Not the Brightest of the Barings

Bernard Porter

  • Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul by Roger Owen
    Oxford, 436 pp, £25.00, January 2004, ISBN 0 19 925338 2

The recent revival of military imperialism has had many commentators rummaging in history for precedents. The occupation of Egypt in the 1880s is a favourite one, largely because its imperialist character was similarly denied at the time. The British government was going in to rescue the Egyptians from tyranny and mismanagement; it had no desire for territory, and as soon as it had set up a ‘reformed’ local administration its forces would move out again. The comparison with Afghanistan and Iraq today is obvious. There are other similarities: suspected economic motives; an assertive Islam; Christian religiosity on the Western side; international difficulties (especially with France). Only time will tell whether one further aspect of this earlier imperial history repeats itself in our new protectorates: the way Britain was sucked into Egypt, so that a temporary occupation became a long-term and more overtly colonial one. Many contemporaries believed this was inevitable. The longer you stayed, the more you were needed – or thought you were. It was an iron law of empires. We have yet to see whether our modern imperialists can resist it.

Of course there are huge differences. The ‘Mahdi’ – Muhammad Ahmad, the Sudan’s fearsome rebel leader and General Gordon’s nemesis – was no Osama bin Laden. (Interestingly, and diplomatically, Roger Owen describes him as ‘an ascetic and religious devotee’, rather than the usual ‘fanatic’ or ‘fundamentalist’.) Similarly, Egypt’s Ismail Pasha, whom Cromer saw as a ‘monster’, never threatened the world with weapons of mass destruction, even imaginary ones. The worst Egypt could do to Britain was default on her debts. America’s military power is enormously greater today, even relatively, than Britain’s was then. Formal imperialism was more acceptable in the late 19th century than now; Britain was used to ruling other peoples, and had a special class of men trained up to do just that. Present-day America has not, and this may account for some of the undoubted blunders in postwar Iraq.

Lord Cromer, born Evelyn Baring, came from that class. With Lords Curzon and Milner, he was one of the trio of great imperial proconsuls in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. He has always seemed the dullest of them, which may be why he has not been the subject of a substantial biography – this one is very fine and much needed – since 1932. ‘Though he is a very shrewd and industrious man he is not a star of the first brilliance,’ was one contemporary judgment. His own mother thought he wasn’t the brightest of the Barings. (It is interesting that he should have been the only one of the trio to change his name on being ennobled, perhaps to lose the stigma of ‘trade’ – and even Germanness – it carried.) So she didn’t send him, as she did his brothers, to public school, but to military college – the usual place for Victorian thickoes. He distrusted intellectualism, believing it inhibited ‘action’. In public life he appeared taciturn, with few social graces, and was a poor speaker. He also had terrible stomach problems in later life, perhaps because of the French chef he always took around with him. (At one point he could eat only Bengers baby foods.) His portrait by John Singer Sargent, which adorns the cover of this volume, makes him look, in the view of Sargent’s biographer, like ‘a business executive’. He attracted neither the adoration nor the hatred that was directed at the more charismatic Curzon and Milner. Edward Lear once addressed him as ‘beneficial and brick-like Baring’, which sums up the best opinion of his friends. He was a hard worker – everyone, friends and enemies, agreed about that.

Early in his career it seemed unlikely that anyone would ever call him hardworking. During his first military posting, on Corfu (then British), he spent most of his time partying, sailing, shooting and impregnating at least one mistress. (Owen has found the child, but not her mother.) Then he met the ‘good woman’ who was to change everything, at least according to his own account. He now had to work in order to be able to afford to marry. (He had had some Baring money, but blew it on a yacht.) At the same time he made up for his abysmal education – and the inferiority complex it gave him among his fellow officers – by learning classical Greek. Fourteen years later he wed his Ethel, who provided the human warmth he had never had as a child. (His elderly father had died when he was seven; his mother had constantly ridiculed him, and thought the best way of bringing him up was to leave him to his own devices: when he was 12, for example, she dumped him in Salzburg to make his way home alone. His memories of school were mainly of being thrashed. In such ways were Britain’s imperial rulers forged.)

His family life from then on seems to have been idyllic, despite Ethel’s frequent bouts of illness, and the fact that he found it hard to show his feelings for her. (He wrote her letters apologising for this.) It also belies his cold and awkward public image; as does his friendship with Lear: they became ‘tremendous gigglers’ when they were together. He was also sensitive to Lear’s recurrent depressions. When he came to rule Egypt he had to be more ‘brick-like’. Anything else smacked of weakness; more specifically, of going native. ‘What a curious and emotional man’, he noted of Nubar Pasha, one of the Egyptians he had to work with, when he saw him shed a tear. It was one of the things that eventually persuaded him ‘Orientals’ (a word he used a lot) were incapable of ruling themselves.

