By Luis Gutierrez Poucel and Marie-Louise Oosthuysen
It was a dismal night in October 1798. A thin, but persistent rain fell over Cairo. It was four o’clock ante meridiem, but Lieutenant Marius Poucel just could not sleep, despite feeling deeply tired. What the tajir of the rug store told him that previous afternoon, kept milling around in his mind. With a sigh, Marius abandoned all attempt at rest, lit the oil lamp next to his bed, and carried it over to the table where the detailed map of the Nile and part of the Red Sea lay stretched out. The tajir sold him the map together with some intelligence on the British army that Marius could not ignore.
Marius studied the map. On the western bank of the majestic Nile the village of Quena was marked. Quena was located about 56 leagues as the crow flies from Cairo, in the direction of the Upper Nile. Opposite Quena, to the east and through the desert, Safaga kissed the Red Sea like a timid lover. According to the tajir, very close to Safaga, the British army hid warehouses filled with a multitude of Indian goods and various supplies. A regiment of about 100 soldiers guarded the compound under the command of a few officers and a soulless general of sinister fame.
“You French are not aware of the British presence,” Marius recalled the words of the tajir. Marius knew that Safaga was part of the Silk Road, which meant that this had to be a secret commercial and supply base. These warehouses had to belong to the East India Trading Company and were protected by a military fort.
Marius remembered the words of the tajir. “The English have been using this fort for more than a century. They keep invaluable merchandise, which is released little by little to regulate the price of various goods in Europe, always favoring the Company’s interests!”
A few weeks prior, a squadron of the British fleet landed outside Alexandria. They stealthily wounded and killed dozens of French soldiers, leaving a banner that said: “Le petit toad and French frogs out of the Levant!” Well, when Napoleon Bonaparte, “le petit caporal” as he was affectionately known to his men, heard of this, he threw a tantrum that rivaled that of a toddler. Napoleon suspected Nelson’s hand behind all this, and his eyes flashed with uncontrollable anger. Marius, ever the pragmatist, realized that the English were long gone and that anger would do little to remedy the situation.
Marius now realized that the English were not as long gone as he and his superiors had thought. The threat was real, not just an attempt at mockery. The Company’s red coats were hiding in plain sight! Using the channel of the Nile to approach the English base in Safaga, a surprise attack could be planned using his unit, the Exterminating Angels. The Exterminating Angels was the nickname given by the French soldiers to a stealth unit led by Marius to protect the column on the march from Alexandria to Cairo from attacks by the Mamluk gangs and Bedouin marauders.
Those thoughts, driven by the irresistible wind of his youth and love for adventure, rampaged through Marius’ mind when he noticed the breaking dawn. At six o’clock Marius collected his Arab mount and rushed off to the quarters of the Corsican. The white clouds sailed across the sky as swiftly as his mount carried him along the road. Once he reached his destination, he requested an audience with the Napoleon through General Alexandre Dumas, the towering ebony aide to Bonaparte.
“This better be important Poucel, because our boss is in a hell of a mood,” grunted Dumas. “It may be worth your while to return later once his bile has subsided.”
“Is that one of my Exterminating Angels?” the Corsican yelled from within his quarters.
“Well then, he knows you’re here. Let me accompany you as he will surely want a second opinion regarding your information.” General Dumas walked through to the inner sanctum followed closely by Marius.
Napoleon, surrounded by several members of his staff, waved them over. “You have five minutes exactly Lieutenant, not a minute more!” Adding, “A position can be lost and then regained, but a minute lost is never regained!” He turned to general Dumas smiling mockingly. “This better be good. You know how I hate to be distracted by young men in search of fleeting glory.”
Marius nervously approached the table and spread out the map depicting Cairo, the Nile, the Red Sea, and the villages of Quena and Safaga. “I believe the English have a base in Safaga my General. I have a plan to attack them and avenge their treacherous attack on us in Alexandria.”
“Lieutenant Poucel, has the heat of the desert already cooked your tender brain?” the Corsican mocked.
Undeterred, Marius continued. “In Safaga, next to the Red Sea, there is a garrison of a hundred or so English troops who protect several warehouses filled with merchandise and supplies that come from the East.” He stopped to look several of the officers in the eyes. “I estimate that we are talking about tons of silk and spices, a booty valued at about two million British pounds.”
Napoleon’s intense gaze followed him and the orbits of Dumas’ eyes widened. The room was palpably silent, as all eyes were fixed on Marius. Seconds of heavy silence dragged on feeling like hours.
