THE GREGORYS AND EGYPT 1855-56 AND 1881-82 2017-11-02T19:57:07+00:00

1855-56 AND 1881-82

 Colin Smythe

Watercolour of the Colossi of Memnon viewed from the Ramesseum,
probably painted by Lady Gregory during Sir William’s and her stay at Luxor. 12-28 January 1882

A shortened version of this essay was published in Mary Massoud (editor), Literary Inter-relations: Ireland, Egypt and the Far East (The Proceedings of the 1993 Cairo conference of IASAIL), Gerrards Cross (Colin Smythe), 1996, pp.147-53.

I believe that, until recently, Sir William and Lady Gregory were about the only Irish literary figures actually to have visited Egypt for any length of time – although Bernard Shaw passed through the Suez Canal on New Year’s Day 1933 – so I am writing about the Gregorys’ visits to Cairo.

William Henry Gregory was a large, but not always rich, West Galway landlord who had been a Member of Parliament for Dublin City and, after his first visit to Egypt, for Galway. He was knighted in 1875 when he was Governor of Ceylon, but twenty years before then, between his terms as MP he had spent the winter of 1855-56 in Egypt when he had decided to hire a boat, which he called ‘The Flea’, and travel up the Nile as far as the Second Cataract. He arranged for the account of this journey and a later visit to North Africa to be privately printed in 1859.[1]



On his arrival in Egypt, he found that at the first hotel he went to, the famous Shepheard’s, the accommodation for visitors was totally inadequate for the numbers who were arriving. There were nowhere near enough bedrooms and for the unfortunates who had no room of their own, ‘The scene should be described. Fancy an immense high room, with sofas long enough for three or four persons at full length, arranged against the sides.

Main entrance to the rebuilt Shepheard’s Hotel – 1899

‘Unsightly objects, without form or shape, are tossed upon the said divans; the unhappy ones there huddled up are struggling against mosquitoes. On a table extending down the middle of the room you see similar prostrate forms. A dim lamp is swinging overhead. All is still within; no snore is heard this night, for no one sleeps; outside however, the same noises rage as did the night  before [in Alexandria] – the howling and contention of dogs and the shrieks of birds of darkness. Suddenly you hear an energetic slap and a “D––n you, I’ve got you at last” – the triumphant war cry of someone who has slain an over-obstinate mosquito. At last we heard from the end of the room a loud but melancholy exclamation, “I’m darned if I must n’t shove my head in this ‘ere boot.” We all burst out laughing simultaneously, and, throwing off our coverings, beheld poor Louis C–––– sitting cross-legged on the divan, brandishing a boot in each hand, and doing fierce battle with the mosquitoes. Of course all idea of sleep was now at an end. We assembled around our friend, and by a general discharge of pipes, cigars, and cheroots, drove the mosquitoes in disorder to some other spot’.[2]

They laughed and chatted until dawn when Mr Gregory sallied forth to find himself another hotel at which to stay – William’s:

‘Many years will pass away before I forget the impressions of that first morning in Cairo. In stepping from the hotel door, one stepped at once into the very heart of oriental life. Alexandria… had been utterly dumb, and revealed nothing of the East but glare and dirt… We came into Cairo by night, and saw but darkness; we had no preparation – nothing to break this sudden transit into a new life; for Europe is Europe everywhere. The Ezbekieh was being lit up with the first rays of the morning; the sky was soft and creamy, but without the clearness of our own; everything was still, calm and quiet, save a few turbaned Muslims on their way to their avocations, and the wheeling whistling kites, that perched on and swept from the fine plane and fig trees that fringed the gardens. I did not mark the parched, baked, and unverdant clay that had replaced the greensward of Western city parks; for I was looking at the great mimosa Lebek and its huge pendent pods and the faint but luscious yellow pods of the Sont acacia and date palms, which were waving over latticed houses, and minarets and mosques. It had all burst upon me at once; nor was there the jar and turmoil of throngs to interrupt the first sensations that can never, while memory lasts, be forgotten, and never be revived.’[3]

Later Gregory walked at night through the city, ‘which seems’, he wrote, ‘as if it were turned by the spell of some enchanter into stone, with nothing to break the deep heavy silence that weighs on you like a millstone, except the occasional fierce jar of dogs. . . . You can scarcely credit that it is the site of the gay scenes you witnessed all the morning from your windows; of the seething busy crowd with which you have been jostling and struggling all the afternoon.

‘But the dawn will again peep into your latticed bedroom, and seduce you from your mosquito curtains; and again you will distinguish the swarthy down-looking Copt with his sombre head gear; the white-turbanned Turk; the green-clad Shereef, descendant of the Prophet; the wild Bedoueen, in striped burnoos of camel’s hair, proffering date cheese and ibex horns from Mount Sinai; the merry sable slave from Kordofan; the serious, black-robed, square-capped Armenian; the Circassian, like Byron’s Assyrian, in raiment of purple and gold; the Levantine population, and nondescripts of all sorts, in red tarboosh and tasselled kufeya; veiled women will spread, with rosy henna-coloured fingers, their black sails to the breeze: all forming the gayest confusion of attire the eye ever rested on. We loiter as we dress, for a merry group is before the door, beneath the gigantic evergreen acacias, watching the performances of an Arab’s wonderful goat, and still more wonderful apes, – a string of camels, with noiseless velvety tread, defile gravely onwards, a dashing Bey gallops in golden housings madly by on a milk-white Arab, – dromedaries, with their leopard-skin attirings, swing in briskly, bearing home a party of adventurers from the Pyramids of Saccara – a carriage, preceeded by vociferating blacks of the Soudan, and containing a veiled hareem, trots importantly along, and on ass-back proceed to their different avocations throughout the awakened city: Jew, Turk, and Infidel, slippered, tarbooshed, baggy, red, green, and golden-sleeved, in all solemnity and sedateness.’[4]

Finding one’s way around was another matter: the guides varied immensely, then as now, and Gregory’s description may have its echoes today. Here is his attempt at finding out something of the Mosque of Sultan Hassan,

‘which stands below the citadel, towering over all other buildings by its size. From afar you have already wondered at the massive grandeur of its lofty minarets; and when you reach it, after removing the shoes from your feet, you pass through a gateway constructed, as it were, by the hands of Titans, and grand enough for Titanic heads unbowed to enter . . .’

