While I was researching Valentine Baker’s attack on Rebecca Dickinson, I also came across his obituary. Several obituaries in fact, and all quite hagiographic.
Most dealt with his attack on Miss Dickinson by ignoring it as much as possible – ‘a single moment of madness’ etc.
The world had moved on and Baker, whom everyone agreed was more than competent as a military organiser had been doing the British empire’s bidding, first in Turkey, which then of course was still the Ottoman Empire and still included northern Greece, Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia as well as bordering on the Caucasus and Iran, and then in Egypt.
It also probably didn’t harm Baker’s gradual rehabilitation that he was friends with Fred Burnaby, who was a favourite of Queen Victoria, and the British Empire’s pin up for pluck and derring do.
But why Turkey?
In 1877 shortly after Baker’s release, Turkey lost a war with Russia. Badly.
Baker had been found a job with the Turkish army, and distinguished himself by turning a rout into something resembling an orderly withdrawal. Incidentally, Burnaby was there as well, allegedly on behalf of a British aid organisation.
Since the Crimean war, Britain had been absolutely paranoid about Russian expansion – not just in central Asia towards Afghanistan and India, but in both south eastern Europe and in Iran. The British nightmare at the time was the Russians taking Constantinople and having direct access to the Mediterranean from Bosphorous.
In the Russo Turkish war, Russian troops go as far as San Stefano, which now Yeşilköy, on the outskirts of Istanbul – to give a sense of perspective as to how close they were to the heart of Constantinople, Yeşilköy is the site of Ataturk International Airport.
At the same time Turkey lost several northern provinces, including Kars province.
In short the British desperately needed to prop up the Ottoman forces and modernise them in case there was another war, and Baker, with his organisational skills was the man for the job.
Later on Baker moved to Egypt to head the Egyptian gendarmarie, which was intended to be something rather like the Turkish Jendarma rather than a neighbourhood police force.
Again history explains all.
By 1879 Egypt was only nominally part of the Ottoman Empire. The Head of Government, the Khedive, ruled Egypt as if it was an independent state.
The Khedive Ismail had run up vast debts building railways and developing the country. Egypt was broke.
Britain and France, the two principal creditors, deposed Ismail, installed his son Tewfik as a puppet ruler and a hand picked government to impose austerity and try and claw back some of Ismail’s debts.
Needless to say, the Egyptians didn’t like the government imposed on them, disaffection spread in the army and eventually there was a full scale rebellion under Urabi Pasha.
The British were terrified that Urabi would seize control of the strategically important Suez canal that was Britain’s link with its empire in India, and renege on its debts.
An army was sent to prop up Tewfik and crush Urabi’s rebellion, which they did, shelling Alexandria in the process.
Afterwards, someone was needed to rebuild and reorganise the army and the gendarmerie to ensure order in the countryside.
Baker got the gendarmarie.
Originally it had been suggested that he should command the new British officered army, but apparently Queen Victoria disapproved of him commanding British officers.
It’s probably no coincidence that the next time we hear of Baker and Burnaby together it’s in a clash with the Mahdi’s forces in the north of the Sudan on the Red Sea coast where the gendarmarie broke and ran in front of the Mahdi’s warriors.
Britain probably didn’t care desperately about the Sudan, but it did care about the security of the passage through the Red Sea.
Burnaby was to die a few weeks later in a firefight with the Mahdi’s forces.
Baker had in the meantime been wounded in the face, after a British counterattack, and later died of malaria while convalescing in Cairo.