Tuesday 18 June 2024

Why Does Poor Things the Movie Hide the British Bombardment of Alexandria from its Audience?


The City of Alexandria in or shortly after late 1882 is a setting for a key scene in the novel Poor Things (by Alasdair James Gray) and the movie based on it (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, script by Tony McNamara). Yet the novel only refers in passing (and the movie, not at all) to a key event which took place that summer, the British bombardment of the Egyptian Mediterranean port city, or the subsequent military occupation of Egypt by the British Empire, which constitute massive colonial war crimes and crimes against humanity. Why were these whitewashed out of the story, especially given the effect of seeing child destitution has on the main character, Bella?


First, we will cover some accounts of the historical events around the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882.

The British Bombardment of Alexandria 1882-7-11 infographic.
British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882

Secondly, we will see what the novel and movie cover, and what they omit, downplay or change.

Thirdly, because it is relevant to the novel and movie, we will summarise a source on prostitution in Alexandria around the time.

Fourthly, we will briefly cover modern perspectives on a similar case of asymmetric bombardment of a largely civilian urban population.

Finally, we will draw some conclusions and attempt to answer the question, why.

History and literature: what happened, who wrote about it

Wikipedia devotes a page to the Bombardment of Alexandria which seems serviceable, but I believe I first read a historical account in John Newsinger's book The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (now in its second edition), where the author devotes a chapter to The invasion of Egypt, 1882. I later read an account in Priyamvada Gopal's Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, who draws on the writings of British diplomat Wilfred blunt in Chapter 3: The Accidental Anticolonialist: Egypt’s ‘Urabi’ Rebellion and Late Victorian Critiques of Imperialism.

In preparation for this article, I went for a more in-depth history in William Wright's A Tidy Little War: The British Invasion of Egypt 1882 (2009, 2011), and a contemporary literary treatment in GA Henty's The Young Midshipman, a Story of the Bombardment of Alexandria. The Wikipedia page links to a series of photographs documenting the destruction of the built environment of Alexandria, not confined to the coastal defences but reducing domestic, public and commercial buildings to rubble and causing widespread conflagration (though there are claims some rubble came from later safety-related destruction of damaged buildings and some fires were started by agents other than naval shelling).

Colonial Rule, Neocolonial Rule, and Egypt for the Egyptians

In 1882, Egypt was formally under Ottoman rule. The summary in BND says the Egyptian Khedive (client ruler) handed effective rule over to the British and French in exchange for modernisation of his country, but the profits were leached off by European corporations and wealth siphoned off by corrupt banks. Egyptian fellahin peasants were starving and over-taxed with flogging, torture and imprisonment (p96). By 1880 90,000 Europeans in Egypt had vast privileges exempt from tax and law, government salaries to them accounted for 1/20th revenue. However British and French also alienated the Army, which allied itself with Chamber of Notables, Colonel Urabi heading a revolutionary movement which proposed moderate reforms, rejected by French and British in 1882-01.

The focus in IE is British diplomat Wilfred Blunt, who is sent to Colonel Ahmad Urabi to put a false spin on open threat by Britain and France against Egyptian Nationalists, and support for Turkish viceroy; and fails dismally. Blunt is like other initially pro-Empire British liberals whose encounters with reality turned them against British colonialism. Blunt’s efforts to get British to back down failed, who invaded in 1882-07, defeating the honourable Urabi and trying him for mutiny and capital rebellion. British bombardment of Alexandria had changed some minds about legitimacy of actions, though press had depicted Urabi as military despot. Instead of court martial and death, civil trial and exile to Ceylon, a sentence which Blunt’s campaign eventually overturned. Blunt warned against what we would now call 'embedded journalists'.

Influenced by Blunt, some parliamentarians also enquired why Britain’s way of showing regard for the Egyptian people ‘was to go out and shoot them’.

Frederic Harrison’s speech and essay ‘Egypt’ before Alexandria bombardment critically overturns the Liberal narrative, showed what corrupt privileges the European ‘civilisers’ enjoyed in Egypt, in tax, ownership, justice, law and salaries. French and British were far more extractive than Ottomans. Rather than military fanatics, the resistance was a national uprising against oppressive and exploitative classes. Bombardment let to righteous fury, as would similar foreign aggression produce an identical reaction in his readers. Colonisation inevitably polarises and enraged rather than accommodates.

TLW provides more detail but basically agrees with the other histories in key respects, providing a list of key Egyptian nationalist demands for reform:

  • Water rights redistributed
  • Agricultural bank founded
  • Schools for all girls and boys
  • Eradication of slavery
  • Better military defences

British and French attempts to divide the Nationalists were scuppered by their own (Gambetta-drafted) Joint Note of 1882-01-06 which pitched Britain and France as Khedive Tewlik’s backers.