Visitor: Pray, when did this Sultan Hassan live?
Dragoman: O, great time since! He, old Sultan, he very old!
Pertinacious Visitor: But When?
Dragoman: O, he very old: time of Lateens, Greeks.
Puzzled Visitor: Indeed! Latins, Greeks. Perhaps you mean the Greek and Latin churches.
Dragoman: No sar, he build mosque, no church: he not Nazarene; he like Mohammed.
Distracted Visitor: Never mind what he built, or what he liked: when did he live?
Dragoman (getting sulky): He live here, in Cairo.
Obstinate Visitor: Yes, yes; we know well enough that he lived here – but when?
Dragoman: Longtime back sar; he very old. You see, sar, large round thing up in wall [5] – bread loaf that large, and sell for one piastre when he live; bread dear, sar, now in Cairo; my family large one sar, pay much for bread.
Jocose Visitor: Yes, I see you explain remarkably well.’[6]

And so it continued. At the other end of the scale, Gregory received an invitation to visit Il’hamy Pacha, son of the late Viceroy of Egypt, Abbas Pacha.

‘According to the ordinary rules of succession, this young gentleman would have been the reigning Viceroy; but by the treaty between Mohammed Ali and the Porte [7]the reversion of the government devolves upon the eldest member of the family of Mohammed Ali. This wretched system is contrived with more than usual Turkish stupidity, although sanctioned by the European powers, to render, if possible, this rich but unhappy country more ill-governed than it would be naturally under Mohammedan rule. The result of it is, that each successive Viceroy knowing that after his death his family depends solely on the amount of the accumulations he may contrive to amass, is chiefly occupied, while time and opportunity permit, in providing for that inevitable catastrophe. Everything he can lay hands on is set aside; and works that would conduce to the benefit of the country are ignored, unless the immediate profits are likely to repay him for the outlay. He can have no interest in improving communications, constructing roads, opening irrigations, or ameliorating the condition of the wretched fellahs and peasants; by doing so, he would only be injuring his own family, for the benefit of a successor, whom he has the best reasons to dislike, and who is, in all probability, plotting to encompass his death. As for public spirit, it is a quality perfectly unknown.

‘Mohammed Ali was succeeded by his son Ibrahim; Ibrahim by Abbas, son of Toosoom, another son of Mohammed Ali; and the present rule [in 1855] is a third son of Mohammed Ali, and will be succeeded by Achmet, son of Ibrahim. It is notorious that Abbas was murdered by his Memlook slaves; and it is generally hinted that Saïd, the present Viceroy, was not ignorant of the plot. He was an object of great suspicion to his nephew, and was himself convinced, whatever other persons may have supposed, that his life was in considerable danger. . . . However, be that as it may, Abbas was, like John Gilpin, a man of prudent mind, and contrived during his short time in power, to accumulate for his son, Il’hamy, an income of at least £160,000 per annum [multiply that sum by at least 50 now] , and by some asserted to be considerably more, besides ready money to an amount unknown, but enormous.’[8]

It is small wonder that as education increased among the people of Egypt during the latter part of the 19th century, that native Egyptians tried to gain greater control over the running of their country and ensure that its wealth was directed at improving the lot of their fellow countrymen. As Wilfrid Scawen Blunt[9] noted in his Secret History of Egypt, ‘The Egyptian Nationalists were bitter against the whole house of Mohammed Ali and especially the branch of it to which Tewfik belonged, his father Ismaïl and his grandfather Ibrahim, a cruel and treacherous race which . . . had ruined the country morally and financially, and had, by their misconduct, brought about foreign intervention.’[10]

   So, by the time that Gregory next came for an extended stay twenty-five years after his first one, the political situation in Egypt was interesting, to say the least. This time he was accompanied by his second wife, Augusta, his first having died in Ceylon during his governorship in 1873. Augusta, the daughter of one of Sir William Gregory’s neighbours in Co. Galway, Dudley Persse, was being shown the world – or at least Europe. Indeed, a good deal of her early married life seems to have been spent in the company of her much older husband visiting European galleries learning about art and culture (her husband was a Trustee of the National Gallery in London), and mingling with the ‘great’ of the locality they were in.

