Present here is an unusually extensive and intriguing archive relating to the Comte d’Escayrac’s planned expedition to discover the source of the White Nile, formally named the ‘Exploration du Soudan recherche des sources du Nil’. In the mid-1850s, the upper course and source of the White Nile remained one of the last great enduring geographic mysteries of the world, the unlocking of which promised to yield vast riches in mineral wealth and scientific knowledge. Naturally, a race ensued to see who could be the first to discover the source of the river, and consequently which nation would most benefit. The expedition in question was the brainchild of Ferdinand de Lesseps (of Suez Canal fame), was generously backed by both the French and Egyptian governments, and seemed to have a jump on the competition, both chronologically and in terms of its impressive resources and manpower.
The Comte d’Escayrac, an accomplished explorer of Northern Africa, was hand-picked by Lesseps to lead and form an expert intonational team, of which the second-in-command was Gabriel Aubaret, a polyglot French Navy Lieutenant, who would later gain international distinction as the diplomat most responsible for bringing Vietnam under French rule, and as the chief economic administrator of the Ottoman Empire.
However, as the main part of Escayrac’s expedition prepared to leave Cairo, it became paralysed by irreconcilable differences between the autocratic Escayrac, on one hand, and Aubaret and virtually all the endeavour’s professional team, on the other. While the expedition’s advance party penetrated well into Sudan, the toxic atmosphere at the head of mission in Cairo compelled the Egyptian Khedive and Lesseps to pull the plug. Seldom had such a well-funded enterprise, headed by esteemed professionals failed so resolutely.
Nevertheless, the study of the details of the expedition’s preparations and the way it failed lends valuable insights into the complex world of monumentally ambitious scientific expeditions during the last great period of exploration.
The present archive comes from the personal papers of Gabriel Aubaret, one of the protagonists of the enterprise. It consists of a magnificent original photograph of Aubaret, taken in Cairo on the eve of the intended mission, as well as sixteen manuscript documents detailing key aspects of the expedition’s planning and its chaotic demise. Importantly, this archive is, as far as we are aware, the largest, most comprehensive and highest quality cache of original documents from the Escayrac Expedition to have come to market, at least during the last generation.
The Escayrac Nile Expedition: A Truly Spectacular Failure
The ‘Exploration du Soudan recherche des sources du Nil’, or the Escayrac Expedition, was a failure, albeit a spectacular failure. This was even though very few expeditions in the history of African exploration had more august patrons or more lavish financial and technical support; moreover, the resumés of its leading members suggested the formation of an ‘All Star Team’. Rather, the outcome of the expedition was due to that most human of group failings – conflicts of personality.
To make a long story short, the main course of the Nile River starts at a point just below Khartoum, Sudan, where its two principal tributaries, the Blue Nile and White Nile, meet. The source of the Blue Nile, being Lake Tana, Ethiopia, was no longer a mystery, as it had been visited and recorded by Pedro Páez (in 1618) and James Bruce of Kinnaird (in 1770). The much longer White Nile remained enigmatic to Europeans, as while Arab traders who had visited its source described it as “an immense lake said to exist in the interior”, it was unclear as to where, or even if, this lake existed. Hitherto, Europeans had failed to penetrate the feverish jungles of South Sudan, falling far short of the supposed mark.
During the mid-19th Century, Europeans lusted to conquer Africa, and the revelation of the complete course of the White Nile and its source held out the promise of a great new trade route in to the very heart of Africa, accessing vast riches in minerals and ivory that were known to exist (which had hitherto been sold to Europeans by Arab traders at immense profit). Many believed that the exploration of the White Nile could be an economic ‘game changer’, while more enlightened souls hoped to learn more about the region’s flora, fauna and indigenous peoples.
The impetus of the Expedition in question came from Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-94), the former French Consul General in Cairo and, since 1854, the holder of the official concession to build the Suez Canal (which was realized in 1869). Lesseps possessed inexhaustible ambition, and instead of being satisfied with creating the Suez Canal, he also wanted to control the best route into the heart of Africa.
