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.

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