In 1870 a rolling stone came to a halt at the court of the Khedive Ismail of Egypt.
His name was Alexander McComb Mason and in his background were stints as a sailor, some civil war blockade-running, a term in a military prison and some experience as a revolutionary in Chile and Cuba. Now he was to serve for years as an administrator and explorer for the ruler of Egypt.
With one exception the background of Alexander Mason was conventional: the son of a Washington lawyer, George Mason, author of the Virginia Bill of Rights, and grandson of a man who had been the highest ranking general in the United States Army at the time of his death in 1841. The exception was McComb's paternal grandfather John Mason, also a general. Wealthy, high-living John Mason lived on Analostan Island in the Potomac where, since he liked entertaining, he built a large, handsome, airy Chinese house dedicated almost entirely to wild partying. Long since destroyed, the house was decidedly an exotic in its day.
So was the General's grandson. Early on, young Alexander had rejected the occupations that usually attracted young Virginia gentlemen—farming, politics, the law, the church—in favor or going to sea. While still in his teens McComb served as master's mate on the frigate "Niagara," which assisted in the attempt to lay the first Atlantic Cable. He did accept an appointment to Annapolis but, in 1861, resigned to join the Confederacy and to thus embark on a military career varied and vigorous enough to satisfy the most adventurous nature. He fought at Drury's Bluff, Hampton Roads and Charleston and ran the blockade off the southern coast of the Confederacy.
During the war, he also served as private secretary to his Uncle James, who headed the Mason-Slidell Mission from the Confederacy to England. En route to England, the Union Navy removed the commissioners from the British ship Trent in the famous Trent Affair. When finally released he and his uncle went on to England, but to no avail. Despite Queen Victoria's pro-Southern sentiments her prudent government withheld recognition.
Later, while blockade-running, he served with distinction until captured while commanding a contingent of sailors acting as infantry at the Battle of Sailor's Creek. Imprisoned until the war's end, he emerged at the age of 25 to find himself barred from his profession and tempermentally unsuited to turning to farming. Like countless others, the sailor became a soldier of fortune and the stone began to roll.
At that time, Latin America was in ferment and in need of experienced fighting men. Thus, like many Civil War Veterans, Mason went south. He served first in Chile, in the rebellion against Spain, then, after a trip to China as mate on a merchant ship, in Cuba, fighting with the revolutionaries. Later, still restless, he returned to the United States to find some unusual men recruiting for an unusual cause.
In the Middle East at that time, the ruler of Egypt, Ismail—Hereditary Khedive and Viceroy of Egypt under the Ottoman Empire—was looking to the future. Exposure to the west—he had been partially educated in France—and a sense of his country's importance after the building of the Suez Canal had persuaded him that Egypt should develop into a strong, viable nation free from domination by either Turkey or the great powers of Europe. To help him achieve that goal he decided to seek technical advisors from the United States—in those days a neutral power and a friend to the Arabs. Through the agency of Thaddeus Mott, an American with distinguished Middle Eastern connections (his wife was Turkish and his aunt married to a Turkish diplomat), Ismail had begun to recruit unemployed veterans of the American Civil War who could be hired independently, without governmental involvement.
For advice on this subject, Mott turned to General of the Armies William Tecumseh Sherman, who had a wide knowledge of officers from both sides of the recent conflict. From the names recommended by Sherman, Mott eventually chose some 50 officers to serve in Egypt under Union General Charles P. Stone (Aramco World, January-February, 1972), among them Alexander McComb Mason.
McComb Mason was among the first to go. To him it was an assignment with an appeal far beyond merely making a living or putting his military training to use. It was adventure in an ancient, exotic world.
At first, adventure was slow in coming. Beyond service on the khedivial steamers there were few opportunities for a naval officer. But then General Stone assigned him to map the Oasis of Siwa, and his course was set. He accompanied Colonels Raleigh Colston and Erastus Purdy to Berenice on the Red Sea and to Berber, across the Nubian Desert. Later he served as second in command to Purdy when they went to Darfur, both explorations part of a plan to map, survey and chart all of Egypt and the African hinterland of the Nile river system; to obtain scientific data; to define the borders of the Khedive's suzerainty.
