Roustam Raza - Napoleon’s first Mamluk: A tale of loyalty and betrayal
09 October, 2014
Roustam Raza - Napoleon’s first Mamluk: A tale of loyalty and betrayal
Alexander Mikaberidze is an Associate Professor at Louisiana State University and has been studying the Napoleonic era for more than ten years. He has published more than fifteen works on the topic. In the last three years, he became interested in Georgians who fought in Napoleon’s army. These Georgians were mainly Mamluks taken from Egypt, but among them was a man who rose to great prominence – Roustam Raza.

– Roustam was one of the most colorful figures of Napoleonic
era. Born in Tbilisi to the family of Armenian merchant Roustam Honan and his wife Buji-Vari in 1782, Roustam’s childhood was a tragic one. When he was 13, he was abducted by slavers and sold first in Dagestan and then in Istanbul. Eventually he ended up in Egypt, where he was bought by a Mamluk Bey of Georgian descent. After receiving education and military training, Roustam served in Egypt and Syria for almost two years. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army marched into Egypt, defeated the Mamluks and conquered the country. In a year, Roustam found himself in the service of Napoleon and remained unwaveringly loyal to the Emperor for sixteen years.

– Did he participate in any battles?

– Roustam did not participate in combat directly, but during every single Napoleon’s campaign (aside from the Italian one in 1800), he fulfilled the duties of both personal bodyguard and attendant to the Emperor. He was first presented to the public on the 5th November of 1799, when “Cairo Caravan” was premiered by Paris Opera. Napoleon, who attended the performance, was accompanied by Roustam, whose appearance caused quite an agitation. As the newspaper “Moniteur Universel” put it, “the Mamluk attracted gazes from everyone, while he himself was only watching the stage, perplexed by seeing his country’s clothing and customs depicted there”.
Every morning Roustam, together with Louis Constant Wairy, the Emperor’s personal valet, helped Napoleon bathe and get dressed. During the day, Roustam was constantly at Napoleon’s side, regardless of whether the emperor was on the battlefield, a formal reception or a dinner party; he also carried a silver shot glass with cognac to quench the emperor’s thirst. At night, as Roustam himself said, he slept in an entrance to the emperor’s bedroom, where a small bed was laid for him. If there existed a suspicion of a conspiracy against Napoleon, then he slept right in front of the door, blocking it.
In order for Mamluk’s appearance to have an even greater effect, Napoleon commissioned the best tailors of Paris to make expensive and lavish clothes for him. For his coronation in 1804, Napoleon ordered two extremely ornate suits for Roustam, which cost him more than 8,000 francs. Roustam himself said that for public appearances he had clothes similar to those of an Arabic Bedouin, decorated with gold. He also used a Turkish harness and saddle. However, when traveling or taking a walk, he sat on a French horse and used a gold-decorated Hussar harness. Louis Constant Wairy writes: “Wrapped in ornate garments, with an order of an honorary officer on his chest and many other awards, Roustam was fiercely loyal to his patron.”

– Did he remain loyal to the very end?

– After many years of service, in spring of 1814, Roustam made a fateful decision. There were rumors circulating that Napoleon, abandoned by his court in the face of a powerful anti-French coalition, was teetering on the brink of suicide. One day, the emperor asked Roustam to bring him a pistol. Roustam hesitated – if Napoleon committed suicide, he would be inevitably accused of his murder. If he disobeyed the emperor’s order, he would be branded a traitor. Eventually, he made up his mind and fled. “His immense loyalty failed to hold itself to such a trial” – writes a contemporary. “Faced with such a tough choice, Roustam failed to display devotion that Eastern horsemen were known for”. In April of 1814, when the coalition invaded France, Roustam turned his back on his benefactor and decided to leave his service. The emperor’s supporters did not forgive Roustam for this betrayal – a multitude of newspapers printed articles condemning and denouncing his act.
However, In March of 1815, Napoleon returned from his exile at the island of Elba and got his title of the Emperor back. On the 20th of March, he returned to Paris and once again settled in Tuileries Palace. Five days later, Roustam came to the palace, asking for the Emperor’s forgiveness and a return into his service. Napoleon, however, staunchly refused to meet the Mamluk in person. When Roustam sent him a letter instead, Napoleon told his servants to “burn this coward’s letter and never again mention his name in my presence”. Considering that upon his return from Elba, Napoleon forgave everyone and everything with the purpose of reinforcing his rule, his treatment of Roustam only served to emphasize how painful the Mamluk’s betrayal was for him. This is even further underlined by a short order given by Napoleon on the same day: “Monsieur Douville [Roustam’s father-in-law] has a certain courtier living in his home. My order is that any person who served me and now serves another is to be driven away elsewhere.” With such a harsh order and not a single mention of Roustam’s name, the Mamluk’s fate was decided. Three days later, Napoleon wrote a short letter to his majordomo: “I want to abolish the post of a vessel-holder [which used to be held by Roustam]. Therefore, all items associated with this post are to be immediately thrown away.”
Denied by the Emperor, Roustam returned to the city of Dreaux, 80 kilometers away from Paris. In 1824, he left France and set sail towards the shores of his former patron’s greatest enemy - England. After the former emperor’s death in 1821, he became quite a popular figure in Britain, and Roustam wanted to use this for profit. For several weeks that he spent in London, Roustam attracted a great deal of attention from the English society, attending various formal receptions and parties. Naturally, all this was quite beneficial for him.

– How did he spend the last years of his life?

– For the last fourteen years of his life, Roustam lived in Dourdan. He wrote and received letters to and from several writers and public figures who were interested in Napoleonic era. Roustam would frequently sign his letters with “Emperor Napoleon’s former First Mamluk”. At 6 in the morning on December 7th, 1845, Roustam Raza died of illness at the age of 64. His body was interred at a local cemetery, and his gravestone stands there to this day.

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