptian born officer, Colonel Arabi Pasha, rose up against the Khedive and demanded the dismissal of all his ministers. Britain and France were unsure of what they should do to protect their investments in the Suez Canal. They were agreed that the Ottoman Turks should not go to the rescue of what should have been an Ottoman colony. The Suez canal had become too strategically important to the Imperial powers to allow its ownership to fall into dispute or into hostile hands.

Arabi Pasha had chosen a good time to strike. He had succeeded in rousing his countrymen against the ruling clique of Turks and Levantines surrounding the corrupt Khedive. In fact, the Khedive was living far beyond his and his colony's means. It had been shortages of money that had led to his selling of his stake to the British just six years earlier in 1875. Arabi Pasha had also succeeded in talking the Egyptian officer class and many of the rank and file soldiers into overthrowing their imperial masters. Additionally, despite being overtly anti-European, Arabi Pasha was able to tap into some support from liberally minded politicians in Britain and France who were sympathetic with nationalist liberation movements in general and thought that Egyptians should be able to rule over themselves. In fact, the Turks had recently made themselves very unpopular in the British and European press due to various atrocities committed in the Balkans during the 1878 crisis. It was also known that the British Prime Minister Gladstone had come to office in part due to his opposition to needless imperial adventures and might be reluctant to order any necessary military intervention.

Whilst the British and French prevaricated, Arabi Pasha moved to consolidate his uprising. In January 1882 he declared a new constitution, sacked the prime minister and declared himself the minister of war. The British and French fumbled for some kind of diplomatically negotiated end to the crisis but found Arabi Pasha to be uncompromising and hostile to their approaches.

As it became clear that no deal was forthcoming, the British and French planned to send a combined fleet to the port of Alexandria to protect the sizable European community there. Unfortunately, the arrival of the combined fleet served only to heighten tensions. Only a few weeks later a row would erupt over a disputed fare between an Egyptian donkey boy and a Maltese man. This lead to a full scale riot breaking out around the city. Several hundred people were killed, including about 50 foreigners. As far as the British and French were concerned blame for these events was to be placed firmly at the door of Arabi Pasha.

Arabi Pasha had formed his own conclusions about the intentions of the fleet and ordered his commanders in Alexandria to start fortifying the city. New earthworks were thrown up, new gun batteries were brought into the city including modern Krupp guns which were aimed out at the Anglo-French fleet lying at anchor.

On June 10th, the British admiral, Sir Beauchamp Seymour, sent an ultimatum to the Egyptians. He threatened that if these new fortifications were not surrendered they would be destroyed by naval bombardment. It seemed as if a showdown could not be avoided. But it was at this point that tensions between the British and French gave Arabi Pasha renewed hope that he could indeed face down the imperial powers. A domestic political crisis in France saw its fleet being ordered back home. It seemed as if Britain might have to back down too. Arabi Pasha ignored Seymour's ultimatum and awaited further developments.

The Bombardment of Alexandria
HMS Alexandra
At 7am, admiral Seymour signalled his intentions for dealing with the lapsed ultimatum by firing a salvo from HMS Alexandra into the newly constructed earthworks at Fort Adda. Arabi Pasha did not appreciate that Seymour's orders had given him freedom to act as he saw necessary. This man on the spot had not been unnerved by the diplomatic subtleties of the loss of French support. He had set a deadline and it had not been met. There would be consequences.

HMS Alexandra's salvo was the signal for the general bombardment to begin. Soon all British battleships were blazing away at the Egyptian shore positions. They would be joined by a flotilla of smaller gunboats many of which were used to land naval brigades along the shoreline.

HMS Condor
The Egyptian shore batteries were smaller than the guns on the British battleships byt the action took place at such close range (less than 1500 yards) that many direct hits were scored. HMS Alexandra was struck some 60 times but only four men were killed outright. Israel Harding won a VC and doubtless saved many lives when he picked up an unexploded enemy shell and plunging it into a tank of water. HMS Inflexible was to suffer damage from a different source when the recoil and power of firing 88 huge shells led to damage of the upperworks and destroyed some of her own lifeboats.

The bombardment continued throughout the day, but with steadily declining return fire from the Egyptian emplacements. The landing parties were used to ensure that enemy guns were silenced beyond doubt. The order to cease fire was given at 17:30. Only ten British had been killed with a further 27 wounded. As the British withdrew back to the ships mobs descended on the city and looted indiscriminately. Things got so out of hand that the British Naval Brigades had to be ordered back into city to try and reassert some modicum of order.

Arabi Pasha's prestige took a resounding blow and challenges to his authority would emerge across the country. The British would find themselves sucked yet further into domestic Egyptian politics especially when Arabi Pasha threatened to destroy the Suez Canal to protect his regime and punish the British.

map of campaign
map of campaign
Significant Individuals
Arabi Pasha
The Khedive - Tewfik Pasha
Admiral Beauchamp Seymour
Ships Involved
HMS Alexandra
HMS Condor
HMS Inconstant
HMS Inflexible
HMS Invincible
HMS Monarch
HMS Penelope
HMS Sultan
HMS Superb
HMS Temeraire
Alexandria Medal
Suggested Reading
War on the Nile

Objective: Egypt

Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt

Victorian Military Campaigns

Victoria's Enemies

Report of the British Naval and Military Operations in Egypt

Queen Victoria's Enemies

Egypt 1879 - 1883

The British in Egypt

Military history of the Campaign of 1882

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by Stephen Luscombe