Salisbury, Robert Arthur James Gascoyne-Cecil, Marquess of


Salisbury, Robert Arthur James Gascoyne-Cecil, Marquess of
(1830–1903)
   Salisbury was three times Conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom, most notably during the Second Boer War of 1899–1902. Salisbury was elected as Lord Robert Cecil to Parliament as a Tory in 1853 and also made a name for himself as a trenchant if polemical journalist and reviewer. He was briefly secretary of state for India in the Tory government of 1866 but resigned in opposition to Benjamin Disraeli ’s 1867 reform bill, which he thought too democratic. He became Indian secretary again in Disraeli’s 1874 government and was promoted foreign secretary in 1878. In the latter post, he played a prominent role in the Berlin Conference of 1878, which temporarily settled a complicated series of Balkan problems occasioned by the decline of the Turkish Empire, while avoiding a wider war between the great powers. Although Salisbury was at the Foreign Office during the Second Afghan War of 1878–1881, and the Zulu War of 1879, both of those campaigns had been instigated by local officials acting under the authority of the Colonial Office, and he deplored the tendency of ambitious or impatient local proconsuls - the “man on the spot” in the famous Victorian phrase - to push the frontiers of empire forward at the cost of repeated wars. Although no anti-imperialist, Salisbury was as skeptical of imperialist enthusiasm as he was of other kinds, and for all his profound conservatism, he was no kind of militarist.
   Salisbury served as a minority prime minster from June 1885 to January 1886. After the split of the Liberal Party over William Gladstone ’s Irish Home Rule project in 1886, he had a solid majority from 1886 to 1892. The Tories and their allies again did well in the election of 1895, and once more in the so-called Khaki election of 1900, during the Boer War. Salisbury served as his own foreign secretary for 11 of his 14 years as prime minister. Foreign policy was his chief intellectual and political interest, and he viewed the Empire as a tool of British policy rather than the reverse. Although the period saw a great deal of popular and political pressure for imperial expansion, especially in east and west Africa, Salisbury’s priority was the smooth management of relations with the other great powers, chiefly France and Germany, rather than the expansion of British rule in Africa or anywhere else. In Salisbury’s view, Britain’s highest interest was peace, and to that interest he subordinated most others.
   The years of Salisbury’s last two governments, from 1895 on, saw repeated imperial crises as the major powers jockeyed for position in the remaining unclaimed areas of the world. The defeat of the Jameson Raid on the Transvaal in December 1895 provoked the kaiser’s congratulatory telegram to Transvaal President Paul Kruger, which embittered Anglo-German relations. Although Salisbury appears to have been unaware of preparations for the raid, his Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain did have prior knowledge that Jameson’s force was preparing to intervene. The freelance invasion also embittered relations with the Boer republics, leading to war four years later, contrary to Salisbury’s hopes that Boer resistance to incorporation into a British South Africa would collapse of its own accord.
   The Italian defeat at Adowa in east Africa in 1897 prompted Salisbury’s government to send an expedition under General Kitchener south into the Sudan, against the Islamist government of that country, headed by the son of General Charles Gordon ’s old enemy the Mahdi. Victory at Omdurman in September 1898 led to a further advance up the Nile to Fashoda, provoking the famous collision with Captain Marchand’s small French force, which had marched overland from French West Africa. The Fashoda Crisis was resolved by a French retreat in November 1898. In the meantime, crises over imperial and trade advantages in China erupted between Germany, Russia, and Britain, China being famously described by Salisbury in the vaguely Darwinist argot of the time as a “dying nation.” Salisbury was able to avoid the threat of major war over China, and cooperated with the other western powers in putting down the Boxer Insurrection of 1900.
   Salisbury’s government made good relations with the United States a priority, notwithstanding Salisbury’s Tory antipathy to that country. He agreed in 1897 to an arbitrated settlement of disputes with the United States concerning the border between Venezuela and British Guyana and signed the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1901, by Salisbury, Robert Arthur James Gascoyne-Cecil, Marquess of 629 which Britain dropped its objections to the American project for a Panamanian canal. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, Salisbury worked to keep the other European powers neutral, a policy that was effectively pro-American. Salisbury’s government also made significant concessions on the Canadian-Alaskan border.
   But the greatest crisis of the period was in South Africa between the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and the British authorities, who demanded political rights for the British miners attracted by the Transvaal’s gold. The Boers resolved to preserve their political independence; the British, led by Salisbury’s proconsul Sir Alfred Milner, were determined to force the two republics into a united, British-dominated South Africa. War broke out in October 1899. Although the British were eventually successful at subduing the Boers after two years of guerrilla war, characterized by scorched earth and concentration camps, the war became the most costly purely imperial war ever fought by the empire. The Peace of Vereeniging, by which the Boer forces laid down their arms on May 31, 1902, specified that South African self-government would precede any consideration of the native franchise, thereby laying the groundwork for South Africa’s twentiethcentury history of racial government.
   In domestic politics, Salisbury, who began as an opponent of reform, became the emblematic leader of the middle-class Tory party of “villa Conservatism,” the Primrose League, and the Liberal Unionist alliance. Salisbury solidified the reputation of the Tories, first invented by Disraeli, as the party of imperial and unionist patriotism, although he was himself no imperial enthusiast. Salisbury’s skillful diplomacy guarded British interests while avoiding collision with any of the great powers; it is nevertheless the case that the blunders that led to the Boer war must remain a significant blot on the escutcheon of a prime minister whose forte - in his own mind above all - was foreign policy. Salisbury retired in July 1902 and died at his seat of Hatfield on August 22, 1903.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Cecil, Lady Gwendolyn. The Life of Robert, Marquis of Salisbury. 4 vols. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1932;
    Kennedy, A. L. Salisbury, 1830–1903. London: J. Murray, 1953;
    Lowe, C. J. Salisbury and the Mediterranean, 1886–1896. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1965;
    Roberts, Andrew. Salisbury: Victorian Titan. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999.
   MARK F. PROUDMAN

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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