Enter Stanislas d’Escayrac de Lauture, Comte d’Escayrac (1826-68), a highly intelligent (but temperamentally difficult) young nobleman and adventurer, and the husband of the court physician to Emperor Napoleon III. Escayrac attended the Collège de Juilly before entering the French diplomatic service. In 1844, he travelled to Madagascar, the Comoros and Zanzibar. He was subsequently an attaché to the French Embassy in Lisbon, and in 1846 visited Algeria and Morocco.
In 1849, after leaving government service, he embarked upon an epic expedition from Tunis through the desert to Kordofan (South Sudan) and Sannar (Sudan), before reaching Egypt via Khartoum. He published a well-regarded account of his adventures, Le désert et le Soudan (1853). Subsequently, he travelled to Syria and Palestine and, in 1856, was made an Officer of the Legion of Honour and an officer the French Army. He was made a fellow of several academic societies across Europe and was widely regarded as a foremost authority on Northern Africa.
In 1854, Escayrac was based Cairo, conducting studies into the dialects of various desert languages. He was introduced to Lesseps, who was immediately impressed by the young explorer and his infectious enthusiasm for the Nile Valley.
Lesseps came to believe that Escayrac would be the ideal leader for a grand expedition to discover the source of the White Nile. On January 23, 1856, he wrote the Comte inviting him to fulfil such a role, a request which was eagerly accepted. However, Lesseps and Escayrac had to move fast, as it was rumoured that British-backed interests were focussed on the same goal.
Lesseps was a celebrity in Egypt and he impressed upon Khedive (Viceroy) Muhammad Sa’id Pasha (ruled 1854-63), the de facto ruler of the country (while Egypt was nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire, it was for all practical purposes autonomous) that it would be in his best interests to open a trade route into the heart of Africa through his domains (Egypt also controlled most of Sudan). Muhammad Sa’id Pasha not only gave the enterprise his blessing, but on July 20, 1856, conferred the expedition as being an official mission of the Egyptian government. As such, it was the Khedive who officially appointed Escayrac to be the head of the ‘Exploration du Soudan recherche des sources du Nil’.
Escayrac’s mission soon received the blessing of Napoleon III, the Académie des Sciences in Paris, several other learned societies, as well as Alexander von Humboldt, the 19th Century’s most revered explorer-intellectual. While the mission was to be French led, to give it the appearance of international legitimacy (and to dampen the jealousy of France’s rivals), the exploration team was to feature members from most of the major European powers, accompanied by Egyptian staff officers. While the Quay d’Orsay, Lesseps and the Khedive were primarily interested in the political and economic potential of the mission’s discoveries, the endeavour was to be a full-fledged scientific undertaking, featuring specialists in all the major relevant academic disciplines.
Escayrac was given carte blanche to appoint the mission’s professional team, which was to be balanced by nationality and specialization. As his second-in-command and chief science officer, he appointed Gabriel Aubaret, a dashing French naval lieutenant and hero of the Crimean War, who was skilled at navigation, orienteering and languages. Additionally, the team consisted of Dr. Gustave Richard, a French botanist; E. Meyer, a German mineralogist; Gustav Boleslawsky von der Trenck and Karl Geng, officers of the Austrian corps of engineers; Georges Pouchet, a zoologist, Anthony W. Twyford, an English army captain; Monsieur Clague, a photographer; André De Bar, a draughtsman; and R.H. Taboulle, secretary to the expedition. While most of the mission members were young (probably good, given the physical demands of the expected trip), they were all highly regarded in their fields, recommended by leaders at the highest levels in their respective countries.
The Escayrac expedition was one of the most expensive and lavishly outfitted exploring missions ever assembled in Africa. Muhammad Sa’id Pasha provided the professional team with an escort of 300 soldiers, 500 camels, two steamships, numerous barques, and thirty-eight wagons, as well as sundry other items, including a distilling apparatus, two field guns, electric lights and a sewing machine. Moreover, the French Navy supplied the mission with the most expensive and modern astronomical and navigational equipment, placed under the charge of Lieutenant Aubaret.
