Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul

May 23, 2006


Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul. By ROGER OWEN.(Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. xxiii + 436 pp. Paperback £16.00/$26.95.)

Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian ProconsulIt comes as something of a shock to realize, as Roger Owen points out on the opening page of this eminently lucid, well-written, and important book, that Lord Cromer has never before been the subject of a scholarly biography. In 1932 the Marquess of Zetland, who was at the time serving the British colonial administration of India as a provincial governor, published (at the request of Cromer’s eldest son Rowland) an entirely uncritical account of Lord Cromer’s life, told largely as Cromer himself would have wanted it told. As Owen notes, Zetland’s "official biography … provides an extra meaning to the term ‘ghostwritten’ in that it gives off a very strong sense of having been directly inspired [by Cromer] from beyond the grave" (xi).

Owen wanted to avoid falling into the same trap, and in that he has certainly succeeded. Although our knowledge of the first three decades of Cromer’s life is, unfortunately, largely dependent on an autobiographical sketch produced by Cromer himself, Owen has done an excellent job of using this source carefully and critically while drawing on a broad range of other materials in order to construct as well-researched, scholarly, and balanced a life as we are likely to get of the man who for a quarter century ruled Egypt and was regarded (along with Lord Curzon) as one of the two greatest British imperial proconsuls of his era. In so doing Owen has admirably filled a yawning gap in the literatures on both modern Egypt and the British empire.

The future master of Egypt was born Evelyn Baring in 1841, the youngest son of a somewhat eccentric member of the wealthy Baring banking family; he became Lord Cromer only in 1892, taking his title from the name of the Norfolk fishing village near which he had grown up. At age eleven he was sent off to study at the new Ordnance School and then at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Equipped with only a mediocre education but intelligent and hardworking, young Baring was posted to Corfu, then under British administration, where he became an aide-de-camp to the High Commissioner. He later followed this same official to Malta when the latter took over as governor of that island, thereby continuing the transition into colonial administration that enabled him to escape what might well have been a rather unexciting career as an artillery officer. In 1872, after a stint back in England, Cromer went to India as private secretary to his cousin Lord Northbrook, newly appointed as Viceroy.

India provided Cromer with the on-the-job training in colonial governance, with a specialization in financial and economic policy, that would set him firmly on his life’s course. He returned to England in 1876, got married, and briefly worked in the Intelligence Branch of the War Office. A year later his reputation as a financial expert secured him the position of Britain’s representative on the Caisse de la Dette Publique, created to oversee Egypt’s finances after that country’s government was unable to keep up the interest payments on its massive foreign debt. In 1879, after European pressure forced the deposition of Khedive Ismail and the installation of a successor who would be more compliant with European demands, the British government appointed Cromer as one of two officials (the other represented France) in charge of Egypt’s finances. The measures Cromer helped put in place during that half-year stint in Egypt, including large cuts in the military budget, provoked strong reactions from Egyptian army officers and notables and set the stage for the coming to power of a nationalist government in 1881. This led, in turn, to the British occupation of Egypt the following year. By then, however, Cromer had already left to take up a new post as the chief financial official in the government of India.

In 1883, after three tumultuous years in India, Cromer was asked by the British government to return to Egypt, reorganize its administration, and set the stage for the withdrawal of British forces. Cromer was to remain in Egypt until 1907; though he held the modest title of Her (later His) Majesty’s Agent and Consul-General, and though Cromer and his colleagues were formally only advisers to a nominally autonomous Egyptian government, Cromer was for this lengthy period the country’s de facto ruler. British withdrawal, much spoken of early on in the occupation, was repeatedly deferred to some distant time when the country would be deemed sufficiently reformed to be capable of self-government. Cromer eventually came to believe that Egypt would not reach that stage in his lifetime, and he acted accordingly.

Cromer’s policies manifested his unshakeable certainty that there was no contradiction between Britain’s interests and those of Egypt. As he saw it, the latter required an authoritarian government firmly under his personal control, financial stability, the establishment of full private property in land (which benefited mainly the large landowners), and the development of Egypt’s irrigation system so as to strengthen what Cromer saw as the country’s natural vocation as an exporter of cotton. For two and a half decades he implemented policies designed to realize this vision. Increasingly, as some of his colleagues noted, Cromer came to see himself as indispensable and invariably right, even as he grew more pompous, more intolerant of criticism, and more out of touch with the society over which he ruled.