     After his marriage Sir William Gregory had turned down at least five requests to stand for Parliament, and they decided that he and Lady Gregory would spend the winter of 1881-82 in Egypt. They arrived there in November 1881 to find the country in considerable turmoil – although the bombardment of Alexandria and the Mahdi’s revolt were still unforeseen events of the future. It was here that, as Lady Gregory wrote, in her autobiography Seventy Years,[11]

 ‘I first felt the real excitement of politics, for we tumbled into a revolution. We arrived there in November after the “revolt of the Colonels” of whom Arabi Bey[12] was one. It was a restless moment; the story as we heard it was that early in the year Arabi, together with two other Colonels, Abdullah of the Black Regiment and Ali Fehmi, had presented a petition asking for an enquiry into the grievances of the Army and it was accepted. I was told that a month later, in February, these three Colonels had a summons from the Khedive to come to the Abdin Palace to receive orders for the arrangement of a procession in honour of the marriage of one of the Princesses. They were not without suspicion and before going to the Palace they left a message for their regiment, “If we are not back at sunset, come for us”.  As soon as they arrived at the Palace they were seized, thrown into a room, their swords taken from them, and the door locked. No one in Cairo thinks they would ever have been [seen] alive again but that at sunset the soldiers arrived demanding their officers, and then it was too late to do anything but throw the doors open and let the prisoners out…. In September, the soldiers who had learned the way to the Palace on the day they released their Colonels, appeared there again with a demand for a Constitution, which was promised them.’[13]

wilfridscawenbluntsmallIn 1907 Wilfrid Scawen Blunt was to write that the ‘three months which followed this notable event were the happiest time, politically, that Egypt has ever known. I am glad that I had the privilege of witnessing it with my own eyes.’[14] In January 1882, the Khedive made Arabi Under-Secretary of War. From the start of her marriage, Lady Gregory kept a diary of her activities, which was to be invaluable in writing her autobiography, and much else. Here are a number of extracts from her diary for this period, much of which was used for the chapter in Seventy Years entitled ‘Education in Politics: Egypt’. It was her first brush with truly strong nationalism, and while her diary entries are much less vivid than Sir William’s earlier records, it is obvious that she was very soon in the thick of political gossip and activity, having arrived in Cairo on 18 November 1881, and staying in a much improved Shepheard’s Hotel, following its destruction by fire in 1868:

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt

20 [November]. Church. Called on the Rowsells. Mr Rogers here thinks Arabi Bey honest but too powerful, says Ismaïl is intriguing and has raised a large loan in Paris.

22. Drove to the Mosque Sultan Hassan, very fine but  neglected falling to ruin.
Also to the
arabibeysmallCitadel & Mosque of Mohammed Ali, beautiful alabaster columns the roof richly decorated.
23. Mahommedan New Year’s Day. Went with Mrs Rowsell to see the Princess. . . . Then to Mme Sherif Pasha the Prime Minister’s wife – a very intelligent woman, half French but holding very strictly to Turkish rules smoked all the time. She has been frightened for Sherif at the time of the (?)emeate when they had to hurry back from Alexandria at night, but now she thinks things have quietened down & that Arabi Bey has no more power.

Then to Princess Monsoor, the Khedive’s sister. She came in with spectacles on & a long cigarette in her mouth, is fair & grand looking with reddish hair cut in a fringe. She was dressed in white satin with papyrus flowers in gold which she had designed & had made in Paris. Chains of diamonds in her hair & a turquoise & pearl watch chain. Very intelligent & interested in all that is going on.

Arabi Bey, a carte de visite given to Lady Gregory

princessmonsoor25. To Helwan Grand Hotel. Sulphur baths & bracing air. Sir A.Colvin [15] in the evening. He thinks Arabi Bey honest, but fears his being influenced by the European population, Italians, etc. who are discontented with the present state of things. The Khedive’s hope is in Constantinople. Sherif Pasha honest & the only Turk in power who feels a responsibility toward the Arabs, but indolent & with hazy ideas – 1200 officers on ½ pay in the country owing to Ismaïl having increased and then reduced the army.

30. Called on Princess Nazli. She is very hard on the Khedive, says he is surrounded by his father’s bad counsellors. Speaks well of Arabi & of Sherif, says Riaz [16] may be honest but that his pay was only worth £3000 per annum & that at the end of 10 years he bought an estate for £90,000.

Princess Nazli’s carte de visite given to Lady Gregory

2 December. Lunched with the Fitzgeralds,[17] Mr & Lady Anne Blunt,[18] etc.
6. Sheik al Islam dismissed. Arabi Bey returned to Cairo with twenty officers. W[illiam] saw the Khedive who is very indignant about Mr Rowsell’s paper.
9. W[illiam] saw Arabi Bey who is opposed to Turkish intervention, denies religious fanaticism saying that all good men are brothers obeying one law from the same God whether explained by Christ or Moses or Mahommed. He confesses much good has been done by foreign officials but thinks it unfair his countrymen being kept out of all profitable posts.
Sunday [11 December]. Church. Lunched with the Duliers. He talked of the Abyssinian campaign & said its history would never be written; it was so disastrous. 18,000 camels lost in the march alone.
14. Rode to Tombs of the Khalifs Mosque with fine pulpit & copper doors. Mr Blunt.
16. Howling and dancing dervishes.
18. Church. W[illiam] ill.
19. Blunt.
26. Salas. Miss Laing. Blunts (in tribulation Sir E.M.[19]having written a despatch condemning Mr B[lunt]’s interference)

3 January 1882. Evening. In Mrs Lee Child’s room we met Chailli Long Bey who gave us an account of his mission to the Court of the King Utesa of Uganda in 1874. He caused a great commotion by arriving on his horse, the first that had been seen there – the people thought he was a centaur & rushed away in terror when he dismounted. They are in appearance more Abyssinian than Negroes & dress in the bark of the wild fig tree (the only tree which flourishes there) worn as a toga. The King received him next morning at the door of his Palace (built of banana branches). He wore a red cloth robe presented to him by the Sultan of Zanzibar.

