Lawrence, Thomas Edward

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Lawrence, Thomas Edward

Lawrence, Thomas Edward (1888-1935)

Welsh archeologist, soldier, and memoirist The legendary Lawrence of Arabia won mass appeal for his exotic blend of British stoicism and respect for Arabs. Born in Tremadog, Caemarfonshire, North Wales, he was the illegitimate son of Thomas Chapman, an Anglo-Irish baronet, and Sarah Junner, a governess. He was raised in Oxford with his four brothers and their parents, who called themselves Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence, and attended Oxford University. From an early age, Lawrence had an affinity for archeology and made trips to Europe and the Middle East even before he graduated. He abandoned postgraduate studies to take up an archeology post, working on excavations in Syria. Over time, he perfected his knowledge of Arabic and gained firsthand expertise in the Semitic world from explorations of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Because of his familiarity with Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, and Syria in the Ottoman Empire and with British Sudan in northeast Africa, the British military enlisted Lawrence at the beginning of World War I to serve as an intelligence officer in Cairo for the Arab Bureau of the empire's foreign office. He advanced to the rank of major as a reward for leading Arab guerrillas against the port of Aqaba in southern Jordan on July 6, 1917, and advised Winston Churchill after the war on British colonial issues. Returned home a hero, he starred in a series of lectures delivered by journalist Lowell Thomas. For anonymity, Lawrence chose the name “T. E. Shaw” for enlistment in the Royal Tank Corps and, under the alias “John Hume Ross,” he soldiered with the Royal Air Force in India on the Afghan border in the plane motor pool and reputedly as a spy. Of his military experience as an unknown recruit, he wrote in hard-bitten Joycean style The Mint: A Day-Book of the R. A. F Depot between August and December 1922 (1955), a diary of military life in the coarse camp idiom of his day. In 1923, after the press found Lawrence, he changed his name again, this time to T. E. Shaw, and joined the army. In 1925, he rejoined the RAF and served in Afghanistan. He died in a motorcycle accident on May 19, 1935, soon after leaving the RAF.

Lawrence provided details of his wartime experiences in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1922), named for a geological outcropping at Wadi Rum, a rugged valley northeast of Aqaba in southern Jordan. The narrative explains the author's part in the British plan to ally with the Arab Ali ibn Hussein, the sharif (governor) of Mecca, in an effort to beat the Germans and their Turkish allies, whom Lawrence describes as eager to “purge their Empire of such irritating subject races as resisted the ruling stamp” (Lawrence 1997, 28). The Ottoman Empire attacked Arab culture by scattering its leaders, forbidding secret societies and royal dynasties, and suppressing Arabic literature by a people who loved legend, song, and scripture. As a result, Middle Eastern Semites chafed at the denigration of clans and villagers, most of whom were fervent Muslims. In the author's opinion, the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule was a battle of ideologies: “They were fighting to get rid of Empire, not to win it” (86).

In his survey of cultural and territorial Arabic history, Lawrence made a case for an alliance of Britain with bedouin warriors. After 500 years of servitude “under the Turkish harrow” (57), desert dwellers recognized in world war an opportunity to shape an Arab world. His text introduces the commitment of British and Arab soldiers in the Middle East to one definition of victory: “We were a selfcentred army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man's creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare” (11). Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quayle, Jose Ferrer, and Claude Rains enacted autobiographical scenes from Lawrence’s writings in the David Lean-directed film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the first Oscar-winning movie to feature all-male dialogue. Ralph Fiennes starred in a subsequent TV screen version, A Dangerous Man: Lawrence after Arabia (1990).


Bivona, Daniel. British Imperial Literature, 1870-1940: Writing and the Administration of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Lawrence, T. E. The Mint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963. . Seven Pillars of Wisdom. London: Wordsworth Editions, 1997.