Conceptions of Victorian Masculinity within Britain’s Colonial Project in Egypt, Part 1

Al-Qawl would like to present Conceptions of Victorian Masculinity within Britain’s Colonial Project in Egypt. This six part series was initially a paper composed by Claire Anderson during the first semester of her MAAS degree. Check out her abstract and introduction below, and be sure to tune in during the coming weeks to see how this graduate paper develops.



This paper attempts to historicize British masculinity during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century colonial project in Egypt, paying particular attention to the ways in which British male colonizers manifested Victorian assumptions of masculinity – specifically analyzing the dual-volume historiography Modern Egypt (1908) by Evelyn Baring (Lord Cromer). To complete this research, I utilize Edward Said’s theoretical framework of Orientalism, in order to better understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage –and even produce– the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the Victorian Age.

It is important to remember that the categories of the colonizer and the colonized are not fixed or self-evident categories. Although these categories may appear to have represented “natural” differences of race or national origin, there was nothing natural or predetermined about them. There was a constant need, therefore, to define and redefine the colonizer and the colonized. Moreover, since the colonizer and the colonized were themselves historically constructed categories, the relations between the two were neither unchanging nor certain. Indeed, the relations between the colonizer and the colonized were constantly rearticulated in accordance with the continually changing political and economic imperatives of colonial rule.

In my research, a theme that stood out from several authors was a crisis of masculinity in England for British men – and the colonies became the place to resolve the crisis. This subject matter is critical to contextualize the concept of exporting British masculinity, which is produced from the homeland, to the colonial endeavor. Without analysis of the causation of masculine behaviors and attitudes in the metropole, we cannot understand its effects in the colonies. Another fascinating theme, particularly during the Victorian Age, is the idea of a “gentleman” is quite interesting, and is explored in-depth, especially how the title is tied to economic constraints. The need to prove one’s manliness became critical at a time period when the very nature of masculinity was being contested in social, economic, and sexual arenas in the homeland, leading to a third theme – the phenomenon of “Heroic Explorers”.

Egypt, specifically the Nile, became the main destination for nearly all nineteenth century visitors (or “Heroic Explorers”) to the Orient. Travel writings during the Victorian Age fed into British patriarchalist discourses and lauded the Western traveler-adventurer as masculine, steeling, and heroic. The heroic explorer also imposed himself with considerable force on the popular imagination. Exploration was considered an advanced intellectual concept that could only be undertaken by civilized men. Regardless of a man’s intellectual ability or inability, colonization was a masculine endeavor defined by ‘man’s ability.’ So in some sense a variety of men could re-make themselves in the colonies away from traditional constraints of homeland. As aforementioned, Lord Cromer is the “Heroic Explorer” of choice in this work, and the combination of themes of “gentleman” status, travel, and the redefinition of masculinity through the British colonial project in Egypt are all examined using his works, Modern Egypt.


New directions in feminist studies have begun to take up the problem of rethinking masculinity. I would like to continue this trend by historicizing British masculinity during the imperialist effort (late nineteenth/early twentieth century) in Egypt, by using historiography of the British Empire. I am interested in the ways in which British male colonizers manifested masculinity during the colonial project in Egypt during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For Egypt, as for modern societies everywhere, the cultural politics of masculinity cannot be understood in isolation from the imperial social formation. The idea of masculinity is critically important, and historians, with a few exceptions, have neglected to look at the relationship between imperialism and gender constructions – especially in the case of the colonizers themselves.

The British colonizers operated within a male tradition, employing men’s ideas and behaviors, in the hegemonic cultural apparatus of imperialism. These facts are indisputable. However, research engaged in broader debates about empire, colonialism, Orientalism and gender prove difficult to find, as is late nineteenth century British discourse on masculinity and empire. Due to the apparent novelty of my intended research idea, I must look to the ‘spaces’, ‘interstices’, and ‘in-between’ strategies present in the field. What is more useful, and has been employed extensively throughout this research, is looking at literature on topics of a similar vein; topics such as, manifestations of British masculinity in South Asia, the formation of masculinity in Egyptians under British colonial rule, and even the points of view from British women travelers (to name a few), in order to explore how the British colonial masculine gaze affected the formation and rule of the Egyptian colony from 1882-1936 (Britain’s Victorian Age). I do not proceed beyond this time period, even though Western travel in the Middle East continued and the involvement of the Western Powers in the region assumed even wider forms soon after. It was in this time period in which European colonial projects became of great importance to the metropole, as did the subsequent Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. In order to make sense of this occurrence, I turn to Edward Said’s Orientalism. Without using Orientalism as a discourse, it would be impossible to understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage –and even produce– the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the Victorian Age.


Check back next week, when Claire will introduce Part II – Theoretical Framework.


All views represented in this post are solely the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization whether affiliated or unaffiliated with this blog.

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