Saturday, September 18, 2004

An Immutable Law

Britain had ruled Egypt for 24 years when Gertrude Bell, travelling in Syria and seeing the local leaders chafing under Ottoman misrule, wrote this:

"Nevertheless, the moral is obvious: all over Syria and even in the desert, whenever a man is ground down by injustice or mastered by his own incompetence, he wishes he were under the rule that has given wealth to Egypt, and our occupation of that country, which did so much at first to alienate from us the sympathies of Mohammedans, has proved the finest advertisement of English methods of government."

To which, editing the manuscript, she added this footnote, addressing the rebellion which had erupted in Egypt in June 1906. It began when peasants, mistaking the gunfire as hostile, attacked British soldiers who were shooting pigeons, killing one, and the British governor ordered harsh reprisals.

"The present unrest in Egypt may seem to throw a doubt upon the truth of these observations, but I do not believe this to be the case. The Egyptians have forgotten the miseries from which our administration rescued them, the Syrians and the people of the desert are still labouring under them, and in their eyes the position of their neighbours is one of unalloyed and enviable ease. But when once the wolf is driven from the door, the restraints imposed by an immutable law eat into the temper of a restless, unstable population accustomed to reckon with misrule and to profit by the frequent laxity and occasional opportunities of undeserved advancement which characterise it. Justice is a capital thing when it guards your legal rights, but most damnable when you wish to usurp the rights of others."

["The Desert and the Sown," 1907]