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Frances Power Cobbe, Race,
And Religion in Mid-19th Century Egypt

Sandra J. Peacock, Georgia Southern University


Frances Power Cobbe is best known to historians for her writings on social reform, but she also published a series of travel essays based on her extended journey through the Mediterranean area in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Her two essays on Egypt, published in the 1860s, reveal a complex relation among Cobbe's views on race, religion, and imperialism. In her travel writings (and others), Cobbe frequently exalted the "Anglo-Saxon race" as superior to all others (especially Celts), and often spoke condescendingly of the non-Anglo-Saxons she encountered in her travels. Yet she could also praise them in matters where they demonstrated, according to her standards, qualities superior to those of her fellow Anglo-Saxons. The contradictory attitudes she expressed toward Egyptians are the focus of this paper.

Cobbe's construction of "race" and her attitudes toward imperialism were informed by her religious convictions, which were not those of most Britons. She was a devout Theist, a faith born of American Transcendentalism which denied the divinity of Jesus and was thus fundamentally at odds with conventional Christianity. Theism placed great value on reason as the means of intuiting God's existence, so Cobbe privileged a "race's" capacity for reason over many other characteristics. Theism also stressed the importance of both piety and fulfilling the obligations of the moral law. As a result, Cobbe also responded favorably to monotheistic religions with strong moral codes. Her Theism was the cornerstone of all her other ideas, and she had an abiding interest in comparative religion as a means to undermine conventional Christianity.

In this paper, I will examine Cobbe's essays on Egypt, "The City of Victory" and "A Lady's Adventure in the Great Pyramid." Both are replete with commentary that tell a great deal about Cobbe's attitude toward Egyptians, Islam, and British imperialism. She described Egyptians alternately as duplicitious manipulators out to extort baksheesh from European tourists and as a people of great innate dignity and nobility, depending on the context. When she had to deal directly with them, she generally found them unappealing, but when she simply observed them, she usually expressed more positive opinions. I will examine this ambivalence through the lens of her Theism and its influence on her view of Islam and Egyptians. Cobbe tended to equate a people with their religion, and though she frankly dismissed Islam as derivative, she praised the genuine religious feeling she observed among the Egyptians and contrasted it favorably with the formalized, empty Anglicanism of her countrymen and women. While she frequently expressed derogatory opinions of non-Europeans, she sometimes employed their "virtues" as a means of criticizing faults in Europeans themselves. Her essays on Egypt offer lively glimpses of Egypt and the Egyptians in the mid-19th century.

Read more about Frances Power Cobbe.