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August 15, 2019


Arthur Weigall with his wife, Hortense, outside the entrance to the tomb (KV2) of Ramesses IV

In Part I, I gave a general biography of the Egyptologist, Arthur Weigall, and I promised to analyse his novel, The Way of the East, which is a romance between an English colonel, Robert Romance, and a Coptic woman, Miriam Marcos. But, before we read together through the novel it will help to know the author’s social and political views of Egypt, Egyptians in general and the Copts in particular. Weigall has written many books on ancient Egypt; and in these there is no mentioning of his views on modern Egyptians, whether Muslims or Copts. Fortunately, he has written a book about modern Egypt, The History of Events in Egypt from 1798 to 1914,[1] which he published in 1915. This was a year after he left Egypt for England. From this book we can gather his relevant political views.

Weigall attaches a poem at the front of his book by the nineteenth century American poet, Walt Whitman:

With antecedents,

With Egypt . . .

With the fading kingdoms and kings,

With countless years drawing themselves onward

And arriving at these years —

O, but it is not the years: it is I, it is You . . .

We stand amid time beginningless and endless,

We stand amid evil and good . . .

I know that the past was great and the future will be great,

And that where I am or you are this present day

There is the centre of all days, all races,

And there is the meaning to us of all that has ever come

Of races and days, or ever will come.

He then writes a Preface[2] in which he gives his excuse, being an Egyptologist, of writing such a book:

My fellow-workers may ask why an Egyptologist, deserting for a while his temples and his mummies, should meddle with modern affairs and politics. I must, therefore, give my reasons for having turned my attention to these nineteenth- and twentieth-century studies in Egyptian history.

Weigall starts off by, what I think, an erroneous conclusion: that anthropologically the modern Egyptians and ancient Egyptians are one and the same, physically and mentally; and that the purity of their blood resisted all invasions and occupations:

It has lately been definitely proved that the ancient and modern Egyptians are one and the same people. Anthropologically there is no real difference between them, and it would seem that neither the Arab nor any other invasion materially affected the purity of their blood. They have suffered a certain nervous deterioration, and have perhaps lost some of their initiative and strength of purpose, just as any individual in his lifetime may, after a long illness, find himself not so energetic as once he was; but physically and mentally the modern Egyptians are not different from their ancestors of the days of the Pharaohs.

Studying the past will inform the present, and studying the present will enlighten our understanding of the past, hence the importance of studying the modern Egyptians and their “national character”:

This being so, I do not see how an Egyptologist can hope to understand the ancient inhabitants of the Nile Valley unless he make some study of their modern descendants. The antiquarian will reply that modern politics are of too transitory a nature to interest him; but in answer, I would point out to him that all historical episodes are transitory, and yet in bulk they serve to define the only permanent quality by which a people may be judged — namely, the national character. The antiquarian must remember that in his archaeological work he is dealing with a people who are still alive, still contributing their strength to the labours of the world. The affairs of bygone times must be interpreted in the light of recent events, just as modern conditions can be rightly appreciated only by those who know what has of one before. There must be a constant interchange of suggestion between the past and the present, and both in the study of the distant ages and in that of modern days, we must not lose sight of the fact that the long road of Time stretches in one unbroken line from the far past into the far future, and that the traveller upon that road is indeed a lost wanderer if he sees not from whence it comes and into what direction it seems to go.

Egypt has recently passed under the Protection of the British people, and it is therefore incumbent upon those who take their national responsibilities with seriousness to understand how it comes about that we are in any way concerned with the people of the Nile. Lord Cromer once remarked to me that no statesman could hope to understand the Egyptian Question unless he had made some study of ancient history ; and with equal reason it may be said that no antiquarian can expect to interpret rightly the events of Egypt’s mighty past unless he has been an interested spectator of Egyptian actions in modern times.

Weigall then tells us that his own study of modern Egypt has helped him to understand its past; and then – rather astonishingly, I must say – he states his confidence that the modern Egyptians, with the help of the British Occupation (he always, though, mentions “England” rather than the “Britain”), will be able to re-establish Egypt’s past greatness:

Such is my excuse for spending many of my spare hours in the preparation of the following chapters, which, as far as I am concerned, have served to enlighten me very considerably upon certain remote episodes, and have produced in my mind an unbounded confidence in the ability of the Egyptian nation to re-establish its greatness under our very eyes, and, by England’s high-minded aid, to become, as the new Sultan has said, “a centre of intensive cultivation, both moral and material.”

