Lord Cromer’s right-hand men

David Tresilian , Monday 12 Apr 2021

The memoirs of British colonial officials can contain intriguing information about life in early twentieth-century Egypt


Probably the most important of all memoirs of British colonial rule in Egypt is Modern Egypt by Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer, who after 25 years as British consul-general in Cairo returned to the UK in 1907 to spend his retirement. According to the British historian Roger Owen, author of the standard biography, Cromer’s intention in this two-volume work was to suggest that Egypt was “a collection of disparate classes and communities greatly in need of foreign [British] moral and administrative guidance.”

However, while Cromer’s memoirs are still widely read by historians for what they have to say about British colonial rule in Egypt, other British memoirs of the same or later periods have been more neglected. Probably this has something to do with an understandable reluctance to let the voices of the colonisers speak for the colonised, though there is also the idea that reading the sources from the period, whether British or even in some cases Egyptian, is tantamount to endorsing the imperialist system.

Yet, it would be a pity if this were so since the memoirs of the British administrators of the time can have much of interest to say about Britain, Egypt, and the relationship between the two, particularly in the crucial years after the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 and up until the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1922 and probably beyond. They also present a range of different points of view and provide intriguing information about different aspects of life in Egypt in the period. They do not necessarily all repeat Lord Cromer’s high-handed conclusions.

Aside from Cromer’s memoirs, there are Wilfrid Scawen Blunt’s, for example, not a colonial administrator, but a frequent visitor to Egypt and an outspoken opponent both of the British invasion and subsequent occupation. There are also the memoirs of certain members of the British administration in Egypt, sometimes military, but more often civil servants, who in some cases left behind unpredictable memoirs composed in retirement, perhaps in villas in upper-class enclaves of the English towns of Cheltenham or Tunbridge Wells.

One of the best-known of these second-tier memoirs is Lord Edward Cecil’s Leisure of an Egyptian Official, a self-consciously eccentric account of his activities as British advisor to the Egyptian ministry of finance between 1907 and 1918. There is also, among many others, Sir Thomas Wentworth Russell’s (“Russell Pasha”) Egyptian Service, an account, less eccentric but also far from official, of his time as head of the Cairo police between 1922 and 1946.

These are the kind of books that used to be found at the back of secondhand bookshops in provincial towns, but more recently Cecil’s memoirs in particular seem to have found new audiences, judging by the number of copies for sale on the Internet. This may have something to do with word of mouth, as the memoirs are archly amusing in the manner of well-known novelists of the period, with the author choosing his material largely for comic effect.

One aspect of both books that may strike readers is the close-knit character of the British imperial class, with British administrators in Egypt, at least towards the topmost tiers, all knowing each other from school and, indeed, being born into the same restricted set of mostly aristocratic families.

Ancient historians at one time used to engage in an exercise called “prosopography,” tracing the family origins of members of the Roman senatorial class in order to understand the workings of the administration under the Empire. British colonial memoirs could well be approached in the same way, since their authors tended to follow a standard trajectory, being usually the younger sons of aristocrats, who, after a stint at one of a handful of private schools, went on to read mostly classics at either Oxford or Cambridge Universities. From there, they were recruited by family connections into the top ranks of British government service.

It thus comes as no surprise to learn that Lord Edward Cecil, though advisor to the Egyptian finance minister, had no particular knowledge of finance, but was one of the sons of the Victorian prime minister Lord Salisbury and thus a member of the Cecil family whose pedigree goes back at least to the English Elizabethan period.

Russell Pasha, meanwhile, was related to the Duke of Bedford, and, as a member of the Russell family, also to the Victorian prime minister Lord John Russell, and, more distantly, to the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Occupying Egypt

Such details are unlikely to have been of interest to Egyptians administered by such men during the period of British colonial rule in Egypt, but they can help to explain some of the memoirs that emerged from it.

Lord Edward Cecil begins his memoirs with an account of having breakfast, followed by a section on the difficulties involved in getting a taxi to his club and then a brief stint at the office before lunch. He is not beholden to clock time in the same way as his subordinates. He also has a special attitude to his position in Egypt, which he may have thought of as much like running an aristocratic estate.

People turn up at the ministry’s offices in Cairo, and Lord Edward appraises them with a cool eye. What are they after, he wonders, and have they been somehow fiddling the estimates? He has an aristocratic disdain for reading the files, but he believes he can detect a scam when he hears of one. The office time of his memoirs, otherwise devoted to leisure hours, are largely spent in seeing off more or less plausible concession-hunters, sometimes Egyptian, sometimes foreign, often interested in acquiring tracts of land for building schemes or in search of government contracts.

