Military History

A MARINE ON THE NILE

After a month’s march through sand amid the ruins and palm trees lining the Nubian Nile an invading Egyptian army of cutthroats and mercenaries drawn from across the Ottoman empire encountered its first real resistance at the town of Kurti on Nov. 4, 1820. The formidable horsemen of the Sudanese Arab Shaigiya tribe were determined the Egyptians would never take their lands. Screaming, they fell upon the army’s scouts with sword and lance, wiping them out. It was a bad start for the Egyptian commander, 25-year-old Ismail Pasha, whose artillery was still being shipped south by boat.

Ismail brought his troops into line against the Shaigiya, who were led by a young girl on a richly decorated camel. It was she who gave the order to attack, in a tradition celebrating the exploits of a fearless 17th century female Shaigiya warrior. The Arabs’ horses pounded across the plain, smashing into the Egyptian infantry with such violence that its line began to collapse. As disaster loomed, the Egyptians’ formidable second-in-command, the Albanian Abdin Bey, led his horsemen in a series of desperate countercharges. Rallying, the Egyptian infantry poured fire into the Shaigiya ranks. The invaders prevailed, only to begin what one of their number later described as “12 months of misery and starvation.”

Joining the Egyptian expedition to Sudanese Nubia were three American mercenaries, including former U.S. Marine Corps Lt. George Bethune English, though illness kept him from the battlefield that day. The Massachusetts native, a convert to Islam, related his experiences as an artillery commander in Sudan in his 1822 memoir, A Narrative of the Expedition to Dongola and Sennaar. Yet nearly two centuries after his death English remains an enigma—was he a mercenary, a spy or a sincere Muslim convert?

to a prosperous family in Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston, English studied first law and then divinity at Harvard College. In 1813, after exposure to both the Quran and a, in which he criticized key doctrines of the faith. The work elicited outrage in Protestant New England. English was excommunicated from his church. His stated belief Islam was a moral system drawn from the Old and New Testaments, “modified a little and expressed in Arabic,” proved toxic to his scholarly reputation. Leaving Harvard, he ventured to the Allegheny frontier, where he briefly edited a newspaper. In 1808, before entering divinity school, he’d sought a military appointment, putting down as a reference U.S. Senator John Quincy Adams, who taught rhetoric and oratory at Harvard. In 1815, facing limited prospects and amid renewed conflict with Britain, English again applied for a commission, with backing from then U.S. Ambassador to Russia Adams. This time it took.

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