The Journal of African History

Research Article

The Victorians and Africa: A Reconsideration of the Occupation of Egypt, 1882*

A. G. Hopkinsa1

a1 University of Birmingham

This article offers a reassessment of Britain's decision to occupy Egypt in 1882. Research published since 1961, it is suggested, does not support the view put forward by Robinson and Gallagher in their celebrated book, Africa and the Victorians, that Britain intervened reluctantly to safeguard the Suez Canal in response to disorder in Egypt, or that she was led on by French initiatives. Moreover, the decision to occupy Egypt did not have the effect claimed by Robinson and Gallagher of precipitating the scramble for West and East Africa. It is argued instead that the causes of intervention lay in the metropole rather than on the periphery. British interests in Egypt were both important and expanding, and they were upheld by Conservative and Liberal governments in the period following the khedive's declaration of bankruptcy in 1876. This conclusion makes the Egyptian case less important in understanding the scramble for tropical Africa but more important in understanding late nineteenth-century imperialism. The occupation illustrates how the emergence of a particular configuration of economic and political forces in Britain found expression abroad after 1850; and it does so without invoking narrow or deterministic forms of historical explanation. Finally, it is suggested that the Egyptian case deserves a more prominent place in the study of theories of imperialism than it has received, because most of the ideas which enter modern scholarly discussion of this subject can be traced to the contemporary debate over the highly controversial decision taken by Britain in 1882.


* This essay in synthesis seeks to represent, though not to match, one facet of John Fage's acknowledged skills as a historian of Africa.