“Why is this the first time that I hear about this English treasure?” asked the Corsican to the room, looking at each of his advisors individually. No one looked him in the eye except Marius. “Where did you get this information, Lieutenant?”
“The tajir of a rug shop in the bazaar. I saved his life from armed robbers a week ago,” answered Marius. “He has contacts all over the place and has known about these warehouses for several years. I suspect that he has sold many goods that were stolen from those warehouses in the past.”
“Mmm, an honest thief then, who owes you his life,” the Corsican remarked sarcastically.
“I do believe him, sir, for he hates the English with a passion,” Marius added.
“And I assume that he will want to share in the spoils of war once we have secured these warehouses,” Napoleon surmised.
“He is a businessman after all, mon général,” answered Marius.
“Dumas, gather my informants and bring them to me immediately,” ordered Bonaparte. “We have to verify this information and start strategizing.”
Marius rolled up his map, saluted, and backed towards the exit. “Lieutenant Poucel, get some food and sleep. You look terrible, man!” Bonaparte admonished him.
Marius mounted his steed and rode back to his tent feeling lighter and almost giddy in anticipation of the impending mission. When he reached his tent, Zahir was waiting for him with his breakfast.
Zahir was a Mamluk warrior who was taken prisoner by Marius at the Battle of the Pyramids. Marius was impressed by his bravery, fighting skills, and aptitude for languages. However, according to Mamluk tradition, Zahir was forced to become the “slave” to the savior of his life. Little by little and then in giant leaps, he was conquered by the valor, skill and honesty of Marius, and his friends Douglas, Jean Jacques, and Bastién of the Exterminating Angels. Douglas Tracht was an American journalist for the Kentuckee Gazette who joined Napoleon Bonaparte’s excursion to Egypt. Douglas was not only a writer, but an adventurer and an expert with the American long rifle. Jean Jacques Dubois and Bastién Jugan de Saint Malo were the childhood friends of Marius and together they fought the bullies on the streets of Marseilles. They all joined the French army together, seduced by the romanticism of fighting for France and the new republic amidst the cries of “liberté, égalité, fraternité”.
Marius cleaned his uniform, bathed, got dressed and when he left his quarters Jean Jacques, Douglas, Bastién, and Zahir were waiting for him. Together they walked to the headquarters. They took a shortcut through a narrow ally and as they turned a corner, Lieutenant Renaud came towards them on his big black stallion. Renaud hated Marius and his friends for the special attention they received from Bonaparte and their rapid rise through the ranks when the Exterminating Angels unit was formed. Without warning, Renaud jerked the horse’s head towards them in an effort to trample them. They scrambled out of the way, missing the animal’s hooves by a hair’s breadth. Renaud’s shrill laugh and the horse’s clobbering hooves echoed down the alley.
“Bloody fool,” Douglas sucked under his breath.
“Not so much a fool as an arrogant arse,” Marius added. They all laughed nervously to release the tension and dusted off their uniforms.
The moment the four friends entered the great hall in the headquarters building, le petit caporal announced, “Lieutenant Poucel is planning an operation that will honor France and humiliate Albion! This is an important operation which will have to be executed with the utmost secrecy. He and his squad of hunters will leave for Jerusalem in a few short weeks.”
This speech was actually part of a great ruse conceived to deceive the British, or rather their spies.
“May I present Captain Popescu, a Greek gentleman who will serve as guide and transport in this operation.” Napoleon pointed to an olive-skinned man sitting in an armchair. Popescu bowed his head in recognition of the officers around him. His eyes rested on Marius for what seemed a long time.
Bonaparte had spoken privately to Popescu regarding Marius. “My friend, you and I have a long history which spans many years. I need you to help me hone the talents of this young lieutenant because I have big plans for him. Teach him to negotiate. He already has good instincts, self-discipline, fighting, and planning abilities which just need refining. He’s a good and fair leader and his men will follow him off a cliff. Teach him all you know! Lieutenant Poucel will bring me … the Republic … much glory!”
Later that night a small committee met in a backroom at the headquarters. Present were the Corsican, Dumas, five generals, thirteen officers of the general staff, Popescu, and Marius with his trusted cadre. Captain Popescu wore one of his war uniforms, with wide green trousers, red thigh-high leather boots, and a magnificent purple velvet coat. In his shoulder bag he carried a long-barreled Indian carbine, at the waist a heavy scimitar with a solid gold hilt, and crossed in a sash, a krizz, a wavy, poisoned dagger, the favorite weapon of the Malay people.
