In the last decade, following the examples of Linda Colley and John MacKenzie, a growing number of scholars have studied the development of English national identities, analyzing them through a variety of perspectives, including that of the context of British Empire. This study expands this same fundamental theme by addressing the topics of Islam, the harem, and British anti-slavery activities, ... [Show full abstract] especially in Egypt. Diane Robinson-Dunn's redefinitions of "British" and "English" are an integral part of her analysis. She uses the first term to signify the British Empire, its administration, the individuals employed by the government, and the subjects of Queen Victoria throughout the world. By the second term, she means a national and cultural identity that is distinct from Great Britain and the rest of the Empire but still depends on imperialism for self-identification.
Readers interested in English national identity, Egyptian history, and imperial history will find the chapters "From Desert Caravans to Red Seacoasts: The British Anti-Slavery Campaign in Egypt," "Networks of Support: English Activism and Slavery Redefined," and "Islam in England" extremely interesting. Robinson-Dunn's analyses in these chapters of British anti-slavery activities in Egypt and neighboring areas sheds new light on late-nineteenth-century Anglo-Egyptian and Anglo-Turkish relationships.
Most slaves transported to Egypt and surrounding areas were women who were sent to harems. Both Egyptian and Turkish steamers were used for the transportation of slaves; while British officials could stop and search the Egyptian steamers, they did not have the authority to stop the Ottoman steamers. After British officials eliminated the public slave market, the slave trade occurred mostly in harems or in domestic quarters, areas that British officials could not enter to prohibit the transactions. They thus blamed their inability to stop the slave trade on the harem system and the veiling of Muslim women. British officials justified their presence in the area—including their occasional attacks on and destruction of villages—on their goal of disrupting the slave trade and ultimately abolishing the slavery system. Robinson-Dunn points out that it became necessary for British officials interested in abolishing the slavery system to interfere in the private lives of Muslim families, in which wives could become slaves and slaves could become wives. This British attitude had a widespread impact on the lives of Muslims in places beyond Egypt, including India. The British officials wanted to reform or civilize Muslim society by reconstructing the society according to their English model.
The British authorities freed the female slaves. But they did not give these slaves full independence; instead, believing that freed slaves would have no means of supporting themselves other than prostitution, they sent the women back to the same people who had sold them into slavery. The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) also established the Cairo Home for freed slaves, where they learned to be domestic servants—an appropriate feminine role within the context of English national identity. Thus, in their dealings with Muslim slave women in Egypt and surrounding areas, British officials recreated Western forms of patriarchy. In the process, they redefined English national identity in gendered and imperial terms.
The activities of the BFASS helped British officials abolish slavery in Egypt and in neighboring areas. Because the Qur'an sanctioned slavery and religious authorities in Egypt considered slavery as legitimate, British officials and the members of the BFASS believed that Islam was the root cause of slavery. The BFASS, which raised funds from private individuals in England, began to claim that the Islamic world was evil and should be eliminated. In the process they constructed an English national identity that was liberal and opposed to slavery, a depiction of British society that found favor within the contemporary Westernized Muslim authorities in Egypt. BFASS members readily regarded Egyptians as inferiors because of Egyptians' tolerance for interracial unions.
Chapter 5, in which Robinson-Dunn recounts the history of Muslim communities in England as early as the late eighteenth century, is one of the book's most interesting sections because it addresses the misconception that Muslims are recent arrivals in England. Most Muslims in England during the eighteenth century came from the Indian subcontinent as Laskars...