An Ancient Political Curse

Rose Eveleth suggests that the “curse” of the Unlucky Mummy – blamed in Britain for a variety of disasters in the late 19th and early 20th century, including the sinking of the Titanic – reflected  sublimated anxieties about colonialism:

As it happens, the Unlucky Mummy arrived in England during the perfect curse-making storm. … At Pearson's_Magazine_1909_with_Unlucky_Mummythe time, Britain was occupying Egypt. It had invaded the Middle Eastern country in 1882, bombarding Alexandria for 10 and a half hours from the sea in an attack that was largely one sided – the British didn’t lose a single boat. The fires that followed destroyed much of the city and two days later the British army entered Alexandria and took on Egyptian forces in a handful of skirmishes, the most notable being the battle at Tel-el-Kebir. Because the Egyptian land was flat and open, the British decided to attack at night. After an hour of fighting, the Egyptians fled. The British military stayed in Egypt in a variety of capacities until 1922.

While the occupation of Egypt was a military success, it was met with trepidation back home.

Should a European power intervene in the goings on of a Middle Eastern country? The British said they were there to help depose a tyrannical rule, but the British people weren’t sure that was their government’s job in the first place. But while the occupation troubled many, some didn’t want to outwardly express their anxieties. So they turned to objects that represented the country in question: Egyptian artifacts. “You can’t talk about how difficult it is to occupy another country because that’s unpatriotic,” says Roger Luckhurst, a professor of literature at Birkbeck College, University of London, who details the Unlucky Mummy’s journey through myth and reality in his 2012 book, The Mummy’s Curse. “This is a narrative that lets you talk about it in another way.” The idea that objects from Egypt like the mummy board would exact revenge was a way to express anxiety without actually talking about war.

(Photo of a 1909 Pearson’s cover featuring the story of the Unlucky Mummy via Wikimedia Commons)