Conceptions of Victorian Masculinity within Britain’s Colonial Project in Egypt – Part IV

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. Read on and see how Claire tackles this theme in her paper.

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The Influence of Travel: The Heroic Explorer

Building on the above points, which linked British masculinity and empire, to a crisis of masculinity at home or changing gender roles at home, we here switch our focus to travel. The influence of travel in the colonial/explorer repertoire has been researched considerably. The proliferation of new images of masculinity toward the end of the nineteenth century was “the product of a number of social and technological transformations occurring on a global scale”.[1] These manifestations were disseminated by Western “heroes” during travel, in which the “appearance of the heroic Englishman was every bit as material as imperial architecture, for example, and just as effective in representing an official image of empire”.[2] In other words, British travelers exuded a rigid masculinity – a façade constructed by Victorian ideas of gender that were seemingly as impenetrable as the empire itself. These assumptions were disseminated as intercontinental power became a reality, and especially during colonialism.[3]

Travel was (and still is) a culturally meaningful gesture.[4] Moreover, it has become a recent trend to look at travel as a form of domination. The very essence of Victorian travel writing remains an intrinsic part of patriarchal discourse, for it fed on and ultimately served the hierarchies of power. “The explorer’s gaze, however, had been generically and literally, man’s gaze, because travel outside Europe was mostly a male experience. And most relevant is that the voyage-en-orient was man’s voyage in man’s lands” (emphasis my own).[5] By definition, travel outside of the homeland was identified as “masculine,” and was carried out by “Heroic Explorers.” Travel was the ideological and culturally imagined province of masculinity, founded on designations of entitlement, autonomy, and agency, and emblematized by male members of the moneyed classes.

The very essence of Victorian travel writing and historiographies remains an intrinsic part of patriarchal discourse, for it fed on and ultimately served the hierarchies of power, and Lord Cromer’s Modern Egypt is no exception. Said points out that “Every empire tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate”.[6] The connection between imperial politics and culture is astonishingly direct – for example, how British attitudes translated to self-declared British “greatness”, to hierarchies of race, to the perils of the “other” have remained constant, have dictated, and have obscured the realities of empire – and the British colonial project and its associated writings are excellent examples of this.

Egypt, specifically the Nile, became the main destination for nearly all nineteenth century visitors to the Orient. Once there, the British colonizer did not only express Western-constructed ideal characteristics of masculinity, nobility and intelligence – they also “cared, or in all events they pretended to care for the welfare of the Egyptian” (emphasis my own).[7] Lord Cromer goes on to elaborate that the British system that was implemented in Egypt “may at times have been mistaken, but which was certainly always honest”[8] [9], and that “with all its faults it was the best administration which Egypt has enjoyed before or since”.[10] Furthermore, as Lord Cromer describes, the Englishman came to Egypt:

“with the fixed idea that he had a mission to perform, and, with his views about individual justice, equal rights before the law, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, and similar notions, he will not naturally interpret his mission in this sense, that he is to benefit the mass of the population. There lie those nine or ten million native Egyptians at the bottom of the social ladder, a poor, ignorant, credulous, but withal not unkindly race, being such as sixty centuries of misgovernment and oppression by various rulers, from Pharaoh to Pashas, have made them. It is for the civilized Englishman to extend to them the hand of fellowship and encouragement, and to raise them, morally and materially, from the abject state in which he finds them. And the Englishman looks towards the scene of other administrative triumphs of world-wide fame, which his progenitors have accomplished. He looks towards India, and says to himself, with all the confidence of an imperial race, I can perform this task; I have done it before now; I have poured numberless blessings on the heads of the ryots of Bengal and madras, who are cousins to the Egyptian fellaheen.’[11]

As previously discussed, travel writings (such as the except above) during the Victorian time period fed into British patriarchalist discourses and lauded the Western traveler-adventurer as masculine, steeling, and heroic. This image was in direct opposition to writings about the native, which “stressed the[ir] conspicuous cruelty, the lechery, or the perversity,” which justified their forced servitude.[12] A sustained belief in English moral superiority could persist only through repetition of stereotypic images of cowardly, savage “Others”. Furthermore, that belief assumed a distinctly gendered form in the high imperial age.[13]

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.[14] He, the great, heroic colonizer (who is oftentimes explained as a monolithic, homogeneous character), “introduced horizons, negotiated ethnographical enquiry, and was the agent of the superior civilization. He came to be a chronicler of conquest and conversion also”.[15] The image of the European colonizer had to remain an honorable one: “he did not come as exploiter, but as enlightener”.[16] Ethnocentrism was deeply ingrained in the European psyche.