The British Bombardment of Alexandria

According to BND, Gladstone (who personally profited from the war) sent a fleet of Anglo-French warships to Alexandria to intimidate nationalists which failed. Instead, popular street rioters turned on Europeans. The British planned reprisals to deter similar outbreaks. The pretext of Alexandrian coastal fort improvements was used to justify a 10-hour naval bombardment of Alexandria with connivance of new Khedive, causing many civilian casualties. British Cabinet member radical John Bright resigns in protest amid national Jingoism.

TLW claims:

This book is the first attempt to tell the story of that war in any detail since the Official History was published in 1887.

and goes into quite considerable detail from the military perspective, unfortunately for our purposes not so much from the perspective of those calling Alexandria home at the time. British Admiral Seymour was given belligerent and blockading orders, and to gain French naval participation in any bombardment if possible (they would not), issuing Egyptians a 24-hour ultimatum to disarm coastal forts before opening fire. The Egyptian war cabinet decided it was altogether shameful and dishonourable to remove the guns as ordered.

British war correspondents were able to cable news stories back to London in time for evening papers.

The fifteen ships of the attacking fleet, which formed the nucleus of the 43 vessels commanded by Seymour in Egyptian waters during June and July 1882, were as varied as the men who commanded them.

Seymore rejected Egyptian offer of compromise, and launched the bombardment, for the first two hours employing salvo fire which was very inaccurate, despite almost perfect conditions (clear visibility, calm seas, anchored ships), before turning to more accurate single-shot fire. The thick armour of the British ironclads was enough to keep out Egyptian shelling bar the odd dent.

Shells began over-shooting the forts at the rate of about two a minute.


Deaths in the city residential districts from the British cannonade were few.

but in absence of evidence. No systematic British attempt to assess civilian casualties in Alexandria was made, or at least reported on, to my knowledge. It is likely that many fled the city if they could, judging by reports of thronging refugees. There were accounts of plundering and rioting, but conflicting reports of who or what started the fires that engulfed Alexandria.

Several European residents complained afterwards about the loss of property and the 'hysteria' caused by the shelling.

Percy Scott, clearing shells a week later, reported that Alexandria hit worse than forts probably as high as 30 per cent of those fired may have overshot their targets but not all exploded. Arsonists worked independently of the bombardment. Rubble shown in photographs may have been from controlled detonation of damaged buildings. TLW concludes:

Seymour’s shells may not have destroyed Alexandria but his failure to land marines or sailors and restore order most certainly contributed to the city’s destruction.
File:Report of the British naval and military operations in Egypt, 1882 (1883) (14596878798).jpg
By Goodrich, Caspar F. (Caspar Frederick), 1847-1925 - https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14596878798/Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/reportofbritishn01good/reportofbritishn01good#page/n418/mode/1up, No restrictions, Link
The Southern Bastion of the Light House Fort. First gun disabled.

USAmerican marines were first to land, finding death and destruction, pillage and wine bargains. A mixed party of Britons explored burning city, discovering mewing cats, burst mains, burning buildings, looted stores, hissing steam, burning trees and ‘mutilated bodies’ (which on closer inspection turned out to be dress-makers’ dummies) in Place Muhammad Ali.

My impression is that William Wright gives a somewhat sanitised account. There is an awkward passage where he coyly describes Europeans visiting the 'fleshpots' of Alexandria without detail. Wright does however say that British General Wolseley (who took Cairo without damaging that city) wrote the Admiral Seymour's bombardment of Alexandria was silly and criminal in a letter to his wife Louisa: glorification for the Navy, injurious to England (sic).

The British Invasion of Egypt, 1882

BND: Gladstone now sent an expeditionary Force while the House of Commons vote massively in favour of invasion. The British massacre Egyptians defeated at battle of Tel-el-Kebir. Queen Victoria and Gladstone (who benefited financially) congratulated themselves. Contemporary critics who called it a bondholders’ war were vindicated by later research, though there was also a strategic interest in the Suez Canal.

But according to TLW, Ferdinand de Lessops said his Canal was quite safe and the biggest danger, in fact, was the threat of foreign intervention.

A literary account

In TYM, which we have to interrogate for artistic licence, Henty writes in Chapter 12: Free, of an eye-witness account:

Half the city appeared to be in flames. A sea of fire extended from the port over the European quarter, including the great square, while in many other parts separate conflagrations were raging.

and in Chapter 13: Among Friends

Presently they came to the edge of the district swept by the fire. The walls for the most part were standing, although in many cases they had fallen across the road. On they went, making their way very cautiously until they reached a wide open space surrounded by ruins.
It was calculated that upwards of five hundred were killed.

