Posted by: Kirsty | February 23, 2009

Robert Bontine Cunninghame-Graham

robertcunninghamegraham-portraitI have a new crush. John need not worry, however, as the recent object of my affections died in 1936. I doubt I’m in with a chance. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you Robert Bontine Cunninghame-Graham.

*Sigh*. What a man. And what a varied life he led.

Born in London in 1852, he first of all became – of all things – an adventurer and eventually a gaucho in Argentina. He also travelled in Morocca disguised as a Turkish sheik, prospected for gold in Spain, befriended Buffalo Bill in Texas, and taught fencing in Mexico. As you do. While this is all very impressive, my crush is rather more based on what he did when he returned to Britain in the 1880s.

He discovered politics, and became very good friends with William Morris (more famous for his curtains than his socialism, sadly), George Bernard Shaw, and Keir Hardie. Through them he converted to socialism, and became a radical Liberal MP for North West Lanarkshire. His election programme was hugely radical for its time, calling for:

  • The abolition of the House of Lords
  • Universal suffrage
  • The nationalisation of land, mines, and other industries
  • Disestablishment of the Church of England (he was an atheist)
  • Scottish home rule
  • Free school meals
  • The establishment of an eight-hour working day

He was *so* far ahead of his time. Amazing. In Parliament he often gave speeches on the plight of the unemployed and the preservation of civil liberties, and he was hugely anti-imperialist. He was arrested during the 1887 socialist riots in London, and spent six weeks in Pentonville Prison.

Cunninghame-Graham was very much in favour of Scottish home rule (he had previously campaigned for Irish home rule too) and firstly founded the Scottish Labour Party with Keir Hardie in 1892, before playing an active part in establishing the National Party of Scotland in 1928. The NPS became the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the 1930s, and my beau was elected the first President of the party.

As if that wasn’t enough he also wrote essays, novels, and short stories. It is through a piece of his writing that I discovered him, in fact, in my reading for this week’s uni class on The New Imperialism during the Fin-de-Siecle. It was a mock sermon on the hypocrisy and arrogance of the British as they invaded and took over various countries in Africa and elsewhere in the pursuit of minerals and other natural riches (hmm… sounds familiar… do we never learn?). Here’s an extract from ‘Bloody N****rs’, written in 1897:

…the Malays, the Malagasy, Japanese, Chinese, Red Indians. as Sioux, Comanches, Navajos, Apaches with Zapatecas, Esquimaux, and in the south are ‘n****rs’ though their hair in straight. Turks, Persians, Levantines, Egyptians, Moors, and generally all those of almost any race whose skins are darker than our own, and whose ideas of faith, of matrimony, banking, and therapeutics differ from those held by the dwellers of Primrose Hill, cannot escape. Men of the Latin races, though not born free, can purchase freedom with a price, that is, if they conform to our ideas, are rich and wash, ride bicycles, and gamble on the Stock Exchange. If they are poor then woe betide them, let them paint their faces white with all the ceruse which ever Venice furnished, to the black favour shall they come… At times a thinking man knows scarely what to think, and sometimes doubts whether [God] is the God we took him for and if he is a fitting Deity for us to worship, and if we had not better once for all, get us a God of our own race and fitted for our own ways.

Wow. The sarcasm just drips doesn’t it?  Robert Bontine Cunninghame-Graham was decades ahead of his time in this furious rejection of racism and imperialism – there were many people who thought that the colonialists were in Africa ‘taming the savages’ and spreading the word of Christianity and that, what’s more, the natives would *thank them for it*. Words fail.

I ♥ R. B. Cunninghame-Graham.



  1. I had a similar crush at school on Gustav Stresemann. He was one of the founding members and staunchest supporters of the Weimar republic and really believed that it could work. There’s a school of thought that says that had he not prematurely died in 1929 there wouldn’t have been a Second World War; but, sadly, he did die and he was the only one that gave a damn about peace and that was sort of that.

    I fancied his mind, he ain’t a looker! Anyway…

  2. Wow, he sounds like my kinda guy, too, in a platonic way! I hope you’re now working on a biography and film deal?

  3. The Victorian age throws up some amazing people. have you read anything by Edward Carpenter?


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