Most accounts of 19th-century Red Sea history tell how Egypt's ambitious Muhammad Ali Pasha was assigned by his nominal sovereign, the Ottoman Sultan, to put down a challenge to his authority in the Hijaz, how he raised an army, invaded Arabia and eventually forced the leader of the insurgents to capitulate—after they had retreated to their central-Arabian stronghold at ad-Dir'iyah—in September 1818. What they don't tell is how at the same time and without essential materials, skilled shipbuilders or even a naval tradition, he assembled and sent into action an imposing naval force which proved to be indispensable.
Muhammad Ali wanted a naval force on the Red Sea for several reasons. One ostensible reason was to transport troops to Arabia. Although the land route from Suez to Yanbu in Arabia could be traversed by his cavalry, for whom intermediate relief stations were set up, the Pasha knew that infantry, food supplies and camels would probably suffer losses from exposure and Bedouin attacks. And he also knew that to protect transport ships against Arabian corsairs, which had been attacking Turkish shipping, he would need a number of armed vessels. Beyond these immediate needs, however, were other more ambitious plans: the occupation of the entire Arabian Red Sea coastline including Yemen, and establishment of Egyptian control of the Red Sea.
In the fall of 1809, when the Pasha first conceived the idea of developing a fleet, he did not expect to build ships. He thought that Ghalib, the Sharif of Jiddah, who nominally supported the insurgents but secretly remained loyal to the Sultan, would be able to provide enough vessels. By the time his expeditionary force was ready to leave for Arabia two years later, however, he had found it necessary to set up a naval shipyard, seek the help of the Pashas of Tripoli and Albania, enlist the aid of shipbuilders at the Greek island of Hydra, and turn to the Governor of Cyprus and the board of directors of the British East India Company.
What happened, Muhammad Ali told the Sultan in a letter explaining why it would be necessary to build vessels in Egypt, was that news of Egyptian naval preparations had reached Jiddah and his secret confederate, the Sharif, did not dare send the ships he had promised Muhammad Ali, lest his true loyalties be discovered. "I am the ally of the Pasha of Egypt," he wrote Muhammad Ali, "and I shall give him as many vessels as he wants, but he must understand my delicate position ..."
In response to the Sharif's letter, Muhammad Ali told the Sultan, he had advised Ghalib to load up some choice vessels with cargoes of coffee and send them to Suez with the apparent intention of taking advantage of the prevailing high price of coffee in Egypt. The Sharif agreed and sent several dhows to Suez, which were promptly unloaded and incorporated into the Egyptian fleet. But "these few vessels won't be enough," the Pasha told the Sultan, and "there is no choice but to make our own vessels."
The Sultan, suspicious of Muhammad Ali's intentions, hesitated. But six months later, for the sake of what he called the "holy mission," he formally authorized the Pasha to "construct the ships and necessary port facilities to transport the army to the Hijaz."
While the Sultan was weighing his decision, the Pasha had given the order to establish a naval shipyard at Bulaq, near Cairo, site of a shipyard which Napoleon Bonaparte founded in 1799 during his occupation of Egypt and in which he built five ships to patrol the port of Kosseir in the Red Sea and prevent the English from landing troops from India. When the Pasha's order was given 10 years later, all that remained of Bonaparte's effort was a fenced-off area at Bulaq with some loose timber and empty barrels lying inside.
Ship construction in Egypt presented several challenges to the shipwrights. With the exception of some red mulberry wood in Upper Egypt, suitable only for interior paneling, all timber had to be imported, mast poles and hull wood either from Turkish forests around Konya, or those on the island of Rhodes. Pack mules, cannons and wooden barrels came from Cyprus. Compasses, cannons, cannon carriages and huge cauldrons for mixing gunpowder came from Istanbul, where the Pasha's agent, Najib Effendi, had instructions to get the material even if it meant "stripping the Imperial Fleet." Until this material began to arrive in Bulaq, cannons were removed from the fortresses at Damietta and Alexandria, and mast poles and rigging were stripped from feluccas on the Nile.
