The high priests of Disraeli’s so-called new imperialism, no less than Gladstone and the Liberals, were strongly against bringing more Oriental peoples into the empire. The mid-Victorian preference for ‘moral influence’ was as strong as ever in the Eighteen seventies and Eighteen eighties. Neither the Indian, nor the Colonial school of imperialists wanted another empire in the Near East or north Africa. The Indian Mutiny perhaps had been warning enough of the dangers and difficulties of ruling coloured subjects. Disraeli and Salisbury, who had made the Queen Empress of India in an attempt to meet some of these difficulties, had not the least ambition to turn Egypt into another India. [85]

The Matter of Turkey

More than any other cause, the danger of a general Ottoman collapse set off the partition of Africa and brought on the rise of new European empires in north and tropical Africa. [92]

Until quite late in the nineteenth century, England and other European powers had little interest in grabbing territory and establishing colonies in either Northern nor Subsaharan Africa because they seemed to offer neither strategic nor economic gains. What changed by 1880? What made Britain and European powers suddenly decide to scramble for African colonies?

According to Robinson, Gallagher, and Denny’s Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialism (1961), the explanation lies in another example of the law of unintended consequences. Well meaning attempts to increase trade with Turkey and Africa intended both to bring wealth to the Europeans and modern, liberal, democractic rule to the Turkish and Egyptian people backfired. Unwelcome attempts at modernization weakened native rulers, destroyed much of traditional economies, and led to anti-European feeling that in return required foreign interventions that became foreign occupations.

The British comedy of errors began with the best of intentions. “Palmerston, the greatest exponent of the imperialism of free trade, perfected the policy of protecting strategic interests in the Near East by trade and influence,” and for several decades this strategy seemed to be working: “Between 1838 and 1841 he forced the Sultan and the Pasha of Egypt to give up their monopolies and to throw open their dominions to free trade, believing that British merchants, given this opportunity, could not fail to capture and multiply Turkish commerce. A thriving trade, Palmerston expected, would fill the Sultan’s treasury and pay for stronger armies, to be trained by British officers. British advisers would guide Ottoman policy and bring the Sultan to introduce liberal reforms which would give the subject peoples representation in government and property rights in the Courts.” Great Britain would thereby free the Turkish people from

'quasi-feudal Moslem overlords whose rule, the British believed, had kept the country backward and poor for centuries. Once liberated, the peasant would produce more for the market, the Oriental merchant would accumulate capital and his enterprise would develop the economy in partnership with the British merchant. The inflowing trade would spread liberal notions of justice and freedom. In the end, rulers and ruled, grateful both for prosperity and enlightenment, would look to Britain as their mentor. Those classes of Turkish society whose interests and outlook were identified with the British, would come to power and perpetuate the partnership with Britain. With such a theory, it is no wonder that the Palmerstonians preferred influence as a far more potent mode of expansion than rule, or that they put commerce to work to secure their strategic interests in the Near East. [78]

Parts of this planned power-by-influence-not-conquest succeeded: British merchants did manage to dominate Turkish and Egyptian trade, and British and French investors did build needed railways and did lend large sums of money to the Sultan of Turkey and the Khedive of Egypt. That's where successes ended. “Moslem conservatism and Russian intrigue blocked every attempt at liberal reform: and as a result the technique of the collaborating class did not work.” Worse, attempts to strengthen the position of Moslem rulers by modernization weakened them and alienated the masses. Fearing Russia’s advance in to the Mediterranean, France and England depended upon a strong Turkey to protect their interests, but their attempts to modernize and thereby strengthen Turkey failed completely.

Nothing could have been fairer or more settled from the British and French points of view than to go on protecting their interests in north Africa and the Near East by means of commerce, capital and influence. But by this time the Turkish governments on which Britain and France had built their security in the Mediterranean were breaking down. All the European schemes for regenerating a rotten empire with trade, loans and reforms proved only to have helped on its disruption. . . . With his currency in disorder, his foreign trade unbalanced and his revenues falling short of expenditure, the Sultan borrowed heavily from London and even more from Paris, mortgaging this land revenue to get the loans. His decrepit administration however only squandered the capital. As his debts mounted, his attempts to force up land taxes strained his authority and helped to provoke the Christian and national revolts in Bosnia and Herzogovina. At last the Sultan could no longer find new money to repay old loans.[79]

The Situation in Egypt

By 1876 Turkey became bankrupt, and the British “imperialism of free trade” had much the same effects on Egypt and the rest of Turkish North Africa.