Chapter VI in Weigall’s book, which he dedicates to Eldon Gorst, is very relevant to our study. Gorst became second Pro-Consul in 1907 after Lord Cromer had resigned his post. It is interesting that that was a couple of years after Weigall was made Chief Inspector of Antiquities for Upper Egypt in 1905. Weigall tells us of the extremely grave situation the British Occupation was in when Gorst took up office:

The tragedy of Deneshwai in 1906 was still in the forefront of men’s minds. British officers in uniform had been attacked, and one of them had succumbed, within a few miles of their camp; and, apart from all other considerations, this outrage was to be interpreted as meaning that the very symbols and insignia of British authority were despised and disregarded. The misunderstanding with Turkey in connection with the Sinaitic frontier had caused a more than usually excited outburst of anti-British feeling; and, had there been war, it is possible that the Egyptian army would have mutinied. Rumours of forthcoming massacres of Christians were frequent, and more than once the date was fixed for a general slaughter. Both in 1906 and 1907 a rising, directed against the English, was confidently expected; and there was one well-remembered night in Cairo when a total absence of British officers from the clubs and places of amusement revealed the fact that they were all under arms at their posts. Massacre was openly preached in the villages throughout the country, and many Europeans were subjected to insult.

The Nationalists — that is to say, those Egyptians who wished to terminate the British Occupation and to introduce self-government — were at this time an extremely powerful party ; and the Khedive, perhaps chagrined at the attitude of the Agency towards him, was openly inclined to be well-disposed to the movement. The Russo-Japanese war had supplied a powerful stimulus to Oriental aspirations, and the Egyptians were of opinion that they, too, could rise with easy rapidity to the level of a first-class Power. The financial crisis, in which a large number of Europeans and Egyptians had lost enormous sums of money, had paralysed the Bourse. The nerves of the whole country were on edge.

No sooner was Lord Cromer’s back turned than the vernacular Press attacked the Occupation with vicious energy. His strong hand being removed, the reaction set in; and the native journalists revelled in a demoniacal fantasy of abuse. Lord Cromer was accused of all the crimes in the calendar; and it was publicly recorded that he had left the country bearing with him many millions of pounds stolen from the Egyptian treasury. The Nationalists freely stated, and seemed actually to believe, that his resignation had been brought about by their triumphant policy, and that the home Government had required his removal owing to his stern treatment of the Deneshwai ruffians. British prestige suffered a very palpable fall, and it was thought that the days of self-government were imminent.

Gorst arrived, and the British and Egyptians were waiting to see how he would address the situation and rule. And it seems that he lost no time in implementing a policy of divide and rule; and he first started by distancing the regressive Khedive Abbas II (1892 – 1914) from the Nationalists:

All eyes were turned upon him for some sign of his policy, and it was not long before indications were given of the direction in which he intended to move. For some time the relations between the Khedive and the British Agent had been strained, and Sir Eldon Gorst made it his first concern to institute more friendly feelings. This he did with such marked success that his Highness was soon completely won over by the careful deference paid to his rank, and by the cordial attitude adopted towards his person. “Whatever good work may have been done in the past year,” Sir Eldon was able to say in his first annual report, “is due to the hearty cooperation of the Khedive and his Ministers, working harmoniously and loyally with the British officials in the service of the Egyptian Government.”

It is difficult to decide whether Sir Eldon fully realised at the time what the result of this entente would be; but, since the effect was so immediate, it would seem that he was not acting solely from a sense of duty to his Highness, though, no doubt, his actions to some extent were the outcome of a genuine sympathy for the awkwardly situated Prince. No sooner had the Khedive laid aside his differences with the Agency than the Nationalists turned upon him, accusing him of disloyalty to his country, and threatening to dethrone him. It must have been with profound satisfaction that Sir Eldon watched this break between the Khedive and the Nationalists. The latter party had suffered a severe blow by the death of their leader, Mustafa Kamel Pasha, and now many internal quarrels occurred which hastened their fall. With the Khedive and all Egyptians who were loyal either to him or to the Occupation against them, their power could not be retained, and very soon their political redoubtability was reduced to an irritating but not very dangerous agitation.