Although the officers—from Chaille-Long in Uganda to Graves on the Gulf of Aden—labored under incredible difficulties there were compensations. Off in the wilderness they were on their own, not bucking the entrenched bureaucracy of khedivial Egypt. And if there were frictions they stemmed from personality clashes rather than from the issues that had produced the Civil War.
For a man of Mason's complex personality there was more. Like Lawrence and Thesiger years later, he was uneasy with his own people but well adjusted to foreign peoples. He spoke Arabic fluently and got on well with Arabs. He was, as one man wrote: "romantic under a taciturn exterior . . . industrious . . . scholarly . . . sensitive . . ."
In 1876, Mason, returning to Cairo after a year and a half in the Sudan with Purdy and feeling—apparently with reason—that his superior was taking all the credit for their mutual effort, exploded. General Stone, realizing that his subordinate was essentially a misfit in Cairo, sent him off with Colonel H.C. Prout to serve as the Deputy Governor under the famous English General Charles ("Chinese") Gordon of Khartoum, at that time the Khedive's governor in Equatorial Africa.
From Khartoum Mason was assigned to follow up new discoveries at the headwaters of the Nile, especially Lake Albert Nyanza, which had been visited by English and Italian explorers but never accurately surveyed. It was an assignment tailored to his needs and in 1887 he left Dufile on the White Nile in the small steamer Nyanza, charting en route. He completely circumnavigated the lake, discovering the Semliki River which connects Lakes Albert and Edward and achieving a professional triumph that bore the stamp of Annapolis training. It was so successful that when Prout left the Sudan, Mason stayed on as deputy governor to crusty "Chinese" Gordon.
Toward the end of 1878 it became apparent that the tenure of the Civil War veterans in Egypt was near its end. Ismail was better at conceiving plans than administering them and, as a result, his regime was in deep financial and political trouble. In June 1879, under pressure from European governments and the Sultan in Constantinople, Ismail abdicated in favor of his son Tewfik, thus bringing to Egypt an Anglo-French presence in which the Americans were less welcome. General Stone, however, survived as Chief of Staff and kept with him three of the American officers who had been primarily interested in exploration—Purdy, Prout and Mason—all of whom chose to accept civilian employment from the Egyptian government.
Although McComb was now Mason Bey—a title of honor—his habits were well established. He had been with Gordon again in 1878 and in 1880-81 was sent on surveys in the Fayum and elsewhere.
In the Sudan he took a keen interest in the country. In 1883 he read a paper before the Khedivial Geographical Society analyzing the potentialities of railway transport there and at one point publicly criticizing their treatment by Egypt. He also suggested an unusual project. Why not follow the Liberian precedent and settle American Negroes desiring repatriation in the under developed areas of the Sudan? Possibly because he failed to consider how Afro-American Baptists would get along with African Muslims, the project excited little interest.
For several years, Mason also served as governor of Erjtrea, at that time within the khedivial bailiwick. He also accompanied Sir William Hewitt on a mission to King John of Abyssinia as a result of which an Abyssinian-Egyptian treaty was signed at Adowa. In 1884 he undertook a mission to the Abyssinian General Ras Allula, then involved in hostilities with Arabs at Kassala. The American with an affinity for Arabs was proving diplomatically useful.
By now a director of public lands, he continued in the service of Egypt until, on leave in America, he died in 1897, "still," as the Washington Post obituary put it, "in the service of the Khedive."
The impact of the 19th century Americans in Egypt was not historically spectacular, but it did leave its mark. Years later British officers commented with surprise on the discipline and elan of certain Egyptian troops—so unusual in the Ottoman Empire at the time. And some of the exploration and mapping of large areas of Africa were direct legacies from General Stone and his officers. Above all, it was the first time a Middle Eastern ruler had turned to the United States for technical help on a fairly large scale. McComb Mason and his fellows—rocking across the desert on camels, serving at the khedivial court, navigating rivers and chatting with chieftains—were predecessors of the men who would one day bring American technology to the heart of Arabia—proof, perhaps, that even a rolling stone leaves at least a faint track on the sands of time.
Betty Patchin Greene, a descendent of Alexander Mason, has contributed articles to Mademoiselle, Harper's Bazaar and California newspapers.