Roustam Raza (1781-1845), kidnapped as a child in the Caucasus and sold seven times, was trained in Egypt as a Mamluk but ended up as Napoleon Bonaparte’s bodyguard, valet and confidant for some fifteen years. The Memoirs of Roustam: Napoleon’s Mamluk Imperial Bodyguard (London: Bennet and Bloom, 2014), translated into English for the first time by Catherine Carpenter and edited with annotations and introduction by Ara Ghazarians, provides glimpses into the exciting and complicated life of this unusual and largely ignored figure. Roustam was made into a character in the works of many famous writers like Honoré de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and was painted by many artists.
Ghazarians, in a recent interview, declared that “because of our history, the Armenians were scattered all over the world. We had people serving different communities and countries at the highest levels, such as emperors, military commanders and ministers. Keeping this in mind, Roustam is one of the most unusual characters that I have come across. He was basically just a slave boy. Yet, with no education, social status or social stature, he became a confidante of the French emperor, Napoleon. Somehow he ended up in a position where he was taken seriously by many people.” Ghazarians added that there is some evidence that he helped his Armenian compatriots in Moscow and Venice by influencing Napoleon’s decisions in a positive way concerning, respectively, the Sourp Khach Church and the Mkhitarist monastery of San Lazzarro.
Recently, Ghazarians has encountered a number of incorrect references to Roustam on social media on the internet which claim that he is Georgian or even Azerbaijani, despite the fact that Roustam stated clearly in his own words that he was an Armenian from Karabagh.
Born in Tbilisi, Roustam was kidnapped in Ganja and eventually ended up in Cairo, circumcised with a Muslim name and trained as a Mamluk. The Mamluks were slaves who formed a military caste in Islamic societies, including in Egypt. Roustam rose quickly in the ranks and became the bodyguard of the influential Sheikh El-Bekri, the head of the Cairo divan. El-Bekri, in turn, gave him as a gift of friendship in August 1799 to Napoleon. Eighteen-years old, Roustam became the latter’s bodyguard and valet, and simultaneously served in the French Imperial Guard for five years. In 1806, Roustam married the daughter of one of Empress Josephine’s two valets-de-chambre, with Napoleon paying for the wedding.
Roustam declined to follow Napoleon into exile in Alba after the latter abdicated in 1814 in order to avoid rumors about his involvement in plots and also not to be separated from his family. After a brief period in prison, Roustam lived a decade in Paris (1815-25), and soon moved to Dourdan, where he was appointed by King Louis-Philippe as postmaster and lived a peaceful life for the next two decades.
The French had varying opinions of Roustam. He fascinated his contemporaries. Among other things, he was the only Mamluk in France allowed to wear his traditional attire, and therefore stood out in any crowd.
French Academician Frédéric Masson wrote in the preface to the French edition of the memoirs that Roustam was “an ignorant brute…totally incapable of gratitude or devotion,” and at certain points, “is induced to lie.” Yet, he concludes that the memoirs are valuable due to their “savor, interest and oddity,” and said, “I have noticed that Roustam rarely departed from the truth.”
As Ghazarians points out in the introduction to the English edition, Roustam’s memoirs “anecdotally, highlights certain aspects of the life of Europe’s most powerful political and military individual,” Napoleon. Roustam was physically the closest individual to Napoleon for many years and privy to many aspects of the latter’s private and public life, including every major battle and campaign. As an outsider culturally who was placed at the fulcrum of French imperial affairs, Roustam provides an unusual perspective useful for Napoleonic studies. He is also an interesting source on Mamluks of Armenian origin and French-Armenian relations
These memoirs were originally published posthumously in 1888 in French, which was not Roustam’s native language. The translator of the present English edition surmises that Roustam dictated a large portion of the work to an amanuensis, who may have been his French wife, though the initial sections appear to have been written by Roustam directly. An Italian translation was published in 1935, and Russian, Armenian and Georgian editions have been made available in the last two decades.
This English translation of Roustam’s memoirs appears to follow the French edition fairly closely. There is now a second translation into English, by Jonathan North, which is available at present only digitally (Napoleon’s Mameluke, New York: Enigma Books, 2015). The latter work contains less extensive notes and appendices, and the editor did not have any access to Armenian-language sources. The editor reorganized the latter part of the memoirs to reflect a more chronologically accurate order than in the original text.
Ghazarians, the translator and editor of a number of other books on Armenian subjects, has provided useful elucidations and references in the footnotes to the various parts of his work. There is some repetition of information in various footnotes. The Appendices include useful background such as information on the French Republican Calendar; documents on the Mamluk Corps, including decrees on its formation, lists of Mamluks’ names and information on their uniforms; Roustam’s death certificate; and a picture of the tombstones of Roustam and his wife Alexandrine in Dourdan, France (south of Paris). The 208-page work closes with a select bibliography on Roustam, Napoleon and Armenia, and an index.
In recent years, French-Armenian military veterans have held a ceremony at Roustam’s tomb, usually around the anniversary of his death in December, with the participation of the ambassador of Armenia to France, the mayor of Dourdan, and other notables, indicating a renewed interest in this enigmatic figure. They placed a new plaque at the tomb in 2007, and one at his home.
The present volume will hopefully be used by scholars as well as read by lay readers curious about this unusual Mamluk Armenian historical figure. Ghazarians declared that this work is just a first step toward the exploration of Roustam’s life. He said, “My wish is for somebody to take this project further and do a full biography of Roustam. I am convinced that there is a great deal of material in French archives and institutions that remains to be found.”