In September 1856, the expedition members travelled in haste to their designated ‘base camp’ in the Bulaq district of Cairo. The mission had to depart up the Nile with dispatch to take advantage of the season. All the team’s principals arrived in good time, as the supplies and Egyptian support personnel were likewise on point and on schedule. On paper, at least, it seemed that few endeavours had so much going for it at inception.
However, human failings set out to spoil these beautifully choreographed preparations. Even before anyone had budged an inch from Bulaq, Escayrac proceeded to alienate all the members of his professional team. He apparently behaved in the most imperious manner, treating his colleagues more like low-level servants than esteemed scientists. Even his most enthusiastic colleagues lost all zeal for the mission upon being verbally abused by Escayrac, seemingly without provocation or reason. Aubaret, a proud man by nature, was especially offended by the Comte’s behaviour, and organised his colleagues to mount something of a non-violent mutiny while they were all still in Bulaq. The expedition was paralysed even before it started.
Meanwhile, as Escayrac and Aubaret (unanimously backed by the other members of the team) were duking it out in Cairo, a small advance party led by Twyford, Pouchet, and Clague, accompanied by a small number of Egyptian personnel, set out up the Nile bound for Dongolah, Sudan. While this part of the route was arduous, it was already known to Europeans and was the ‘easy part’ of the enterprise.
The advance party left Bulaq on October 20, 1856. It crossed the first cataract of the Nile but had apparently misjudged its provisioning. By the time the party reached Ambukul (near Aswan, Egypt) they had run out of money and their food rations were perilously low. They continued towards Dongolah, where they had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on your interpretation) to run into the party of none other than Khedive Muhammad Sa’id Pasha, who was one his way back to Cairo, having toured his Sudanese provinces.
The Khedive was enraged that the expedition that he had so lavishly financed and provisioned was now reduced to this pathetic, hungry party, while Escayrac (and the thousands of pounds of Egyptian government money he had been given) was nowhere to be seen. While the Muhammad Sa’id Pasha’s guard gave the “disgraced” men enough food to survive, he banished them from his sights and they straggled back to Cairo in the greatest of discomfort.
Muhammad Sa’id Pasha then cancelled the entire expedition and demanded the return of all monies and unused supplies. It was widely regarded that the expedition failed largely due to “the deluded arrogance of the count [Escayrac], whom the expedition members did not want to recognize as their boss” (Henze II, p. 180). Escayrac became persona no grata in Egypt and blamed the whole episode on Aubaret. He pathetically begged Lesseps to allow him to lead another expedition, but the seasoned impresario, deeply embarrassed by the fiasco, demurred (moreover, it is known that he agreed with Aubaret’s version of events).
While the Escayrac Expedition initially seemed to have ‘the jump’ over the competition, their squandered opportunity allowed a British-backed enterprise to take credit for discovering the source of the White Nile, with London eventually gaining the lion’s share of the wealth emanating from the Heart of Africa.
From 1857 to 1859, John Hanning Speke and Richard Burton conducted an expedition to East-Central Africa, financed by the British Indian Government and the Royal Geographic Society. In 1858, Speke became the first European to sight Lake Victoria, which he correctly identified to be the source of the White Nile. Burton, who was absent (ill at camp) when Speke made his discovery was enraged and spent many years trying to disprove his former friend’s assertions. However, further explorations confirmed Lake Victoria as the source of the White Nile, although the river system naturally had higher tributaries that flowed into the lake.
The Archive in Focus
The archive consists of fourteen parts (1 photograph and 16 manuscript documents), with all the text being in the French language; all items are in Very Good condition. The archive’s components are as follows:
[GABRIEL AUBARET PHOTOGRAPH].
“G. Aubaret pendent les apprêts de l’expedition ax Sources du Nil.”
[Cairo, probably October 1856].
Original photograph (irregular, 11.5 x 8 cm / 4.5 x 3 inches), contemporarily trimmed and mounted upon card (23 x 11.5 cm / 9 x 4.5 inches), bearing title in manuscript.
This is an unusually striking original photograph of Gustave Aubaret, wearing oriental garb and brandishing a sheathed sword, taken in Cairo shortly before the expedition was to set to deploy. We are not aware of the existence of another example of this stellar image.
