Peter Mellini looks at a work on the influential diplomat and imperialist.
Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul
Oxford University Press 436pp £25
When the first Earl Cromer (Sir Evelyn Baring, 1841-1917) died, The Times heralded him as ‘the maker of Modern Egypt.’ In 1998 some young Egyptian students told the local archivist at the Norfolk town of Cromer, ‘We want to spit on his grave’. Roger Owen deftly illuminates why Cromer amply deserves the Establishment’s acclaim and these Egyptians’ contempt. Known as ‘Overbaring’ after his short imperious service in India, he served in Egypt in 1879-80 as the representative for the European debt holders, then as Her Majesty’s Agent and Consul General -– its de facto ruler between 1883-1907.
Owen has spent his adulthood studying, writing and teaching Middle Eastern economic and political history. Given access to the Baring Family and the Baring Bank archives, he has scoured the relevant official and private papers and newspapers, including those in Arabic. Part I, ‘The Training of an Officer and a Gentleman’, gives us the setting. Evelyn Baring, born into rural aristocratic Norfolk society to an influential merchant banking clan of German origin, like many other country gentlemen idolised a pre-industrial simplicity of social relations. ‘Those who left often found it again, or rather imagined they had found it, in the villages and tribes of Africa and Asia. In Cain and Hopkins’s apt phrase, they took to the paternalism of Empire “as squires to the manor born”’ (p. 13).