Papers of Sir Gerald H. Portal

Scope and Content

Letterbooks, diaries, correspondence etc. relating to service in Cairo, Zanzibar and Uganda.

Administrative / Biographical History

Sir Gerald Herbert Portal was born on the 13 March 1858 in Laverstoke, Hampshire, England, and educated at Eton. He married Lady Alice Josephine Bertie, daughter of the seventh Earl of Abingdon, in February 1890.

Sir Portal entered the diplomatic service in July 1879, and, after the usual period of probation in the foreign office, was sent to Rome in June 1880. He became third secretary of legation in July 1881. In June 1882 Portal was temporarily attached to the consulate-general at Cairo. This was a critical period in the history of British relations with Egypt, and Portal was present at the bombardment of Alexandria (receiving for his services on that occasion a medal with clasp and the khedive's star).

He became a favourite with Sir Evelyn Baring (afterwards Lord Cromer), the British representative, and in April 1884 was confirmed as third secretary at Cairo. In April 1885 he was promoted second secretary. For some weeks in the summers of 1886 and 1887 Portal took charge of the residency during Lord Cromer's absence. In October 1887 he was ordered to attempt a reconciliation between the king of Abyssinia and the Italian government. This was a difficult task and Portal was, unsurprisingly, unsuccessful. However, the efforts Portal had made in trying to achieve this reconciliation considerably enhanced his reputation and he was made CB. He gave an account of this event in My Mission to Abyssinia(1888).

Returning to Cairo, Portal was charg d'affaires in the autumn of 1888. From 30 April to 14 November 1889 he was acting consul-general at Zanzibar, and, in March 1891, he was permanently appointed to the post. In addition to his duties in Zanzibar he became consul-general for German East Africa (June 1891) and for British East Africa (February 1892). He was made KCMG in August 1892.

In December 1892 Portal journeyed to Uganda to report on whether the country should be retained by the British or evacuated. During this expedition Portal lost his elder brother, Captain Melville Raymond Portal (1856-1893), who was with him as chief military officer. Portal arrived in London in November 1893. He had sent in his reports on Uganda, and completed the greater part of a book relating his experiences, when he was struck down by a fever from which he died on the 25 January 1894. His book on The British Mission to Uganda was published a few months later. His recommendation that the British government should retain Uganda was ultimately adopted.

Access Information

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Collection level description created by Marion Lowman, Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House.

Administrative/Biographical History compiled with reference to the Dictionary of National Biography .

Other Finding Aids

The library holds a card index of all manuscript collections in its reading room and a handlist is also available for this collection.

Listed as nos. 299, 353 and 383 in Manuscript Collections (Africana and non-Africana) in Rhodes House Library, Oxford, Supplementary accessions to the end of 1977 and Cumulative Index, compiled by Wendy S. Byrne (Oxford, Bodleian Library, 1978).

Conditions Governing Use

No reproduction or publication of personal papers without permission. Contact the library in the first instance.