He receives every morning reports from the Minister of Marine (Nile boats) Minister of Foreign Affairs (Sir William. Do they ever make war on their neighbours? Mr Long. Yes, sir, all the time) etc. Mr Long presented his gifts, a gun (“Did he learn to use it?” “Yes sir, he afterwards shot me one of his wives with it at about 10 paces”), a mirror which produced an astonishing effect. King Utesa had never seen himself before & at the sight forgot all his dignity & tried to turn a somersault on the spot. Mr Long also produced an electric battery and gave shocks to the king and court. His Majesty, to work off his excitement & produce an effect on Mr Long ordered his guard to cut off the heads of 30 men on the spot. He has since been converted to Mahommedanism, then to Christianity, & the other day to celebrate his return to Mahommedanism he had 100 of his subjects beheaded. Mr Long also met with a tribe of cannibals who roasted & eat their old people & prisoners of war, & a tribe of pigmies, one of whom he brought home who is now in the service of the Khedive’s mother.

A telegram saying Arabi had written a letter to the Times. Next day [c.5 January] another saying the letter was apocryphal & then announcement having acknowledged [?] it in the Mourteen that Arabi denied it. Wilfrid rushes in from Kelwan in despair, writes a letter to the Times explaining the situation & renouncing Egyptian politics, but is persuaded to go & see Arabi before sending it. Returns radiant in the evening. Arabi sticks to his guns & authorizes a telegram to the Times acknowledging the authenticity of the letter.

29th. Lord Houghton[20] came to see us, says Wilfrid is called “Arabi” Blunt now, but that Arabi says, “Blunt is a spy of Malet, but Gregory is the real man!”
31. Wilfrid in the morning. Low. Says every one has turned against the National party. Sir A.Colvin most of all. The note sent by France & England has exasperated the Liberal Party. They want the control of the Budget, the Control won’t give it, everything at a deadlock. Wilfrid has bought a  ?fass ? house at Heliopolis & means to stand for Parliament. We called on Mr Rowsell later, he also says the note has done much mischief, the feeling against Europeans is growing, the fellahs more difficult to manage, he anticipates another Irish question. At tennis at the E.Malets, Sir A Colvin then says one advantage of the deadlock is that he has a little time to amuse himself but begs us to hold Wilfrid back, says he spoke perhaps too sharply to him in the morning but he had not breakfasted & was hungry and cross. On to Princess Nazli who kept us for dinner. She had just been giving Baron Malortic a piece of her mind about his refutation of W. in the Pall Mall [Gazette], told him he knew nothing of the subject & had no business to meddle. She has seen Arabi & believes in him.
1st [February]. Dined with Sir E.Malet . . . Sir E very anxious, the Chamber refuse to yield on the Budget question – he says by Arabi’s instigation, afterwards to his box for the amateur theatricals. M. de Martin acted very well.
The Khedive in his box looking dreary enough He said to Sir E when he went to sit with him “Well, they can’t do more than take my head”.
2nd. Wilfrid in the morning in full Bedouin costume. He is becoming impracticable.[21] Says the Chamber is right in holding out, that if England intervenes there will be a bloody war but that liberty has never been gained without blood. In the middle of this Mr Villiers Stuart came in & began to talk of mummies & the covering of the sacred ark. Wilfrid sat looking unutterably dejected & I gave him the Arabian Nights & some bonbons to console him. He left in the lowest depths. Wm’s  moderate counsels & the  discovery that his letter to the Times had not been published being too much for him.
Beulah Museum with Mr V. Stuart. I met Lord Houghton & Dr Schweinfurth. Lord H says ‘Sheikh has resigned & a Gregory – Blunt ministry is talked of.’

3. Cold & stormy. Sherif has resigned, & Barody is forming a new ministry.
Rumours all day, that Arabi drew his sword on Sultan Pasha & threatened to cut him in two if he did not obey his behest, that the Bowkers have sent their children to Alexandria. that troops are on their way from Con[stantino]ple, etc etc.
Then Mrs Blunt’s secretary comes in & denies it all, says Arabi has refusedto be named Minister of War lest the people should think he was acting for his own good, that the Chamber will still put the interest on the Debt to the Controller but will insist on managing the rest of the Budget for themselves. Then a mysterious visitor with a message from Arabi that we need have no fear.
Dined at the Duliers…. Lord H[oughton] half inclined towards the National party, but still wishes Cairo to become Europeanised.
4th. With Lord Houghton, Mrs Fitzgerald to see the Blunts at Heliopolis.
Received by them in Bedouin costume at the door of their tent. Mr Moore & 2 or 3 sheikhs to luncheon – first sweets nougat etc. then incense burned & coffee, then a bowl of boiled lamb, one of rice & coloured water. Wilfrid says this Sheikh is not what we would call a robber but ravages the villages near him. Lord H[oughton] says, Yes, like a man a friend of mine met out riding in the Far West & asked his occupation to which the answer was “Well sir I may say I am generally out on the steal”.
5th. Everyone rushing off to call on the new Ministers, quite moved by a gracious word from Arabi and Barody. Consternation in the evening at a telegram saying England will not intervene in case of anarchy.
6th. W. writing & copying for Times. Evening . . . Sir A Colvin fears the Ministry will never act with the [Board of] Control.
8th. Lunch Princess Said, in Turkish fashion, Princess Monsoor & Nazli, Dancing girls, very young & pretty. Camil Pasha came in & announced that 10,000 Turks were on their way here. Consternation. Came back & found there was no truth in it. Mr van der Nest [the Belgian Minister] had been to call on Arabi, found him presenting the troops with new colours & feared he was intruding, but Arabi said with much presence of mind “I take it as a happy omen that at the moment when the army which has won such a victory is receiving its colours the representative of a constitutional monarchy should come in.”
Dined Count Sala. Sir E.Malet more tolerant towards the new Ministry, thinks it as well to give them a chance of getting on, without intervention but says the Control is practically dead & it might be more dignified to withdraw it. He has spoken to Arabi about the abolition of the slave trade.
11th. Dined at the Van der Nests. Heard the account of Arabi’s reception at the féte of the Sacred Carpet in the morning, the people rushed him, kissed his hands, his feet & knees calling “long life to him who has given us a constitution”. His gloves were torn into little pieces to be treasured up. The guards tried to beat the people off but Arabi stopped them & said “Go back, my children” & without a word all fell back. The Khedive’s wife was looking on from a window & said “See how he loses no chance of winning the hearts of the people”.