That seems not to have been his initial view. Baring was sent to Egypt in the first place partly because he was not that kind of imperialist at all, and one of his duties in Corfu had been to help hand the island over to Greece. Later, in the early 1880s, when assisting Lord Ripon as Viceroy of India, he attracted the enmity of the local (British) bureaucrats by reminding them that their ultimate goal was to hand power over to the Indians, and by supporting the Ilbert Bill, which allowed Europeans to be tried by Indian magistrates. One local Anglo newspaper accused him of ‘the malignity of a fiend’ over this: a stripe that he doubtless sported with pride. His broader political views were unusual for the patrician class he came from, perhaps because of his somewhat Rousseauian early upbringing (all that self-reliance), his lack of a public school education and his family links with the commercial world. He was a dogmatic free marketeer, a self-styled ‘anti-Jingo’ and an enthusiast for European nationalisms. He flirted with the radical wing of the Liberal Party and fully backed Gladstone’s original scheme to leave Egypt to the Egyptians as soon as possible – within two or three years. He never expected to remain there for more than twenty. (His plan had been to return home quickly and become a Liberal MP.)

But then the iron law established itself. The longer the British occupied Egypt, the more they were resented by the Egyptians, which made it less likely that they would be able to transfer power to a native party that would stay friendly to them afterwards. Cromer was afraid of Muslim ‘fanatics’, in particular. The occupation, in other words, was counter-productive for those who had wanted only to set up a liberal Egyptian state. It also complicated Britain’s diplomacy with Europe. Hence many British politicians’ apparently genuine regret that they had ever had anything to do with the place. ‘I heartily wish we had not gone into Egypt,’ Salisbury wrote. ‘Had we not done so we could snap our fingers at the world.’ Present-day Britain and the US could yet come to regret their invasion of Iraq for both these reasons.

Writing to his Liberal political masters in February 1886, Cromer claimed to share these regrets. ‘I think it a great pity that we came to Egypt and I should be very glad if we could get away. But the facts have to be looked in the face, and looking at the facts as they are now, I do not see the smallest probability of our being able to get away for the present at all events.’ This marked the beginning of his slide into a more conventional imperialist mode. The length he put on Britain’s occupation went from a few years, to decades, then ‘generations’. At the same time he grew more and more disenchanted with the Liberal Party, ending up as a pretty reactionary Tory – a virulent anti-suffragist, for example – after his return to Britain in 1907. (Owen speculates that his second wife, Katherine – Ethel died in 1898, of kidney disease – may not have thought much of that.) This is not an unusual mutation, especially for a man with bad digestion. But it also mirrored a more general transition in late 19th-century British imperial policy, and in the ethos that sustained it. Cromer appears from this book to have followed the trends of his time more than he helped mould them: another function of his dullness, perhaps. (This is how he saw it himself. In 1884 he wrote of the ‘cruel fate’ that was pulling him towards the imperialist right.) One of those trends was a shift from optimism to pessimism with regard to other peoples’ capacity for ‘progress’. His long experience in Egypt convinced Cromer that Egyptians, at any rate, were less capable in this way than he had hoped. He avoided mentioning racial differences, though they were often implied. The major reasons he gave were what he took to be Egypt’s ‘unique’ ethnic divisions; the fact that its inhabitants had been a ‘subject race’ (subject to the Turks) for so long; and, crucially, ‘their leaden creed and . . . the institutions which cluster around the Koran’ (like other imperialists he often referred to the status of women in Muslim countries to illustrate this). None of this meant that ‘Orientals’ were incorrigible; but it clearly suggested – as it was intended to – that their correction would take time.

In fact, it took the time it did in Cromer’s Egypt, Owen implies, because of Cromer’s personal limitations (that dullness again). These had less to do with any racism he may have acquired in Egypt or India than with the social prejudices he brought with him from Norfolk, and the ‘pre-industrial simplicity of social relations’ that had seemed to exist there. It was all masters and servants, lords and peasants: the British governing classes’ ideal society, which they then found again, ‘or, rather, imagined they had found . . . in the villages and among the tribes of Africa and Asia, making life among those distant peoples something like an agreeable home from home’. Cromer’s view of Egypt was definitely feudal, with the advantages that came from this attitude, but also its drawbacks. It was infused with a sense of duty, chivalry and honesty. Cromer was a model of financial probity, and tried to encourage the same among his underlings. His main duty, as he saw it, was towards Egypt’s poor peasants, for whom he did a great deal: reducing their tax burden, abolishing the corvée and providing an education appropriate to their station (i.e. not much). Obviously they could not be trusted to govern the country, partly because they were so vulnerable to ‘agitators’, including the ‘religious fanatics’. All this applied to Britain, too, if for ‘religious’ you read ‘socialist’. One of Cromer’s reasons for opposing votes for women was that this would open the way to universal male suffrage, which would be ‘disastrous’. He was anti-democratic everywhere. The government of any society was the proper role of that society’s betters, which meant its native upper classes, once they had (in Egypt’s case) been ‘reformed’. The best form of rule was one exercised for all a society’s members, rather than by them. These included, incidentally, the European capitalists operating there. That is what Cromer meant by ‘Egypt for the Egyptians’; he called it his ‘Whig’ view. One can see how it can be squared, in theory, with imperialism.