Gorst then paid attention to breaking any possible unity between the Muslims and Christians of Egypt:

In his first year of office Sir Eldon Gorst took another important step towards the overthrow of militant Nationalism. The vast majority of Egyptians are Mohammedans; and as the Occupation, against which the so-called “patriotic” movement is directed, is Christian, it became a political necessity for the Nationalists to use this religious difference as one of the main planks of their platform. While the leaders wished to convey to Europe the impression that they were too highly educated to be fanatical, they were constantly using the inherent Mohammedan enthusiasm as a means of arousing the nation. Now, a large number of educated Egyptians are Copts — i.e., Christians — and the Nationalist party had therefore to decide whether, on the one hand, they would eliminate the religious aspect of their movement and incorporate the Coptic “patriots” with themselves, or whether, on the other hand, they should retain the important asset of religious fervour and should dispense with the services of this not inconsiderable minority of native Christians. They were still undecided, and there was a chance that the two religious factions would unite, when the new British Agent suddenly appointed Boutros Pasha Ghali, a venerable Copt, to the office of Prime Minister, made vacant by the retirement of Mustafa Pasha Fehmy.

Again, it is not easy to say whether the probable results of this action had been carefully considered, or whether Boutros Pasha was appointed simply because he happened to be one of the most capable men available. The effect was immediate. The Mohammedan Nationalists, insulted at the exaltation of the Copts, turned against their Christian colleagues, and a breach was effected which it will take years to close. Soon the two factions were at one another’s throats, and at last Boutros Pasha paid for his elevation with his life, being assassinated by a Mohammedan Nationalist named Wardani in February 1910. Sir Eldon Gorst, who had been watching the fight with a somewhat sardonic smile, is said to have been profoundly moved by the tragedy; and he certainly saw to it that the murderer suffered the death penalty, in spite of the most carefully organised propaganda in his favour. Sir Eldon was at his best when, as on this occasion, he fought the enemies of law and order by means of the ordinary legal procedure of the country, imposing his will on magistrates and judges who, by reasons of the methods employed, were empowered to resist him with impunity. The Nationalist leaders had sworn that Wardani should not hang, and when the black flag went up over the prison it marked the turning-point in their attitude to the Agency, for an Egyptian always knows when he is beaten.

This is perhaps the only place where Weigall mentions the Copts as a people. The Copts are “Christian”; they are “not inconsiderable minority of native Christians”; they represent “a large number of educated Egyptians”; and they, with the Muslims of Egypt, are just “two religious factions”.  The Machiavellian Gorst has managed to estrange the Copts from the Nationalists, but he has no intention of being seen as in alliance, or sympathising, with the Copts:

The Copts, abandoning the Nationalist movement, now turned to the Occupation for support; and, deeming that this moment of British indignation against the assassin and his party was favourable for the redressing of certain wrongs under which they believed themselves to be labouring, they looked to Sir Eldon Gorst for encouragement. They received none. Sir Eldon, quite correctly, considered that their complaints were groundless, and he took the opportunity to tell them so with some sharpness, thereby estranging them from the Occupation as effectively as they were already estranged from the Nationalists.

The Copts are now, effectively, friendless. The British Occupation has deafened its ears to their grievances, which better English souls than Weigall, such as Flinders Petrie (1853 – 1942), Alfred Butler (1850 – 1936) and Archibald Sayce (1845 – 1933), have supported and saw their justification. Weigall does not show towards the Copts or their grievances. Further, he lauds Gorst’s policy:

Thus Egypt, which had presented a fairly united front in 1907, was now divided into four distinct factions: the Occupation and its supporters; the Khedive and his loyal adherents, whose fraternising with the British was rather superficial; the Copts; and the Nationalists, who themselves were much divided. For the first time for many years the task of governing the country was made simple, and these internal dissensions caused a set-back to Egyptian aspirations from which it will take many years for the nation to recover. In 1907 Sir Eldon Gorst found the British Agency besieged by an earnest crowd, all shouting for autonomy; in 1911 he left the Agency disencumbered and calmly watching that crowd fighting with itself. But whether we have to see in these events the intervention of an unscrupulous Fortune, or whether we must ascribe each movement to the Machiavellian cunning of the British Agent, is a question which will now never be answered. Even the diplomatic Secretaries in Cairo were totally undecided upon this matter, for Sir Eldon kept his policy to himself. One prefers to think that he was not entirely responsible for these dissensions and squabbles, for it is a form of cock-fighting which does not commend itself to British sentiments. Sir Eldon Gorst was not, like Lord Cromer, a born ruler in every sense of the word, but he was amazingly clever. He was extremely anxious to benefit Egypt, and in certain minor matters he was almost ruthless in clearing obstructions from the path of what he considered his duty.


