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Lord Curzon

( Originally Published 1907 )

LORD CURZON would have been a great man if he could occasionally have forgotten Lord Curzon. Health is always unconscious of itself. It is not until sickness that one is aware of the body. It is not until a nation has lost its freedom that it becomes conscious of itself and the spirit of nationalism burns like a fever in the blood. And the mind in perfect health is equally self-forgetful. Lord Curzon has never enjoyed that health. He has dwelt in a house of mirrors. Wherever he has turned he has met the dazzling vision of himself. Oxford was but a setting for one magical figure, Parliament the stage for one inimitable actor, India the background for one radiant form in purple and gold. When poor Sir Naylor Leyland opposed him at South-port he turned and rent him as if he were a dog desecrating the sanctuary. When simple St. John Brodrick, forgetful of the Balliol days when he had been honoured by the notice of the Honourable George Nathaniel Curzon, dared to veto his action in India because he feared Lord Kitchener even more than he feared Lord Curzon, he forbade him his presence. Where he went Mr. Brodrick must not be. He would not have him in the same social hemisphere. He must get a hemisphere of his own. " God may forgive him," he is reported to have said; " but I never will."

It is one of Mr. Chesterton's jolly maxims that a man should be able to laugh at himself, poke fun at himself, enjoy his own absurdity. It is an excellent test of mental health. Man is a tragi-comedian. He should see himself the quaint " forked radish " that he is, fantastic as well as wonderful. He should see his mind ready to do battle and die, if need be, for an idea, but equally ready to get into a passion because his egg is boiled too hard. He should, in a word, see himself not as a hero, but as a man of strange virtues and stranger follies, a figure to move him to alternate admiration and laughter. Lord Curzon has never laughed at himself. He has only admired. And from this immense seriousness, this absence of the faculty of wholesome self-ridicule and self-criticism, issue those mistakes with which his career is strewn, a type of which was his appeal to the sympathy of the world for having asked for and been refused a seat in the House of Lords. It seemed to him an insult to majesty. It seemed to the world a joke. It kept the satire of his Oxford days true to the mature man. It made credible all those strange stories of the pomp and circumstance of the Durbar of the Viceroy who would not touch swords with the chiefs, but left that menial function to the Duke of Connaught, and who turned the wild extravagance of that colossal show into a triumph in which he filled the rôle of Imperial Caesar.

This grandiose vision of himself as Caesar was at the root of most of his mistakes in India. It was responsible, for example, for that adventure into Tibet an adventure without motive and without consequence, except the motive of personal réclame, and the consequence of shooting down a defenceless people like a flock of sheep, and burdening the Indian peasant, with his income of £2 a year, with new taxation. A high price to pay for the glory of being the first Viceroy to penetrate to Lhassa. It was responsible for that costly folly of the Durbar. The people were dying of famine and of plague, and he gave them a circus, for which they had to pay out of their misery. It was responsible, too, for that stupendous white elephant, the Victoria memorial, which is sinking into the mud of the Maidan at Calcutta. The people asked for a memorial that would regenerate their industry a great scheme of technical and scientific education. Mr. J. N. Tata, the wealthy Parsee, offered to start such a scheme with a quarter of a million of money. It was refused, and the people were offered an idle show-place in Lord Curzon's grandiloquent phrase, " a snow-white fabric " arising from the green expanse of the Calcutta Maidan, the Taj of the Twentieth Century." He might have given India an instructed people: he promised it a pretty toy.

It was this view of the mild Hindoo as a child, to be amused and paternally governed, that was the vice of his method. He was aloof on Olympus. India had no access to him. Hindoos like Mr. Gokhale, one of the ablest men and noblest characters with whom I have ever come in contact, and Mr. Surendra Nath Banerjee, were ignored. They were " natives " —children like the rest. Had he listened to them, that fatal partition of Bengal would never have been carried out, or would have been carried out differently. It was carried out ruthlessly, and no more momentous act was ever accomplished. It has set India alight with a flame that will never die down. " When I went out to India in 1902," said a well-known English-man to me, " there was no national movement. To-day all the land ferments with new national ideals. We owe that to Lord Curzon's provocative policy. He has created the New India." It is good that there should be a new India: it is not good that it should come to birth with the bitter feeling of British injustice.

