Biography of Robert Morier

Sir Robert Morier
Sir Robert Morier

Diplomatist. Diplomacy as a profession is a product of modern history. As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages, the dividing walls between State and State were broken down, and Governments found it necessary to have trained agents resident at foreign courts to conduct the questions of growing importance which arose between them. Churchmen were at first best qualified to undertake such duties, and Nicholas Wotton, Dean of Canterbury, who enjoyed the confidence of four Tudor sovereigns, came to be as much at home in France or in the Netherlands as he was in his own Deanery. It was his great nephew Sir Henry (who began his days as a scholar at Winchester, and ended them as Provost at Eton) who did his profession a notable disservice by indulging his humor at Augsburg when acting as envoy for James I, defining the diplomatist as ‘one who was sent to lie abroad for his country’. Since then many a politician and writer has let fly his shafts at diplomacy, and fervent democrats have come to regard diplomats as veritable children of the devil. But this prejudice is chiefly due to ignorance, and can easily be cured by a patient study of history. In the nineteenth century, in particular, English diplomacy can point to a noble roll of ambassadors, who worked for European peace as well as for the triumph of liberal causes, and none has a higher claim to such praise than Sir Robert Morier, the subject of this sketch.

The traditions of his family marked out his path in life. We can trace their origin to connexions in the Consular service at Smyrna, where Isaac Morier met and married Clara van Lennep in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Swiss grandfather and Dutch grandmother became naturalized subjects of the British Crown and brought up four sons to win distinction in its service. Of these the third, David, married a daughter of Robert Burnet Jones-a descendant of the famous Bishop Burnet, and himself a servant of the Crown-and held important diplomatic appointments for over thirty years at Paris and Berne. So it was that his only son Robert David Burnet Morier was born in France, spent much of his childhood in Switzerland, and acquired early in life a remarkable facility in speaking foreign languages. To his schooling in England he seems to have owed little of positive value. His father and uncles had been sent to Harrow; but perhaps it was as well that the son did not, in this, follow in his father’s footsteps. However much he neglected his studies with two easy-going tutors, he preserved his freshness and originality and ran no danger of being drilled into a type. If he had as a boy undue self-confidence, no one was better fitted to correct it than his mother, a woman of wide sympathies and strong intellectual force. The letters, which passed between them, display, on his part, mature powers of expression at an early age, and show the generous, affectionate nature of both; and till her death in 1855 she remained his chief confidante and counselor. In trying to matriculate at Balliol College he met with a momentary check, due to the casual nature of his education; but, after retrieving this, he rapidly made good his deficiency in Greek and Latin, and ended by taking a creditable degree. His time at Oxford, apart from reading, was well spent. He made special friends with two of the younger dons: Temple, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, and Jowett, the future Master of Balliol. The former was carried by rugged force and sheer ability to the highest position in the Church; the latter won a peculiar place, in Oxford and in the world outside, by his gifts of judging character and stimulating intellectual interest. Morier became his favorite pupil and lifelong friend. F. T. Palgrave, the friend of both, tells us how ‘Morier went up to Balliol a lax and imperfectly educated fellow; but Jowett, seeing his great natural capacity, took him in the Long Vacation of 1848 and practically “converted” him to the doctrine of work. This was the turning-point in Morier’s life.’ Together the two friends spent many a holiday in Germany, Scotland, and elsewhere, and must have presented a strange contrast to one another: Jowett, small, frail, quiet and precise in manner, Morier big in every way, exuberant and full of vitality. It was with Jowett and Stanley (afterwards Dean of Westminster) that Morier went to Paris in 1848, eager to study the Revolutionary spirit in its most lively manifestations. Stanley describes him as ‘a Balliol undergraduate of gigantic size, who speaks French better than English, is to wear a blouse, and to go about disguised to the clubs’.

He took his degree in November 1849, and a month later he was visiting Dresden and Berlin, making German friends and initiating himself in German politics and German ways of thought. Though his British patriotism was fervid and sustained, he was capable of understanding men of other nations and recognizing their merits; and in knowledge of Germany he acquired a position among Englishmen of his day rivalled only by Odo Russell, afterwards Ambassador at Berlin. Morier’s father had for many years represented Great Britain in Switzerland and could guide him both by precept and by example. Free intercourse with the most liberal minds in Oxford had developed the lessons, which he had learnt at home. But his own energy and application effected more than anything. He was not satisfied till he had mastered a problem; and books, places, and people were laid under contribution unsparingly. He started on his tour carrying letters of introduction to some of the famous men in Germany, including the great traveler and scientist, Alexander von Humboldt. Of a younger generation was the philologist Max Müller, who was a frequent companion of Morier in Berlin, and gave up his time to nursing him back to health when he was taken ill with quinsy. He found friends in all professions, but chiefly among politicians. A typical instance is von Roggenbach, who rose to be Premier of Baden in the years 1861 to 1865, when the destinies of Germany were in the melting-pot. Baden was in some ways the leading state in South Germany at that time, combining liberal ideals with a fervent advocacy of national union, and the views of Roggenbach on political questions attracted Morier’s warmest sympathy. Another state in which Morier felt genuinely at home was the Duchy of Coburg, from which Prince Albert had come to wed our own Queen Victoria. The Prince’s brother, the reigning Duke, treated Morier as a personal friend; and here, too, he found Baron Stockmar, a Nestor among German Liberals, who had spent his political life in trying to promote goodwill between England and Germany. He received Morier into his family circle and adopted him as the heir to his policy. This intimacy led to further results; and, thanks in part to Morier’s subsequent friendship with the Crown Prince and Princess of Prussia, generous ideals and a liberal spirit were to be found surviving in a few places even after 1870, though Bismarck had poisoned the minds of a whole generation by the material successes which he achieved.