(“How he doth seem to dive into men’s hearts
with humble & familiar courtesy”)[22]

12th. Church. La Salas. Met the Duc d’Aumale, & a count, knowing the country well, who spoke of this wonderful national movement, which he says will go beyond the soldiers – Princess Nazli heard the same account of Arabi’s ovation.
Dined Sir E.Malet, Lord Houghton, Fitzgeralds, Sir F.Goldsmid.[23] We quarrelled over Arabi. W[illiam] & I against the rest.
13. Bazaar. Dined Princess Nazli ev[ening]. Fitzgeralds. Farewell to Lord Houghton.
16. Wilfrid gets Sultan Pasha to deny reports of Arabi having used violence & sends telegram.
17. Met Arabi in the hall & was presented to him. Thanked him for the photo he had sent me with the words written “Arabi the Egyptian – I present my picture to Lady Gregory as a souvenir to preserve friendship. Ahmed Arabi.” He has the slave trade suppression “next his heart” & will carry it out.
18. General excitement over the Malortic & van der Nest duel ending in smoke without fire.
19. Church. Wilfrid to attack Malet & Colvin for giving false information.
Evening. Fitzgeralds. Sir A.Colvin denies having written the letter Wilfrid was so indignant with, says he thinks the Ministers are going too far with their military estimates, but promises to come down from his pedestal & try to work with them. Bet a piece of embroidery with Mrs Fitzgerald that there will be no intervention.
20. Ev. dance Van der Nests. American dinner (Washington’s birthday) going on at New Hotel. All there fascinated by Arabi’s smile. Sir F.Goldsmid says “I could not believe in a man with that face being a bad man”.
Stormy. W’s letter in the Times & an attack on Wilfrid by Dr.Badger.
Col.Dulier spoke of Arabi who was under him in Abyssinia, even then known & rather distrusted as a man with ideas. He used to gather the soldiers round him in the evenings, recite or preach or tell them stories. Asked Sir Frederic Goldsmid what was the exact truth as to his disagreement with Arabi. He says “It was last May, we were sitting together on a Military Commission, I forget what led to it, but Genl. Stone[24]said in answer to something said by Arabi: “Do you mean to say you wd. not take your regiment to any place you were ordered to.” “Yes,” said Arabi, “if the order were [not] according to regulations.” I felt a little nettled & said getting up “I belong to an army which obeys its Sovereign’s order without a word & if such language as this is used I think I had better retire, “ & upon this Genl. Stone got up & said “I agree with what Genl. Goldsmid has said & think we had better retire.” Then someone said “This is only a misunderstanding. No one meant to use insubordinate language”. Arabi said something to the same effect, & the meeting concluded amicably, & afterwards Arabi came up to me & spoke in a friendly manner of the difference that had taken place. It was however telegraphed to England that I had resigned, & a great deal too much fuss made about a slight & trivial matter.” It is a comfort here to get to the truth of any story!