“Our ministry [of finance] is neither a strictly beautiful building nor a convenient one,” he writes. “It was originally the property of a Pasha in the [khedive] Ismail’s days, and, shall we say, it reverted to the crown when its owner died somewhat suddenly.” Of his work, he says that it can “readily be divided into two classes. Covering other people’s responsibility and answering riddles. We call these in the office signatures and decisions.” Bribery and other forms of corruption are rife, though they are usually veiled, and if Lord Edward is to be believed his job had much to do with sniffing them out.

He makes some vitriolic remarks about a German businessman enquiring after a government tender for copper coins. An Italian arrives representing a syndicate wanting to purchase government land. It turns out that the profit margin would have been 200 per cent. The next chapter describes a cabinet meeting in which “their Excellencies [the cabinet ministers] wish to consult me about their summer offices in Alexandria,” a matter, Cecil writes, that “is one of the few which really stirs that august body.”

Later there are reflections on decoding politics and other matters in Egypt. “To have any clear comprehension of what is going on, you must know the present value of each individual,” Lord Edward says. “Men become important and cease to exist politically in the space of a few weeks. The khedive’s attitude on the first of the month gives you no clue to what his attitude will be on the fifteenth.” Meanwhile, there is rumour – “it is quite marvelous what stories can be started and believed in Cairo” – often rehearsed at one of the evening parties he describes.

The Leisure of an Egyptian Official is satirical and is very different to Russell’s workmanlike account of life in the Egyptian police in Egyptian Service, latterly largely spent fighting drug-trafficking as a founder, with then Egyptian prime minister Muhammad Mahmoud, of the Egyptian Narcotics Intelligence Bureau. Russell became an acknowledged national and international expert on the problem, writing reports and giving recommendations first to the League of Nations before the Second World War and then to the United Nations after it.

While his memoirs devote a respectable amount of time to discussing the problem in Egypt and the actions taken by the ministry under his direction to fight it, they are by no means restricted to his office activities, even if they do not give as much space as Cecil’s to descriptions of his leisure time. In the manner of thousands of Victorian or post-Victorian autobiographies, the arc of life is held to hold the secret of the man, and so Russell starts with his childhood years, then his years at school and at Cambridge, before eventually arriving in Egypt, on a family recommendation, at the age of 21. He retired to England 44 years later after holding a variety of government positions.

It would be a pity to skip the earlier parts of the memoirs since Russell has a lot of interest to say about his work in the Egyptian provinces, where he was an inspector for eight years, and as second in command of the Alexandria police, before he eventually took the job of first deputy and then police commander in Cairo. He was second in command of the Cairo police during the 1919 Revolution, an event he put down to the stresses of the First World War, particularly in the countryside.

“The troubles were due to a combination of causes; the culmination of the nationalist movement in the hands of Zaghlul Pasha, the national hero, was being treated somewhat unsympathetically by a Britain torn with her own post-War worries, making her unreceptive to something that seemed of much less urgency; and this coincided with a deep sense of injury on the part of the fellahin,” he writes, introducing a couple of chapters on police operations in Cairo. He describes his job as being “disagreeable” since it involved acting against a movement with which “one had much sympathy.”

No one would go to either of these books for a description of the larger workings of British or European imperialism, let alone the experiences of the millions of Egyptians over whom their authors exercised power. This was very far from their intentions. Lord Edward Cecil’s aim seems to have been to entertain – his account of office life may resonate even today – while Russell’s intention may have been to create a record of his life in Egypt for family members and of his fight against the narcotics trade.

Both books are available in Arabic. Lord Edward Cecil’s memoir, published posthumously in London in 1921, appeared in Cairo one year later in a translation by Mohamed al-Tabi’i. It is not easy to see how this came about, and while al-Tabi’i provides a sketch of Cecil in his introduction, he does not say much more. He also omits a lot of Cecil’s descriptions, including of Cairo dinner parties, going on leave, and a day at the Suez Canal.

Russell’s memoir had to wait a good deal longer for its translator, only appearing in Arabic (as Muthakirat Thomas Russell) from Dar al-Rawaq in a translation by Mustafa Obaid last year.

Lord Edward Cecil, The Leisure of an Egyptian Official, London, 1921; Sir Thomas Wentworth Russell, Egyptian Service, London, 1949

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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