In 1849 the doors of the Foreign Office were closed to Morier. The Secretary of State, Lord Palmerston, had treated his father unfairly, as he thought, some years before, and Morier would ask no favors of him. He continued his education, keeping in close touch with Jowett and Temple, and, when he saw a chance of studying politics at first hand, he eagerly availed himself of it. The troubles of Schleswig-Holstein, too intricate to be explained briefly, had been brewing for some time. In 1850, the dispute, to which Prussia, Denmark, and the German Diet were all parties, came to a head. The Duchies were overrun by Prussian troops, while the Danish Navy held the sea. Morier rushed off to see for himself what was happening, and spent some interesting days at Kiel, talking to those who could instruct him, and forming his own judgment. This was adverse to the wisdom of the Copenhagen Radicals, who were trying to assert by force their supremacy over a German population. In the circumstances, as Prussia gave way to the wishes of other powers, no satisfactory decision could be reached; but ten years later the issue was in the ruthless hands of Bismarck, and was settled by ‘blood and iron’.

In 1850 Morier accepted a clerkship in the Education Office at £120 a year. The work was not to his taste, but at least it was public service, and he saw no hope of employment in the Foreign Office. He found some distractions in London society. He kept up relations with his old friends, and he took a leading part in establishing the Cosmopolitan Club, which later met in Watts’s studio, but began its existence in Morier’s own rooms. He enjoyed greatly a meeting with Tennyson and Browning, and wrote with enthusiasm of the former to his father, as ‘one who gave men an insight into the real Hero-world, as one from whom he could catch reflected something of the Divine’. But Morier’s spirits were mercurial, and between moments of elation he was apt to fall into fits of melancholy, when he could find no outlet for his energies. Waiting for his true profession tried him sorely, and he was even resigning himself to the prospect of a visit to Australia as a professional journalist, when fortune at last smiled upon him. Palmerston retired from the Foreign Office, and when Clarendon succeeded him, Morier’s name was placed on the list of candidates for an attachéship. At Easter 1853 he started for another visit to the Continent, full of hope and more than ever determined to qualify himself for the profession which he loved.

He was rewarded for his zeal a few weeks later, when he paid a visit to Vienna, won the favour of the Ambassador, Lord Westmorland, and was commended to the Foreign Office. At the age of twenty-seven he was appointed to serve Her Majesty as unpaid attaché, having already acquired a knowledge of European politics which many men of sixty would have envied. In figure he was tall, with a tendency already manifested to put on flesh, good-looking, genial and sympathetic in manner, a bon vivant, passionately fond of dancing and society, an excellent talker or listener as the occasion demanded. His intelligence was quick, his powers of handling details and of grasping broad principles were alike remarkable. He wrote with ease, clearness, and precision; he knew what hard work meant and revelled in it. Unfortunately he was subject already to rheumatic gout, which was to make him acquainted with many watering places, and was to handicap him gravely in later life. But at present nothing could check his ardor in his profession, and during his five years at Vienna he took every chance of studying foreign lands and of making acquaintance with the chief figures in the diplomatic world. He enjoyed talks with Baron Jellaçiç, who had saved the monarchy in 1848, and with Prince Metternich, whose political career ended in that year of revolutions and who was now only a figure in society. After the Crimean War Morier obtained permission to make a tour through South-east Hungary and to study for himself the mixture of Slavonic, Magyar, and Teutonic races inhabiting that district. He followed this up by another tour of three months, which carried him from Agram southwards into Bosnia and Herzegovina, having prepared for it by working ten to twelve hours a day for some weeks at the language of the southern Slavs. Incidentally he enjoyed some hunting expeditions with Turkish pashas, and obtained some insight into the weakness of the British consular system. All his life he believed strongly in the value of such tours to obtain first-hand information; and thirty years later, as Ambassador, he encouraged his secretaries to familiarize themselves with the outlying districts of the Russian empire.

In 1858, at the age of thirty-two, Morier passed from Vienna to Berlin. It was the year in which the Princess Royal, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria, married the Crown Prince of Prussia. Her father, the Prince Consort, was very anxious that Morier should be at hand to advise the young couple, and the appointment to Berlin was his work. Then it was that Morier became involved in the struggle between Bismarck and the Liberal influences in Germany, which had no stronger rallying-point than the Coburg Court. This conflict only showed itself later, and at first the young English attaché must have seemed a sufficiently unimportant person; but before 1862 Bismarck, coming home to Berlin from the St. Petersburg Embassy, and discerning the nature of Morier’s character, had declared that it was desirable to remove such an influence from the path of his party, who were determined to bring Liberal Germany under the yoke of a Prussia which had no sympathy for democratic ideals.

For the moment the ship of State was hanging in the wind; light currents of air were perceptible; sails were filling in one parliamentary boat or another; but the chief movement was to be seen not in parliamentary circles but in the excellent civil service, which preserved that honesty and efficiency which it had acquired in the days of Stein. There were marked tendencies towards Liberalism and towards unification in different parts of Germany; and, if the Liberal party could have produced one man of firmness and decision, these forces might have triumphed over the reactionary Prussian clique. In this conflict Morier was bound to be a passionate sympathizer with the parties, which included so many of his personal friends and which advocated principles so dear to his heart. With the triumph of his friends, too, were associated the prospects of a good understanding between England and Germany, for which Morier himself was laboring; and he was accused of having meddled indiscreetly with local politics. When King William broke with the Liberals over the Army Bill, caution was doubly necessary. Bismarck became Minister in 1862, and, great man though he was, he was capable of any pettiness when he had once declared war on an opponent. From that time the policy of working for an Anglo-Prussian entente was a losing game, not only because Bismarck detested the parliamentarism which he associated with England, but also because, on our side too, extremists were stirring up ill-feeling. In his letters Morier makes frequent reference to the ‘John Bullishness’ of The Times. When this journal, to which European importance attached during the editorship of Delane, was not openly flouting Prussia, it was displaying reckless ignorance of a people who were making the most solid contributions to learning and raising themselves by steady industry from the losses due to centuries of Continental warfare.

