Wilfred Scawen Blunt, pt. 2

Passing through Greece he paid a visit to the ancient site of Mycenae, where the Lion Gate had recently been unearthed by the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann.

The Lion's Gate in Mycenae

The Lion’s Gate in Mycenae

When he arrived in Egypt via Alexandria, he traveled with a prince and nephew of a former khedive. This prince he held worthy to be khedive, mockery though the station was. One of the prince’s regrets is educating his daughters. Not because of the education, but he said because he could not find them educated husbands; “nearly everybody now at Constantinople has abandoned the practice of polygamy, only half-a-dozen among the men of rank he knew having more than one wife.” Apparently, the monogamy of the common people might have been the result of poverty. Those are certainly interesting statements, but read as nonsensical to me now, although I understand the tradition of polygamy.

He was, apparently, opposed in his visit by Evelyn Baring, the Earl of Cromer as well as the first consul general, and was only able to visit Egypt through the graces of Lord Salisbury, then the Prime Minister. This was not without a catch, of course:

“I was under a certain obligation to avoid any kind of publicity in my sympathy with the National cause.” He, therefore, left to Sheykh Obeyd (his horse farm), where his garden was apparently in a horribly bad sort. Such is life, Wilfred.

Saadun, purchased by Lady Anne Blunt in 1911. From arabianheritagesource.com

Saadun, purchased by Lady Anne Blunt in 1911. From arabianheritagesource.com

From arabs-iowa.com

From arabs-iowa.com

Molony, often spelt Malony. I would love more information about this guy.

Molony, often spelt Malony. I would love more information about this guy.

He did receive a wide variety of visitors: Arabists, the prince and his sister (Osman Pasha and Princess Nazli), old friends Aarif Bey, Mohammed Moelhi, and Ibrahim Moelhi, the two latter apparently being in the confidence of the Ottoman High Commissioner. Frank Noel apparently came to Egypt with them and provided a secondhand Greek perspective. He also found an English connection in one Colonel Charles Wyndham, who I couldn’t find anything about.

[Note, 12/17/2015: That’s his cousin, fam.]

The net effect of his many social visits was to enlighten him as to the goings-on in Egypt.

The failure of the Drummond Wolff Convention due to French and Russian influence, which was to negotiate the withdrawal of English troops under conditions that could allow for legal reinvasion, left everything in Egypt in total confusion. Interestingly, he wrote that not only had this happened, “but every section of native opinion had been checked and disorganized.” In other words, Blunt saw in the negotiation of treaties the silencing of native (or, for him, nationalist) stances. If you’ve done some reading on the situations of Western interventionism in the intervening time, you probably already know that’s an element of every interventionist/imperialist action in the Middle East. Baring, “in whom all real power was vested,” was playing the waiting game with Egypt.

To his despair, the National Party had apparently fallen apart since he was last in Egypt in 1882. The rank of khedive, they feared, would have fallen to someone with a misaligned goal.

The really interesting thing here is the suggestion put across about jihad against all colonizers (or, here, “infidel intruders”). Muhammad proclaimed himself Mahdi, a messiah of the Islamic faith, leading what Blunt describes as a nonstop guerilla warfare with Osman Digna [in alliance with, not against] in the Sudan (or at this point, the Mahdi’s successor Abdallahi ibn Muhammad). In the process, these men were imbued with heroic qualities and apparently held in greater regard than any of the multiple Egyptian/Ottoman officials who had been appointed. These men claimed to aim for the conquest even of the northen Mediterranean. Whatever one thinks of radical Islam, the language of jihad against an invader is an effective organizing tool. (Interestingly, these radicals are apparently related ideologically to Wahhabi Islam.)

Osman Digna

Osman Digna

Also really great is the extra time I have to put into every bit of reading. It’s not even that I’m entirely unacquainted with the remarkably diverse and complex cast of the late 19th century Middle East. Blunt’s non-excerpted prose explanations, however, are incredibly difficult to work through as they assume a 19th century reader’s knowledge, and many short sentences such as “and [the khedivial family might] make good Lord Dufferin’s promises” are presented without explanation. This particular phrase I have no clue about, except that it has to do with the warships Britain and France used to bolster the paper authority of the khedive in 1882, purely because I have not advanced my education on the period/subject far enough.

