The Congress of Berlin Fan

Nominated by: Robert Bandy

An international yet very personal triumph, hidden away in Buckinghamshire.

The Hughenden Fan was presented to Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield at the conclusion of the Congress of Berlin in 1878.  In an effort to curb Russian aggression towards the Ottoman Empire, the German Chancellor, Bismarck, drew the leaders of Europe together at Berlin in June 1878.  The Queen was concerned at her dear but unwell friend travelling, but for Disraeli, the lure of performing his role as the elder statesman of Europe was too tempting.

The only power able to reverse Russian advances to the Mediterranean coast was Britain.  The Ottoman Empire was widely regarded as the ‘sick man of Europe’, and looked to Disraeli to defend her integrity.  With health failing, Disraeli rose to this most crucial occasion, securing concession after concession from the Russians, with each new border being drawn to British instruction and liking.  Bismarck himself acknowledged the skill of Disraeli to carry the Congress so forcefully.  The Congress drew to a close in mid-July, as Disraeli’s health began to deteriorate swiftly.  The Queen herself rushed his doctors from London to his bedside, who made him well enough to be walked to the final document for signing.  Although physically diminished, Disraeli’s international prestige, and that of his British administration reached new heights.  He wrote to the Queen that ‘he had assisted in bringing about a settlement which will probably secure the peace of Europe for a long time, and will certainly not disgrace your Majesty’s throne’. 

Although incorrect in his assumption of long-lasting peace, the role of the British in steering the future of Europe was cemented.  The Ottoman government was so delighted with the resolution that they directed their delegate Mahomet Ali to present his Cherrywood fan to Disraeli as a keepsake.  Ali encouraged the other European leaders to each sign a blade of the fan as a memento, acknowledgement of his greatest achievement on the international stage.  Disraeli brought the fan to Hughenden where it remains, reminding us of his special relationship with this place, this town and county. 

Hughenden is where one of Buckinghamshire’s most eminent sons chose to look upon his greatest achievements. It serves as a poignant narration of Britain’s relationship with Europe and empire, of how our international self-regard has changed and particularly how through force of personality, international history may be influenced.  Perhaps most chillingly, it illustrates that difficulties in the relationship between Europe and the Islamic near east are not new.  Generations of statesman, the most able of their age, have grappled and negotiated.  Some, like Disraeli even felt that they may have secured a lasting peace.  The fan reminds us however, how difficult these relationships are, and how some personalities glitter in their engagement with them, but that in the end, resolution remains out of reach.

You can learn more about Hughenden and its collection on their website.

The Congress of Berlin Fan was nominated by Robert Bandy, House and Collections Manager, for Hughenden.