Stanislas d’ESCAYRAC de Lauture.
“Convention destinée à presider aux rapports ente le chef et les memberes de l’Expedition et à Imprimer le Réglement”.
Paris, May 19, 1856.
Manuscript, 3 pp., brown ink on legal-sized paper bearing blind-stamps of ‘Le Commandant en Chef…Exploration du Soudan recherche des sources du Nil’.
This is a contemporary manuscript copy, drafted on official blind-stamped letterhead, of the regulations of the Nile Expedition as outlined by Escayrac, the mission’s newly-designated leader. While the document clearly outlines Escayrac’s ultimate authority, its fifteen clauses are conventional, and do not seem to preordain the discord which was to unravel the mission. It was drafted in May 1856, long before the other principals of the expedition had been selected.
Stanislas d’ESCAYRAC de Lauture to Gabriel AUBARET, Paris, September 2, 1856.
ALS, 3 pp., brown ink on legal-sized paper bearing blind-stamps of ‘Le Commandant en Chef…Exploration du Soudan recherche des sources du Nil’; with original envelope, wax seal (envelope clipped).
This is the original, autographed letter from Escayrac to Aubaret, officially offering him the position of chief science officer of the Nile Expedition, described as “officier chargé des observations”. Aubaret is promised a monthly salary of 500 French Francs.
‘Conformément aux ordres du Vice Admiral Commandant du Chef.”
September 10, 1856.
Manuscript, 1 pp., signed, on ‘Escadre de la Mediteranée (crossed out and replaced by “d’évolutions”). État-Major Général’ letterhead.
This letter grants Aubaret leave from his normal duties aboard the vessel Bretagne, so that he can accept an important assignment in Paris.
‘Conformément à l’ordre de Monsieur le Préfet-Maritime (Toulon)’,
September 10, 1856.
Manuscript, 1 pp., signed, on ‘Port de Toulon. État-Major Général’ letterhead.
This document, singed by the naval station master of Toulon, gives Gabriel Aubaret, then a serving French Navy lieutenant, leave from his regular duties to join Escayrac’s Nile Expedition.
MARINE ET COLONIES.
Feuille de Route d’Officier.
September 10, 1856.
Printed form on ‘Marine et Colonies’ letterhead, filled out in manuscript.
This printed form, filled out in manuscript, grants Aubaret leave to travel from Toulon to Paris to accept the Egypt assignment.
Ferdinand-Alphonse HAMELIN to Gabriel AUBARET, September 18, 1856.
ALS, 1 p., on quarto-sized ‘Ministre de la Marine et des Colonies’ letterhead.
This official letter, signed by Admiral Ferdinand-Alphonse Hamelin, the French Minister of the Navy and Colonies, grants Aubaret leave from his naval duties to join the Nile Expedition.
MARINE ET COLONIES.
Feuille de Route d’Officier.
September 20, 1856.
Printed form on ‘Marine et Colonies’ letterhead, filled out in manuscript.
This document grants Aubaret leave to travel from his home in Montpellier to Alexandria, Egypt, so beginning his Nile adventure.
Stanislas d’ESCAYRAC de Lauture.
“Réglement Général”, [n.d., but perhaps October 1856].
Manuscript, 4pp., brown ink on legal-sized paper bearing blind-stamps of ‘Le Commandant en Chef…Exploration du Soudan recherche des sources du Nil’.
This contemporary manuscript copy, drafted on Escayrac’s his blind-stamped letterhead, codifies the amended and expanded rules of the Nile Expedition, elaborating upon document No. 2 above.
Stanislas d’ESCAYRAC de Lauture.
“Ordre No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9”,
Cairo, October 8, 1856.
Manuscript, 4 pp., brown ink on legal-sized paper bearing the blind-stamps of ‘Le Commandant en Chef…Exploration du Soudan recherche des sources du Nil’.
