Lord Cromer’s right-hand men — II

David Tresilian , Tuesday 28 Sep 2021

Two colonial memoirs by middle-ranking officials offer contrasting insights into how the British occupying administration once operated in Egypt, writes David Tresilian in an occasional series on books by visitors to Egypt


Writing on “the British in Egypt” in his History of Modern Egypt, distinguished historian of Egypt and the Middle East P. J. Vatikiotis comments that Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer, Britain’s consul-general in Egypt after the invasion and occupation in 1882, “approached matters of government and administration from a neat bookkeeping point of view… [hoping] to depoliticise politics and reduce human affairs to questions of proper administration.”

“Austere, though undoubting and self-assured,” Cromer, whose administrative philosophy had been honed in colonial India, hoped to create in Egypt “the Indian pattern of… a native civil service below a layer of British advisors” assigned to the various Egyptian ministries as part of a “policy that Britain must remain in Egypt in order to keep others out and to enable her policy of reform to bear fruit” despite the ambiguities of a position originally intended only to rescue Egypt’s khedival regime and to preserve British financial interests.

By the time Cromer left Egypt in 1907 after nearly 25 years as Britain’s representative in the country, the “Egyptians, at least the aspiring and more articulate among them, wanted their country back,” Vatikiotis writes. In the meantime, there was still Cromer’s “layer of British advisors,” most of them similarly dedicated to “neat bookkeeping,” in many Egyptian ministries. It was not until the 1922 independence declaration that these men began to leave, allowing for Egyptian self-government.

Some of these advisors and other officials later wrote of their experiences for English-speaking readers, and in some cases their memoirs were either immediately or later translated into Arabic, with the result that Egyptian readers were at last able to learn more about the decisions that had been taken on their behalf. The most important of these memoirs was Cromer’s own, published in two volumes as Modern Egypt in 1908, though there were also other second-tier productions, including by some of those employed in Egyptian government ministries. Looking them up today can allow contemporary readers to gain a firmer grasp of how British administration once operated in Egypt.

Recollections and Reflections by Charles Edward Coles, or “Coles Pasha,” published in 1918, records the experiences of the author as inspector-general of Egypt’s prisons. “English administrators have capitalised on the proposition that their hegemony over Egypt helped free the fellah [farmer] from the shackles and excesses of ‘oriental despotism’ and the burdens of proverbially traditional misery,” Vatikiotis writes, among other ways in reforming the administration of justice. Coles’s memoirs explain what the British advisors thought they were doing from above and to an extent how their actions were received from below.

Coles left England for India as a young man of just 19, having been offered a job in the police service of the then Bombay Presidency through what seem to have been family connections. Writing of his experiences nearly 50 years later, he employs a kind of late-Victorian subaltern jargon reminiscent of the Indian stories of the British writer Rudyard Kipling, a reminder of the latter’s ear for English speech. Life in India seems to have been taken up with riding and shooting before Coles “was offered and accepted an appointment in Egypt” in 1883, just at the beginning of the British occupation, where he joined the Alexandria police under the authority of the newly appointed British under-secretary of state.

In order to make sense of what Coles has to say about the re-organisation of the Alexandria and Cairo police under British rule, it would be necessary to be familiar with this history from other sources, since he focuses mostly on his own experiences and has little to say about the service as a whole. But even so Coles makes for a genial guide, explaining the foundation of a new club on Gezira in Cairo amalgamated with the Sporting Club, the foundation of the Alexandria Sporting Club, and duck-shooting with prince Omar Tousson, a well-known member of the Egyptian royal family.

He was “a great sportsman and an excellent specimen of a man in every way,” Coles says, adding that “as many as a hundred brace [of ducks] were killed of an afternoon.”

“The Indian Service, with its cut-and-dried regulations, cannot be compared to the excellent opportunities Egypt offers to a man of parts,” Coles writes. “To put it another way, a man of average intelligence who is prepared to take certain risks is much more likely to come to the front in the Egyptian Service than in India.” Comments like these reveal a lot about the workings of the British occupation, which, at least at its lower levels, would have relied upon the continuous recruitment of men like Coles. His remarks about Tousson and others also reveal much about relations with members of the Egyptian elite as they looked for ways of accommodating the British occupiers.

“I must not forget to mention another minister I saw a good deal of in those days – I refer to Boutros Pasha Ghali [grandfather of former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros Ghali] who was afterwards assassinated when prime minister,” Coles remembers. “I suppose that he had not the brilliancy, some people called it superficiality, of Nubar Pasha [prime minister from 1884 to 1888 and then again from 1894 to 1895], but he was head and shoulders above him as an administrator and as a man of the world, and there was no subject on which he was not capable of giving excellent advice.”