Dumas cleared his throat and called the room to order. “This is the plan. God willing, we will take a great deal from the English, as well as a big scoop of their pride. With the help of Captain Popescu we have eight feluccas with the necessary crews waiting for us on the Nile. Captain Popescu is not only familiar with the Nile, but also knows the neighborhoods in and around the Nile like the back of his hand.”
Dumas continued, “Lieutenant Poucel will be in charge of the operation. Captain Popescu will be his guide and translator. The men that Lieutenant Poucel will guide will include thirty of his men, twenty of Captain Popescu’s Malaysian warriors, and twenty infantrymen to support them. They will travel up the Nile to Quena, and from Quena to Safaga on camel. Then they will attack the enemy, raid their warehouses, and bring back the loot for France.
France will have the first pick of the bounty, followed by Captain Popescu and his men, and then the tajir. Captain Popescu has also arranged for a swarm of carrier pigeons located along the route that will be dispatched back to Cairo at regular intervals with news regarding the operation’s progress.”
Captain Popescu modified their hulls for greater speeds, to accommodate ten rowers each and bigger sails. The bows were also reinforced. Nothing traveled faster on the Nile and the regular feluccas were very slow by comparison. Hand grenades, bows and arrows, rifles, axes, and sabers were stored expertly in the hull. Marius resonated with Popescu’s anxiety.
Popescu’s first assistant was a gigantic Malaysian of about 25 years of age named Bisyu. Bisyu had an energetic physique, tanned skin, black fiery eyes, was adorned with gold earrings, and had a no-nonsense air about him. He wore a long, thin scimitar and two authentic Damascus sabers, those famous blades forged in the distinguished city since ancient times. The sabers were embossed in a mottling pattern reminiscent of flowing water, tough, flexible, resistant to shattering, and an edge too sharp to even shave with.
They stowed away from Cairo under the cover of darkness and by daybreak they were well on their way to Quena. Marius spent every moment he could between executing his duties as leader to his men and lapping up all the knowledge he could learn from Captain Popescu. Whenever Marius spent time with the Greek, Zahir became his shadow for he only trusted Bisyu as far as he could throw him and judging by his size, that was not very far!
Popescu had been the captain of a large merchant ship for years, traveling on commission for the East India Trading Company through the seas of China, India, Africa, Java, and Indonesia. He knew half a dozen dialects in addition to Greek, Portuguese, Arabic, Italian, English, and French. He was the son of an Athenian general and was taught since childhood by the best Athenian philosophers.
Marius asked him, “I see you use knives and swords of strange origin, yet no pistol. Why is that?”
“In Greece the art of hand-to-hand combat has been lost. The bow and arrow have been abandoned for gunpowder which is so noisy and chaotic. The silence of death by a poisoned arrow is so much more poetic. My men are skilled at handling poisoned arrows without obstacle, from moving camels or feluccas, running on solid ground, or treading in water. My krizz dagger is a Malay with a curved wavy blade, and cuts better than any comparable European weapon. I have several krizzes, I’ll give you two.” Popescu was impressed by the inquisitive mind of the tall, young lieutenant with the intimidating green eyes.
About ten days after leaving Cairo, Marius and Zahir became aware of being followed. Through several reconnaissance missions under the cover of obscurity, they determined that it was a band of twenty Bedouins with twenty-two camels under the command of Al-Mansur, nicknamed The Murderer of the Desert. Captain Popescu swept the horizon of the shore with his large Dutch telescope. Marius informed his inner cadre of their plan to neutralize the Bedouin. Jean Jacques enthusiastically exclaimed, “The men are growing fat and lazy! The derriere on Douglas would make a whore envious,” at which the American guffawed. “We need something to drive away the drowsiness of this trip,” to which all within earshot agreed.
“It’s not just Douglas’s arse that is growing fat and round. My men need to practice their skills before battling with those British dogs,” Popescu nodded and smiled. “The new moon will be upon us within two days, and that’s the best time to attack, especially in the desert.”
The next afternoon Marius watched Bisyu release a gray messenger pigeon to Cairo with the message, “The dolphin swims swiftly as the shark trails”. That night Marius and Popescu finalized their plan of attack over the evening meal. The plan was forged where ten of Marius’s team of Exterminating Angels and ten of Popescu’s Malaysian men would set a trap to deal with the Bedouins the following night.
