Luisa Villa, ‘A ‘Political Education’: Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, the Arabs, and the Egyptian Revolution (1881-82)’

Wilfred Scawen Blunt
Wilfred Scawen Blunt

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (1840-1922) represents an interesting case of Victorian internationalism, and a significant figure in the history of the critique of modern imperialism. His name is not one that is likely to pop up in surveys of the late Victorian age, and even in substantial books on the literature and culture of the period it is hard to come by.Villa came across him while researching her book on the representations of the Sudan military campaigns, as the author of a ponderous volume on Gordon at Khartoum (1911).

However, in his time Blunt was a sonneteer of some repute, capable – in his old age – of captivating such rising young men as W.B. Yeats or Ezra Pound; his eventful and picturesque life has been much written about; historians of the British involvement in Egypt and the Sudan have long been relying on the rich documentary material provided by his published diaries; experts of East-West cultural relations have rated him highly. The post-9/11 edition of his Future of Islam (Routledge/Curzon, 2002) testifies to the renewed topicality of his concerns.

Blunt was born into a family of the landed gentry of the South of England, and he served in the Diplomatic Service from 1858 to 1869, when he married Lady Anne Noel, Byron’s accomplished and very rich granddaughter. Henceforth, the couple led the life of leisurely landowners: they travelled extensively in the Near and Middle East, hunted foxes and bred horses at home (they were passionately fond of horses, and starting in 1878 they built up the well-known Arabian stud at Crabbet, their Sussex estate), and translated literature from Arabic.

But from the early 1880s Blunt was also engaged in much vigorous anti-imperialist campaigning: he wrote controversial letters to the Press; published articles on colonial matters in leading journals as well as virulent polemical pamphlets at his own expense; befriended and helped Egyptian exiles and dissidents; tirelessly pestered ministers and functionaries of the Foreign Office, directly or through an extensive network of influential friends. In short, he made himself so obnoxious to the British establishment, at home and abroad, that for some years he was positively forbidden to set foot on Egyptian soil; and he was even jailed for two months in Ireland for convening a protest meeting, which openly challenged the 1887 Coercion Act, and much embarrassed Alfred Balfour, then Chief Secretary for Ireland and one of his close acquaintances. In later years he edited and re-worked into book form his very extensive private journals, which provided an insider’s view of controversial episodes of recent history (the military occupation of Egypt, Gordon’s mission at Khartoum, the “land war in Ireland”, etc.). They were, needless to say, often at odds with official versions.

Villa’s forthcoming essay does not attempt an overall assessment of Blunt’s engagement in Egyptian politics, which was for him a lasting concern and stretched well into the twentieth century; it focuses on the crisis in British foreign politics that culminated with the bombardment of Alexandria. How and why an affluent British aristocrat travelling East with a view to buying Arab horses for his Sussex stud should have sympathised with the doings and aspirations of the Egyptian Nationalist Party in 1881-82, becoming an embarrassment to his friends and relatives and a life-long foe to Evelyn Baring/Lord Cromer, is the specific question Villa tries to unravel.

In order to do so, the author preliminarily focuses on the inception of Blunt’s passion for things Arabian – which in its expressions did not significantly exceed the Orientalist doxa – and then analyze the ripening of his involvement in contemporary Islamic politics and the complexities of his positioning vis-à-vis Urabi’s Nationalist Movement and the British involvement in its repression.

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