From time to time he paid visits to friends at Dresden, at Baden, and elsewhere. One year he was sent to Naples on a special mission, another year he was summoned to attend on Queen Victoria, who was visiting Coburg. In 1859 he is lamenting the monotony of existence at Berlin, which he calls ‘a Dutch mud canal of a life, without even the tulip beds on the banks’. But when later in that year Lord John Russell, who knew and appreciated his talents, became Foreign Secretary and called on him for frequent reports on important subjects, Morier found solace in work. He was only too willing to put his wide knowledge of the country in which he was serving at the disposal of his superiors at home. He wrote with equal ability on political, agrarian, and financial subjects. That he could take into account the personal factor is shown by the long letter which he wrote in 1861 to Sir Henry Layard, then Political Under-Secretary of State. It contained a masterly analysis of the character and upbringing of King William, showing how his intellectual narrowness had hampered Liberal Governments, while his professional training in the army had made him a most efficient instrument in promoting the aims of Junker politicians and ministers of war.

On Schleswig-Holstein, above all, Morier exerted himself to convey a right view of the question to those who guided opinion in London, whether newspaper editors or responsible ministers. He appealed to the same principle, which had won support for the Lombards against Austria. The inhabitants of the disputed Duchies were for the most part Germans, and the Danish Government had done violence to their national sentiment. If England could have extended its sympathy to its northern kinsmen in time, the question might have been settled peacefully before 1862, and Bismarck could never have availed himself of such a lever to overthrow his Liberal opponents. As it was, Prussia ignored the Danish sympathies displayed abroad, especially in the English press, went her own way and invaded the Duchies, dragging in her train Austria, her confederate and her dupe. Palmerston, who controlled our foreign policy at the time, waited till the last moment, blustered, found himself impotent to move without French support, and left Denmark smarting with a sense of betrayal, which lasted till 1914. By such bungling Morier knew that we were incurring enmity on both sides and lowering our reputation for courage as well as for statesmanship.

In 1865 he was chosen as one of the Special Commissioners to negotiate a treaty of commerce between Great Britain and Austria. He had always been a Free-trader, and he was convinced that such economic agreements could do much to improve the world and to strengthen the bonds of peace. So he was ready and willing to do hard work in this sphere, and finding a congenial colleague in Sir Louis Mallet, one of the best economists of the day, he spent some months at Vienna in fruitful activity and won the good opinion of all associated with him. For his services he received the C.B. and high commendation from London.

This same year brought promotion in rank, though for long it was uncertain where he would go. In August he accepted the offer of First Secretary to the Legation in Japan, most reluctantly, because he saw his peculiar knowledge of Germany would be wasted there. Ten days later this offer was changed for a similar position at the Court of Greece, which was equally uncongenial; but at the end of the year the Foreign Office decided that he would be most useful in the field which he had chosen for himself, and after a few months at Frankfort he was sent in the year 1866 as chargé d’affaires to the Grand Ducal Court of Hesse-Darmstadt.

From these posts he was destined to be a spectator of the two great conflicts by which Bismarck established the union of North Germany and its primacy in Europe. Morier detested the means by which this end was achieved, but he had consistently maintained that this union ought to be, and could only be, achieved by Prussia, and he remained true to his beliefs. It is a great tribute to his intellectual force that he was able to control his personal sympathies and antipathies, and to judge passing events with reference to the past and the future. He had liked the statesmen whom he had met at Vienna, and he recognized their good faith in the difficult negotiations of 1865. But for the good of Europe, he thought the Austrian Government should now look eastwards. It could not do double work at Vienna and at Frankfort. The impotence of the Frankfort Diet could be cured only by the North Germans, and the aspirations of good patriots, from Baden to the Baltic, had been for long directed towards Prussia. But it was no easy task to make people in England realize the justice of this view or the certainty that Prussia was strong enough to carry through the work. Led by The Times, the British Press had grown accustomed to use a contemptuous tone towards Prussia; and when in the decisive hour this could no longer be maintained, and British sentiment, as is its nature, declared for Austria as the beaten side, this sentiment was attributed at Berlin to the basest envy. Relations between the two peoples steadily grew worse during these years, despite the efforts of Morier and other friends of peace.

The Franco-German war brought even greater bitterness between Prussia and Great Britain. The neutrality, which the latter power observed, was misunderstood in both camps; and the position of a British diplomat abroad became really unpleasant. Morier in particular, as a marked man, knew that he was subject to spying and misrepresentation, but this did not deter him from doing his duty and more than his duty. He took measures to safeguard those dependent on him, in case Hesse came into the theatre of war. He organized medical aid for the wounded on both sides. He took a journey in September into Alsace and Lorraine to ascertain the feeling of the inhabitants, that he might give the best possible advice to his Government if the cession of these districts became a European question. He came to the conclusion that Alsace was not a homogeneous unit-that language, religion, and sentiment varied in different districts, and that it was desirable to work for a compromise. But Bismarck was determined in 1870, as in 1866, that the settlement should remain in his own hands and that no European congress should spoil his plans. Morier found that he was being talked of at Berlin as ‘the enemy of Prussia’, and atrocious calumnies were circulated. One of these was revived some years later when Bismarck wished to discredit him, and Bismarckian journals accused him of having betrayed to Marshal Bazaine military secrets, which he discovered in Hesse. Morier obtained from the Marshal a letter, which clearly refuted the charge, and he gave it the widest publicity. The plot recoiled on its author, and Morier was spoken of in France as ‘le grand ambassadeur qui a roulé Bismarck’. Yet all the while, with his wife a strong partisan of France, with six cousins fighting in the French Army, with his friends in England only too ready to quarrel with him for his supposed pro-German sentiments, he was appealing for fair judgment, for reason, for a wise policy which should soften the bitterness of the settlement between victors and vanquished. Facts must be recognized, he pleaded, and the French claim for peculiar consideration and their traditional amour propre must not be allowed to prolong the miseries of war. At the same time Morier did not close his eyes to the danger arising from the overwhelming victories of the German armies. No one saw more clearly the deterioration, which was taking place in German character, or depicted it in more trenchant terms. But it was his business to work for the future and not to let sentiment bring fresh disasters upon Europe.