To design his fleet, Muhammad Ali hired deserters from ships calling at Alexandria, and local Greeks and Italians, including some who had worked at the shipyard for Bonaparte. Assisted by more than 1,000 Turkish and Egyptian workers, and a crew of 300 carpenters sent especially for the project by the Pasha of Albania, they were soon turning out a ship a month. Eventually they also began to produce cannons and were able to supply the Imperial Fleet at Istanbul with gunpowder. The few foreign visitors to the yard were startled at seeing Turkish workers sitting nonchalantly on kegs of gunpowder smoking the hubble-bubble but, on the whole, they said, the operation was well-organized and efficient.
Two main types of vessels were preferred, the "corvette" and the "brick," each with many variations. The name corvette was applied to a wooden, flush-decked vessel of about 200 tons with a square-rigged foremast and mainmast, that carried around 50 cannons. Some corvettes, called "mortarboards," were equipped with rows of mortarpieces on the deck secured at the base. With a relatively shorter tube and larger bore than the other cannons, they could hurl cannon balls at a higher angle and enable a vessel to bombard the inside of a coastal fortress. The name brick referred to a wooden vessel of about 100 tons with a square-rigged foremast and a lateen-rigged mainmast. It carried around 20 cannons. Both types were patterned after French and English Mediterranean warships, and of the two, the brick was best suited to the Red Sea. Its combination of square and lateen sails made it easier to maneuver along the long, razor-sharp coral reefs common to the Red Sea coast, especially when fighting clear of the strong winds there, which tend to drive vessels onto a lee shore. For this reason, most of the vessels at Bulaq were of this type.
After several ships were completed, they would be disassembled—their parts numbered for identification—and carried by camel caravan to Suez, where crews of workers waited to reassemble them. Up to 10,000 camels made up some caravans. (It took four to carry a single mast pole.) Along the way, bands of Bedouins often raided the caravans for firewood and, it was said, warmed their hands by enough mast poles and hulls for a small squadron.
Some delays in construction were caused by the rebellious Mameluke Beys. Edged out of power by Muhammad Ali just five years before, they were still prowling the Egyptian countryside waiting for the chance to strike back. On two occasions, their attacks halted construction and caused supplies for the fleet to pile up in Istanbul and Alexandria warehouses. Finally, in March of 1811, the Pasha took care of the Mamelukes once and for all after ambushing them in the courtyard of the Citadel, where he had invited them to attend a ceremony for the investiture of his son, Amir Toussoun, with command of the Arabian expedition. That trickery accomplished, and the Mamelukes killed to a man, work on the fleet was resumed without further interruption.
As his contribution to the Egyptian fleet, meanwhile, the Pasha of Tripoli in North Africa donated several archaic rowing galleys. Constructed at the port of Tripoli, they were taken apart and moved to Damiet-ta, where they were loaded onto camels and sent to Suez. Weighing about 100 tons and somewhat narrower and shallower than the brick, they were fitted with a sail, but depended mostly on a bank of oars on each side which were manned by slaves, four to five on a single oar. The galley proved to be even more dependable than the brick because it could ignore the unfavorable winds that often hampered vessels trying to sail up the sea. The Turks last used the rowing galley in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and their appearance in Muhammad Ali's Red Sea fleet would be their last in modern history.
Another ship joined the fleet when the Pasha's agent, Najib Effendi, visited the Greek island of Hydra, noted for its skill in shipbuilding, and bought the Souliou Psora, a brick with 15 cannons that came complete with crew. At Damietta, the Pasha put an Egyptian garrison aboard to give the vessel a "Muslim character," and ordered it to sail the ship around the coast of Africa to Suez. The crew claimed the vessel wasn't seaworthy enough and it remained anchored at Damietta.