25. A long visit from Wilfrid in the afternoon. He is going back to England to set public opinion right there. He says Arabi & the others are so exasperated with the false reports of them & their motives in the English papers that they have now a very bitter feeling towards England & may give vent to it by some rash act. Confesses that the ex-priest Louis Sabunje alluded to by Dr Badger is his little secretary!  but denies his connection with Ismail & says Dr Badger is jealous of him because it was he & not Dr B who wrote the Dictionary. I asked him as he was going “Will A[rabi] be the Egyptian Kalif” & he says “Imshallah”.
Church. Wilfrid & Lady Anne to lunch. He has been to say goodbye to Arabi, who is more favourably disposed toward England, & is determined to suppress slavery. At 3.00 Lady Anne & I went to call on Arabi’s wife. The house is new & unfurnished. She is a woman perhaps between 30 & 40 with a rather heavy face, but intelligent & honest. Their room has a few hard seats, a tiny table covered with a crochet antimacassar, & on the walls photographs of Arabi in small black frames. Her dress a trailing green rather in European fashion, on her heart a photograph of her husband (the same as mine), set in diamond. “The Bey does not like my dress & my long train”, she said, “because it is of European fashion. He says he wd. like to light a match & set fire to it. But I tell him I must have a dress of this fashion to wear when I go to see the Khedive’s wide. She would also like to send her children to Christian schools to learn languages, & wd. like to consult a Frankish Dr. for herself but “El Bey” objects, & his word is law. She is his third & only reigning wife, & has had 14 children of whom 5 survive. The last wife, she says, had nothing to recommend her but that she was big & fat – just a good bit of meat!.
His mother was there, a fine old woman, in coarse clothing, her chin & hands stained blue “I am a fellah woman” she said, “& my 2 other sons are fellah still”. I asked if she was very prod of her son. “I produced him” she said, her eyes lighting up, & she told us how good he was. The children came in 3 girls, 2 boys & one born last February, at the time Arabi was rescued by the soldiers, & is called “[Bushra]”, “Good Tidings”. They had a meal cooked for us & said had they known we were coming they wd have killed a buffalo. Their chief object of pride is a ?dreadful [published as ‘oleograph’] oil painting of “El Bey”. As we left we said “may God protect you – & the Bey” “Inshallah” she said rather sadly, “but they say the Christian powers want to do something to my husband – Why should they? We cannot get on without the Christians, nor they without us. Why should we not live in peace together?” She told us of the attempt on the Colonels’ lives in February, & how when their swords were taken from them the others were frightened but Arabi said “It is not God’s will anything shd. happen to us” & then afterwards when they were rescued & the others wanted to rise in arms he had quieted them & said “That is not the way to work”.
Evening Sir Fred. says “De Blignières [the French representative] makes no more jokes at Council. He says Arabi brings in a big sword with him & he thinks he had better be silent”.
27.28. Discontent at the Enquiry into the Cadastre. Blunts left.
March 1 evening. Moneys. Dicey says Mr Money took to himself the sentence in W’s letter about “incompetent & overpaid officials” but says “you can tell him you meant his brother.”
2nd. Took Mr Bowmont to Bazaar, & had Sir F.Goldsmid to meet him in the evening.
Mr Gibson says his colleague in the Cadastre is notorious for his treatment of the natives, & that there are many abuses to which he himself wd have called attention if he had not been afraid of hurting French susceptibilities.
19. A 2 hours visit from Arabi. W.asked him if it was true they were making fortifications. “No, only repairing them, as we do every year. A man whose house needs repair wd be laughed at if he let it fall down & does not the same apply to forts & barracks?” About the Cadastre he says “we don’t mean to abolish it but it has been so badly managed that the cost of measuring [?] has been as much as the cost of the land itself. We mean to send away no officials but those proved to be inefficient, & the Europeans set us the example already by sending away 20 of our Arab officers sometimes without reason. The railway also & customs are badly administered. The exemption of Europeans from taxes is unjust. We say “All men are brothers”, & the people say, “Then if the Europeans are our brothers why are they not taxed as we are.” Slavery will soon be abolished – We have sent a decree to the Soudan saying no one can be sold or bought there in future & the same decree is about to be made here. If any leave their masters the old will be provided for, the young sent to school, the girls married to soldiers. (Zohieb Bey was interpreter). “You have many enemies with strong interests against you,” W. said. “Yes, but they will see soon that we do not seek our own advancement but the good of the people. I showed him baby’s picture, which he kissed saying “I wish he were here that I might kiss him. I hope he will one day come to Egypt & be my friend & the friend of my children”. I told him I had seen his wife & children  & he said “My women have not been in the habit of receiving the ladies of Europe so if there was anything wanting in the way they received you you will understand that & forgive”. My last words to him were “Chi va piano va sano” [who goes slowly goes safely].
21. With Mr Schraiz as interpreter to see Arabi’s wife. Some signs of luxury since my last visit, gold embroidered napkins, & the old mother in yellow silk pelisse lined with fur. The Pasha (he has been a Pasha 5 days, having refused until the order came from Constantinople.) had told them to do me honour, so a meal was prepared, an immense roast turkey & many dishes, but by stuffing little Hassan I escaped eating much. He is 4 years old very bright & taking, but at first, on being asked if we might come to his circumcision said he would beat us with a Kurhaj if we did. In the end he expressed his affection for me & I asked him to come to England but he says “How can I when Papa takes the carriage all day.” He & Zaida & Bushra are their father’s favourites. The mother says she wd. like a European maid “but I don’t want to get an old one & a young one might take my husband from me”. She is anxious about her husband’s safety.
Poor woman, & his old mother says “I cannot cease praying for him all day. I cannot sleep at night till he comes in. In the old days we were always together but now he gets up early & has only time to say his prayers when the people are waiting for him & often he is not home till 1 or 2 o/c in the morning, & we are always afraid of his being poisoned & keep all the water he drinks locked up. He himself is never afraid but says God will preserve him. She is indignant however at his suppressing slavery, & says the slaves will leave & they will have to use European servants who will seduce their masters & their children will be stronger than the Arab children & drive them out.
Zahreb Bey dined with us. He is only half a Nationalist, but believes fully in Arabi’s purity of intention. He told us that when Said was ruler he did not approve of religion in the army & ordered that no soldier should fast during the Ramadan. After a little he found some were disobedient & going through the ranks had each questioned. One here & there confessed to fasting, about 300 in all.
Then a young soldier stepped forward & said “The command of God given in the Koran is that we should fast. If we do not obey God’s commands how will you expect us to obey yours?” “Your name?” “Ahmed Arabi” “Come this way.” He went, as all thought, to his death, but the next day he was promoted to be sub-lieutenant.

28. Sir F.Goldsmid says Lord Granville[25] asked him to write sometimes from here, & he did so once, but thought it right to show what he had written to Sir E. Malet, who he saw did not like it & as he was staying in his house he wd not write again. He says “There are 4 Chiefs of the Caisse each with £3,600 per ann. & one man with £1,000 per ann wd do the work well. I must say for them that one day I went in I found 3 of them there – one was reading the paper, one sitting at a desk, the other walking about. I thought of Pickwick’s visit to the Bank & Weller’s question, “But what has the eating of ham sandwiches to do with it?”
29. W[illiam] has been to see Wilfrid’s friend Mahmoud Fellaki who was all for the Nationalists but says it has now become a military government & he despairs of it.
30th. Visits all day. Sir A.Colvin dead against the Govt, says there will be a financial crisis the end of next year. Left for Alexandria.
31st. Osman Bey… very despondent, thinks we shall have Turkish intervention within a fortnight, says there is a party in the army against Arabi, but no one to head it. Mr Minet more sanguine.
Learned to make coffee. Boil the water when boiling add coffee, 1 spoonful for each, 3 times take it up when at boiling point, add a little cold water & serve.
1 April. Sailed for Catania.