This important document is a contemporary manuscript copy, drafted on Escayrac’s blind-stamped letterhead, of four numbered orders that outline the specific responsibilities of ten named members of the Nile Expedition’s scientific team. It was drafted in Cairo less than two weeks before the advance party of the expedition departed Cairo. It grants an unprecedented insight into the intended organization of the intellectual element of a major 19th Century scientific exploring expedition.
Dépêche Télégraphique – Ginoux (Ministère de la Marine) to Aubaret.
Manuscript, 1 p., black ink on small quarto-sized paper bearing official French ‘Dépêche Télégraphique’ letterhead, with original red ink authorization stamp of the ‘Ministre de l’Interieur’.
This is an official French government manuscript telegraph slip from a Monsieur Ginoux, of the Ministry of the Navy, addressed to Aubaret, noting that he was dispatching to Egypt sophisticated navigational equipment, including a theodolite, a sextant and an azimuthal compass, to be employed on the Nile Expedition.
Ferdinand de LESSEPS.
“Instructions générales pour l’Expedition aux source du Nil donnés d’apèsmles orderes de S.A. Mohammed Saïd vice-Roi d’Egypte”.
Cairo, November 26, 1856.
Manuscript, 3 pp., brown ink on quarto-sized paper.
This is a contemporary secretarial copy of a memorandum written by Ferdinand de Lesseps in Cairo, acting under the instructions of Khedive Muhammad Sa’id Pasha, and addressed to Escayrac, Aubaret and the other principals of the Expedition who remained in Boulaq. Importantly, it was written in late November 1856, before the fate of the advance party en route to Sudan was known, and before Aubaret and several other members of the scientific team had rebelled agianst Escayrac’s leadership. Here Lesseps diplomatically acknowledges the poisonous office politics and attempts to set the main part of the expedition right before it too was scheduled to depart up the Nile. Lesseps acknowledges that while Escayrac remains the commander-in-chief, Aubaret’s scientific team should be imbued with a good level of autonomy. It seems that Lesseps (naively) hoped that this would cool down the party’s discontent with Escayrac’s autocratic leadership style.
Gabriel AUBARET and Other Signed Expedition Members.
“Déclaration”; “Deuxieme Déclaration” and “Exposé des griefs &c.”
Boulaq (Cairo), December 14, 1856.
4 pp. manuscript, brown ink on quarto-sized paper.
This is a contemporary manuscript copy of a document that forms a fierce indictment against Escayrac, written by Aubaret and six of his colleagues on the mission’s scientific team (being Gustave Richard, E. Mayer, Gustav Boleslawsky von der Trenck, Karl Geng, André De Bar and R.H. Taboulle). The three-part document declares that the Expedition members have lost all faith in Escayrac’s leadership, and consequently must cease their participation in the enterprise. The “Exposé des griefs &c.” contains nine points condemning how Escayrac’s draconian and incompetent leadership had doomed the Expedition, not only betraying the trust of its members, but also that of Ferdinand de Lesseps and Khedive Muhammad Sa’id Pasha. They deeply lament that such a noble enterprise was undone by the “motifs graves” of Escayrac.
“Suite à la déclaration”.
[Boulaq (Cairo), December 1856].
Manuscript note, pencil on a small scrap of paper, 11 x 20 cm (4.5 x 8 inches).
This is a small note in Aubaret’s handwriting that is apparently part of a draft for the above “Déclaration” (no. 10).
“Monsieur le Consul Général…”, Letter written by Gabriel AUBARET and Several Members of the ‘Exploration du Soudan recherche des sources du Nil’ Scientific Team to the French Consul General at Cairo.
Bulaq (Cairo), December 23, 1856.
Manuscript, 3pp., brown pen on large quarto-sized lined paper.
This a contemporary manuscript copy of a letter written by Aubaret and his associates to the French Consul General in Cairo, mentioning their grievances against Escayrac and regretting the termination of the expedition and the disappointment caused to both the Egyptian authorities and to France.
Gustave RICHARD to Gabriel AUBARET, Cairo, February 4, 1857.
ALS, 2 pp. black pen on blue octavo-sized paper, blind-stamped ‘GR.’
