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Sir Bartle Frere, 1815-1884

D.P. O'Connor, MA

D.P. O'Connor has kindly shared this document from his website with readers of the Victorian Web. This document has been copied from its primary location on The Victorian Web.

Henry Bartle Edward Frere was one of the leading "Indian" statesmen of the Victorian age. he spent most of his career in India and rose to become the legendary Governor of Bombay during the 1860s. Convinced that India was a civilisation that was only temporarily in disarray, he believed that it was Britain's duty to rule it for the benefit of Indians until such time as Indians could rule themselves. To this end he promoted economic development - the modern cities of Bombay and Karachi owe their existence to him - education and worked to preserve the religion and heritage of India against those who wished to see the subcontinent Christianised and Anglicised. This highly constructive and successful career led him to be appointed as High Commissioner for South Africa in 1877, a post in which he would be disgraced for his part in starting the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879.

Frere was one of the leading thinkers on the issue of defending the British Empire from the threats posed by the emerging Great Powers of France, Russia, Germany and the USA. In particular he was concerned about the threats to the ports of the Empire posed by naval forces - he considered Cape Town to be "utterly defenceless" - and his fears about a potential Russian attack on South Africa during the tense days of the 1878 Balkan Crisis was one of the chief reasons for his decision to make a pre-empitive strike on the Zulus. Frere was also one of the main contributors to the Carnarvon Comission on Imperial Defence (1878-82).

Frere was also a leading opponent of slavery, and in 1873 abolished the trade in Zanzibar by the simple expedient of blockading it with gunboats until the Sultan gave in to his demands. However successful this action, it was to earn him the enmity of W.E. Gladstone whom he had upstaged somewhat. Frere and Gladstone loathed each other from then on, and while Frere pilloried Gladstone in print, Gladstone got his revenge when he became Prime Minister in 1880. Frere was publicly humiliated and then sacked without being given a chance to defend himself.

Suggested Readings

Martineau, J. The Life and Correspondence of the Rt. Hon. Sir Bartle Frere. London, 1895.

O'Connor, Damian. The Zulu and the Raj: The Life and Times of Sir Bartle Frere, 1815-1884. Able Publications, London 2002.

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