    Thus ended a stay in Egypt of four and a half months, when the Gregorys had been close to the heart of events during a momentous time in the history of Egypt. 

   Thereafter, matters developed rapidly: by the time the Gregorys had reached England in mid May there been what was called “an alleged conspiracy” of Circassian officers to assassinate Arabi, forty-three of whom were convicted of this and of an attempt to dethrone the Khedive. They were exiled on 28 April.

    The political crisis continued. Just after the Gregorys arrived in England the joint British and French squadron arrived at Alexandria, but Arabi refused to resign. However, after an ultimatum from the British and French consuls, on 25 May Arabi agreed to retire, and the Ministry resigned, with Cherif Pasha appointed, but the officers resisted and on the 28th, Arabi was reinstated. There was anarchy in early June, and rebellion, with riots in Alexandria, Arabs attacking Europeans in which about sixty were killed (there being about 37,000 Europeans in Egypt at the time). There was panic in Cairo and Alexandria and many Europeans emigrated to Malta.

    In July Alexandria was bombarded by the British. Arabi, after a defiant letter to Gladstone, gained time under a flag of truce and with his forces left Alexandria and retreated into the interior. He released the convicts who, with the Arab mob, set fire to the city, and many Christians were said to have been massacred, while the conflagration – nearly a mile long – continued, completely destroying the European quarter. By the end of the month, Arabi had proclaimed a Jihad, but as a result of massive troop landings and a battle at Kel-el-Kebir on 13 September at which the Egyptians were defeated, the British entered Cairo the following day, and Arabi surrendered.

    It had been planned to try Arabi and get him executed as soon as possible, but Blunt, aided by the Gregorys’ contacts, got the British government to ensure that Arabi was properly defended by British lawyers who were on their way to Cairo at Blunt’s expense. Lady Gregory also wrote an article about Arabi’s home life, which would have been published in the Fortnightly Review but for Sir William’s doubts, and it was finally published in The Times on 25 October, appearing as a separate booklet the following month. In it Lady Gregory expanded on her diary entries (omitting any information about Arabi’s two divorces and that of his wife), and argued that it would be impossible for such a good man to be as anti-British as it appeared, and ending by describing the incomprehension of his wife and mother as to why the great powers would want to harm her husband.

   Her letter/article served its purpose and thereafter there was much more sympathy for Arabi in Britain. He was tried in November, pleaded guilty and was ultimately exiled to Ceylon, returning to Egypt in 1902.

     While Sir William was unaware to what extent his wife was supporting Blunt in his work for the Egyptian Nationalist party during 1882 and 1883, in 1885 after the death of General Gordon and the surrender of Khartoum to the Mahdi in January he wrote an article which appeared in The Nineteenth Century entitled “Egypt & the Soudan” [26] in which he pointed out that in 1881 he had warned that the events of the past three years would  inevitably take place if Britain did not change its policy in Egypt. As an ex-Governor of Ceylon he had returned there recently and met Arabi in his exile, at which meeting the latter had said “If England had ruled Egypt as she rules Ceylon there would have been no Mahdi. If she had ruled Ceylon as she ruled Egypt then Ceylon would have had one too.”

     Sir William also pointed out that Arabi was the ideal candidate to negotiate with the Mahdi:

if we searched the whole world we could find no other man who would be received with such trust and honour by the Mahdi . . . . I adhere unflinchingly to the good opinion I have always had of this man. In his public career his hands were ever clean; no man was more incorruptible; and never was an Oriental more placable, indeed more gentle, to his enemies . . . . In spite of his strong religious opinions, I have ever found him moderate and liberal in his views. His demands for reform did not exceed, or even come up to, the concessions recognised to be just by Lord Dufferin [27] (though never carried out) . . . . The restoration of the National leaders to Egypt, and as a consequence their restoration to power, can be but a matter of time. Is it not worth the while of our Ministers to consider whether the employment of Arabi in the mission I have suggested may not pave the way for one indispensable step in the future government of Egypt – namely, the confidence in it of the people of the country? This confidence they would feel were they once again to see in a position of eminence “The One”, “El Wahad” – the only one whom they ever learned to love and to trust.’[28]

For the rest of their lives, both Sir William and Lady Gregory were very proud of their work in supporting the Egyptian nationalists. While Sir William died in 1892, Lady Gregory lived to 1932, and she saw Ireland, at least, obtain its independence.

I suspect that Wilfrid Scawen Blunt’s role as Egypt’s friend has not been fully appreciated, or has been forgotten, here in Egypt so I would commend to you his books – not only the Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt, which I have already cited, but also Gordon at Khartoum and The Land War in Ireland (both London: Stephen Swift, 1912), and his Diaries 1888-1914 (London: Martin Secker, 1919 and 1920; New York: Knopf, 1920, and as a single volume by Secker in 1932). Unfortunately, all are difficult to obtain.