There is no doubt that Weigall was an ardent colonialist and an English nationalist who saw in the English (and the American as we shall see in his novel)[3] the greatest race. This is not unusual by the measures of the time. What surprises me is that his Preface, in which he expressed good feelings, in general, towards the modern Egyptians, does not stand the test when one reads the main text. Weigall next discusses Gorst’s views on the Egyptian Question:

Meanwhile, his policy in regard to the larger aspect of the Egyptian question was straight-forward and logical. “British intervention in the affairs of this country,” he wrote in one of his reports, “is directed to the sole end of introducing and maintaining good administration and gradually educating and accustoming the Egyptians to carry this on for themselves.” England entered Egypt in 1882 for the purpose of supporting the Khedive, who nominally represented law and order, against his rebellious subjects; and she took this step almost solely in the interest of the Europeans resident in the country, or those who had financial interests in it. The Army of Occupation remained in Egypt after the suppression of the rebellion, in order to maintain the peace and thereby bring prosperity to all classes; and it may be said that the healthy financial condition of the country is due primarily to the confidence and sense of security inspired by the presence of the British troops. But when the English had arrived it was found that the entire administration of the Government was corrupt and rotten, and it was not many years before Lord Cromer decided to call in a large number of English officials thoroughly to overhaul and reorganise different departments. England, being on the spot, could not sit idle and watch the mismanagement; and it was certainly her only moral course to set to work in this manner. Nevertheless, in order to quiet the agitation of those who felt that annexation was now very near, it was officially stated that it was the intention of England to educate and train the Egyptians to govern themselves. Having declared so much, Lord Cromer was able to settle down to his labours with a will, and very soon the whole machinery of government was running like clockwork, to the great comfort of the masses, but to the annoyance of those classes who no longer found fat billets awaiting them, and who had now been spoiled of the opportunities of making money by illicit means. “This is all very well,” said intelligent natives, “but we are not learning how to govern ourselves in the least; we are not being taught, we are being ousted.” The more hot-headed Egyptians went further than this. “We are already as fit to govern ourselves as we ever shall be,” they declared, with some truth, “and we demand that the English shall now withdraw.” Lord Cromer was not the man to be hustled; but gradually, and in his own time, he took certain steps to increase the participation of Egyptians in their own government. The concessions thus made were attributed by the now powerful Nationalist party to British weakness, and the demands for autonomy became louder and more violent in consequence.

Matters were in this ferment when Sir Eldon Gorst arrived; and it was deemed advisable, both by him and by the Foreign Office, that England’s policy should be stated in clear terms, and should be backed by deeds. The world was therefore once more reminded that the Egyptians were being trained to rule themselves, and certain offices previously held by Englishmen, on becoming vacant, were handed over to natives. This caused a storm of indignation amongst the English officials, who had come to feel that Egypt was a British possession under the sole management of British officials. Sir Eldon Gorst, therefore, addressed himself in his 1910 report to the Englishmen in the service of the Egyptian Government, and pointed out to them that, by the terms of the unchanged policy laid down by the British Government in the early days of the Occupation, Egyptians had of necessity to be given offices; but that his countrymen need not on that account fear that their positions were endangered, for self-government was not yet in sight. As long as the standard of the Englishmen employed was retained at a high level they could not fail to be of use to Egypt. But, he added, “The only justification for the employment of non-Egyptian officials is found in their possession of qualities which do not exist among the natives of the country.”

