(Republic of Letters: Dordrecht, 2011) ISBN 9789089790569, pp. 269 incl. index
This is the first book of a very promising young historian. Laurence Guymer, who is head of the Department of History at Winchester College and a research associate in the School of History at the University of East Anglia, has produced a biography of Sir Henry Bulwer that successfully challenges the conventional account of this colourful mid-Victorian figure. It also raises the question of how ‘diplomatic success’ is judged.
Bulwer was the British ambassador at Constantinople who immediately followed at that post the most famous British diplomat of the period, Lord Stratford de Redcliffe (formerly Stratford Canning). Partly because Stratford was in some respects a hard act to follow, partly because Bulwer was wrongly judged in Britain to be ‘pro-Ottoman’, and partly because he could not resist advertising his extravagance and philandering, pressure for his recall had been mounting for some years before he was finally forced to surrender his position in 1865. But emphasis on pulling off ‘diplomatic triumphs’ or achieving ‘influence’ with the government to which an ambassador is accredited, both of which were characteristic tests of the successful tenure of a post in the nineteenth century and both of which Bulwer is usually thought to have failed, is misplaced. This is because influence might be used too heavy-handedly and before long prove counter-productive, while eye-catching displays of diplomatic virtuosity might not be required if the conflicts requiring them are not allowed to mature – if, in other words, they are quietly nipped in the bud. In fact, the only important test of ambassadorial success is the obvious one: the extent to and price at which they secure the objectives of their governments’ policies, taking into account the obstacles they face. And on this test, as Guymer convincingly argues, Bulwer passed well – if not with flying colours because neither his cogently argued opposition to the capitulations nor active support for the British ‘concession-hunters’ who fell on the Ottoman Empire after the Crimean War chimed with thinking at home (he was in both regards ahead of his time), while his too-public private life caused embarrassment. Nevertheless, an experienced and shrewd diplomat, Bulwer followed the main theme of his instructions, which was to keep things quiet in the Ottoman Empire with a view to prolonging its life and keeping great power relations (not least with the French) on an even keel. He achieved these results despite confronting difficulties not experienced by his illustrious predecessor, particularly the much reduced need of the sultan’s government for British support against Russia following the czar’s defeat in the Crimean War.
Guymer’s biography of Sir Henry Bulwer is properly detached, analytically sophisticated and exhaustively researched. I recommend it most warmly.