Cromer’s rule in Egypt exemplified this. It was full of display – what David Cannadine calls ‘ornamentalism’ – designed to impress both aristocrats and peasants. He also had to compete with Egypt’s formal (or puppet) ruler, the khedive, in this field. Owen suggests that another purpose of all this showing off was to hide the fragility of Britain’s position. (Technically, Cromer was just meant to be ‘advising’ the khedive.) Carriages and cavalry were especially prominent. The former were always preceded by ‘a syce (qawwas), who ran before shouting his name and ordering people out of the way’. So the natives will have known who was boss. Ethel and then Katherine presided over terrific banquets, with food ‘served by Indian servants in white turbans and gold-embroidered breastplates’. (Their menus may go far to explain Cromer’s gastric troubles: ‘reindeers’ tongues and peach bitters followed by the chef’s renowned prawn curry’.) These were mainly for the resident Europeans, visiting dignitaries and a very few local royals and aristocrats. Cromer seems not to have been very interested in Egyptians for themselves, never bothering to learn much Arabic, for example, though other British rulers of Egypt did, and his mastery of Greek in his twenties suggests that he could have managed it if he had tried. Later in life he acquired a reputation for ‘understanding the Oriental mind’; but probably only among those who believed in such a thing.

Owen criticises Cromer for neglecting the Egyptian middle classes, not only socially but also educationally, and by refusing fledgling Egyptian businesses any state protection or help. He had dogmatic reasons for this: however reactionary he became, he stuck to his free-market principles; but they also confirmed him in his convenient view of Egypt as, in Owen’s words, ‘a mongrel nation full of peasants and sheikhs’ and of the empire’s basically complementary role in the British economy (colonies produced raw materials; Britain made them up into goods). The Egyptian middle classes were self-interested, and likely to be ‘unrepresentative’ nationalists, that constant imperial bugbear – not, therefore, proper ‘Whigs’. Cromer would have nothing to do with them. Yet they were probably the best hope for the growth of a genuinely independent and also pro-British Egypt: hence the failure of that original agenda. One of Cromer’s Conservative critics maintained that Egypt was even further from self-government in 1907 than it had been when he arrived.

The middle classes served Cromer poorly in Britain as well as in Egypt. He never felt they were empire-minded enough. And like most imperialists he despised British politicians, latterly fixing the blame directly on them for the refusal of Egyptian nationalist agitation to go away (this is like blaming Iraqi resistance to the occupation on Clare Short). Less than half the House of Commons voted to thank him (with money) for his services in Egypt when he returned, though there were enough abstentions to get the measure through. That came shortly after the scandalous Dinshawai affair, when several Egyptians were summarily executed for resisting some typical military arrogance, which because it came on his watch he had publicly to defend. Privately, his instincts were more liberal; his opinions on Gordon (a drunken fanatic) and Kitchener (‘the most arbitrary and unjust man I ever met’), as well as his earlier stance on the Ilbert Bill, show how distant he was from the contemporary proto-fascist seam of British imperialist thought; but it did him no good. Cromer’s reputation declined steadily from the day of his resignation – which was, Owen claims, effectively forced on him by his critics. On top of his indigestion and rampant democracy in Britain, and with Egypt still showing no signs of ‘deserving’ the self-government Gladstone had intended for it, that must have been hard to bear. Only the coming of the Great War cheered him up. He died during the course of it, after seeing an apparition of a man carrying a ladder. (Even his near-death visions were dull.)

Whether the original Gladstonian agenda was ever workable must be doubted. Alfred Lyall warned Cromer as early as 1882: ‘I know of no instance in history of a nation being educated by another nation into self-government and independence; every nation has fought its way up in the world as the English have done.’ Even if Cromer had been more sympathetic – towards the Egyptian middle classes, for example – it might not have worked. Imposing Western standards and institutions is imperialist per se. You can claim they are ‘universal’, not merely ‘Western’, which may take some of the imperialist edge off them, but they are almost bound to be coloured by your own ideological limitations and prejudices. Who was Cromer to say that the Egyptians could not adopt protectionism if they wished? Or America to bundle the ‘free market’ in with all those other universal ‘human rights’? Liberation is a tricky business.