Weigall was convinced that the Egyptians do not possess a combination of honesty, brains, and activity as he found in the English; and he thought Gorst was underestimating the fefects of the Egyptians:

This, as a matter of fact, was not putting the case as strongly as might be supposed. A first-rate official must possess honesty, brains, and activity; and, while these qualities are often to be found in combination in an Englishman, they are very seldom united in an Egyptian. Nobody can shut his eyes to the fact that native officials are given to taking bribes, and it is common knowledge that positions which have yielded to their English holders no more than the small salary attached to them, have, on being given to natives, produced thousands of pounds a year for their enrichment. A wealthy landowner is always willing to pay the irrigation-inspector a few hundreds in order to get a larger supply of water than that to which he is entitled. Contractors will offer the engineers of the Ministry of Public Works thousands as a bribe to secure them some good contract. Judges are peculiarly exposed to temptation, and police-officers are offered money every day of their lives. Englishmen, on the other hand, are absolutely free from this taint, and they therefore do “possess qualities which do not exist amongst the natives” as a rule, and Sir Eldon was well aware of this.

Nevertheless, the English officials were considerably disturbed, and the slightly increased powers of the Egyptians were deeply resented. That type of Englishman who was inclined to pursue his capable way without regard for the fact that he was supposed to be teaching rather than ignoring his Egyptian colleagues did not attempt to understand Sir Eldon’s very correct attitude. He regarded the British Agent with unmixed feelings of bitter mistrust; and Sir Eldon, on his part, did not always hide the irritation which was caused him by this lack of appreciation. The feud developed, and the uncompromising tone of the Agent, the hard, unrelenting, fearless abruptness which characterised his actions, was misinterpreted as vindictiveness — a kind of inherent nastiness. His policy was entirely misunderstood, and he was called a weak man, though nobody who came into direct contact with him laboured for long under that delusion.

The English were divided on how to rule Egypt; and the division was to a large extent based on what they thought about the Egyptians. Weigall examines the three available policies “which it was then possible for a British Agent in Egypt to pursue.”

Firstly, there was the policy of the iron-grip:

The population of Egypt consists of about eleven million peasants, or fellahin, and a few thousand educated persons, or effendiat. The peasants dress in native costume; and, though a certain percentage of them can read and write, the majority are illiterate. They are, however, an intelligent people, clever with their fingers, industrious, imitative, and inquiring. They are sober, patient, not unfaithful, not revengeful, and, on the-whole, law-abiding. The educated classes wear European dress, ape the manners of the French or sometimes of the English, and have their heads turned with extraordinary ease. They are often noisy, officious, and bullying. Their object is to live in Cairo or Alexandria, where they degenerate, in many cases, into cafe-loafers and wastrels. Their morals are usually of the lowest, and they have little regard for those injunctions of the Koran which effect complete teetotalism amongst the peasants. A minority are good workers and are popular with Englishmen, but their almost unanimous contempt for muscle and backbone leads them to participate as little as possible in the more active labours of administration, and thereby estranges them from their more strenuous white colleagues. They despise the peasantry, who are the strength of the nation, and treat them like dogs.

Thus it comes about that the sympathies of the English official in Egypt are very largely with the peasant; and the comfort of the small farmer upon his acre or two of ground is a matter far nearer the heart of the British inspector than is the ease of the effendi in his office. This attitude is strengthened and justified by the knowledge that the effendi deems it permissible to fleece the fellah on every possible occasion, or to assist him only on payment of an exorbitant bakshish. In 1882 the effendiat were waxing fat on the tribute extorted from the fellahin; and it has been the task of the English to check this tendency and to protect the peasant against the upper classes.

The policy of the iron-grip stated that the interests of the fellahin had thus to be safe-guarded, and that this could only be accomplished by the very thorough sitting upon the upper ten thousand. The native official, being corrupt and prone to bribery, was to be kept out of administrative positions as much as possible, such offices being given to Englishmen, who might always be trusted to do justice and to deal fairly without hope of reward. The Government, in fact, was to be largely taken out of the hands of the Egyptians; and the little group of rather objectionable educated natives might go hang in order that the huge body of very agreeable peasants might be at peace.