Describing the British 'pacification' which included summary execution of 'looters', and impressed locals to carry out British orders, in Ch14 A Set of Rascals, Henty writes that of returning population Many of the lower class of Greeks and Italians plundered and caused trouble.

In most respects, Henty's literary account matches the historians', and although his framing tends to valourise the British and apply some racial prejudice, not all historians are free from these faults either.

Official British version

The official British government account of the 'Egypt War of 1882' and the bombardment of Alexandria is disgraceful almost beyond belief, concluding:

In many ways it is surprising that Britain allowed itself to be drawn into direct intervention in Egypt. The Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was well known for his reluctance to be drawn into imperial adventures. Historians have argued as to whether Admiral Seymour exaggerated the threat from the Egyptian batteries at Alexandria in order to force a reluctant government's hand. Whatever the truth, once the British had successfully attacked the city, a land invasion was their logical next step.

However, it does make the link in 'Aftermath' to another British atrocity, conspiring with the French and Israelis to seize the nationalised Suez Canal once more and blame Egypt for starting another war (although it doesn't say all that, of course). What value system lies behind this criminal 'logic' is unstated in official materials for public consumption, and must be inferred.

Novel and Movie: what they reveal, distort and conceal

In both the novel and movie, Bella and Wedderburn arrive by ship in Alexandria, Egypt, almost certainly in the latter half of 1882 (movie) or perhaps up to 18 months later (novel). During this brief stopover, Bella has a profoundly affecting experience witnessing poor beggar children. In the movie, these even appear to be dwelling in the ruins of a coastal fort, but that is hardly made clear. The British invasion of Egypt is mentioned in passing in the novel (Chapter 15 Odessa to Alexandria: The Missionaries) in this exchange between Dr Hooker, Astley and Bella:

Hooker: Britain has carved up the rest of the planet. Less than two years ago you grabbed Egypt from the French — and from the Egyptians.

Astley: We needed their canal. We paid them for it.

Hooker: You also shelled Alexandria, our next port of call.

Astley: They were arming it against us and we needed their canal.

… Bella: But why are British soldiers fighting Egyptian natives? It makes no sense to me.

—Alasdair Gray, Poor Things

The time period in the movie is ambiguous and fantasy-flavoured. However, the script I've seen explicitly sets the action in 1882. Alexandria appears around 1:16:27. We see what could be ruined coastal fortifications 1:17:02 where Astley says Lot of dead babies. Must be hot. They’ll quite rightly rope us, rob us and rape us. Ruins are more clearly seen as recent 1:18:09 extending from hotel on spur in sea. Bella is upset by the sights she’s seen, gives Wedderburn’s gambling winnings to sailors to give to poor in slum next to hotel. But movie-Bella doesn’t try to understand the Alexandrian poor and suffering children's plight (which is almost certainly caused by the historical factors, European and Ottoman colonialism, European hierarchical racism, indigenous rule, the Mediterranean sex trade, British naval terror (aka gunboat diplomacy) and foreign occupation as described previously).

Furthermore, the movie removes the Dr Hooker character quoted above, and his critique of British imperial exploitation (and specifically of Egypt and shelling Alexandria). Movie-Astley is left to make racist remarks implying Egyptians have too many babies and are incapable of adapting to the heat of their own climate. This is at odds with competing indigenous reforms (Khedival modernisation and Egyptian Nationalist demands) the latter of which would have provided universal education opportunities, water security, eradication of slavery etc.

Prostitution in Alexandria: an academic overview

I found it difficult to find more than a single source here, but at least this chapter-length account by Nefertiti Takla of Manhattan College, New York is well-written, clear and relevant. I will assume for the moment that the account is correct, but obviously corroboration would be helpful. I will summarise it now, using Takla's own headings:

The population of Alexandria grew from around 12,000 in 1820, to 104,000 in 1850, to 320,000 in 1900.

Legal situation and demography

According to contemporary reports, prostitution in Alexandria had reached unprecedented levels by the second half of the 1870s.

The rise and fall of cotton created precarious economics.

More aggressive attempts to abolish slavery in Egypt in the 1870s also brought newly manumitted Ethiopian and Southern Sudanese into Alexandria’s expanding sex economy.

An influx came from Balkans war. Calls for regulation went unmet until British occupation of 1882: yearly licences to adults 18+, mandatory weekly medical inspections with venereal hospital confinement, or punishments (fine, prison): prostitution was professionalised. But Europeans (and some Christians, Jews) were given legal immunity from local courts, tried in consular courts, including sex workers from 1886.

