Lord James Rennell of Rodd, [G.C.B.], [G.C.M.G.], [G.C.V.O.], was born in 1858, the son of an enlightened Army Officer and was educated at Haileybury and Balliol College, Oxford, where like Oscar Wilde whom he came to know well, he became the close acquaintance of some of London's most fashionable artists and writers of the early 1880s - James "Jimmy" McNeil Whistler, William Morris, Burne-Jones, and Walter Sickert, among them. He was also an expert swordsman.
Rodd entered the Diplomatic Service in 1888, and served as an Attaché at Berlin from 1884, at Athens from 1888, as 2nd Secretary at Rome in 1891, and at Paris in 1892. The next year he was offered by Lord Roseberry temporary charge of the Agency at Zanzibar which carried with it the High Commissionership of the whole coastal area administered by the East Africa Company.
Though a Protectorate in name since 1891, this was scarcely recognised by the Sultan who died suddenly on the night of 5.3.1893 whilst Rodd was entertaining at the Agency. Supporters of the various claimants to the Sultanate collected and took to the streets with all the arms they could muster. Rodd immediately flashed a signal from the Agency's roof to H.M. Ships Philomel and Blanche to land all available Bluejackets and machine-guns, and, casting off his mess jacket and buckling on his revolver, was soon joined by an escort of Royal Marines with which he set off for the Palace where Seyyid Khaled, a cousin of the rightful heir, had already installed himself. On his arrival Rodd found the massive Palace doors shut in his face and the Sultan's Persian Guard in an ugly mood. He nevertheless ordered a gun to be brought up and demanded that unless the doors were opened within five minutes he would blow them in.
With time almost up, one side was opened a few inches and a voice from within announced that the British Agent might enter alone. Again Rodd's reply was unhesitating, and pushing the doors open he rushed in with a dozen Marines, arrested the pretender Seyyid Khaled and sent for the rightful heir Seyyid Hamed bin Thwain, who, having accepted certain conditions laid down by Rodd without reservation, was duly set upon the throne by Rodd as the representative of the Protecting power. 'I got to bed', wrote Rodd afterwards, 'at about 3 a.m., tolerably satisfied with the night's work. It had been a very anxious moment, as but for our timely intervention and the clockwork precision with which all the arrangements had been carried out, the adherents of the three rival pretenders would undoubtedly have sought a settlement by arms and the city would have been a scene of lawlessness ... This indeed did happen some years later when, on the death of Sultan Hamed, Khaled once more obtained possession of the Palace and had to be shelled out'. Lord Roseberry was 'entirely approving' of Rodd's actions.
In the ensuing July Rodd was further called upon to declare a Protectorate over the territory of Witu, this being carried out on the evening of the 31st when the East Africa Company's Flag was hauled down and replaced by the red Zanzibar Flag with a small Union Jack in the centre. But the Sultan of Witu, one Fumo Omari, remained defiant and using the excuse that he had committed various unspecified outrages, a British Naval Force, drawn from the Cruiser Blanche, the Sloop Swallow and Gunboat Sparrow, was assembled, and under Rodd's direction an advance made on the Sultan's strongholds of Pumwani and Jongeni. On 7 August Rodd's expedition came up against the former place and was met with a sustained fire from a well prepared position. He recalled, 'Unfortunately the shells from our 9-pounder had no apparent effect on the solid timbers of the gate. Rocket tubes were then mounted, and their fiery projectiles were discharged into the village and the stockades in so far as they could be localized. Lieutenants Fitzmaurice and Gervis were both wounded in front of the lane and a good many casualties were brought to the Doctor's station, near where I was watching events ... I have no hesitation in admitting that my first experience under fire was every bit as disagreeable as I could have anticipated. Bullets pinged into the soft banana stems round us or plunked into the earth, and I heard Fitzmaurice, who was sitting by me with a useless arm observe, "that one was pretty near you". For an hour I reflected as I smoked my pipe, that I had a pretty heavy responsiblity on my shoulders ... '
In 1894, with work in Zanzibar and Witu successfully accomplished, Rodd was appointed to Cairo where he acted as Agent and Consul-General, before being selected in 1897 to lead a mission to King Menelik of Abyssinia, the principal objective of which was to ensure that wily monarch's neutrality during the Campaign of re-conquest in the Sudan. Rodd was accompanied on this successful mission by Count Gleichen, the author of Mission to Menelik. Returning to Cairo he served as Secretary to the Legation until 1901, when he returned to Italy as a Councillor at the Rome Embassy. In 1903 he was made C.V.O. for services rendered at the Embassy. From 1904 to 1908 he was H.M.'s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary at Stockholm, and in 1905 was advanced to G.C.V.O. for services in connection with the marriage of H.R.H. Princess Margaret of Connaught to H.R.H. Prince Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden.
In 1908 Rodd received his most testing appointment, that of Ambassador to the Court of Italy, for only a few months after taking up the job, a large part of the south of the country was devastated by the Messina Earthquake. His skill as a diplomat was truly tested at this time, and it was largely due to him that 'Great Britain was able to give so much financial and material aid - without offending the sensibilities of the Italian Government'. Awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus, Rodd retained the post of British Ambassador in Rome for the next 11 years, an unusually lengthy term. During the Great War he played a vital role in helping to preserve the atmosphere of mutual confidence that existed between Rome and London and which was of such importance to the Allied cause.
In 1920 he accompanied Lord Milner's Mission to Egypt; and the following year became the first British Delegate to the newly created League of Nations. From 1928 until raised to the peerage as Baron Rennell of Rodd, in the County of Herefordshire, in 1933, he represented Marylebone as a Tory M.P., whilst continuing to add to his sizeable literary output which included historical biographies, autobiography (Social and Diplomatic Memoirs, series I to III), travel books, and numerous poetical works. He died in 1941.