Apart from this critical period, life at Darmstadt bored him considerably. His presence there was valued highly by Queen Victoria, one of whose daughters had married the Grand Duke; but Morier felt himself to be in a backwater, far from the main stream of European politics, and society there was dull. So he welcomed in 1871 his transference first to Stuttgart, and a few months later to Munich, the capital of the second state in the new Empire and a great centre of literary culture. Here lived Dr. Döllinger, historian and divine, a man suspected at Rome for his liberal Catholicism even before his definite severance from the Roman Church, but honoured everywhere else for the width and depth of his knowledge. With him Morier enjoyed many conversations on Church councils and other subjects which interested them both; and in 1874, lured by the prospect of such society, Gladstone paid him a visit of ten days. Morier did not admire Gladstone’s conduct of foreign policy, but he was open-minded enough to recognize his great gifts and to enjoy his company, and he writes home with enthusiasm about his conversational powers. A still more welcome visitor in 1873 was Jowett, his old Oxford friend, who never lost his place in Morier’s affections.

Among these delights he retained his vigilance in political matters, and there was often need for it, since the German Government was now developing that habit of ‘rattling its sword’, and threatening its neighbors with war, which disquieted Europe for another forty years. The worst crisis came in 1875, when Morier heard on good authority that the military clique at Berlin were gaining ground, and seemed likely to persuade the Emperor William to force on a second war, expressly to prevent France recovering its strength. In general the credit for checking this sinister move is given to the Tsar; but English influences played a large part in the matter. Morier managed to catch the Crown Prince on his way south to Italy and had a long talk with him in the railway train. The Crown Prince was known to be a true lover of peace, but capable of being hoodwinked by Bismarck; once convinced that the danger was real (and he trusted Morier as he trusted no German in his entourage), he returned to Berlin and threw all his weight into the scale of peace. Queen Victoria also wrote from London; and, in face of a possible coalition against them, the Germans decided that it was wisest to abstain from all aggression.

A new period opened in his life when he left German courts, never to return officially, and became the responsible head of Her Majesty’s Legation at the Portuguese Court. His five years spent at Lisbon cannot be counted as one of his most fruitful periods, despite ‘the large settlement of African affairs’, which Lord Granville tells us that Morier had suggested to his predecessors in Whitehall. For the big schemes, which he planned, he could get no continuous backing at home, either in political or commercial circles. For the petty routine England hardly needed a man of such outstanding ability. Of necessity his work consisted often in tedious investigation of claims advanced by individual Englishmen, whether they were suffering from money losses or from summary procedure at the hands of the Portuguese police. Of the diplomatic questions, which arose many, proved to be shadowy and unreal. Something could be done, even in remote Portugal, to improve Anglo-Russian relations by a minister who had friends in so many European capitals. The politics of Pio Nono and the Papal Curia often find an echo in his correspondence. Here, too, as elsewhere, the intrigues of Germany had to be watched, though Morier was sensible enough to discriminate between the deliberate policy of Bismarck and the maneuvers of those whom he ‘allowed to do what they liked and say what they liked-or rather to do what they thought he would like done, and say what they thought he would like said-and then suddenly sent them about their business to ponder in poverty and disgrace on the mutability of human affairs’. In a passage like this Morier’s letters show that he could distinguish between a lion and his jackals, between ‘policy’ and ‘intrigue’.

Had it not been for Germany and German suggestions, Portuguese politicians would perhaps have been free from the fears which loomed darkest on their horizon-the fears of an ‘Iberian policy’ which Spain was supposed to be pursuing. In reality the leading men at Madrid knew that they had little to gain by letting loose the superior Spanish army against Portugal and trying to form the whole peninsula into a single state. Morier, at any rate, made it clear that England would throw the whole weight of her power against such treatment of her oldest ally. But alarmist politicians were perpetually harping on this string, and Morier, in a letter written in 1876, compares them to ‘children telling ghost-stories to one another who have got frightened at the sound of their own voices, and mistake the rattling of a mouse behind the wainscot for the tramping of legions on the march’.

To Morier it seemed that the important part of his work concerned South Africa, in which, at the time, Portugal and Great Britain were the European powers most interested. It was in 1877 that Sir Theophilus Shepstone annexed the Transvaal, and many people, in Europe and Africa, were talking as if this must lead to the expropriation of the Portuguese at Delagoa Bay. Morier himself was as far as possible from the imperialism which would ride rough-shod over a weaker neighbour. In fact, he pleaded strongly for British approval of the pride, which Portugal felt in her traditions, and of her desire to cling to what she had preserved from the past. Once break this down, he said, and we should see Portuguese dominions put up for auction, and England might not always prove to be the highest bidder. Friendly co-operation, joint development of railways, and commercial treaties commended themselves better to his judgment, and he was prepared to spend a large part even of his holidays in England in working out the details of such treaties. He studied the people among whom he was, and did his best to lead them gently towards reforms, whether of the slave trade or other abuses, on lines, which could win their sympathy. He appealed to his own Foreign Office to abstain from too many lectures, and to make the most of cases in which the Portuguese showed promise of better things. ‘This diet of cold gruel’, he says in 1878, ‘must be occasionally supplemented by a cup of generous wine, or all intimacy must die out.’ Again in 1880, he asks for a K.C.M.G. to be awarded to a Governor-General of Mozambique, who had done his best to observe English wishes in checking the slave trade. ‘Perpetual admonition’, he says, ‘and no sugar plums is bad policy’-a maxim too often neglected when our philanthropy outruns our discretion.

