Text of the 1907 Romanes Lecture on the subject of FRONTIERS by Lord Curzon of Kedleston, Viceroy of India (1898-1905) and British Foreign Secretary 1919-24)

Part 1

WHEN, at the end of December, 1905, the then Vice-Chancellor asked me to be the Romanes Lecturer in the following year, just after my return from India, I felt that the honour was one which it was impossible for me, as a devoted son of this ancient and illustrious University, to decline. But when he informed me that the entire field of Science, Literature, and Art was at my disposal for the choice of a subject, and that among my many predecessors were to be found the great names of Gladstone, Huxley, and John Morley, I was more appalled at my temerity in venturing to tread in their footsteps than I was gratified at the almost illimitable range that was opened to my ambition. In these circumstances, I concluded that my best course would be to select some topic of which I had personal experience, and upon which I could, without presumption, address even this famous and learned University. I chose the subject of Frontiers. It happened that a large part of my younger days had been spent in travel upon the boundaries of the British Empire in Asia, which had always exercised upon me a peculiar fascination. A little later, at the India Office and at the Foreign Office, I had had official cognizance of a period of great anxiety, when the main sources of diplomatic preoccupation, and sometimes of international danger, had been the determination of the Frontiers of the Empire in Central Asia, in every part of Africa, and in South America. Further, I had just returned from a continent where I had been responsible for the security and defence of a Land Frontier 5,700 miles in length, certainly the most diversified, the most important, and the most delicately poised in the world; and I had there, as Viceroy, been called upon to organize, and to conduct the proceedings of, as many as five Boundary Commissions.

I was the more tempted to undertake this task because I had never been able to discover, much less to study, its literature. It is a remarkable fact that, although Frontiers are the chief anxiety of nearly every Foreign Office in the civilized world, and are the subject of four out of every five political treaties or conventions that are now concluded, though as a branch of the science of government Frontier policy is of the first practical importance, and has a more profound effect upon the peace or warfare of nations than any other factor, political or economic, there is yet no work or treatise in any language which, so far as I know, affects to treat of the subject as a whole. Modern works on geography realize with increasing seriousness the significance of political geography; and here in this University, so responsive to the spirit of the age, where I rejoice to think that a School of Geography has recently been founded, it is not likely to escape attention. A few pages are sometimes devoted to Frontiers in compilations on International Law, and here and there a Frontier officer relates his experience before learned societies or in the pages of a magazine. But with these exceptions there is a practical void. You may ransack the catalogues of libraries, you may search the indexes of celebrated historical works, you may study the writings of scholars, and you will find the subject almost wholly ignored. Its formulae are hidden in the arcana of diplomatic chancelleries; its documents are embedded in vast and forbidding collections of treaties; its incidents and what I may describe as its incomparable drama are the possession of a few silent men, who may be found in the clubs of London, or Paris, or Berlin, when they are not engaged in tracing lines upon the unknown areas of the earth.


And yet I would invite you to pause and consider what Frontiers mean, and what part they play in the life of nations. I will not for the moment go further back than a century. It was the adoption of a mistaken Frontier policy that brought the colossal ambitions of the great Napoleon with a crash to the ground. The allied armies might never have entered Paris had the Emperor not held out for an impossible Frontier for France. The majority of the most important wars of the century have been Frontier wars. Wars of religion, of alliances, of rebellion, of aggrandisement, of dynastic intrigue or ambition - wars in which the personal element was often the predominant factor - tend to be replaced by Frontier wars, i.e. wars arising out of the expansion of states and kingdoms, carried to a point, as the habitable globe shrinks, at which the interests or ambitions of one state come into sharp and irreconcilable collision with those of another.

To take the experience of the past half-century alone. The Franco-German War was a war for a Frontier, and it was the inevitable sequel of the Austro-Prussian campaign of 1866, which, by destroying the belt of independent states between Prussia and her Rhenish provinces, had brought her up to the doors of France. The campaign of 1866 was itself the direct consequence of the war of 1864 for the recovery by Germany of the Frontier Duchies of Schleswig-Holstein. The Russo-Turkish War originated in a revolt of the Frontier States, and every Greek war is waged for the recovery of a national Frontier. We were ourselves at war with Afghanistan in 1839, and again in 1878, we were on the verge of war with Russia in 1878, and again in 1885, over Frontier incidents in Asia. The most arduous struggle in which we have been engaged in India in modern times was waged with Frontier tribes. Had the Tibetans respected our Frontiers, we should never have marched three years ago to Lhasa. Think, indeed, of what the Indian Frontier Problem, as it is commonly called, has meant and means; the controversies it has provoked, the passions it has aroused; the reputations that have flashed or faded within its sinister shadow. Japan came to blows with China over the Frontier-state of Korea; she found herself gripped in a life-and-death struggle with Russia because of the attempt of the latter to include Manchuria within the Frontiers of her political influence. Great Britain was on the brink of a collision with France over the Frontier incident of Fashoda; she advanced to Khartoum not to avenge Gordon, but to defend an imperilled and to recover a lost Frontier. Only the other day the Algeciras Conference was sitting to determine the degree to which the possession of a contiguous Frontier gave France the right to exercise a predominant influence in Morocco. But perhaps a more striking illustration still is that of Great Britain and America. The two occasions on which in recent times (and there are earlier examples [1]) the relations between these two allied and fraternal peoples - conflict between whom would be a hideous crime - have been most perilously affected, have both been concerned with Frontier disputes - the Venezuelan and the Alaskan Boundary.