Prisons and army: Coles continues his memoirs of the Egyptian police under their new British commissioner Herbert (Lord) Kitchener, hired in 1890, but perhaps their main interest lies in what he has to say about his role as inspector-general of Egypt’s prisons from 1897 until his retirement in 1913.

First, though, there was a period as commander of the Cairo police, which Coles writes about almost from the perspective of a wide-eyed ingénue. The khedive’s “official arrivals and departures caused endless trouble,” with “everyone of any importance” having to be present either to welcome him or to see him off. “The state balls at Abdin Palace required even greater care… and the [representatives] of the ‘great powers’ required very special treatment” on the part of the traffic police.

Eventually, Coles turns to the reform of the Egyptian courts and parquet (prosecution) system and Nubar Pasha’s wholesale importation of the French penal code. Once again, this makes for a fascinating story, though Coles’s account, partial and hard to follow, is probably not the best place to look for an objective history. Writing on the prison service, as he inherited it in 1897, he says that “there was no money to spare on such luxuries as prisons and only such prisoners as were absolutely starving were given anything to eat… The over-crowding was appalling, and episodes of jail-fever were constantly recurring.”

A programme to build new prisons was started, and Coles looked to the New York State Reformatory at Elmira and the English Howard League for Penal Reform for suggestions on how to deal with “habitual offenders, endeavouring to find some more rational treatment than that afforded by the ordinary procedure of the criminal courts and repeated sentences of imprisonment.” He set up model reform schools for young offenders, mostly on a progressive European, apparently Belgian, model.

Though disorganised and anecdotal, the pages he provides on these topics are suggestive and could be read for various purposes by historians. His chapter on “remarkable prisoners” contains material that Coles writes about with relish, including the story of the wealthy prince Ahmed Seif al-Din, grandson of Mohamed Ali and brother of princess Shivakiar Khanum, later wife of king Fouad, and the author of an assassination attempt against the latter when he was still heir to the throne. The affairs of Seif al-Din and other celebrity prisoners were widely reported in the gossip columns of the day.

While Coles’s account contains some discussion of public policy, his anecdotal approach betrays his primary purpose, which was to write a more or less personal memoir. Very different in tone and approach is British colonel P. G. Elgood’s Egypt and the Army, published in 1924 and consisting of a history of the British army in Egypt before, during, and after the First World War and apparently at least partly drawing on the author’s career in both the civil and military service. Elgood held posts in the Egyptian finance and interior ministries and was controller-general of food supplies and inspector-general on the Suez Canal.  

His book begins with an account of the “attitude of Egypt at the outbreak of War,” ending with a chapter called “Rebellion” on the 1919 Revolution. Following the British declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire in November 1914, the British occupying authorities in Egypt unilaterally declared the country a protectorate and deposed the khedive Abbas II Hilmy, thought to entertain pro-Ottoman sympathies, and placed his uncle Hussein Kamil on the throne. The country was simultaneously declared to be no longer part of the Ottoman Empire, as the ruler’s title of khedive (viceroy) still proclaimed, and Hussein Kamil was declared to be the sultan of Egypt.

Shortly afterwards, British, Australian, and Indian troops began to pour into Egypt with the aim first of defending the Suez Canal, thought to be an Ottoman objective, and then of carrying out military campaigns in neighbouring Palestine. Egyptian men and materiel were requisitioned for the British war effort, and the country’s economy and society were badly disrupted.

“Through an involuntary and despised association with Great Britain, Egypt had been dragged into a struggle of which the origin was obscure to her and the objectives unknown” is how Elgood puts it. “Simultaneously the deep-seated distrust, common to all classes of the population towards the occupying power, expanded into a sentiment of bitter, if silent, hatred.”

He writes interestingly and apparently at first hand of preparations in the Canal Zone and elsewhere for the 1917 British push into Palestine that culminated in the entry of British troops under general Edmund Allenby into Jerusalem. It was this, he thinks, that helped to increase Egyptian hostility to the British war effort, since “solemn promises” of limited Egyptian involvement made in 1914 were forgotten with the imposition of martial law and an ever-greater thirst for men and materiel that included something akin to the press-ganging of men in the countryside to work for the British.

Reviewing the events of 1919 and Egypt’s bid for independence, Elgood concludes that “Egypt in 1919 was not the Egypt that Cromer or Kitchener knew. Insensibly, the War had altered many of her former beliefs, and she was no longer afraid of England.” It is a fitting envoi for what Elgood elsewhere calls “Egypt’s transition.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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