In the spring of 1811, the Pasha went to Suez to complete his naval preparations. More than 42 vessels lay at anchor—corvettes, bricks, galleys and dhows—but, for the enormous quantity of soldiers and supplies the Pasha planned to send with the first landing force, still not enough. He ordered the Governors of Suez and Kosseir to seize all the commercial dhows that happened to be calling in their respective ports—a dozen altogether—unload the cargo from them and add them to the fleet. To further augment his fleet, he sent some of these dhows to Yemen with orders to seize "any dhow in sight" and bring the captured vessels to Yanbu, north of Jiddah, to await the imminent arrival of his son, Amir Toussoun. For his day it was excellent planning, but his plans almost ran aground when he began recruiting sailors. As a people, Egyptian peasants were conservative, and strongly attached to their families and village life in the relative security of the Nile Valley. They rarely ventured out to sea. Even the few fishing boats that did sail along the Mediterranean and Red Sea coastlines never went beyond sight of land. So Muhammad Ali had to rely on Turks and Albanians from the army and on deserters from English and French vessels at Alexandria.
When at last completed, in 1811, Muhammad Ali's navy was an impressive and colorful sight. There were 60 ships, hundreds of guns, thousands of sailors colorfully costumed in orange turbans, embroidered tunic vests, knee-length pantaloons and sandals with turned-up toes. The officers, in ankle-length pantaloons covered by a floor-length, gold-piped gown, open at the front, usually sat prominently on the deck smoking a hubble-bubble while an entourage of personal slaves looked after them and the sailors went about their work without any apparent order or discipline.
As the vanguard of this fleet, the Pasha had a 400-ton corvette with 40 cannons called the Africa. Unfortunately, to send such a warship into the Red Sea without an OK from powerful England would have been a hazardous gamble. Muhammad Ali decided to send Admiral Ismail Jibraltar to England to ask the East India Company, then responsible for governing the India possessions, for their leave to sail into the Red Sea and up to Suez. The company's board of directors held a series of meetings about the matter over a two-month period, came to the conclusion that the Africa might encourage the Egyptian Pasha to occupy the Yemeni coast and threaten Aden, where British forces had already established bases for the protection of India's western flank, and informed Ismail that the trip would be "too hazardous." To compensate, the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, paid for damage suffered by the Africa en route to England and presented Ismail with gifts of guns and ammunition, including a set of gold dueling pistols for Muhammad Ali. Ismail was impressed, but when he returned to Alexandria, the Pasha was furious that the British could "prevent a boat from going from one Turkish port to another." He briefly considered sending the ship down the Nile as far as possible during the flood, dismantling it and transporting it to Suez. He soon realized how impractical that would be, however, and decided to leave the vessel anchored at Alexandria. Then he turned his attention back to the campaign that had spurred the construction of a fleet in the first place.
The campaign, which went on for seven years, fully justified the Pasha's Herculean efforts. The transport vessels served as a safe and reliable means of carrying camels, food and ammunition from Egypt to Arabia, notably during the six-month siege of ad-Dir'iyah. At that point Ibrahim Pasha depended completely on a supply line of more than 80,000 camels between his camp and Jiddah, where boats arrived daily from Kosseir with food.
As for the warships, they were less valuable, but they did protect the transports against the occasional attacks by the Wahhabi corsairs and their allies. In Arabia itself, the fleet moved the Pasha's army along the coastline for a number of attacks where the greater number of soldiers he was able to land from the vessels gave his army a decisive advantage.
The fleet was useless, however, in implementing the Pasha's plan of turning the Red Sea into an "Egyptian lake." This was partly due to English opposition, but mainly because the fleet itself never became a navy in the true sense. Instead of functioning as a mobile and powerful striking force that could close sea-lanes and dominate coastal areas, it was never more than an adjunct of the army, which saw a ship's deck only as a platform on which to fight as it would ashore.
After the campaign in Arabia had ended and the army returned safely to Egypt, the entire fleet was allowed to rot slowly away at anchor in Suez, decaying symbol of a dream which, if realized, might have profoundly affected the history of the Middle East for the rest of the 19th century.
James Horgen, a graduate of the University of Minnesota and Cairo University, currently lives and writes in Beirut.