Thus, by an amazing paradox, the autocratic rule of the iron -grip became a democratic and popular movement, which acted as though it were designed solely for the comfort of the masses at the expense of what may be called the aristocracy.[4]

The policy of the iron-grip pointed out, of course, that the ultimate granting of a constitution to Egypt and the evacuation of the country by the Army of Occupation were not in the region of practical politics. It felt that a new situation had arisen since the days when the talk of educating the Egyptians to govern themselves was current, and that the happiest solution to the difficulty was now the declaration of a British Protectorate in Egypt, or the actual annexation of the country by purchase from Turkey. It believed that the encouragement and development of certain Egyptian industries would provide work for the majority of the educated Egyptians, while the numerous minor positions in the Government would give employment to the remainder of that class. The vast lower classes, meanwhile, obviously would be only too delighted at an indefinite continuation of the security and justice which they enjoyed under British rule. Being unhampered by the need of experimenting in individual Egyptian capacity for administrative work, the Government would be free to tune things up and to make a model job of it.

Secondly, there was the policy of the velvet-hand:

This policy regarded the partial or complete evacuation of Egypt in the near future as an axiom. It declared that the honour of England compelled us to abide by our original promise to retire as soon as the Egyptians appeared to be able to govern themselves, and it wished to hasten that day by giving the natives every possible opportunity of trying their hand at the task of administration, whether their attempts involved the tyrannising of the lower classes or not. English officials, it said, ought to understand that they hold only watching briefs. The Egyptians should carry on the work of the Government, and the Englishmen should keep a fatherly eye upon them from a discreet distance. All natives should be treated with courtesy, sympathy, and even deference, as being lords in their own country, and their misdemeanours should be reproved with gentleness and should not lead to discouragement.

Here, Weigall gives two examples why natives should not be treated with courtesy, sympathy, and even deference, as being lords in their own country, and their misdemeanours should be reproved with gentleness and should not lead to discouragement:

We will take two cases at random which will show how this policy would work. It sometimes happens in the Egyptian provinces that a single rest-house provides accommodation for native and English inspectors of any one department. Now, an Englishman may be on excellent terms with his Egyptian colleague as they ride side by side through their district (and, in fact, it generally happens that they do get on very well indeed together), but he may not appreciate him so easily when they inhabit the same house. The manners of the two nations are so different; and the Englishman is notoriously narrow in his belief in the correctness of the habits practised by himself — bathing daily, airing the room, changing his clothes sometimes, refraining from expectorating on the dining-room carpet, not hiccoughing loudly in public, and so forth. He is therefore inclined to resent this cohabitation, and to demand a rest-house exclusively for his own countrymen and for those Egyptians who have become Europeanised. But the policy of the velvet-hand denied his right to complain: he was serving the Egyptian Government, and he must put up with the proximity of his Egyptian colleagues.

When an English inspector sits in the ante-room of the office of his chief, waiting, with native officials, for an interview, the policy of the velvet-hand declared that those native officials should be invited to enter the sanctum before him, as not being foreigners; and if it was argued that this precedence was detrimental to British standing, the answer was given that it was the dignity of Egypt and not the already assured prestige of Britain for which we were striving.

The policy of the velvet -hand attempted in every possible way to increase the self-confidence and dignity of the Egyptians, and to introduce them into the councils of the nations. It considered that the small upper class was the mouth-piece of the nation, and it was willing to confide the interests of the eleven inarticulate millions to the care of that class, believing that the possible sufferings caused to the peasantry would not be so considerable as the pains endured by the Egyptian patriot who saw his country ruled by the foreigner.

Thirdly, there was the policy of the guiding-pressure:

[This is] the policy, that is to say, which directed the Egyptians along the path upon which they ought to tread, but brought pressure to bear upon them at all times. This was the policy which was pursued by Sir Eldon Gorst with the sanction of the home Government and of Lord Cromer, and it is the policy in which all serious students of Egyptian affairs should have acquiesced, so long as Egypt was a part of the Turkish Empire and its incorporation in our own Empire was not forced upon us by powerful circumstances. The policy gave the Egyptians a certain control over their own affairs, but it held the power of veto unquestionably with England. It felt that we had no right to take Egypt’s freedom from her, so long as that freedom was not abused. On the other hand, it believed that England had a certain right to be in Egypt, and it deemed it correct to ensure the acknowledgment of that right were the country threatened with interference from Turkey or any Western Power. The English officials were urged to deal sympathetically with their native colleagues, but to keep an eye upon them, and to exert to the full their powers in suppressing evil practices. The policy stated that Egypt was not ripe for self-government, or for the preservation of order without the aid of the Army of Occupation; but it endeavoured, nevertheless, to give the native every chance, and to place him in any post which could be safely given to him. It felt that the most simple definition of its conduct was that which explained that, owing to England’s high sense of the rights of subordinate nations, Egypt was being submitted to a series of small, thoroughly supervised experiments in self-government, preparatory to possible larger ones ; but that, though the trials would be continued as circumstances permit, the results were not yet sufficiently encouraging to allow of any alteration in the status quo during the present generation. Meanwhile it endeavoured to do all in its power to make British control as palatable as possible to the Egyptians; but, believing that the effendiat did not in any way represent the nation, it felt that as yet there had been no real or unanimous expression of disapproval of the Occupation as such.