This private letter was written by Gustave Richard, a French physician and the botanist to the Nile Expedition, to Aubaret (who by this time had returned to France). Here Richard laments that Escayrac’s bad leadership had ruined the Expedition even before the main body of the mission left Bulaq.
Gustave RICHARD to Gabriel AUBARET, Cairo, February 5, 1857.
ALS, 6 pp. black pen on blue octavo-sized paper, blind-stamped ‘GR.’
In this intriguing and lively letter, Richard informs Aubaret that Muhammad Sa’id Pasha and Lesseps have arrived in Cairo and that, upon their command, the Nile mission is officially dissolved. Richard noted his plans to return to France shortly, via Alexandria.
Richard recounts that Escayrac requested an audience with the Khedive, supposedly to ask for the revival of the Expedition, but that this was refused. He then verbatim supplies the text of a letter written by Lesseps to Escayrac, noting that the Khedive’s displeasure and the decision to pull the plug on the mission.
Gabriel Aubaret: A Life of Adventure and High-Level Diplomacy
Louis Gabriel Galdéric Aubaret was one of the most consequential figures in the shaping of the diplomatic and economic affairs of the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire during the second half of the 19th Century, having held various important military and political appointments in the region over a period of forty years. On another track, he is also famous as perhaps the person most responsible for ensuring that Vietnam came under French rule.
Aubaret was born in 1825 in Montpellier to a respected family of lawyers. Uninterested in the law and restless in a provincial city, he longed to see the world. In 1841, he joined the École Navale (Brest), joining the Navy in 1844. He served on a variety of vessels, visiting places thoughout the Mediterranean and the West Indies.
As a lieutenant, he served with distinction during the Crimean War (1853-56), commanding his own vessel on several occasions, notably at the Siege Sebastopol (1854-5). Around this time, he gained a fascination for the Ottoman Empire and its many cultures; he quickly picked up Turkish and Arabic. He forged friendships with several influential Turkish officers and politicians, connections which would become useful later in his career.
In 1856-7, Aubaret was appointed the chief science officer (and second-in-command) of a prestigious expedition to explore the headwaters of the Nile, backed by the Khedive of Egypt. The expedition, led by the eccentric Comte d’Escayrac, was very well funded and included international scientists and explorers of distinction. However, the main body of the expedition never got past Cairo, as Aubaret lost patience with Escayrac’s dictatorial and erratic behaviour.
After the failure of the mission in Egypt, Aubaret returned to France where he had a highly public relationship with Rachel Félix (1821-58), better known as ‘Mademoiselle Rachel’, a world famous French actress, which ended shortly before her untimely death.
In 1860, Aubaret, as captain of his own vessel, sailed to China as part of the French involvement in the Second Opium War, and was present at the taking of Peking. There he impressed his superiors with his amazingly quick masterly of Chinese and his excellent diplomatic skills. This led to his appointment as senior French envoy to the Vietnamese court at Hué, and as the Consul General at Bangkok. In these roles Aubaret was instrumental in securing France’s annexation of the southern third of Vietnam as the French colony of Cochinchina, in 1862. Aubaret also wrote the first French-Vietnamese dictionary, Vocabulaire Français-Annamite et Annamite-Français (Bangkok, 1861).
Aubaret was a major figure at the Siamese court of King Mongkut, during the period immortalized in The King and I. Aubaret succeeded in making France the dominant foreign player in Indochina, and the Quay d’Orsay considered him to be one of the most tactful and successful drivers of Napoleon III’s expansive foreign policy.
In 1867, Aubaret returned from Bangkok, eager for a posting to the Balkans/Ottoman Empire, which despite his love of East Asian cultures, remained his true passion. Shortly after his return home, he ended his long run as a bachelor, marrying Thérèse Granier, with whom he would have had a happy union.
In February 1868, Aubaret was appointed as the French Consul General at Scutari (Shkodër), Ottoman Albania. That such a highly respected ‘star’ diplomat was given this post was a sign of how important Albania and Montenegro figured in French foreign policy. Moreover, the post was so challenging, that only an envoy of uncommon ability and enthusiasm for the Balkans could handle the endeavour. After serving for two incredibly dramatic years in Albania, Aubaret was hastily recalled to France for military service, due to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1).