“The new moon is upon us. We shall kill all the Bedouin rats, and bury them deep in the sand without their clothes or anything that can identify them. We have to save the camels for the next leg of our journey,” said Popescu. “I have one more request Lieutenant Poucel. I have a history with Al-Mansur, and I would like to settle my debt with that desert rat personally.”
Marius nodded in resignation.
The Exterminating Angels and their Malaysian brethren stole away into the night with Marius, Popescu, Douglas, and Jean Jacques in the vanguard. Once they reached the vicinity of the Bedouin camp, they subdivided into four groups and surrounded the Bedouins. They leopard crawled over the sand from four different points to about fifty meters from the Bedouin bonfires. At this dark midnight hour, most of the Bedouins were asleep except for the four guards sitting, smoking or moving between their guard posts. The guards were dealt with swiftly and silently by Popescu’s Malaysian archers. The rest of the troops swarmed into the camp, entering tents, slitting throats as fast and quietly as they could. Popescu and Marius ran for the bigger tent in the middle of the camp, Al-Mansur’s tent.
Marius grabbed the assistant who was sleeping at the entrance to Al Mansur’s tent and held him in a choke hold from behind with his hand over the man’s mouth and a dagger thrusted onto his throat. Popescu put his krizz dagger to the throat of Al-Mansur and straddled his body in order to pin him down.
“Oh Mansuuuuuuri,” Popescu sing-songed as if talking to a toddler while nicking his throat with the tip of the curved blade. Al-Mansur’s eyes flew open and he struggled to free his arms from the vice grip of the Greek’s legs. “Stop struggling if you want to save your neck, fool!” Popescu susurrated in the Bedouin dialect of Arabic. “All this struggling caused my krizz to cut your delicate neck and now you’re bleeding like a pig all over yourself! Tsk, tsk, tsk!” Popescu clicked his tongue.
The soldiers started straggling into the tent, confirming how many Bedouins they had killed. Marius handed his prisoner over to Bisyu. He gave the order for multiple deep holes to be dug in the sand under the direction of Bastién. He ordered Douglas, Jean Jacques, and two of the Exterminating Angels to review the contents of the tents for clues as to why the Bedouins were following them. Then he and Zahir set about the task of ransacking Al-Mansur’s tent in search of evidence. They found none. Bedouins, a nomadic tribe, did not sit around and record things. They did, however, find camel skin satchels heavy with Roman gold coins and also dozens of gold and silver Louis coins, French currency. This meant that this band of Bedouins had recently killed French soldiers.
Captain Popescu and Bisyu forced Al-Mansur and his assistant onto their knees and tied their hands behind their backs. “Why were you following us?” Popescu asked Al-Mansur. Silence. The big Malaysian roughed them up, knocking out one of Al-Mansur’s front teeth and cutting the eyebrow of the assistant. Silence. “Who sent you to follow us?” Popescu asked again. Mute. This continued for more than an hour, but to no avail. The Bedouins were bleeding from all facial orifices. Complete reticence. Popescu shook his head at Marius to indicate the futility of their effort. Poescu knelt in front of Al-Mansur who sat in a heap on the floor. “For all the innocents you preyed upon!” he said when he plunged the dagger into his heart.
“We heard in the Al-Mu’ayyad Mosque in Cairo the whispers of your venture!” sobbed the assistant. “A tajir was looking for men to accompany him on a raid of the British warehouses in Safaga. Al-Mansur wanted to beat him to the loot.” Tears mixed with blood smeared down his swollen face.
Marius knelt down, looked into his swollen slitted eyes and laid his hand tenderly on the Bedouin’s shoulder. “Merci …. shukraan”. Marius cursed himself. His trust had been misplaced. The tajir had imperiled him and his men. He would have to be dealt with upon his return.
Bisyu swiftly broke the neck of the Bedouin and gently laid him down on the floor.
The Bedouins were stripped of their clothing and weapons and dumped unceremoniously into the recently dug pits so that the shifting sands of the desert would not lay their bodies bare inadvertently. The soldiers packed up the Bedouin tents and belongings, and strapped everything to the camels.
Al-Mansur and his marauding band of men had become whispers in the wind only, the memory of them washed away by the desert sand.
Under a canopy of sparkling stars, they returned to their flotilla anchored on the Nile. Marius felt a fleeting shadow of grief for the enduring child who lost a father, the surviving parent who lost a son, and the grieving wife who lost a husband this night. At the same time, he felt vindicated for the French lives lost to this marauding band of men. This was the easy part of their journey and the real danger, the real peril, still lay ahead of them.
To be continued ….