When Morier was promoted in 1881 to Madrid, he used the same tact and geniality to lighten the burden of his task. No seasoned diplomatist took the politics of Madrid too seriously. Though the political stage was bigger, it was often filled by actors as petty and grasping as those of Lisbon. The distribution to their own friends of the ‘loaves and fishes’ was, as Morier says, the one steady aim of all aspirants to power; and measures of reform, much needed in education, in commerce, in law, were doomed to sterility by the factiousness of the men who should have carried them out. In the absence of principles Morier had to study the strife of parties, and his correspondence gives us lively pictures of the eloquent Castelar, the champion of a visionary Republic, the harsh, domineering Romero y Robledo, at once the mainstay and the terror of his Conservative colleagues, and the cold, egotistic Liberal leader Sagasta, whose shrewdness in the manipulation of votes had always to be reckoned with. The constitution given in 1876 had entirely failed to establish Parliament on a democratic basis. For this the bureaucracy was responsible. The Home Office abused its powers shamelessly, and by the votes of its functionaries, and of those who hoped to receive its favors, it could always secure a big majority for the Government of the moment. For the three years, which Morier spent at Madrid, he recounts surprising instances of the reversal of electoral verdicts within a short space of time.

The King was popular and deserved to be so, for his personal qualities of courage, intelligence, and public spirit; but his position was never secure. There was a bad tradition by which at intervals the army asserted its power and upset the constitution. Some intriguing general issued a pronunciamiento, the troops revolted, and the Central Government at Madrid, having no effective force and no moral ascendancy, gave way. Parliament had little stability. Cabinets rose and vanished again; the same eloquent but empty speeches were made, and the same abuses remained unchanged.

But before now a spark from Spain had set the Continent ablaze. The past had bequeathed some questions which, awkwardly handled, might cause explosions elsewhere, and it was well to know the character of those who had the key to the powder magazine. More than once Morier was approached on the delicate question of the admission of Spain to the council of the Great Powers. In Egypt, where so many foreign interests were involved, and where Great Britain suffered, in the ‘eighties, from so many diplomatic intrigues, Spain might easily find an opening for her ambitions. She might advance the plea that the Suez Canal was the direct route to her colonies in the Philippines. Germany, for ulterior ends, was encouraging Spanish pretensions; but, to the British, Spain with its illiberal spirit scarcely seemed likely to prove a helpful fellow-worker. Morier had to try to convince Spanish ministers that Great Britain was their truer friend while refusing them what they asked for; and in such interviews he had to know his men and to touch the right chord in appealing to their prejudices or their patriotism. The English tenure of Gibraltar was also a perpetual offence to Spanish pride. Irresponsible journalists loved to expatiate on it when they had no more spicy subject to handle. On this, as on all questions affecting prestige only, Morier was tactful and patient. When they should come within the range of practical politics, he could take a different tone. But he knew that more serious dangers were arising in Morocco, where the weakness of the Sultan’s rule was tempting European powers to intervene, and he labored to maintain peace and goodwill not only between his own country and Spain, but also between Spain and France. The common accusation that the English are not ‘good Europeans’ was pre-eminently untrue in his case. He realized that the interests of all were bound up together, and used his influence, which soon became considerable, to remove all occasions of bitterness in the European family, being fully aware that at Berlin there was another active intelligence working by hidden channels to keep open every festering sore.

Morier was fertile in expedients when ministers consulted him, as we see notably on the occasion of King Alfonso’s tour in 1883. Before the King started, the newspapers had been writing of it as a ‘visit to Berlin’, though it was intended to be a compliment to the heads of various states. To allay the sensitiveness of the French, Morier suggested to the Foreign Secretary that the King should make a point of visiting France first; but, owing to the ineptitude of President Grévy, this suggestion was rendered impracticable. When the King did visit Paris, after a sojourn at Berlin, where he received the usual compliment of being made titular colonel of a Prussian regiment, a terrible scene ensued by which Morier’s sagacity was justified. The King was greeted with cries of ‘à bas le Colonel d’Uhlans’, and was hissed as he passed along the streets; only his personal tact and restraint saved the two Governments from an undignified squabble. He was able to give a lesson in deportment to his hosts and also to satisfy the resentful pride of his fellow-countrymen. The whole episode shows how individuals can control events when the masses can only become excited; kings and diplomats may still be the best mechanics to handle the complicated machinery on which peace or war depends. Alfonso XII died in November 1885, soon after Morier’s departure for another post, but not before he had testified to the high esteem in which our Minister had been held in Spain.

From Madrid he might have passed to Berlin. The British Government had only one man fit to replace Lord Ampthill (Lord Odo Russell), who died in 1884. Inquiries were made in Berlin whether it was possible to employ Morier’s great knowledge at the centre of European gravity, but Bismarck made it quite clear that such an appointment would be displeasing to his sovereign. It was believed by a friend and admirer of both men that, if Bismarck and Morier could have come to know one another, mutual respect and liking would have followed; but magnanimity towards an old enemy, or one whom he had ever believed to be such, was not a Bismarckian trait, and it is more probable that all Morier’s efforts would have been thwarted by misrepresentation and malignity.