It must be repeated that this policy involved the making of experiments, the giving and withdrawing of certain liberties, and the constant changes of portfolios; and it must be understood that the Egyptians are such a docile race that government under these conditions was a possibility, provided that the guiding-pressure was firm and the controlling hand sufficiently known to be recognised.

Sir Eldon Gorst, in carrying out this policy, made the experiment of giving the native General Assembly and Legislative Council greater powers, a step which was very severely criticised by a section of the British residents, who did not realise that it was a tentative move forced upon the Agent by a sense of fair-play. The experiment was a failure, and Sir Eldon Gorst did not hesitate to admit it. In his last report he turned upon the erring native politicians, and gave them as straight a lecturing as any national body has ever received; and it was with evident relief that, voicing the opinion of the home Government, he felt himself able to put an end to the experiment. The attempts to increase the scope of the Provincial Councils met with greater success, and no retrogression was necessary. Both Lord Cromer and Sir Eldon made experiments in allowing native Ministers a certain freedom of action in their Ministries, not always controlled by the English advisers; and this caused a certain amount of mischief, though the policy was by no means a failure.

But while measures such as these were giving the Egyptians the opportunity of showing their powers and failings, there were two matters which called for some show of the iron-grip on the part of the British Agent. Owing to a number of causes, not the least of which was the retirement of Lord Cromer, crime in the provinces had increased to an alarming extent, and there were many cases of pure brigandage with which the police seemed to be powerless to cope. In 1909, therefore, Sir Eldon Gorst introduced the much-discussed exile laws, by which a certain class of undesirable was liable to be transported to a criminal colony in an oasis amidst the wastes of the western desert. The effect of this law was instantaneous, and the crime returns at once began to go down. In the same year the Press Law was revived, and was applied on a few occasions against journals which had published extremely inflammatory matter. This also had a good effect, and the native papers became, for a time, considerably less prone to frenzied and often obscene ravings.

Evidently, Weigall was for a combination of two policies: the guiding-pressure and the iron-grip.


We may agree or disagree with Weigall in his assessment of the Egyptians and his views on Egypt and the modern Egyptians. This article is meant to represent his views as accurate as possible, and hence the lengthy quotations, in order that we understand his novel, The Way of the East, which is already said is intense with racial references that make difficult reading. My objective is to find out what he thought about the Copts. Sadly, there isn’t much one can find in his other books to tell us about that; and for one to study his views on them, a careful reading of his novel is a must. However, the above socio-political views on Egypt and the Egyptians in general must help in understanding the novel.


[1] Arthur Weigall, The History of Events in Egypt from 1798 to 1914 (New York, 1915). All quotations from the book in this article are from Chapter VI, Sir Eldon Gorst, pp. 206-236.

[2] Ibid, pp. vii-ix.

[3] One of his wives was American.

[4] Weigall adds: “Incidentally, it may be pointed out that when certain English Labour Members of Parliament came to Egypt to assist the Egyptians to obtain self-government, they were actually taking the part of the aristocracy against the peasantry, and were enthusiastically giving countenance to a movement which aimed at empowering the effendiat to tyrannise the fellahin, and which might well have called for their wildest denunciation had the case been applied to English people. These misguided politicians acted as though the cry for autonomy arose from the throats of the whole Egyptian nation. The thought did not seem to occur to them that only about two percent of the Egyptians were asking for it. The remaining ninety-eight per cent, being more or less inarticulate, though none the less thoughtful for that, were not considered. As well might Mr Keir Hardie and his friends have accepted the voice of Mayfair as the sole expression of English opinion.”


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