The exaggerated sense of one's own place in the scheme of things involves depreciation of the place of others. Lord Curzon always underrated the Indian intelligence, and always forgot that the Indian was a man with the sensibilities of a man. " If you prick him, will he not bleed; if you tickle him, will he not laugh? " He often laughed at his lordship, some-times good-naturedly, as when at the time of the Durbar Lord Curzon organised a show with the admirable idea of promoting native industries. He denounced those who got their furniture and their artistic ideals from " Tottenham Court Road." The retort was crushing. It was pointed out that his residence at the Durbar had been furnished by Maple's, whose business is actually in Tottenham Court Road. Sometimes the laughter had a ring of anger. Every-one remembers that blazing indiscretion at the Con-vocation of Calcutta University, when, addressing the Bengali students and the cream of intellectual India, he spoke of truth as a Western virtue, and more than hinted that the Orientals, like the Cretans, were liars, and that they were given to flattery, and other heinous sins. A shudder went through society. How would India take this insult? The situation was saved by a Hindoo with a characteristically tenacious memory. He went home, took down Problems of the Far East, by George N. Curzon, and a day or two later there appeared in the Amritsa Bazar Patrika, side by side with the offending passages in the speech, the following extract from Lord Curzon's book:

Before proceeding to the Royal audience I enjoyed an interview with the President of the Korean Foreign Office. . Having been particularly warned not to admit to him that I was only thirty-three years old, an age to which no respect attaches in Korea, when he put to me the straight question always the first in the Oriental dialogue), " How old are you? " I unhesitatingly responded, " Forty." " Dear me," he said, " you look very young for that. How do you Lccount for it? " " By the fact," I replied, that I have been travelling for a month in the superb climate of his Majesty's dominions." Finally he said to me, " I presume you are a near relative of her Majesty the Queen of England? "

No," I replied, " I am not." But observing the look of disgust that passed over his countenance I was fain to add, " I am, however, as yet an unmarried man," with which unscrupulous suggestion I completely regained the old gentleman's favour.

India was dissolved in laughter. It almost forgave the insult for the sake of the jest.

Coupled with his exalted view of himself, Lord Curzon has an energy, industry, and capacity that are probably unrivalled. They showed themselves at Oxford, where he missed his First in " Greats." The indignity cut him to the quick. It must be wiped out by heroic means. He must win the Lowthian Prize. He went away to Egypt with his books of reference. He worked incessantly; came back to London, spent a fortnight at the British Museum putting the finishing touches on his work, and at midnight on the last day for receiving the essays dashed up in a cab to the schools, awoke the porter, handed in his essay, and won the prize. With a similar fury of industry he, later, won the Arnold Prize. This power of work he has always shown. In India he was the wonder of the Service. His hand was everywhere. Nothing was delegated. No subject was too microscopic to escape him. He instructed the Government proof readers in the correct use of the comma and called the Bengal Government to book for three errors in the inscription placed on Macaulay's Calcutta house. I remember one incident of this abnormal industry and personal sensitiveness. An article criticising him had appeared in a London paper. It came back to the editor neatly pasted on foolscap sheets of paper. In the margin he had written for private information an elaborate and detailed reply to every sentence.

He was not loved by the officials. That is not necessarily to his discredit. No Viceroy who did his duty to India would be loved by the officials. He had gone out with the gospel of " Efficiency, and he was imperious in his reforms, and in the insistence on his supremacy. The famous Note on Departmentalism is still a classic in Indian official circles. It is read o' nights over the pipe and the glass, and such passages as " Departmentalism is not a moral delinquency. It is an intellectual hiatus " still make the rafters ring.

There was never a Viceroyalty so full of the drama of action. Every day had its new sensation. In every scene the limelight was upon him, and India to-day, for good and evil, is largely what he made it. Many of his reforms were excellent, many of his practical schemes admirable. He held Commissions and inquiries, and, what is more, acted on them. His Irrigation scheme was a great and worthy effort to combat famine. He made a brave stand for the right of the Indian to equal justice. His action in regard to the 9th Lancers was high and courageous. The evidence pointed to one of them having been guilty of the murder of a native cook a common enough occurrence. They refused to disclose the murderer. He degraded the regiment. When it marched past at the Durbar all official India applauded loudly. It was meant as a rebuke to Lord Curzon, sitting there silent upon his horse. I hope he saw that it was not a rebuke, but the proudest compliment of his career. Nor do I think he was wrong in the final rupture with Lord Kitchener. At any rate, he stood for a great principle the civil control of the Army.

No estimate of Lord Curzon would be complete which omitted the fact that he has fought his battle with the handicap of physical weakness. He has lived his life, as it were, on broken wing. To that we may trace the defects of temperament and outlook. Nor can one forget the tragedy of his domestic life the loss of the brilliant partner of his career in circumstances full of pathos.

A brilliant man, full of energy, full of ambition, full of capacity, still young though more than " forty "—burning to be in the heart of the fight, he finds himself with no path open, no rôle to play, his career closed ere it has well begun. The brilliant Indian episode left him stranded on the political shore. For a time he cast longing eyes upon the House where he had once been the best-graced actor and where his eager temperament could alone find scope for play. Then he turned sadly to the House of Lords, and the shades of that decorous prison-house closed on his imperious spirit.

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