Instead he was sent to St. Petersburg, where he took up his duties as Ambassador in November 1885. Here he had to deal with bigger problems. The affray at Penjdeh, when the Russians attacked an Afghan outpost and forcibly occupied the ground, had, after convulsing Europe, been settled by Mr. Gladstone’s Government. Feeling did not subside for some years, but for the moment Asiatic questions were not so serious as the conflict of interests in the Balkan Peninsula. The principality of Bulgaria created by the Congress of Berlin was the focus of the ‘Eastern question’-that is, the question whether Russia, Austria, or a united Europe led by the Western powers, was to preside over the dissolution of Turkey. Bulgaria certainly owed its existence to Russian bayonets; in her cause Russian lives had been freely given; and this formed a real bond between the two nations, more lasting than the effect of Mr. Gladstone’s speeches, to which English sentimentalists attached such importance. But the Bulgarians have often shown an obstinate tendency to go their own way, and their politicians were loath to be kept in Russian leading strings. Their last act, in 1885, had been to annex the Turkish province of Eastern Roumelia without asking the consent of the Tsar. At the moment they could safely flout the Sultan of Turkey, their nominal suzerain; but diplomatists doubted whether they could, with equal safety, ignore the Treaty of Berlin and the wishes of their Russian protector. The path was full of pitfalls. The Austrian Government was on the watch to embarrass its great Slavonic rival; English statesmen were too anxious to humor Liberal sentiment as expressed at popular meetings; Russian agents on the spot committed indiscretions; Russian opinion at home suspected that Bulgaria was receiving encouragement elsewhere, and the air was full of rumors of war.

Across this unquiet stage may be seen to pass, in the lively letters which Morier sent home, the figures of potential and actual princes of Bulgaria, of whom only two deserve mention to-day. The first, Alexander of Battenberg, member of a family which enjoyed Queen Victoria’s special favour, had been put forward at the Berlin Congress, and justified his choice in 1885 by repelling the Serbian Army and winning a victory at Slivnitza. He had won the attachment of his subjects but had incurred the hatred of the Tsar, and the tone of his speeches in 1886 offended Russian sentiment. Two years after Slivnitza, in face of intrigues and violence, he abandoned the contest and abdicated. The second is Ferdinand of Coburg, whose tortuous career, begun in 1887, only ended with the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918. He was put forward by Austria and supported by Stambuloff, the dictatorial chief of the Bulgarian ministry. For years the Russian Government refused to recognize him, and it was not till 1896 that he came to heel, at the bidding of Prince Lobanoff, and made public submission to the Tsar. But, first and last, he was only an astute adventurer of no little vanity and of colossal egotism, and such sympathies as he had for others beside himself went to Austria-Hungary, where he owned landed property, and had served in the army. He was also displeasing to orthodox Russia as a Roman Catholic, and in Morier’s letters we see clearly the mistrust and contempt which Russians felt for him.

With an autocrat like Alexander III, secretive and obstinate, these personal questions became very serious. Ambitious generals might anticipate his wishes, Russian regiments might be on the march before the Ministers knew anything, and Europe might awake to find itself over the edge of the precipice.

Morier’s own attitude can best be judged from the letters which he exchanged with Sir William White, our able ambassador to the Porte, who was frankly anti-Russian in his views. At first he put his trust in strict observance of the Treaty of Berlin, and wished that Prince Alexander would consent to restore the status quo ante (i.e. before the change in Eastern Roumelia); but although a stout upholder of treaties, he admitted as a second basis for settlement ‘les vœux des populations’, on which the modern practice of plebiscites is founded. The peasants of Eastern Roumelia were clearly glad to transfer their allegiance from the Sultan to the Prince. Also the successes achieved by Prince Alexander in so soon welding together Bulgaria and Eastern Roumelia had to be recognized as altering the situation. In fact, Morier’s position was nearer to that of 1919 than to the old traditions in vogue a century earlier, and would commend itself to most English Liberals. But, as an ambassador paid to watch over British interests, he was guided by expediency rather than by sentiment. These interests, he was convinced, were more vitally affected in Central Asia than in the Balkans. He believed that, if British statesmen would recognize Russia’s peculiar position in Bulgaria, the advance of Russian outposts towards India might be stayed, and the two great powers might work together all along the line. But, to effect this, national jealousies must be allayed and an understanding established. Morier had to interpret at St. Petersburg speeches of English politicians, which often sounded more offensive there than in London: he also had to watch and report to London the unofficial doings and sayings of the aggressive Pan-Slavist party, who might at any moment undermine the Ministry.

Foreign policy was in the hands of de Giers, an enlightened, pacific minister, who lacked, however, the courage to face his master’s prejudices and had little authority over many of his own subordinates. De Nelidoff, at Constantinople, dared even to make himself the centre of diplomatic intrigue directed against the policy of his chief. Still less was de Giers able to control the strong Pan-Slavist influences which ruled in the Church, the Home Office, and the Press. Morier gives interesting portraits of Pobedonóstsev, the bigoted procurator of the Holy Synod, of Tolstoy the reactionary Minister of the Interior, of Katkoff the truculent editor of the Moscow Gazette. These were the most notable of the men who flouted the authority, thwarted the work, and undermined the position of the Tsar’s nominal adviser, and often they carried the day in determining the attitude of the Tsar himself. Yet Morier was bound by his own honesty and by the traditions of British diplomacy to do business with de Giers alone, to receive the assurances of one who was being betrayed by his own ambassadors, to make his protests to one who could not effectively remedy the grievances. His difficulty was increased by de Giers’s manner-’when getting on to slippery ground he has a remarkable power of speaking only half intelligibly and swallowing a large proportion of his words’. Morier was often conscious that he was building on sand; but in quiet weather it was possible to stem the flood for a while even with dikes of sand. Perhaps a little later the tide of Balkan troubles might be setting in another direction and the danger might be past. In Russia, where so much was incalculable, it was wise to make the most of such help as presented itself. Meanwhile the Russian Ambassador in London, Baron de Staäl, co-operated as loyally with Lord Salisbury as Morier with de Giers; and thanks to their diplomatic skill, rough places were smoothed away and bases of agreement were found. In the course of 1887, the smoldering fires of Anglo-Russian antagonism died down, and Russia adopted a waiting attitude in Bulgaria.