It was not uncommon to find women of three or four nationalities in a single brothel, and policing such a brothel often required the cooperation of multiple consulates, which was both logistically and politically challenging.

There was competition between French, Greek and Italian communities. European sex workers were brought under colonial control by British by imposition of martial law during World War 1.

In the early twentieth century, it was both the exploitative nature of the capitulations as well as the racism embedded in the prostitution regulations that gave Alexandria the reputation of being the largest centre of traffic in women and children.

Causes of Prostitution

The British colonial-military occupation restricted city economy during WW1 and was a major driving force behind the spread of prostitution. British military base of Levant operations was sited in the city, which was also target for refugees and migrants. Secret brothels appeared around military Labour Corps camps, labourers without means to send money to families. That situation, combined with the rise in the cost of living during the war, led married women and underage girls to turn to the commercial sex industry in increasing numbers.

Organization of the trade

For varied reasons married women, underage girls, temporary/transient and military-serving sex workers evaded the licensing regime. Wartime colonial state monopoly on transportation led to decline in the international and domestic trafficking of sex workers in Egypt and rise of street walking particularly among married women, and female brothel owners. Postwar lack of work opportunities. With rise of organised crime, Alexandria rose to prominence as the centre of international and domestic trafficking in Egypt that left sex workers increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and organized crime, and since the racism embedded in the regulation system created a higher incentive for native workers to practise their trade covertly, race became a dominant factor in their exposure to gender violence. An infamous 1920 Alexandria serial murder, known in Egypt as Raya and Sakina case, concerns powerful sister brothel-owners who ordered punitive/competition-eliminating murders of 17 sex workers.

Modern perspectives of child casualties of industrialised warfare

This BBC article references a United Nation designation 'Wounded child, no surviving family': The pain of Gaza’s orphans which could easily apply to survivors of the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882. The British bombardment of Alexandria is ideal for creating what UNICEF calls 'WCNSFs'. That these desperate children just materialise in the movie without mentioning the perpetrators is exactly the cowardly crime of omission that Western journalism is guilty of in present news reporting when it talks circumspectly of humanitarian crises.

See UN reports ‘shocking’ rise in violations against children in conflict in 2023.


The historical events of 1882 are hardly unknown, and found their way into popular literature of the time. As TLW puts it:

The popular newspapers vied in reports of the battles, denunciations of Arabi and a surfeit of bad poetry… perhaps the worst was a fifteen stanza poem from the Scottish bard, William McGonagall

Given the fixation of Poor Things on prostitution, it seems odd to ignore the British colonial impact on prostitution in Alexandria, especially since the opportunity to counter-critique General Blessington, Astley and other presents itself. Why are modern historians like Wright so coy about what these mysterious 'fleshpots' really are?

So, back to the question: Why Does Poor Things Hide the British Bombardment of Alexandria from Readers and Viewers? I am forcefully reminded of the views of Vietnamese-USAmerican author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who says:.

(The Pulitzer Prize-winning author doesn’t want to be a voice for the voiceless, he wants to abolish the conditions of voicelessness)
Now, if you are one of the victors or descended from the victors, you have an investment in selective memory that would justify your existence as a conqueror or the descendant of conquerors. If you are not, let’s say you’re an immigrant or a refugee, the power of the mythology of the country you’ve come to is such that you can internalize that mythology so that you too engage in a selective remembering and forgetting because society is rewarding you for that.

There seems no good reason to include this key scene in Alexandria (instead of child poverty elsewhere) without linking it to British colonialism. Especially given the mini-lectures of Astley. The novel's contrived structure even allows two or three different takes on the main narrative, providing opportunies to reflect differently on the Alexandria episode, which are not taken.

My conclusion is that the director Yorgos Lanthimos and scriptwriter Tony McNamara are complicit in whitewashing the British imperial crimes of bombarding Alexandria, invading Egypt and colonial occupation, with all the moral and legal crimes appertaining to. This is what Establishment-friendly creatives do. The outcome, however small this movie is in the scheme of things, is to encourage similar current and future criminals who see that the British have got away with literal mass murder once again. Author Alasdair Gray made it easy just to remove the relevant lines of dialogue in any movie adaptation, and by various other literary devices (including intellectual dishonesty and fantasising history) undermined his own rather clunky and bolted-on mini-lectures within the text — but at least the 'shelling' and Anglo-Egyptian War are mentioned (even if briefly) in the novel. Whether the depiction of sex work in both novel and movie are also disgraceful, I will let others judge this time.

#PoorThings #BombardmentAlexandria1882 #ChildrenUnderAttack

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