Jessie Brown lived in Alexandria, Egypt, at the turn of the twentieth century. She was the daughter of a Scottish man and a woman who may have been Spanish, Greek, or Syrian—the record on her mother is not clear. Jessie was illiterate, and she spoke a little of many languages: Arabic, French, Greek, and Italian. It is unclear if Jessie knew any English, although she may have. Many details of her life are blurry; “the truth was not a virtue the deceased possessed,” reported one of her many acquaintances to the British Consulate during Jessie’s inquest. Jessie lived with Yannis Mindler, a Greek national who was either her husband or fiancé, in the home of Muhammad Hassan—–nationality unknown, but clearly of Muslim heritage. Both Yannis and Jessie worked on the various ships that came through the harbor; when and how they arrived in Alexandria is unknown. Her closest friend was a native Egyptian woman named Fanny Cohen, whose name suggests at least a Jewish father, even though Jessie and Fanny celebrated Easter together. In other words, Jessie clearly lived a life that crossed all sorts of national, linguistic, and religious categories. And in that life, Jessie was unknown to the British colonial state in Egypt—as long as she was alive. But on the 11th of April 1906, she willfully swallowed a dose of corrosive sublimate, a mercury compound that had once been used to treat syphilis but was by then known to be deadly. Jessie died on April 22, 1906.
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Jessie’s story is one of hundreds I found in the archives of Egypt, France, and Great Britain, representing a fraction of the thousands of foreign nationals living in turn-of-the-century Alexandria under various imperial protections. Jessie and others like her were trans-imperial subjects who lived across all sorts of sociopolitical boundaries. Theirs are the stories of “cosmopolitan” Alexandria, vulgar and otherwise. Yet this ability to maneuver around and within national and religious affiliations ended with death. In death, these same foreign nationals needed a defined and recognized community to claim and care for them, and it was a consular responsibility to care for the dead. Consulates claimed dead bodies as theirs and, in doing so, they claimed the living as well. Over and again, the stories of Jessie Brown and other foreign nationals of Alexandria demonstrated that death defined the living. It was this bureaucracy and ritualization of death that enabled the imperial consulates to create, manipulate, and control the categories under which they classified the foreign living population.
Alexandria, Egypt, in the late nineteenth century was a bustling port city, under Ottoman and later British imperial rule. A small hamlet of around five-thousand people at the start of the nineteenth century, by 1897, it had approximately 320,000 inhabitants and was in its second decade of veiled British colonial rule. As the city grew, so did its foreign population. While the vast majority of the population (over 80 percent) was indigenous, primarily Muslims who migrated from all over Egypt, around fifty-thousand people held foreign nationality. Foreign consulates peppered the city, and the major European powers were all represented. Foreign companies sprang up, industrializing the city. Business and everyday life was conducted in a multiplicity of languages, with Arabic mixed with Maltese, Italian, French, English, and more. Even the municipality required that ten different nationalities be represented within its ranks. This tells us that Alexandria was a city both of empire and of Egypt. It was never under sole control of one government—not the Ottoman, not the British, not the nascent Egyptian state. Instead, it was a city in which imperial powers bumped up against one another in a competition for dominance, where the French led other European nations in continual challenge of the British. It was a city in which the Ottoman-Egyptian state, despite the many imperial powers, maintained a hold on land and resources, even as the municipality favored the foreign population. And it was a city whose foreign nationals, immigrants and the children of immigrants who called the city home, likewise often crossed political boundaries, simultaneously both defined by and defining the categories of nationality and of empire—of belonging—at use in those days.
But, like Jessie, many of those who lived in the city eventually died in it. And suddenly, a consulate and a community were needed. Someone had to find burial plots (there was no potter’s field), arrange funerals, process estates, certify deaths. In other words, the chaos of life—with regard to national, linguistic, ethnic, and other boundaries—had to be rapidly organized and regulated. When Jessie Brown died, the state in all of its incarnations (municipal, national, imperial) needed her to be classified as something knowable, something the government could organize, something that fit within acknowledged jurisdictions and regulations. And so, the British, who traced nationality through fathers, claimed her after her death.
And once the British learned of Jessie, they swooped in and took control of her belongings, of her cemetery plot, of her lackluster estate. They collected her debts and interviewed those who shared her life. They spoke with her husband/fiancé, her doctors, the chemist who sold her the mercury compound, people who worked with her, the Cohens. They ascertained that she had indeed killed herself and not been killed, even though they held Yannis Mindler in deep suspicion—refusing to give him access to Jessie and his shared property, pushing him to the brink of utter poverty, on nothing but prejudiced suspicion of what a Greek man may have been doing with a British woman.
And although the British consulate had never known Jessie in life, by processing her death, by roaming the city of Alexandria to document her last days, they counted her as a British subject living in Alexandria. They assumed retroactive primary responsibility for her. And, as we see with how they treated poor Yannis, they assumed behavioral norms and communal boundaries; Yannis, Jessie’s chosen family, could no longer be her community in death. The British were rewarded for it: By counting Jessie, they could claim more subjects, and in claiming more subjects, they could claim more relevancy in the city crowded with imperial populations. And in claiming more relevancy, they could ask for more resources from the Egyptian state in the form of land and subventions for British cemeteries and hospitals; they could claim more space in the city of Alexandria. In her death, Jessie became useful to the British Empire in a manner unavailable to her in life.
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Empire is neither a universal nor a static concept; it was in constant negotiation with the specificities of local populations and place. In turn-of-the-century Alexandria, thinking about empire brings to mind the thousands of foreign nationals who lived there, wealthy and poor, passing through the city or settled for generations. Yet the building of empire in Alexandria was not limited to the realm of the living. Rather, it was death that provided those day-to-day building blocks of empire. It was death that gave imperial governments the room to claim subjects and citizens, or that forced families to affiliate with consulates—such as when they needed help claiming a debt or organizing an estate. It was death that gave governments and communities claim to land, to resources, and the more symbolic, but still very tangible, claim of belonging to the city, to the country of Egypt. The sociopolitical categories through which the municipal, national, and imperial governments of the city imagined the living—religious, national, and other—were prescriptive and not descriptive, with regular movement between and amongst different populations. Consulates, then, played an outsized role in claiming the dead, in processing burials, and, in the process, consulates played an outsized role in creating the categories of the living. And in doing so, these categories determined our understanding of the population of Alexandria, both in terms of the categories at use in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and the categories at use in histories we write today.
We cannot know how Jessie would have identified herself, had we been able to ask. But, regardless, we know that she lived her life among a mixed multitude, not staying neatly in any one community. And yet, when she died, despite her Greek fiancé (and indeed her burial in a Greek cemetery), despite her close association with Jewish and Muslim indigenous Egyptians, despite her mother’s unknown nationality, Jessie’s burial, inquest, and estate were all under the control of the British consulate. The richness of her life was flattened into a knowable, understandable category. She became a British of Alexandria. In a city teeming with foreign nationals intermingling with indigenous Egyptians, processing and burying the dead became a site for the creation of boundaries. Death and dying were primary actors and historical movers in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In the age of empire, in the face of a nascent national state, it was death that codified belonging.