3rd Jan. 1889.—I left Cairo on the 27th, escaping like a bird out of the hand of the fowler and am established here at Shekyh Obeyd. It has been a blessed change, and though I have been here all these days alone, I have not for a moment felt otherwise than happy. I have been getting the place ready for habitation by the others, and it is quite comfortable already in an Oriental way. [What the hell does that mean???] The house is merely the old gardener’s house with two rooms added, four in all, and an open salamlik(i), which I use as sitting room. I have had the floors covered with two inches of clean white sand after the Nejd fashion, and I spread my carpet over it and sit there. For more furniture I have had in a man from the village to make bedsteads, divans, and seats (gufass(i)) which he does out of our own palm branches newly cut at the rate of four shilllings, two shillings, and seven pence halfpenny a piece. The village carpenter has put up a few screens for more privacy, and the whole furnishing for the family will cost almost two pounds. My room is like a lantern with windows facing East, North, and West, and from my bed I can see the first glimmer of the false dawn, which makes the owls hoot and the jackals cry. Then, with the real dawn, crows begin to pass overhead, and I get up and go outside the garden wall where I sit at the desert’s edge and wait for the sunrise. At this hour one sees all the wild life of the place, foxes, ichneumons (nims(i), jackals, and birds in great variety, kites, kestrels, doves, and occasionally a woodcock at flight from the marshes to the garden where he would spend the day. There are night ravens, too, which have their home in the lebbek(i) trees next the house and now in winter time a clock of rooks with their attendant jackdaws. This is a rarity in Egypt as rooks are never seen south of Cairo. There are two foxes which live inside the garden, and I see them most days ; they sleep generally in the day time behind some cactuses or at the foot of a palm tree, and they often jump up as I walk round, and trot away. They come sometimes within a few yards of my feet, being accustomed to the work-people, and not afraid of me because I wear an Arab dress. [Uh.] I have given orders here that there shall be absolute oman(u) even for wolves, and the hyenas which sometimes make their way over the garden wall. I superintend the labour now, mark out the work, and pay the wages, pruning the trees with a pair of garden nippers. This is a delightful occupation.

Two more entries concerning the domestic situation and fixing up of his garden follow, and a January 29 entry relating mostly to horse breeding but with some  information about a Bedouin named Zeyd in his employ who “was also of value…as a centre of Arabian gossip, including political news, sometimes of importance.”

Zeyd tells me that when he was at Damascus in 1887 he learned that the French Government had written a letter to Ibn Rashid and had sent it to Hail through Muhammed Ibn Abdul Kader, the Emir’s eldest son. It contained an offer of alliance, and to make Ibn Rashid independent of the Sultan under French protection. Ibn Rashid, however had forwarded the letter to Constantinople, and Ibn Abdul Kader had been hauled over the coals by the Sultan, but had excused himself, saying that as a French subject he could not disobey the order of his government.

So, social meetings and absent gardening is the brunt of how Wilfred Scawen Blunt passed his time early in his time back in Egypt. The political tidbits are interesting but probably for the most part partisan gossip, which means they’re not a really ideal source. That’s where I have to remind myself more and more of the idea of this entire project, which is to examine involvement in the colonial process broadly writ. I’m assuming with further reading into the literature on colonialism the pieces there will come together over time. What’s important right now is just that I read the personal narratives.

At any rate, a few things are now clear: rather than immersing himself in Egyptian nationalism the way he immersed himself in Irish nationalism, Blunt placed himself at a distance. In his own way, he became sort of intellectually immersed in the struggle, and received updates from a wide number of individuals. To some extent he obviously felt he was walking on egg-shells from the time he decided to visit Egypt again. Further, it is clear that his intent from the get-go was to lend whatever support to the Egyptian national struggle as he could without the first sign of a response from British authority figures. So it makes some sense that his first entries are concerning social meetings and gardening. Still, it seems patronizing to me to declare for someone else what would be the best path for their movement to take, although in any case it is nice to see British commentary not directly minimalize an explicitly anti-colonial movement.


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