For example, as Owen points out, Cromer could never grasp the need to secure the collaboration (and, eventually, participation in government) of Egypt’s educated and middle strata, which from the 1890s grew in size and social weight despite Cromer’s insistence on keeping spending on education as low as possible. He not only derided the increasingly popular slogan of "Egypt for the Egyptians" and demands for independence but insisted that there was in fact no coherent Egyptian nation, only a hodgepodge of different races, religions, and social types. Most of the inhabitants of Egypt were, Cromer declared, in any case incapable of self-government owing to the mental deficiencies characteristic of the Oriental, a socially retrograde Islam, or both. By the early years of the twentieth century Cromer’s views, policies, and advanced age made him seem something of a dinosaur, especially after members of the new Liberal government that came to power in Britain late in 1905 evinced interest in encouraging greater native participation in colonial government. In 1906 the Dinshawai incident, in which a military court handed down very harsh verdicts against Egyptian peasants convicted of wounding British soldiers out shooting pigeons, gave a great boost to the Egyptian nationalist movement and hurt Cromer’s standing both in Egypt and in Britain, setting the stage for his resignation the following year. He had, it was clear, stayed in Egypt much too long.

Back in England Cromer sought to remain active in public life, in the House of Lords and in the anti-suffragist movement. When his book Modern Egypt was published in 1908 it was widely acclaimed as not only the definitive account of what the British (i.e., Cromer) had achieved in Egypt but also as a guide and inspiration for all those engaged in administering the British empire. Cromer died at the beginning of 1917, while his countrymen were preoccupied with the mass slaughter going on in the trenches of Belgium and France; despite his pre-war status as one of Britain’s most eminent imperial proconsuls he seems to have faded very quickly from public memory. Hence the rather pathetic tone of the Marquess of Zetland’s biography, which sought to evoke a long-gone era of imperial self-confidence and Cromer’s commanding role in it. Egyptians did not forget Cromer quite so quickly, though: Owen tells of a group of Egyptian students visiting Cromer’s home town in the late 1990s so that they could find his grave and spit on it. That Egyptians would see Cromer as an enemy of their country’s aspirations for independence and development is unsurprising; yet, as Owen notes with characteristic fair-mindedness, Cromer’s policies, however shortsighted or deleterious they were in many spheres, did at least help set the stage for the weakening of Egypt’s subordination to both Ottoman and international control.

In his life of Cromer Roger Owen is not much given to trying to "psychologize" his subject; the materials for an attempt to delve into Cromer’s inner life are in any case very thin, and it is clear that he was not inclined to introspection or self-doubt. Instead, though Owen elucidates Cromer’s private life as fully as possible, he concentrates on Cromer’s public life and the historical contexts in which it unfolded, and he seeks not so much to judge—though he certainly shares with us his opinions of Cromer’s utterances and actions and of their consequences—as to understand who this man was and how through his life we can better understand the British empire in its heyday. There is perhaps a downside to the book’s focus on Cromer and his public career, however: Egypt and the Egyptians sometimes tend to recede into the background, and one does not always get as full as a perspective as might be desirable on what Cromer’s Egyptian contemporaries (or subsequent generations, for that matter) made of him and of his impact on their country

I would also ask to be allowed (and forgiven) one very minor quibble: I don’t quite understand the book’s subtitle. Cromer was an imperialist and a proconsul in both the Victorian and Edwardian periods, so exactly what distinction is being drawn here? One suspects the hand of some editor here, hopeful perhaps that potential readers who did not know who Cromer was might nonetheless be induced to take a closer look at the book if Victoria, Edward, and imperialism appeared somewhere in the title.

Be that as it may, it is clear that with this illuminating foray into biography, Owen, whose work has hitherto focused largely on the economic history of the modern Middle East, has made a very substantial contribution. The book merits a wide readership among not only scholars of the British empire and its ruling elite and of modern Egypt, but also among all those interested in learning about a bygone but crucially important historical period through a close look at the career of one of its central figures.

Zachary Lockman is Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University and an alumnus of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

See also: eCMES: Reviews