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The Private Letters and Diaries of Sir Ronald Storrs (1881-1955) from Pembroke College, Cambridge

Preface by Professor Donald S Birn, University of Albany, State University of New York

Sir Ronald Storrs belongs in the pantheon of noteworthy leaders of the British Empire, yet he seems a bit out of place alongside those illustrious soldier-conquerors and administrators. Storrs’ talents lay elsewhere. His close friend T E Lawrence, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, described him as "the most brilliant Englishman in the Near East," and tried to capture his greatness and his shortcomings. Lawrence saw him as "subtly efficient, despite his diversion of energy in love of music and letters, of sculpture, of whatever was beautiful in the world’s fruit .... Storrs was ... always first, and the great man among us. His shadow would have covered our work and British policy in the east like a cloak, had he been able to deny himself the world, and to prepare his mind and body with the sternness of an athlete for a great fight." 1

In describing him in the Dictionary of National Biography, Sir Harry Luke noted that "for an Englishman without a drop of non-English blood he had a surprisingly cosmopolitan outlook on life." 2 Storrs was not only English, he came from that familiar breeding ground of those ready to go forth and bear the white man’s burden, a vicarage family. Born in Bury St Edmunds in 1881, he was the eldest son of the Reverend John Storrs, a London vicar who became Dean of Rochester in 1913. Educated in the classics at Charterhouse and Pembroke College, Cambridge, Storrs began his career in the Egyptian Civil Service in 1904. Assigned first to the Ministry of Finance, and then to other departments in the next five years, he did not take to routine administrative duties with pleasure.

What he did do was to immerse himself in the language, culture and history of Egypt. In 1909, he became Oriental Secretary at the British agency in Cairo serving first under Sir Eldon Gorst and then Lord Kitchener and Sir Henry McMahon. Here he was able to distinguish himself, to use his keen intellect and knowledge of colloquial Arabic to good effect as the consummate Near East hand. When war came in 1914, Storrs became involved in the negotiations with Sherif Hussein, later King Hussein. His close associate T E Lawrence had much to say about Storrs in his classic Revolt in the Desert and Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The portrait which emerges is complex and intriguing. "Storrs’ intolerant brain seldom stooped to company," Lawrence noted at one point, before going on to describe Storrs conversing in German, Arabic and French on the relative merits of Debussy and Wagner with someone who was worthy of his attention.3

Storrs’ interest in the arts was profound. He became an art collector and also a committed preservationist. His interest in medieval Cairo led to membership in an advisory group in charge of ancient monuments, the Comite pour la Conservation des Monuments Arabes. This in turn allowed him to press for the the preservation of Coptic Christian remains, and he was instrumental in the establishment of the Coptic Museum in Cairo.4 Storrs showed the same interest in historic preservation in his later postings after Cairo, especially in Jerusalem in the 1920s. There he promoted the Pro-Jerusalem Society and worked with the Town Planning Commission to control building while increasing amenities - no easy task. One writer, noting the many hindrances which the Commission faced, said that "in this matter Government was certainly in advance of public opinion."5

During World War One, Storrs served as a political officer with the Anglo-French Expeditionary Force, an assignment which took him to Baghdad. Late in 1917, he then served briefly with the secretariat of the British war Cabinet before being appointed to the newly created position of governor of Jerusalem. First as military governor, and then in 1920, when a civilian administration was established, as civil governor, Storrs had a difficult time. Riots in 1920 and 1921 aggravated tensions between Arabs and Jews.

Storrs, steeped in Arabic culture for years, was accused by many Jews of being hostile, the "evil genius" behind the High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel. This campaign of vilification irked Storrs, who was sympathetic to Zionism, if not the socialist ideals of Zionist pioneers. In his memoirs he wrote "I am still unable to understand how I did not emerge from it an anti-Semite for life." 6 He weathered this criticism and gradually won respect in all communities. Peace hd been restored to Jerusalem by the time he left in 1926, due in some measure to his work in bringing together otherwise hostile groups in the Pro-Jerusalem Society to safeguard antiquities.

As the Governor of Cyprus from 1926 to 1932, Storrs started out winning great popularity by convincing the British government to abolish the detested tribute, the annual payments the island made to pay off a share of the Turkish debt. His appreciation of Greek culture also endeared him to the majority of Cypriots. However, he ran into bitter opposition on several fronts: trade unionists objected to his crackdown on leftist agitation and church leaders were infuriated by his Elementary Education bill of 1929, which sought to keep schools from being used to spread Greek or Turkish nationalist propaganda. By 1931 the movement for Enosis, the union of Cyprus with Greece, was especially active, and it provoked riots in October 1931, which led to the burning of his residence, Government House. British troops brought in from Egypt and Malta quickly restored order and the leaders of the Enosis agitation - including the bishops of Kition and Kyrenia - were expelled from the island. For Storrs it was still a great tragedy, for although he had been away during the crisis, it still destroyed his precious library and art collection.

As Governor of Northern Rhodesia from 1932 to 1934, Storrs was out of his element and clearly unhappy. One of his main tasks was to organise the transfer of the capital from Livingstone to Lusaka. Ill health led to his retirement from government service and return home, but not to the end of an active public life. He served on the London County Council for East Islington from 1937 to 1945, and was active on the Church of England Council on Foreign relations and many civic organisations. He also achieved considerable renown as a popular lecturer on literary subjects or his old friend Lawrence of Arabia. His gracefully written memoir, Orientations, reached a wide readership when it was published in 1937.

Storrs died in London in 1955, survived by his wife of thirty-two years, the former Louisa Lucy, but no children. In addition to the knighthood he had been awarded in 1924, he held a KCMG (1929), Italian and Greek decorations and an honorary Ll.D of Aberdeen and of Dublin.

Donald S Birn

1 T E Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (New York, 1926), p57.
2 "Storrs, Sir Ronald Henry Amherst," Dictionary of National Biography, 1951-1960, p931.
3 T E Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (New York, 1926), p67.
4 Ronald Storrs, Orientations (London, 1937), p110ff.
5 Albert M Hyamson, Palestine Under the Mandate (Westport, CT, 1950, 1976), p187.
6 Ronald Storrs, Orientations (London, 1937), p428.

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