But this happy result was not attained till after Asiatic problems had given rise to serious alarms. The worst moment was in July 1886, when the Tsar suddenly proclaimed, contrary to the Treaty of Berlin, that the port of Batum was closed to foreign trade. His point of view was characteristic. His father had, autocratically, expressed in 1878 his intention to open the port; this had been done, and it had proved in practice a failure; as a purely administrative act, he (Alexander III) now declared the port closed, et tout était dit. But naturally foreign merchants resented the injury to their trade, and insisted on the sanctity of treaties. The Berlin Government, as usual, left to Great Britain all the odium incurred in making a protest, and the other Continental powers were equally silent. Morier asserted the British case so strongly that he roused even de Giers to vehemence; but when he saw that protests would avail nothing, he advised his Government to cut the loss and to avoid further bitterness. He reminded them that Russia had given way in Bulgaria, where the British point of view had prevailed, and that they must not expect her to submit to a second diplomatic defeat. Besides, a quarrel between Russia and Great Britain would only benefit a third party, ready enough to avail himself of it. Harmony was preserved, but the risk of a breach had been very great, and feeling was not improved by Russian activity at Sebastopol, where the Pan-Slavists were acclaiming the new birth of the Black Sea fleet. The death of Katkoff in 1887, and of Tolstoy in 1889, with the advent of more Liberal ministers, strengthened de Giers’s hands; and during his later years, though he often needed great vigilance and tact, Morier was not troubled by any crisis so severe.

The Grand Cross of the Bath, which he received in 1887, was a fitting reward for the services he had rendered to England and to Europe in this anxious time. He never lost heart or despaired of a peaceful solution.

At bottom, as he often repeats, Russia was not ready for big adventures-was, in fact, still suffering from lassitude after the war of 1878, ‘like an electric eel which, having in one great shock given off all its electricity, burrows in the mud to refill its battery, desiring nothing less than to come again too soon into contact with organic tissue’.

Apart from la haute politique and the conflicts between governments, Morier’s own compatriots were giving him plenty to do. A few instances will illustrate the variety of the applications, which reached the Embassy. Captain Beaufort requests a special permit to visit Kars and its famous fortifications. Mr. Littledale asks for a Russian guide to help him in an ascent of Mount Ararat. Father Perry, S.J. (the Jesuits were specially obnoxious to the Holy Synod), wishes to observe a solar eclipse only visible in Russia. Another traveller, Mr. Fairman, is summarily arrested near Rovno where the Tsar’s visit is making the police unduly brisk for the moment. Morier procures him a prompt apology; but, not content with this, the Englishman now thinks himself entitled to a personal audience with the Tsar and the gift of some decoration to compensate him, which suggestion draws a curt reply from the much-vexed ambassador. But he was always ready to help a genuine explorer, whether it was Mr. de Windt in Trans-Caucasia or Captain Wiggins in the Kara Sea. To the latter, in his efforts to establish trade between Great Britain and Siberia by the Yenisei river, Morier lent most valuable aid, and he is proud to report the concessions which he won for our merchants in a new field of commerce.

Meanwhile he found occasion to cultivate friendships with Russians and foreign diplomats of all kinds. Of the more important he sends home interesting sketches to his superiors in Whitehall, Vischnegradsky, the ‘wizard of finance’, who raised the value of the rouble 30 per cent., became one of his intimate friends. When that ambiguous figure, Witte, his rival and successor, tried to discredit him, Morier vindicated with warmth the honesty and patriotism of his friend. Baron Jomini of the Foreign Office was of a different kind, witty, volatile, audaciously outspoken, more like a character in Thackeray’s novels. Pobedonóstsev, the Procurator of the Holy Synod, remained ‘somewhat of an enigma’-as we can easily believe when we hear that this bigoted Churchman, the terror of the Jews, had been a friend of Dean Stanley, and was still fond of English literature and English theology.

Still more amusing are the stories which he tells of foreign visitors of high station-of the Duke of Orleans playing truant without the knowledge of his parents and being snubbed by his Grand Ducal relatives; of Dalip Singh touring the provinces with a disreputable entourage and trying to make trouble for the British at Moscow; of the Prince of Montenegro and his beautiful daughters, whom Morier heartily admires-’tall and massive, strong-limbed and comely, the true type of the mothers of heroes in the Homeric sense’.

With the Court his relations were excellent. His intimacy with members of our own royal family helped him, and his geniality and unconventional, natural manner won favour with the Romanoffs, who retained in their high station a great deal of simplicity. More than once Morier seized an opportunity for an act of special courtesy to the Tsar; and Alexander appreciated this from a man whose character was too well known for him to be suspected of obsequiousness.

But the life in St. Petersburg was not all pleasure, even when diplomatic waters were quiet. The work was hard, the climate was very exacting with its extremes of temperature, and epidemics were rife. In November 1889 he reports the appearance of ‘Siberian Catarrh, more usually described under the general name of Influenza’, which was working havoc in girls’ schools and guardsmen’s barracks, and had laid low simultaneously Emperor, Empress, and half the imperial family. Morier himself became increasingly liable to attacks of ill health, and found difficulty in discharging his duties regularly. It required a keen sense of duty for him to stay at his post; and when in December 1891 he was appointed to the Embassy at Rome, he was very willing to go. But public interest stood in the way. He had made for himself an exceptional place at St. Petersburg. No one could be found to replace him adequately, and the Tsar expressed a desire that his departure should be postponed. He consented to stay on, and the next two years of work in that climate, together with the death in 1891 of his only son, broke his spirit and his strength. Too late he went in search of health, first to the Crimea and then to Switzerland. Death came to him as the winter of 1893 was approaching, when he was at Montreux on the Lake of Geneva, close to the home of his ancestors.

