Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Scottish Samurai and the Egyptian Frenchmen - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
Select Page

Some of those interested in taking lessons from history like to compare the path taken by the modern Egyptian state, founded by the Albanian Muhammad Ali in the 19th century, with the path of Japan, which witnessed the restoration of its emperorship and an industrial revolution during the same historical period. This comparison takes into account the differences in culture, circumstances and geography, as well as the similarities in feelings of suspicion towards foreigners that prevailed in both countries at the time.

In the 19th century, the direction was the same in both Egypt and Japan, namely an attempt to modernize and address the existing underdevelopment of the two societies, by importing science and knowledge from abroad, and by sending expeditions to the Western colonial powers in Europe and applying their economic and military systems. This is effectively what happened, and Japan succeeded in building a great industrial power that is still active to this day, despite its defeat in the Second World War after trying to expand and intimidate its neighbors. Meanwhile, the story of the modern Egyptian state is quite different, where it seems to be a case of two steps forward and one step back.

The glaring similarity between the two is the pivotal role played by Western individuals, mainly 19th century adventurers, in making history in both countries and helping to build a modern state. The history of the two countries still remembers them dearly, such as the Scottish merchant Thomas Glover in Japan, and Colonel Sève, otherwise known as Suleiman Pasha of France, one of the officers in Napoleon’s French army in Egypt. Some see the latter as the engineer behind the construction of the modern Egyptian army, after decades of Ottoman rule when Egypt did not have a military establishment of its own. People in Egypt still use the name “Suleiman Pasha Square” for the square where his statue once stood, before it was relocated after the 1952 revolution, when the square was renamed after the businessman Talaat Harb.

Thomas Glover was an adventurous Scottish merchant sent to Shanghai by his British company when he was still in his twenties. In the year 1829 he moved to Nagasaki in Japan, which at the time was a city considered very hostile towards foreigners, because of the unfair treaties imposed upon them. His initial goal was to trade in green tea, yet he soon found himself falling in love with the Japanese Samurai tradition, and became embroiled in the struggles of the Samurai clans who wanted to restore the prestige of Japan’s emperor, and so he began to deal with them in arms and gunpowder. Later, he was behind the first initiative to send high-achieving Japanese students to the West, and introduced the first railroad to Japan, through the Meiji government. He was behind the construction of the first dry dock for ships, and the construction of the first modern Japanese warship. As a result, many see him as one of the fundamental elements in the creation of modern Japan. He was nicknamed the “Scottish Samurai” and awarded the Order of the Rising Sun.

The story of Colonel Sève, or Suleiman Pasha of France, also stems from his love of the country [Egypt] and his famous conversion to Islam, and in many ways is similar to the tale of the “Scottish Samurai”. Colonel Sève was a French adventurer whom Muhammad Ali admired, and so he was entrusted with training the early nucleus of the modern Egyptian army. He educated them on modern Western methods in 1819, and established the first military school. He was a key player in the modern Egyptian state, and went on to receive the title of Pasha. Colonel Sève was the great grandfather of Queen Nazli, the mother of King Farouk, the last King of Egypt.

Thomas Glover and Suleiman Pasha were not the only two Western adventurers who came into contact with the history of Egypt and Japan and enriched it, there are others who are less famous or played less of a role. This was a feature of the times, as it would not have been possible for a renaissance to take place in two very traditional societies back then without contact with the outside world, and gaining knowledge from abroad. Thomas Glover’s former residence in Japan still remains as a museum, and is visited by nearly two million people a year, many of them school students. Suleiman Pasha’s statue was moved from downtown Cairo to the military museum in 1952, after the new regime was keen to erase what had preceded it. Perhaps this explains the different paths of the two countries, because state building is a cumulative process that corrects, commends and develops all that has happened before, and the fruits are harvested after many decades. But if we decide every few decades to start from scratch again, then there is no hope.

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim is Asharq Al-Awsat's deputy editor-in-chief. He is based in London.

More Posts