Twenty years after Palmerston had opened Egypt to free trade, the Khedive Ismail had begun his ambitious attempt to develop his country with the aid of foreign loans. He did much in the eighteen sixties to improve irrigation and agriculture. Thousands of labourers were digging the Canal and building a railway. Foreign trade grew. Ismail, it seemed, was exactly the kind of enlightened Oriental collaborator that Palmerston had dreamed of; and yet every step forward took the Khedive further into the thicket of debt and difficulty. Egyptian imports soared high above the exports, and expenditure above revenue. [80]

Part of the problem obviously lay with European banks that had kept lending money at higher and higher rates of interest as Ismail began to “live from loan to loan.”

Punch cartoons, 1880-1885 commenting upon the loans and cost of managing Egypt in order to protect the Suez Canal. Left: The New Knight. Middle: Lord de Rothschild’s Egyptian Soothing-Syrup. Feeding-Time; a Little Treat All Round. . Right: A Mutual Understanding. [Click on images to enlarge them and for explanations of the satire.]

But an equally important cause lay in Ismail’s unwillingness to adopt political and administrative reforms. “European attempts to introduce equitable and efficient taxation and to cut expenditure alarmed the privileged classes of the old regime, and united the Army, the landlords and the Ulema against foreign control” (84-85). His first solution was “to squeeze more out of the Egyptian taxpayer, but at a heavy cost in political discontent among peasants and pashas alike” (81). His second, recognizing Egyptian resistance at foreign interventions, led him to defy England and France, proclaiming himself the leader of Egyptian resistance. He dismissed his foreign advisers in April 1879 and the European powers quickly dismissed him, replacing him by Tewfik as Khedive. This short-term solution only exacerbated the situation:

The Khedive’s power had always been poised upon the narrow base of a personal autocracy, a Turkish official and landowning class, and in the last resort, upon the army. As the Sultan’s viceroy, he had been the defender of Islam, entitled to command the faithful; and as the Khedive of Egypt he represented Egyptian aspirations to be free from the Turkish yoke. But by 1880 he had lost most of these claims to his subjects’ allegiance. In using his government for their own purposes, the [European] Powers were separating him from the native sources of authority. They had taken away his wealth and made him into a constitutional monarch. In setting Tewfik in Ismail’s place, they had shown the Khedive to his people as a Christian puppet. They had turned him into a debt-collector for the effendi. In using his authority to re-assess and raise the land tax and to abolish tax-exemptions, they had deprived him of his natural allies, the landlords. The severe retrenchment of military expenditure loosened his hold on the army and made it rebellious. The Anglo-French financial arrangements were provoking a national revolt against Turkish oppression and foreign control. [87]

Four very different groups of Egyptians opposed the Khedive and his European masters — liberal reformers who wanted freedom from Turkey and a modern form of government, the very different Moslem conservatives who hated Christianity, the great landowners, and the Egyptian army led by Arabi and the colonels. By 1881 Egypt had plunged into crisis. “The country was on the verge of anarchy. The symptoms were unmistakable: the restless peasantry, the discontented landlords, the immature liberal opposition, the broad movement against the foreigner, the collapse of traditional authority leading to a military Putsch” (87).

Punch cartoons about military solutions to the Egyptian dilemma and its shortcomings. Left: The Dioscuri in Egypt (recommending military force). Middle: Ruling the Waves. (?). Right: Too Late! — the death of General Gordon.

But why did it matter? The government of England, unlike that of France, did not believe it had to protect investment and speculation by its own citizens. Nonetheless, English government after government believed Egypt absolutely crucial to the country’s prosperity and security, because it controlled the security of the main route between India, by far England’s most important colonial possession, and the so-called mother country. India made Egypt and the Suez Canal so important that it led parties and governments firmly against colonization, especially in Africa, to stumble and bumble into acquiring an unwanted extension of empire.

Related material


Robinson, Ronald, John Gallagher, and Alice Denny. Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialism (1961). Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1968.

Last modified 9 August 2020