Power and Passion in Egypt
Review by Peter Mellini
Power and Passion in Egypt
By Archie Hunter
Archie Hunter has written a perceptive study of his great uncle Sir Eldon ‘Jack’ Gorst (1861-1911), Lord Cromer’s chosen successor as proconsul and de facto ruler in Egypt, who died prematurely in office in 1911. Gorst had coped well with a troubled legacy left by his imperious predecessor. Nascent Egyptian nationalism, especially the 1910 assassination of Prime Minister Butrus Ghalli, a supple Copt, the rejection soon after of an extension the Suez Canal treaty by the Egyptian General Assembly, and disgruntled British officials who saw their careers in Egypt jeopardized by Gorst’s willingness to manipulate and control matters behind the screen of Egyptian officialdom and the Khedive. Gorst’s more informal style of imperial rule, his self-confidence bordering on arrogance, an inability to tolerate fools, and his shortness contributed to his downfall. A rare admirer, Lord Vanisittart who served under Gorst from 1909-11 observed: ‘But an inch on Cleopatra’s nose, six inches on Gorst’s stature, might have affected the story of Egypt.’
Archie Hunter has written solid biographies of his grandfather, a general in Egypt, and Jack Gorst’s father, Sir John Gorst, the so-called mystery man of Tory and latterly radical politics. He effectively mined his great uncle’s papers, family memories, memoirs and studies of the era, and the public records showing us how an ambitious, clever man lived and worked among the English ruling elite and the multinational social scene in Cairo and Alexandria. His first three chapters cover Gorst’s childhood, his education at Eton and Cambridge and his choice of a career in the Diplomatic Service. Posted to Cairo in 1886 under the imperious Cromer, he rapidly rose in the Egyptian Service in the ministries of the Interior and Finance.
He learned Arabic, so he was able to work directly with the Egyptians, particularly with the young Khedive Abbas Hilmi II, something that Cromer never bothered to do. Clever, hardworking and achingly ambitious. by his mid-thirties he had become one of the most influential imperial officials in Egypt.
Meanwhile he cut an impressive figure among the upper classes in Egypt. He cultivated relations with the Turco-Curcassion elite, the Mediterranean commercial communities, and the international set that came to visit Egypt every winter. When I submitted my biography of Sir Eldon ‘Jack’ Gorst to the Hoover Instutition three decades ago, their editor said ‘At last, a proconsul with a sex life.’ Jack Gorst’s life and his loves would provide the a scenario for Masterpiece Theatre. Three women among many were central to him. Lady Jessica Sykes, known by the wags as ‘Lady Satin Tights’ and mother of Sir Mark Sykes, ‘contributed very largely to the foundation of my character and general views of life…. She possessed great intelligence coupled with an extraordinary variety of knowledge and force of character unusual in one of her sex.’ The American beauty Romaine Turnure enlivened his life in the 1890s and they had a child. Their affair wound down, and she married into the English aristocracy. In line to succeed Cromer, after some unsuccessful forays in the upper-classes’ marriage market, Jack Gorst in his forties married the heiress Evelyn ‘Doll’ Rudd in 1903.
All this while he had risen in the Egyptian Service. By August 1898 Gorst was the Financial Advisor, in effect the Prime Minister of Egypt. His success and his abilities led to a crucial role in the negotiations for the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, followed by three years as a permanent under secretary in the Foreign Office. Finally in 1907 Cromer’s health gave out and he asked for Gorst to succeed him.
Gorst returned to a British Agency and British rule in some turmoil, growing Egyptian nationalism, and a region in upheaval. Gorst dealt with most of these challenges, though he miscalculated the impact of Egyptian nationalism and the ire of the growing number of British serving in Egypt and the Sudan. Cancer cut short his life, just as he was about to change his policy direction.
Hunter has sorted out Jack Gorst’s abortive four years as Consul General skillfully. Coupled with Roger Owen’s recent biography of Cromer (reviewed in History Today in 2005) much of the mystery of British relations in Egypt in the first decade of the twentieth century is clearly described and fairly analyzed.
In 1977 I wrote ‘The illusions and false conclusions that British statesmen drew from Cromer’s success and Gorst’s experiment in conciliation were part of the great failure of vision that bedeviled British relations with Egypt until very recently.’ Elizabeth Monroe accurately characterized these relations as ‘so manifest a failure that no Englishman felt inclined to describe the heyday.’
Archie Hunter was inclined and has composed a richly textured interpretation of Jack Gorst’s life and times in Egypt that clarifies this failure of imperial vision.
Peter Mellini is the author of In “Vanity Fair” (Quiller Press, 2001)
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