In May 1838, after thirty years as Governor of Egypt, Mehmet Ali (1769-1849) made the monumental decision to proclaim Egyptian independence from the Ottoman Empire. Perceiving the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against a French invasion in North Africa, Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston was intent on supporting the sultan.
Therefore, when Mehmet Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha (1789-1848), decisively defeated the Turkish army on 24 June at the Battle of Nezib, Britain was forced to intervene. Whilst the Egyptians continued to gain territory, the Turkish Admiral Achmet astonishingly defected his entire fleet to Mehmet Ali. The situation deteriorated further when Sultan Mahmud II (1785-1839) passed away, leaving the future of the Ottoman Empire in the inexperienced hands of his sixteen-year-old son.
It was at this point that Admiral Sir Robert Fanshawe Stopford (1768-1847), to whom this collection of papers primarily belongs, was tasked with restoring the Turkish territories as quickly as possible to avoid a European war. Stopford ordered his second-in-command, Commodore Charles Napier (1786-1860), to force the Egyptians to withdraw from Beirut. In a string of impressive victories, Napier successfully reclaimed Beirut and proceeded to take back Sidon.
Following these victories, Napier temporarily took over at Jounieh, north of Beirut, when the Brigadier-General on land, Sir Charles Smith, fell ill. On Smith’s return Napier was naturally ordered to withdraw, however, for fear of losing his advantageous position, he disobeyed Stopford’s direct order and instead proceeded with the attack. His expediency may have enabled Stopford to recapture the city of Acre, but tensions were rising as the war continued. Under increasing pressure from the cabinet to bring the crisis to an end, the foreign secretary was frustrated with the admiral’s slow and cautious approach, dismissing Stopford as a “superannuated twaddler” in private correspondence with the second Earl of Minto.
Nevertheless, the war continued and Stopford sent Napier’s squadron to Alexandria to watch over the region. However, acting without authorisation for a second time, Napier established a blockade thereby forcing the Egyptians to submit defeat. Without consultation, Napier directly negotiated a treaty with Mehmet Ali which allowed him to continue to rule as governor of Egypt but under the suzerainty of the sultan and only on the condition that he withdrew his troops from Syria.
This time Napier’s blatant disobedience incensed Stopford: “Commander Napier had no more right to take upon himself a negotiation appertaining only to the sultan himself and the ambassadors of the principal European powers than any other senior officer who never dreamt of such a thing…” he furiously wrote in a letter to Sir John Ponsonby. The admiral immediately rejected Napier’s agreement with Mehmet Ali and yet the final agreement saw Palmerston agree to the majority of Napier’s original articles. For now, the “Eastern-Question” had been settled.
With over 400 items available in the Stopford Papers collection, intriguing diplomatic affairs such as this are immediately brought to life. Not only do the letters provide invaluable insight into the Syrian Wars and the inner-workings of 19th-century diplomacy, but they also provide a deeply personal and often detailed view of the conflict. One illustration of this is our new featured document, a private letter from Colonel Patrick Campbell to Stopford dated 14 August 1839. This reveals Campbell to have taken a very benign view of Mehmet Ali, putting him at odds with the more critical and official view of Foreign Office officials such as Lord Ponsonby and Lord Palmerston.
Hansard, Sir Charles Napier at Acre, House of Commons Debate 4 April 1856. [Online].
Laughton, J. K., 2007. Stopford, Sir Robert (1768-1847) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [Online].
Napier, C. Sir, 1842. The War in Syria: Volume One. J. W. Parker, London [Online].