The indelible image of Winston Churchill is that of a cigar-chomping curmudgeon glowering behind spectacles, features gnarled by years of war, worry and wine. But even Churchill was not always thus. There was a time when he was young soldier with a face round and full who had journeyed to the outer reaches of the British empire. There, in northwest India and Sudan at the turn of the 20th century, he came into contact with a religion his family feared would consume him.
In 1907, Lady Gwendoline Bertie, who would go on to marry Churchill’s brother, Jack, wrote the future prime minister an impassioned note. She was concerned with Churchill’s dalliance with what she called the “Orient.” “Please don’t become converted to Islam,” she wrote him in a note recently uncovered by a Cambridge historian and reported by the British press on Sunday. “I have noticed in your disposition a tendency to orientalize … If you come into contact with Islam, your conversion be effected with greater ease than you might have supposed, call of the blood, don’t you know what I mean, do fight against it.”
The letter casts a fresh light on one of the 20th century’s most prominent characters — a man who defended Britain’s right to rule large swaths of the Muslim world and took a prominent role in demarcating the borders that define and bedevil the Middle East today. Due in large part to the work of historian Warren Dockter, a more nuanced picture of Churchill’s early years has emerged, depicting a time when the future leader’s religious predilections were fluid.
He regularly played polo with Muslims, reported Dockter, who’s working on forthcoming book called “Winston Churchill and the Islamic World.” And Churchill, who at times even wished he was Muslim, once claimed in 1897 he wanted to fight for the Ottoman Empire.
In the same year his brother’s wife wrote him that letter, he penned one himself, lauding that empire. “You will think me a pasha,” Churchill wrote to British activist Constance Lytton, referencing an Ottoman Empire rank of distinction. “I wish I were.”
At that time, he was also in close contact with Wilfrid S. Blunt, a poet and fierce proponent of Muslim causes, and Dockter found they sometimes donned the dress of the Arab world together. “Blunt and Churchill met several times, at first to discuss young Winston’s impending biography of his father, but then simply as friends,” Dockter wrote in the Journal of Historical Biography. “On some occasions, they dressed in Arab clothing, a tradition Blunt and Churchill would carry on into the twilight of their friendship.”
Still, despite Churchill’s admiration for the Ottoman Empire’s history of territorial expansion and military acumen, Dockter contends Churchill’s family’s concerns were unfounded. “Churchill never seriously considered converting,” the historian told the Independent. “He was more or less an atheist by this time anyway. He did however have a fascination with Islamic culture which was common among Victorians.”
And what about the dress-up parties he and pal Blunt had? “Though he and Churchill were friends and dressed in Arabian dress at times for Blunt’s eccentric parties, they rarely agreed,” Dockter said.
For example, Churchill criticized Islam in his account of Sudan, “The River War.” “Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it,” Churchill observed. “No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith.”
Unencumbered by the “orientalist prejudices” that entrapped many of his contemporaries, Dockter wrote Churchill had a “nuanced understanding of the edges of the British Empire.” Though the map that he helped draw wasn’t perhaps the best representation of that understanding, conceded Dockter, who told the Telegraph those borders birthed “the Middle East we know, warts and all.”