- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003


By David Gilmour

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $45, 684 pages, illus.


Despite its popularity as a topic in academic studies and in some quarters of current political discourse, imperialism per se — i.e., the actual possession and administration for the foreseeable future by one country of another — no longer actually exists at the beginning of the 21st century, a fact pointed out recently by the distinguished and authoritative scholar, Bernard Lewis.

But “that most superior person,” George Curzon, first Marquess and Earl Curzon of Kedleston, who was in his glory as Viceroy of India at the dawn of the last century, serves as a fine specimen of the genuine article: an unreconstructed, unapologetic practitioner of imperialism.

To be fair, it must be admitted that Curzon’s view of imperialism was essentially benign, if inevitably paternalistic. He genuinely believed that highly developed nations were better at governing and that they could provide greater benefits to their less developed subjects than home rule. In the case of India, for example, he believed (presciently, as it turned out) that self-determination would lead to the breakup of the subcontinent and refused for most of his career to even contemplate Indian independence.

Eventually forced to concede its inevitability in December 1919, “he accepted it as necessary,” his biographer David Gilmour tells us in “Curzon,” “because in that age of nationalism and self-determination people attached ‘much more importance to being governed, even though not so well governed, by themselves, than they do to being even superbly governed by another race.’”

Mr. Gilmour devotes a third of this sizeable book’s chapters to Curzon’s governance of India as viceroy and demonstrates that if he did not govern “superbly,” he certainly did so with an unusual combination of flair and conscientiousness. He defends Curzon’s use of pomp, explains its usefulness in that time and place, and even proves that it was in general not excessive compared with that of his predecessors and successors.

It is also pleasantly surprising to find Curzon to have been a consistent opponent of racism. In fact, Mr. Gilmour demonstrates that a good deal of the hostility which the imperial grandee elicited from his fellow Britons in India was attributable not to his obvious character flaws of snobbishness, tactlessness and general insufferability, but to his determination to provide justice for the Indians even when that was detrimental to the white man. Curzon clearly had an abiding love and respect for Indian culture, art, and architecture and his efforts in those spheres may very well constitute his most lasting legacy to the now self-ruled subcontinent.

As Jawaharlal Nehru observed, “After ever other viceroy has been forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful in India.”

India may indeed have been the jewel in the crown of Curzon’s own career as it was in the Empire which he so venerated and it is the heart of this scrupulously researched, well-written account of Curzon’s life and career. Mr. Gilmour is very much in sympathy with his subject, fundamentally a believer in his greatness, but that does not mean that he is blind to his faults. In matters personal in particular, he is devastating in his judgments on Curzon’s relationships with wives, lovers, children, colleagues, and friends.

He is no less devastating about Curzon’s lust for money (which he obtained partially through his travel writings but largely through his marriage to an American heiress) and his seemingly endless expenditures on restoring and decorating stately homes. At the same time, Mr. Gilmour enlists the reader’s sympathy for Curzon by cataloguing the array of physical ailments that plagued him throughout much of his life, inflicting such pain as to regularly reduce this steely man to tears. Mr. Gilmour seems uncritically to accept that Curzon had a particularly profound understanding of Asia, from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan.

It is undoubtedly true that Curzon was exceptionally well-traveled — how many other European statesmen of his, or any other, time had walked across Indochina? — but Mr. Gilmour falls into the trap of believing that to see a country is to really know it. All too often what people see when they travel is what their preconceptions and worldviews allow them to see.

I remember a couple of decades back reviewing a pair of republished travel books on Central Asia, one by Curzon and the other by Arthur Koestler, and being struck by the superiority of both style and substance of Koestler’s work. What struck me again about Curzon’s travel writings when reading Mr. Gilmour’s acute, if to my taste too admiring, descriptions of them is their predictability, indeed their utter banality.

It is inevitable that he should be impressed by Japan and appalled by French colonial administration, that he is impressed with princely splendor in India and appalled by brashness and vulgarity in Chicago: “‘America was a very strange country’, he thought, ‘so vital, so prodigious, so blatant, so much on the nerves.’” Evidently, the secret of his travel books’ success with the great British public lay in their accurate reflection of conventional tastes and prejudices shared by author and readers alike.

Where I take exception to Mr. Gilmour’s stance as a biographer is the particular set of prejudices he shares with Curzon, most notably with regard to the Middle East. In recounting Curzon’s opposition to the Balfour Declaration of British support for Zionist aspirations, the biographer is smugly convinced of the rightness of Curzon’s stance, not realizing that the perpetuation of attitudes such as Curzon’s has probably done more than the existence of Israel to foster the very conflicts he describes:

“Balfour, by contrast, knew and cared nothing about Palestine’s Arab inhabitants. He was a Zionist because he admired Weizmann and Jewish culture and because he hoped to see in Palestine a sort of modern equivalent of Classical Athens. No doubt he believed in the pro-Zionist diplomatic arguments he expounded… . But his real impulse was romantic, intellectual and politically frivolous. As Chief Secretary of Ireland he had experienced the problem of sectarianism and had striven to contain it. Yet in Palestine he promoted a more spectacular and intransigent antagonism without making any attempt to understand or reassure one of the parties involved. Three-quarters of a century of conflict have been the result.”

Curzon seems to exemplify — indeed, he seems almost to have invented before during and after his influential spell as foreign secretary — the attitude which the late Mary McCarthy so trenchantly scorned as “the Foreign Office view” of colonial conflicts, with the Empire securely and paternalistically on top and the “natives” in their proper, subordinate position.

It is precisely because Jewish settlers in Palestine did not fit neatly into this bipolar paradigm that Curzon could see them only as interlopers. Unfortunately, Mr. Gilmour appears to share this view and his discussion of Curzon’s colleague and frequent sparring partner, Lord Balfour, reveals an inability to accept that his advocacy of Zionism could be either sincere or admirable.

Curzon’s view of Britain’s imperial and quasi-imperial role in world affairs is well summed up in his speech during a visit he made as viceroy of India to the Persian Gulf states:

“Seated on a dais under a great awning with his epauletted officers on chairs to his left and the robed Arabs, many of them sitting on the floor, to his right, Curzon told the sheikhs that Britain had come to their waters before any other power in modern times, that she had found strife and had created order, that she had protected the inhabitants of their shores and had opened their seas to the ships of all nations.

“In the process Britain had neither seized their territory nor destroyed their independence, and she would not now abandon them. ‘The peace of these waters must still be maintained; your independence will continue to be upheld; and the influence of the British Government must remain supreme.’”

A benign if self-interested a doctrine it undoubtedly is, but it also reveals a steely determination to keep British power paramount by pandering to despotic elements. Mr. Gilmour notes approvingly that “Whatever else may be said about the jaunt, the facts remain that no other viceroy devoted as much time to the Gulf, and no other area of Muslim Asia remained pro-British for so long.”

Sadly, Curzon’s — and his biographer’s — inability to see beyond the limitations of such a strategy still has consequences today. With the United States and the United Kingdom having had to fight two wars in a dozen years in the Gulf and only now beginning to recognize the absolute necessity of fully integrating Israel into the region, it is increasingly evident that the shortsightedness of Curzon’s “Foreign Office view” has cost us dear in decades of dead ends. Mr. Gilmour is perhaps too much in tune with his subject: Perhaps what we need now is a Keynesian diatribe along the lines of “The Diplomatic Consequences of Lord Curzon.”

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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