The impression which he made on his friends and colleagues is clear and consistent, and the ignorance of the general public about men of his profession justifies a few quotations. Sir Louis Mallet brackets him with Sir James Hudson and Lord Cromer as ‘the most admirable trio of public servants he had known’. Sir William White speaks of him and Odo Russell as ‘two giants of the diplomatic service’. Lord Acton, who knew Europe as well as any Foreign Minister, and weighed his words, refers to him in 1884 as ‘our only strong diplomatist’, and again ‘as a strong man, resolute, ready, well-informed and with some amount of real resource’. More than one Foreign Secretary has borne testimony to the value of Morier’s dispatches; and Sir Charles Dilke, who, without holding the portfolio himself, often shaped our foreign policy and was an expert in European questions, is still more emphatic about his intellectual powers, though he thinks that Morier’s imperious temper made him ‘impossible in a small place’. Sir Horace Rumbold, in his Recollections, has many references to him, especially as he was in earlier years. He speaks of Morier’s ‘prodigious fund of spirits that made him the most entertaining, but not always the safest, of companions’; ‘of his imperious, not over-tolerant disposition’; ‘of the curious compound that he was of the thoughtless, thriftless Bohemian and the cool, calculating man of the world’; of his ‘exceptionally powerful brain and unflagging industry’. Elsewhere he recalls Morier’s journeys among the Southern Slavs, in which he opened up a new field of knowledge, and adds, ‘since then he has made himself a thorough master of German politics, and is, I believe, one of the few men whom Prince Bismarck fears and correspondingly detests’.

Jowett’s testimony may perhaps be discounted as that of an intimate friend; yet he was no flatterer, and as he often criticized Morier severely, it is of interest to read his deliberate verdict, given in 1873, that ‘if he devoted his whole mind to it, he could prevent a war in Europe’. Four years earlier Jowett had been told by a diplomatist whom he respected, ‘Morier is the first man in our profession’.

By those who still remember him, Morier is described as a diplomatist of ‘the old school’. His noble presence, his courtly manner, and the dignity, which he observed on all ceremonial occasions, would have qualified him to adorn the court of Maria Theresa or Louis Quatorze. This dignity he could put off when the need for it was past. Among his friends his manner was vivacious, his talk racy, his criticism free. He was of the old school, too, in being self-confident and independent, and in believing that he would do his best work if there were no telegraph to bring frequent instructions from Whitehall. But he had not the natural urbanity of Odo Russell, nor the invariable discretion of Lord Lyons. He had hard work to discipline his imperious temper, and by no means always succeeded in masking his own feelings. Perhaps too high a value has been set on impenetrable reserve by those who have modelled themselves on Talleyrand. By their very candor and openness some British diplomatists have gained an advantage over rivals who confound timidity with reserve, and have won a peculiar position of trust at foreign courts. In dealing with de Giers, Morier at any rate found no need to mumble or swallow his words. He was sure of himself and of his honorable intentions. On one occasion, after reading to that minister the exact words of the dispatch, which he was sending to London, he stated his policy to him categorically. ‘I always went’, he said, ‘upon the principle, whenever it could be done, of clearing the ground of all possible misunderstandings at the earliest date.’ Probably we shall never see the end of ‘secret diplomacy’, whether under Tory, Liberal, or Labor governments; but this is not the tone of one who loves secrecy for its own sake.

In many ways Morier combined the qualities of the old and the new schools. Though personally a favorite with kings and queens, he was fully alive to the changes in the Europe of the nineteenth century, where, along with courts and cabinets, other more unruly forces were at work. His visit to Paris in 1848 showed his early interest in popular movements, and he maintained a catholic width of view in later life. He knew men of all sorts and kept himself acquainted with unofficial currents of opinion. He could talk freely to journalists or to merchants, could put them at their ease and get the information, which he wanted. His comprehensiveness was remarkable. The strife of politicians in the foreground did not blur the distant landscape. In Russia, behind Balkan intrigues and Black Sea troubles he could see the cloud of danger overhanging the Pamirs. In Spain or Portugal he was watching and forecasting the possibilities of the white races in Africa. So his dispatches, varied and vivacious as they were, proved of the greatest value to Foreign Secretaries at home, and furnish excellent reading today.

In these dispatches a few Gallicisms occur; and in writing to an old friend like Sir William White he uses a free mixture of French and English with other ingredients for seasoning. But in general the literary style is admirable. He has a rare command of language, a most inventive use of metaphor, a felicitous touch in sketching a character or an incident. Towards those working under him he was exacting, setting up a high standard of industry, but he was generous in his praise and very ready to take up the cudgels for them when they needed support. In commending one of them, he selects for special praise ‘his old-fashioned conscientiousness about public work and his subordination of private comfort’. He inherited this tradition from his own family and his faithfulness to it cost him his life.

Above all, we feel in reading these letters and memoranda that here is a man whose aim is truth rather than effect-not thinking of commending a program to thousands of half-informed readers or hearers, in order to win their votes, but giving counsel to his peers, Odo Russell or Sir William White, Lord Granville or Lord Salisbury, on events and tendencies which affect the grave issues of peace and war and the lives of thousands of his fellow-countrymen. This generation has learnt how unsafe it is to treat these in a parliamentary atmosphere where men force themselves to believe what they wish and close their eyes to what is uncomfortable. While human nature remains the same, democracy cannot afford to deprive itself of such counsel or to belittle such a profession.



MLA Source Citation:

Blore, George Henry. Victorian Worthies, Sixteen Biographies. Oxford University Press, England. 1920. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 16 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/genealogy/biography-of-robert-morier.htm - Last updated on Feb 10th, 2013

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