An Irishman in Turkey: ‘Wizard of Istanbul’

Gerald Henry Fitzmaurice (1865-1939) was born in the small fishing village of Howth on Balscadden Bay, near Dublin, son of Henry Fitzmaurice. He was educated in Blackrock College, Dublin, proving himself a gifted linguist from an early age.
Before the First World War, he made his reputation while serving at the British Embassy in Istanbul in the capacity of Dragoman – interpreter or guide – especially in countries speaking Arabic, Turkish or Persian. It was the title given to a category of persons who acted as intermediary between a foreign embassy and local authorities.
Said to be ‘cunning as a weasel and as savage’, he was the local expert at the British Embassy in Constantinople. The dragomen were indispensable to the ambassador when he had to meet the sultan and his ministers and when official documents had to be translated. They were later employed for a number of representative and other functions that extended their life until after the First World War.
Situated on the Bosphorus, Istanbul lies partly in Europe and Asia. Formerly the Roman city of Constantinople (330-1453), it was built on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium. It was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and remained the capital of Turkey until 1923. A meeting place of civilizations for over 8,500 years, the city has witnessed history bridging cultures and religions between east and west. The first ambassador from Britain to the Ottoman Empire was appointed in 1583 under the reign of Elizabeth I.
In 1922 the Ottoman Sultan was overthrown. In 1923 the Turkish Constitution was amended and the country was proclaimed a Republic. Its first President was Mustafa Kemal (1881-1938), chief founder of modern Turkey. Until his death in 1938 he worked to make Turkey a modern secular state with the introduction of major political and other changes. In 1934 he took the surname Ataturk (Father of the Turks). Independence Day is celebrated each year on 29 October to mark the proclamation of the Turkish Republic and is a public holiday when all schools and offices are closed.
‘Wizard of Istanbul’
From the Foreign Office List 1922, “Jerald Patrick, son of Henry”, was born on 15 July 1865. It seems probable that his name evolved into “Gerald Henry” perhaps at the time of his baptism or confirmation. He was initially trained for the priesthood at the French College established in 1860 by the Paris-based Catholic Order known as the Congregation of the Holy Ghost and of the Immaculate Conception, presently the Catholic Blackrock College.
In 1887 he received a B.A. from the Royal University of Ireland, an examining body established by Act of Parliament in 1881. In March 1888 he passed a competitive examination and in June was appointed as Student Interpreter in the Levant Consular Service. It was a valuable asset to the Embassy in view of the language skills.
Marked out by the Embassy as early as 1890 as an exception among the nervous weaklings who made up the bulk of student interpreters he was given to expect early advancement to Chief Dragoman. A time-line on his career indicates frustration at the slow progress towards promotion while also undertaking important missions such as in 1902 as personal trouble shooter to bring the Aden Boundary Commission to a rapid conclusion which was a matter considered of great importance to the ambassador.
An “unmarried workaholic” who is chronicled as intriguer, negotiator, intelligence gatherer, propagandist and awe inspiring expert on Ottoman affairs, this feverishly energetic man had exceptional influence with Turkish ministers as well as British diplomats. Considered a key figure in Anglo-Ottoman relations he lives on vividly portrayed in Turkish history books as a sort of conspirator demon king. Known in the Levant Service as ‘Fitzmaurice of Constantinople’ he left no papers and refused to write his memoirs.
Drawing on hitherto unexploited archives including school records and indiscreet private letters retained by others, a pioneering biography by Professor G.R. Berridge, historian of the British Embassy in Turkey, provides the first full assessment of a consul whose influence with both British and Turkish officials was often thought malign. It also throws light on the history of diplomacy for Gerald Fitzmaurice is said to be one of the long neglected class ‘ministers of the second order’ who paid bribes, took the risks, and negotiated while ambassadors slept.
He was a great writer of letters, a form of diplomatic correspondence which became popular in Britain in the nineteenth century because it avoided the risk that their publication in a Blue Book might be required. His correspondence has been traced in the archives of different British institutions and is published for the first time.
Almost sixty private letters he wrote to Lloyd George (1863-1945) whose government fell when Britain came close to war with the Turkish nationalists are said to reveal most fully the working of Fitzmaurice mind and his deepest and most private thoughts, as well as the greatest wealth of varied and colourful detail, for example on the Embassy’s role in supporting Kiamil Pasha after the Young Turks revolution in 1908.
As a linguist with a classical education, he peppered the letters not only with Latin and Turkish phrases but with French and occasionally German, Italian and Arabic ones as well. He also loved lengthy and sometimes bizarre metaphors, and was fond of quoting Kipling without attribution.
Viewed as a skilled diplomat, historians and political analysts recall that Gerald Henry Fitzmaurice played a key role in the international diplomacy of the Balkans and the Near East in the period before the First World War. Today he is best remembered for his report on the massacres in Armenia and for his opposition to the Young Turks who led the revolution of 1908.
His career was cut short due to ill health and he left Constantinople in 1914, later resuming work at the Foreign Office. The note from his London doctor stated “severe nervous breakdown” brought on by overwork and the unhealed damage to his constitution suffered on the Yemen frontier. He had also been under great pressure after being blamed for intervening on the wrong side during the counter revolution against the Young Turks in 1909. In 1911 he was again publicly attacked in Turkey before the outbreak of war and was regarded by the new ambassador as being too hostile to the Young Turk government.
Gerald Henry Fitzmaurice died in London on 23 March 1939 from cerebral thrombosis and arterio sclerosis. He is buried in a simple grave at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Kensal Green in London. It has recently come to light that his grave was bought by John Pius Boland, a barrister, who sat as Irish Nationalist M.P. for South Kerry (1900-1918).
Editorial and historical reviews generally praise a man of penetrating insight into the affairs of Near and Middle East and of most remarkable influence while others offer some adverse judgement.
Ita Marguet, October 2010
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in this text. It follows a visit to Istanbul in October 2010 and is written to mark Turkish Independence Day on 29 October. Reference publications are titled: Catholic Irishman Gerald Fitzmaurice: Makers of the Modern World From Sultan to Ataturk. The Peace Conference of 1919-1923 and the aftermath by Arthur Andrew Mango and Gerald Fitzmaurice (1865-1939),Chief Dragoman of the British Embassy in Turkey by G.R. Berridge (2007). A chapter of the book is about the Dragomen.