Lord Cromer’s ‘native mind’: The significance of his three-decade long ‘hang up’

You are probably wondering who is Lord Cromer and why are we talking about him?

Well, Lord Evelyn Baring, the Earl of Cromer was one of the key figures in the British administration of Egypt during the period of the ‘Veiled Protectorate’. This is what he looks like: 

Between 1882 and 1907, Cromer was head of the British interests and responsible for the administrative and fiscal reform of Egypt after Egypt fell into great debt and economic chaos. After returning home to England in the winter of 1907-08, Cromer published Modern Egypt, a history of Egypt and the surrounding area from 1876, which drew on his experiences governing in the East and interactions with its people. While many historians have evaluated this work over the last century, the historiography of Cromer’s government focuses mainly on the political, fiscal and diplomatic. But, there is a severe absence of analysis of a theme in Modern Egypt that Cromer can’t seem to let go – his ‘hang up’: the ‘native mind’ of ‘the Egyptian’.

So, what was Cromer’s ‘native mind’?

“The Oriental generally acts, speaks and thinks in a manner exactly opposite to the European.”

Lord Cromer, ‘Modern Egypt’ (1908), p. 586.

This line best illustrates Cromer’s perception of the ‘native mind’. ‘The Oriental’, which is used interchangeably with ‘the Egyptian’ or ‘the Eastern’, is the complete opposite in its behavior and intellect to the European. Generally, Cromer believes the West is considered ‘positive’, ‘good’ and ‘progressive’, and since ‘the Egyptian’ is the antithesis, he or she is ‘negative’, ‘bad’ and ‘regressive’. Cromer does attempt to break ‘the Egyptian’ and its ‘native mind’ down into the many social, religious and ethnic groups, such as the Khedival rulers, the Muslims, Copts, Syrians, Turks and Bedouins, and give each individual qualities. However, despite what few good, ‘European’ qualities they may have, each group was dominated by its negative traits. 

How does Cromer come to know the ‘native mind’?

With such strong, detailed opinions of the ‘the Egyptian’, you would think that Cromer had personally spent a great deal of time amongst the different groups of the Egyptian population. You would be wrong. Like many of his Orientalist peers, Cromer opts for two commonly used, imperialist methods – dehumanisation and homogenisation – as a means to ‘understand’ the ‘native mind’.

The first method, ‘dehumanisation’, is used by Cromer to reduce ‘the Egyptian’ to an object rather than a subject. He goes so far as to see this population as being a problem with a solution. This objectification is best exemplified in Cromer’s comment: 

“The ‘Egyptian spirit’ is an obstacle to the reformer…”

Lord Cromer, Modern Egypt (1908), p. 569.

Through dehumanising ‘the Egyptian’, Cromer is allowing himself to be detached from the issue, and detachment, according to Cromer is best for good observation. 

His second method, ‘homogenisation’, combines the different ethnicities and social and religious sects into one group – Cromer’s ‘Dwellers’. By blending social and racial groups, Cromer is invalidating their individualities and undermining his earlier microscopic analyses of the different groups in the population.

Now we have a general understanding of what comprises Cromer’s ‘native mind’ and how he came to know ‘the Egyptian’…

So why the severe hang up? What makes the ‘native mind’ so significant?

Cromer’s ‘native mind’ is incredibly important within Modern Egypt for two reasons: firstly, because he sees the moral reform of ‘the Egyptian’ as being intimately linked to the structural reform of Egypt; and secondly, when these reforms fail, the ‘native mind,’ incapable of progression, is key, as it makes for the perfect scapegoat.

However, while these reasons are important, they really are building towards the fundamental significance of the ‘native mind’, which reaches beyond Modern Egypt. Ultimately, the ‘native mind’ of ‘the Egyptian’ is key because it is an tool for British imperial domination in three different senses: domination of the images of the East, domination of the methods for understanding ‘the Oriental’, and domination of the nation itself through direct intervention.

Cromer’s descriptions, both general and specific, of the qualities that comprised the mind of ‘the Egyptian’ emphasized the attributes that were considered undesirable and ‘negative’, from a Eurocentric viewpoint, over those ‘positive’, European traits. William Welch identified this as a technique for imperial domination of the image of ‘the other’.

Secondly, Timothy Mitchell and Edward Said considered his treatments of this ‘native mind’ through dehumanisation, detachment and homogenisation as methods for imperial control of knowledge.

And lastly, the relationship between ‘moral’ and ‘structural’ reform provided firm basis for the existence of British imperial intrusion in Egypt – to give the Egyptians a ‘leg up’, while the British maintain their own interests in the region. And if and when these reforms failed, the ‘native mind’ makes for a perfect scapegoat, and further reinforces the obligation of the British to remain in Egypt.

Whether Cromer failed in his moral reform of the ‘native mind’ or not, Modern Egypt and its most significant character, the ‘native mind’ of ‘the Egyptian’, contributed, continued and reinforced the Orientalist conversation about the importance of British imperialism that was taking place during the early twentieth century.


Further Reading: 

Cromer, The Earl of. Modern Egypt. (1908) Rpt. as one digital volume. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Mitchell, Timothy. Colonising Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. 

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Welch, William. Jr. No Country for a Gentleman: British Rule in Egypt, 1883-1907. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.





3 comments on “Lord Cromer’s ‘native mind’: The significance of his three-decade long ‘hang up’

  1. nicolekbest says:

    Hi there,
    Loved the post! I hope Cromer doesn’t look like that still today… perhaps a little more decrepit? I was wondering, did the dehumanisation and homoginisation ever occur in Cromer’s work in explicit terms or was it simply constructed through claiming the “native mind” as opposite to the European? If it was constructed with an absence of articulation would this have impacted upon public opinion surrounding Cromer’s work? Could it have been embraced by those with anti-European sentiments as a positive?

    Just a thought!

  2. adamthecon says:

    Hey Tom,
    This is the sort of history that really fascinates me – a particular eccentricity or quirk that has been otherwise overlooked is revisited and the potential connotations of that phrase are more fully revealed. That such a phrase and its use can be demonstrative of Cromer’s wider understanding of the British role in Egypt is really illuminating. What role, if any,did you see Cromer’s understanding of the ‘native mind’ take in his wider program of reform in Egypt? Were his reforms successful?
    Like I said, really interesting choice of topic!

  3. leenabamann says:

    Hi Tom,
    I like to know more about Cromer’s intervention in Egypt. Was he successful with his domination?Cromer ‘s use of phrases like “native mind” and “the Egyptian” illuminates the British way of thought, i.e. “the other” at the time.

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