The most urgent work of Foreign Ministers and Ambassadors, the foundation or the outcome of every entente cordiale, is now the conclusion of Frontier Conventions in which sources of discord are removed by the adjustment of rival interests or ambitions at points where the territorial borders adjoin. Frontiers are indeed the razor's edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death to nations. Nor is this surprising. Just as the protection of the home is the most vital care of the private citizen, so the integrity of her borders is the condition of existence of the State. But with the rapid growth of population and the economic need for fresh outlets, expansion has, in the case of the Great Powers, become an even more pressing necessity. As the vacant spaces of the earth are filled up, the competition for the residue is temporarily more keen. Fortunately, the process is drawing towards a natural termination. When all the voids are filled up, and every Frontier is defined, the problem will assume a different form. The older and more powerful nations will still dispute about their Frontiers with each other; they will still encroach upon and annex the territories of their weaker neighbours; Frontier wars will not, in the nature of things, disappear. But the scramble for new lands, or for the heritage of decaying States, will become less acute as there is less territory to be absorbed and less chance of doing it with impunity, or as the feebler units are either neutralized, or divided, or fall within the undisputed Protectorate of a stronger Power. We are at present passing through a transitional phase, of which less disturbed conditions should be the sequel, falling more and more within the ordered domain of International Law.

The illustrations which I have given, and which might easily be multiplied, will be sufficient to indicate the overwhelming influence of Frontiers in the history of the modern world. Reference to the past will tell a not substantially different tale. In our own country how much has turned upon the border conflict between England and Scotland and between England and Wales? In Ireland the ceaseless struggle between those within and those outside the Pale has left an ineffaceable mark on the history and character of the people. Half the warfare of the European continent has raged round the great Frontier barriers of the Alps and Pyrenees, the Danube and the Rhine. The Roman Empire, nowhere so like to our own as in its Frontier policy and experience - a subject to which I shall have frequent occasion to revert - finally broke up and perished because it could not maintain its Frontiers intact against the barbarians.

I wonder, indeed, if my hearers at all appreciate the part that Frontiers are playing in the everyday history and policy of the British Empire. Time was when England had no Frontier but the ocean. We have now by far the greatest extent of territorial Frontier of any dominion in the globe. In North America we have a Land Frontier of more than 3,000 miles with the United States. In India we have Frontiers nearly 6,000 miles long with Persia, Russia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China, Siam, and France. In Africa we have Frontiers considerably over 12,000 miles in length with France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and the Congo State, not to mention our Frontiers with native states and tribes. These Frontiers have to be settled, demarcated, and then maintained. We commonly speak of Great Britain as the greatest sea-power, forgetting that she is also the greatest land-power in the Universe. Not much is heard of this astonishing development in Parliament; I suspect that even in our Universities it is but dimly apprehended. Nevertheless, it is the daily and hourly preoccupation of our Foreign Office, our India Office, and our Colonial Office; it is the vital concern of the greatest of our colonies and dependencies; and it provides laborious and incessant employment for the keenest intellects and the most virile energies of the Anglo-Saxon race.

My main difficulty is not how to deal with such a topic adequately, but how to deal with it in the compass of an academic lecture. As my investigations have progressed, I have seen the horizon expand before me, until it has appeared to embrace all history, the greater part of geography, and a good deal of jurisprudence. I have alternately seen my Essay swell into a volume, and have contemplated reducing that volume into a tabloid for passing consumption in this theatre. It is obviously impossible for me to treat of Frontiers in the space of an hour or of many hours; on the other hand I have found neither the leisure nor the health to write the volume which at one time I had in view. The result must be a compromise. Large portions of my subject, and indeed of my manuscript, must be ignored today. Before my Essay assumes a final form, I hope that it may acquire a character more in consonance with the magnitude and the unity of the theme.

I will not pause to dilate upon the obvious truisms that lie at the threshold of my subject. The influence of region upon race, and the correlative influence of race upon region, are speculations belonging to the wider subject of which Frontiers are only a part. That a country with easily recognized natural boundaries is more capable of defence and is more assured of a national existence than a country which does not possess those advantages; that a country with a sea Frontier, such as the British Isles, particularly if she also possesses sea-power, is in a stronger position than a country which only has land Frontiers and requires a powerful army to defend them; that a mountain-girt country is the most secure of internal States - these are the commonplaces of political geography. More pertinent is it to say in passing that in the study of such a subject as ours, we must be very careful not to generalize too hastily as to the influence of physical agencies, either upon character or action: for the Same causes are apt to produce very different results in different places or at different times. There is a passage, for instance, in an English poet which typifies that I mean. Cowper wrote in 'The Task (Book II)

Lands intersected by a narrow forth
Abhor each other. Mountains interposed
Make enemies of nations who had else
Like kindred drops been mingled into one.

Many instances can doubtless be found in which both these propositions are true. The intervention of a narrow forth has certainly been one of the main causes of the inveterate estrangement of the English and the Irish: it has been largely responsible for the conventional hostility between England and France. But quite as many instances can be found in which the peoples on two sides of a strait or narrow sea have been on friendly terms. The generalization about mountains is equally unscientific. Nor is the inverse in either case any truer, viz. that States which are not separated from each other, either by narrow seas or by mountains, are therefore naturally friends. The fact is that in all such cases a great many causes are at work, of which geographical position or environment is but one. A safer procedure is that of deduction only from established facts. Macaulay, in his 'Frederick the Great', wrote in his pictorial manner, but with incontrovertible truth:

Some states have been enabled by their geographical position to defend themselves with advantage against immense forces. The sea has repeatedly protected England against the fury of the whole Continent. The Venetian Government, driven from its possessions on the land, could still bid defiance to the Confederacy of Cambray from the arsenal amid the lagoons. More than one great and well appointed army, which regarded the shepherds of Switzerland as an easy prey, has perished in the passes of the Alps.

Here the philosophy of Frontiers is demonstrated by concrete facts.

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