Egypt, while nominally an independent country, had to wait twenty-five years after Lady Gregory’s death before it was able to demonstrate its political freedom to the world by its nationalisation of the Suez Canal, the chief cause of British and French interest in, and manipulation of, Egyptian politics since it had been built.[29]

As an important footnote, I ought to add to the roll of honour the name of Thomas Chenery, Editor of The Times during these momentous years, without whose support in publishing the letters of the Gregorys and Wilfrid Blunt, and thereby positively influencing British public opinion, the history of Egypt would inevitably have been worse. As Blunt wrote later:

“It is hardly possible to exaggerate the importance a letter on any subject had in those days when published in The Times, and the certainty there was if it was on any political question of its being read by the statesmen concerned and treated with full attention. Nor is it perhaps too much to say that Gregory’s letters and mine – especially his – were largely the means of obtaining a respite for Egypt from the dangers that threatened her.” [30]

A curious postscript to this story is that on 15 July 1993 (the week before I gave a shorter version of this paper in Cairo), the British Government released papers concerning General Gordon, the Mahdi and Arabi, that indicated (falsely) that Khartoum might have fallen as early as November 1884, not on 26 January 1885, the official date, and that the Mahdi was holding Gordon as late as the following March as a pawn to bargain for the release of Arabi, the British evacuation of the Soudan and the recognition of the Mahdi as its sovereign. The informant, Dr Habib Anthony Salmone was, however, considered by Arabi’s party to be a British spy, and by March 1885 the British Foreign Office also considered him untrustworthy, as well as objecting to the size of his expense account.[31] 1 The Mahdi died of small-pox the following June.


[1] Egypt in 1855 and 1856; Tunis in 1857 and 1858, by W.H.Gregory, M.P., 2 vols. London: Printed for private circulation by John Russell Smith, 36 Soho Square, 1859. Referred to hereafter as Egypt and Tunis.
[2] Egypt and Tunis, vol.1, pp. 18-19.
[3] Egypt and Tunis, vol. 1, pp. 19-20.
[4] Egypt and Tunis, vol.1, pp. 32-33.
[5] This dragomanic observation refers to a large disc, fixed in or modelled on the wall; and tradition has it that in Sultan Hassan’s time, a loaf that size could be bought for the same price as today’s small ones.
[6] Egypt and Tunis, vol.1, pp. 63, 64-65.
[7] The Porte, or Sublime Porte, was the official name for the court of the Sultan of Turkey.
[8] Egypt and Tunis, vol.1, pp. 42-44.
[9] Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (1840-1922) poet, publicist, who political life was always in defence of nationalism, Egyptian, Irish and Indian. He and Lady Gregory conducted an affair for six months in 1882, At the end of it, she gave him the poems he later edited and published as ‘A Woman’s Sonnets’ in Love-Lyrics and Sonnets of Proteus (Kelmscott Press, 1892).
[10] Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt Being a Personal Narrative of Events, London: Fisher Unwin, 1907, and in the New York: Knopf, 1922, edition, p.125. In future Secret History.
[11] Seventy Years, being the Autobiography of Lady Gregory, edited and with a Foreword by Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1974; New York: Macmillan, 1976. Hereafter referred to as Seventy Years.
[12] Ahmed El Arabi (c.1838-1911) known in Egypt as Orabi. The different spelling of his name is  due to a mistranslation of the Arabic.
[13] Seventy Years, p. 34.
[14] Secret History, New York: Knopf, 1922, p. 116.
[15] Sir Auckland Colvin (1838-1908) KCSI, KCMG; was Comptroller General of Egypt 1880-82, being knighted in 1881, and was Financial Adviser to the  the Khedive 1882-83, when he left Egypt.
[16] Riaz Pasha was the nominee of the English and French Consulates as Minister when Sherif resigned, and whose stated aim in accepting the position was to rescue the country from its financial misfortunes.
[17] Sir Gerald FitzGerald (1833-191?) KCMG (1885) was Director-General of Public Accounts in Egypt, 1879-85. In 1881 he married the Hon. Amicia Henrietta Milnes (1852-1902), daughter of 1st Baron Houghton. In 1877 he had been allowed to accept temporary service in Egypt from India where he was Deputy Controller General.
[18] Lady Anne Isabella Noel, grand-daughter of Lord Byron (George Gordon, 6th Baron 1788-1824), married Blunt in 1869. She died in 1917, at Skeikh Obeyd, near Cairo, six months after becoming the 15th Baroness Wentworth.
[19] Rt Hon. Sir Edward Baldwin Malet, 4th Bt (1837-1908). British Minister Plenipotentiary, Agent and Consul-General in Cairo, 1879-83.
[20] Richard Monckton Milnes (1809-85) 1st Baron Houghton (cr.1863).
[21] Lady Gregory had crossed through this and the later passage.
[22] Shakespeare, Richard II, I. 4. 25
[23] Major General Sir Frederic John Goldsmid (1818-1908); British Controller of Daira Sanieh, Egypt, 1880-83.
[24] General Charles Pomeroy Stone (1824-87) was appointed Pacha Director of the Land Survey in Egypt on 14 April 1879. He had fought in the Mexican-American War, and later took part in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, one of the early battles of the American Civil War,  in October 1861. Held responsible for the Union defeat he was imprisoned without trial for six months. He left America and served the Khedivate of Egypt 1870-83.
[25] Granville George Leveson-Gower, 5th Earl Granville (1815-91), was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (for the third time) between April 1880 and June 1885.
[26] “Egypt and the Soudan: On the Other Side of the Hill”, Nineteenth Century, March 1885, pp.424-436. The 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) had written that ‘All the business of war, indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do –  that’s what I call guessing what was at the other side of the Hill.’  (In Conversations with Mr Croker).
[27] Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin & Ava (1826-1902). Ambassador to the Sultan of Turkey, 1881, Special Commissioner to Egypt, 1882. He had previously held many high political posts.
[28] “Egypt and the Soudan”, in Nineteenth Century, March 1885, pp. 434, 436.
[29] Construction of the Suez Canal started in 1859, and it was officially opened ten years later. In 1875 the British bought the Khedive’s shares (176,602 of £20, out of the 400,000 issued) in the Canal.
[30] Quoted by Lady Gregory in Seventy Years, p.35.
[31] Daily Mail, 16 July 1993, p.21.