Imperialism Personified: A Brief Evaluation of Evelyn Baring’s “Modern Egypt”

Even in 1908 it was apparent to many people that Modern Egypt was written with an agenda. Indeed, critics within Britain and Egypt accused Lord Cromer of peddling ‘half-truths’ and using his text as a ‘velvet glove [to hide] the iron hand of his own jealous autocracy’. It was felt by many that the whole text was, ostensibly, lying to the British public who were almost entirely ignorant of Egyptian and Sudanese history. In this extract, the way Baring casts aspersion across the entirety of Egyptian history is extraordinary; he has no qualms in simply stating that Egypt has been misgoverned ‘from Pharaohs to Pashas’. Edward Said identified this as a central facet of imperial “orientalism”, the notion of a “timeless orient”, somewhere that, unless there is outside intervention, will never change. It is an idea that therefore justifies a British presence in Egypt.

In Egypt’s case this is especially relevant as Britain often saw the country as not only unchanging, but childlike. Alfred Milner, one of Baring’s contemporaries, was most influential in bringing this idea to the fore, claiming that Egypt had ‘dwindled to insignificance’. Said also comments on this, explaining that infantilising Egypt was important to the paternal role that Britain wished to play in its relationship with the country, in control but also in favour, offering a ‘hand of fellowship and encouragement’ to its guileless subject. In this text, Baring is considering Egypt as infantile in two areas, ‘morally and materially’. On a material level he is referring to infrastructure and capital, and on a moral level he refers to “work ethic”. In both of these cases he is arguing that British intervention is solely for the benefit of the native people, as one faithful reviewer commented at the time; Britain is ‘animated at no time by the slightest influence of personal greed’. However, it is evident today through the work of historians such as A. G. Hopkins, that Egypt was a great source of income for many British bondholders who held as much as 50% of the country’s wealth, and whose interests were a large factor behind the original occupation of the country. 

Religion is another key area that Baring picks out as underdeveloped within Egyptian society. Interestingly however, throughout Modern Egypt Baring is careful not to completely discredit Islam, but instead proselytise the greater benefits of ‘Christian civilisation’. Here also the notion of a childlike state comes into play in that Islam is good for ‘a primitive society’ but that only Christianity will bring you a fully adult state. There are two main reasons why Baring would criticise Islam so heavily yet not fully condemn it. The first is that he knows it would be an impossible task to attempt to convert ‘ten million native Egyptians’, both on a spiritual and logistical level. Secondly, as Said also comments, another central idea in creating an image of “the orient” is to keep it distanced from yourself. By supporting the continuation of Islam, Baring is allowing Egyptian society to continue acting as a “constitutive other” to the western world. Because Britain defines its superiority via the differences it holds between itself and the “the orient”, it is crucial that those differences remain pronounced. However, some scholars such as Humayun Ansari and Kenan Malik have argued against this notion, saying that the creation of such as “constitutive other” was not a consideration of Baring or other colonial officials and that Said conflates western thought with western imperialism. Ansari points out that there was no one idea between states, groups, or individuals of what “the other” was, and thus the idea could never take effect. Malik argues that Said’s view reinforces east/west divisions by placing all agency on the west in creating an “other”; the east therefore appears passive in not being able to change either itself or western opinion of itself.

For all historians it is generally difficult to assess Baring’s true motives within this text, this is because the internal logic of Modern Egypt is constantly in flux. Just within this section Baring indicates that Britain both accidentally and intentionally conquered the country. In the first paragraph he suggests that Britain simply “found” Egypt and decided to help, yet in the next it appears he has been ‘guided… by his forefathers’ to his current position. This confusion at least reveals the one clear motive behind Modern Egypt; Baring’s attempts to desperately try and clear his name. He was facing criticism in the press for his handling of Egypt and Sudan, and was often blamed for the death of General Gordon, who was now solidified as a national hero. He was also associated with the infamous ‘Denshawai Incident’, in which several villagers were wrongly imprisoned and hanged for the death of a British officer, for which one critic pronounced, ‘the blood of the innocent rises up against us’. It is easy to see Baring as imperialism personified; controlling, powerful, and paradoxically senseless.

Author/Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 1st of February 2018

Last Modified: 1st of February 2018

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