Akin to the above point of view, Lord Cromer, like most colonizer/hero/adventurers of the late 19th and early 20th century, subscribed to “Great Man Theory” – the idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intellect, or nobility utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact. Lord Cromer gives an example of his own masculine “greatness” when he points out that he was “not appointed by the British Government, and was, therefore, free to act according to the dictates of [his] own conscience and to the best of [his] own judgment”.[17] Lord Cromer further constructed the Englishmen of the colonizing mission to be “great” in this vernacular, by describing him as a man who

“planted his foot on the banks of the Nile, and sat in the seats of the faithful. He came not as a conqueror, but in the familiar garb of a savior of society (emphasis my own). The world is apt to think that the savior is not improbably looking more to his own interests than to the salvation of society, and experience has proved that the suspicion is not infrequently well founded. Yet assuredly the Englishman could in this case produce a valid title to justify his assumption of the part which had been thrust upon him. His advent was hailed with delight by the lawful rulers of Egypt and by the mass of the Egyptian people.”[18]

Conquest was understood as a heroic and redemptive act to liberate a degenerate world that was “under a primitive and semi-barbarous government”.[19] The Englishman had a “special aptitude in the government of Oriental races pointed to England as the most effective and beneficent instrument for the gradual introduction of European civilization into Egypt”.[20] In other words, the British were the self-elected best, most masculine men for the job.

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Next week Claire’s penultimate piece will briefly outline the preconceived notions of the British man’s ability within colonial Egypt.


[1] Wilson Chacko Jacob, Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870-1940 (USA: Duke University Press: 2011), 29.

[2] Jacob, Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870-1940, 28.

[3] This is not to say that all travelers discussing the East misrepresented it, but that the dominant misrepresentations were, unfortunately enough, the ones that captured the public imagination of the West. Power has always needed knowledge, but it is not necessarily coercive or in control all the time. It more often licenses and chooses, offering benefaction here, patronage there. Thus, European culture came to be frame by warped representations of the East – since in the end the dominant taste and mythologizing instinct triumphed.

[4] Melman, Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918, 8.

[5] Melman, Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718-1918, 9-10.

[6] Edward Said, Blind Imperial Arrogance: Vile Stereotyping of Arabs by the U.S. Ensures Years of Turmoil (Los Angeles Times, Web, 20  July 2003), accessed November 30, 2011, http://www.ems.ucsb.edu/people/rightmire/ling2/Arrogance.htm.

[7] Evelyn Baring, Modern Egypt: Volume 1 (Macmillan and Co, Limited: 1908), accessed November 30, 2011, http://books.google.com/ebooks/reader?id=gd8TAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&output=reader, 84.

[8] This is a striking reference to the Victorian Age ideal of “fair play”. “Fair play” is a markedly British value which refers to the fair treatment of people without cheating or being dishonest. While hindsight obviously points out that this was not the case during colonial Egypt, this idea does coincide with the normative masculinity of the time, presenting the British as saviors to the corrupt Egyptian society.

[9]Baring, Modern Egypt: Volume 1, 130.

[10] Baring, Modern Egypt: Volume 1, 164.

[11] Baring, Modern Egypt: Volume 2, 130.

[12] Rana, Kabbani. Europe’s Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule (Hong Kong: Macmillan: 1986), 4.

[13] Kabbani. Europe’s Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule, 40.

[14] Kabbani. Europe’s Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule, 86.

[15] Kabbani. Europe’s Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule, 3.

[16] Kabbani. Europe’s Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule, 6.

[17] Baring, Modern Egypt: Volume 1, 40.

[18]Baring, Modern Egypt: Volume 2, 123.

[19] Baring, Modern Egypt: Volume 1, 58.

[20] Baring, Modern Egypt: Volume 1, 328.

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