After the dust had settled from the war, Aubaret re-entered the diplomatic service, in 1872 being appointed as the Consul General to Smyrna (Izmir), the second most important posting in Turkey proper. While honourific, Aubaret found the Izmir boring, as he largely handled matters of shipping trade, with little of the political melodrama that he relished.
In 1873, Aubaret was transferred to become Consul General in Ruse, Bulgaria, a major port city on the Danube. Bulgaria was then a directly-ruled part of the Ottoman Empire, and its Slavic people were seething with revolutionary sentiment. Ruse, full of Russian and Austrian spies, was hotbed of intrigue and melodrama. Just as Aubaret loved the tension and challenge of his posting in Shkodër, he deeply enjoyed his time in Ruse, where his mandate was to counteract Austrian and Russian schemes and to forge alliances with the Bulgarians whom Aubaret knew would shortly be the masters of their own country. Aubaret served in Bulgarian until the start of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8, when Russia invaded the country, successfully securing its independence (while severely diminishing France’s interests).
Aubaret’s next assignment was to serve as the Commissioner of the Serbian-Ottoman Boundary Survey, largely conducted along the Serbo-Bosnian border. Following that, in 1880, Aubaret was appointed as a French Minister Plenipotentiary to the Ottoman Empire, with special responsibility for affairs in the Bulgarian borderlands.
During this period, the government of the Ottoman Empire was essentially bankrupt. Its inefficient tax system, and involvement in almost constant warfare had led the Sublime Porte to take on untenable levels of foreign debt (mostly owed to France and Britain). To solve the crisis, the Western powers proposed that a special body be created to manage the empire’s debt, and to repay Western creditors by giving the body monopoly control over several of the empire’s reliable revenue sources. While such a plan would see the empire lose much of its economic sovereignty, it would have the benefit of stabilising its debt, and permitting the country to return to the bond market, while making its industries more efficient.
In 1881, Sultan Abdul Hamid II ordained the creation of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration (Turkish: Düyun-u Umumiye), which became the most powerful economic entity in the Ottoman Empire, even more so than the Imperial Treasury. While the Administration’s council was to feature representatives from many Western powers, it was to be a French-dominated institution, closely related to the Paris-based Imperial Ottoman Bank.
Aubaret had earned his spurs serving with great skill in a variety of posts throughout the empire. He spoke fluent Turkish and had cultivated many powerful friends in the country’s hierarchy and amongst Constantinople’s expatriate community, where he was almost universally respected and liked. He was chosen to serve as the first President of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration, and he held the office (which he occasionally relinquished for a time to allow other members to serve) through most of the period up until 1892. During his presidency, Aubaret handled the politically sensitive tasks of manging large parts of the Ottoman economy with great energy and competence.
Additionally, from 1885 to 1889, Aubaret was the chief operating officer of a special enterprise that was responsible for completing the final missing link of the railway line that carried the Orient Express from Paris to Constantinople, the world’s most famous and luxurious rail service.
In 1892, at the age of 67, Aubaret retired from his place at the height of Constantinople society and moved back with his family to Poitiers. There he died in 1894, having lived the experiences of many lifetimes. Aubaret’s widow, Thérèse, wrote her husband’s biography, which was published in Poitiers in 1898.
References: Cf. Dietmar Henze, Enzyklopädie der Entdecker und Erforscher der Erde, vol. II [D – J] (Darmstadt, 2011), p. 180; Victor-Adolphe Malte-Brun, ‘Notice sur les voyages et les travaux de M. le Comte d‘Escayrac de Lauture’, Bulletin de la Société de géographie, janvier à juin 1869, 5e série, tom. XVII (Paris, 1869), p. 168-184; August Petermann, ‘Graf d'Escayrac Lauture’s Expedition: Das Phantom der Nil-Quelle‘, Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes’ Geographischer Anstalt, Band 2 (Gotha, 1856), pp. 342–346; [Thérèse Aubaret], Gabriel Aubaret (Poitiers: Librarie H. Oudin, ), pp. 135-9.