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Queen Victoria's Empire : The Changing Empire : James



Lawrence James
Lawrence James
The following is from an interview conducted for the filming of "Queen Victoria's Empire." It is an actual transcript of the interviewee speaking; hence, much of the text may seem informally constructed.

Q: What was the British Empire like when Victoria came to the throne?

A: When she came to the throne, she was Queen over a rag bag collection of territories overseas. Britain is primarily a trading power. [M]ost of its exports are to territories which we don't possess -- foreign countries, in other words. What we do have is a string of naval bases encompassing the whole world. The Royal Navy can dominate every ocean -- Gibraltar, Malta, Cape Colony, and later, Hong Kong. The Navy is a vital partner in trade. If you're a British businessman, shall we say, doing business in the Argentine, and your stock is seized by some local official, eventually the Navy will come to your assistance. So the Navy is a vital accessory to Britain's global trading. Then you've got real estate, you've got the Sugar Islands in the West Indies, Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados. These are on the verge of bankruptcy when Victoria becomes Queen. Britain's abolished slavery, and the British public, by a supreme irony, prefer to buy the cheap sugar produced by slaves in Spanish Cuba rather than the more expensive variety produced by free men on British territory. Then there are the white colonies -- Canada, Australia, Newfoundland, New Zealand, the Cape, where there are British settlers. We export people, as it were, and the case of Australia, a large number of criminals are sent there to begin a new life. These are the sort of fledgling dominions. And last and largest is India. Over the past hundred years, the East India Company, which began as a trading concern, has transformed itself into a government with its own administration, its own army and vast revenue from taxation. And in the first 15 or so years of Victoria's reign, the company's armies complete the conquest of India. Sort of crab-like movement across the subcontinent, and in 1849, when the Sikhs -- the largest independent state -- has been destroyed, the Commander of the British Army…talks to his soldiers and he says, you have done what Alexander the Great has never, could never achieve. You have conquered India. Now this wasn't conquest for its own sake. British officials in India, the government in London, Parliament itself believe that the British were in India as a sort of trustee. [There's a] very strong feeling that Britain was having, gaining control of India. The next stage was…the complete regeneration, rebuilding of the nation. The British Government of India was altruistic [and] helped make a profit, but nevertheless, it hoped that in the long term, India would be reborn, as it were, under British guidance.

Q: What is Victoria like when she first comes to the throne?

Victoria comes to the throne at a time when the prestige of the monarchy is drooping. Her two uncles, George IV and William IV, lush, heavy drinking, womanizers [are not] in touch with their people. She comes to throne, I think, aware that she's got to try and rescue the monarchy, she's got to make it a Christian monarchy. She is a deeply religious woman, and she sees herself as a Christian ruler over a Christian people, and leading them by moral example. And also she is a member of the aristocracy, she's a paternalist, she sees she has a kind of moral duty to look after her people. Almost in the way, you know, that a benevolent squire might look after his peasants. She has this sort of interest in the their daily lives, their every day lives. And also…she shows us throughout her reign [that] she makes no differentiation amongst her subjects. Whether they're English, Scottish, Australian, African or Indian, she sees them as part…of [an] extended family of which she is the matriarch.

Q: Prince Albert died when Victoria was still quite young. How did she react when he died?

A: What she does quite famously is withdraw from public life. She makes very few public appearances, and becomes almost so secretive that you have a republican movement beginning to grow up in certain left wing Liberal circles in this country by the late 1860s. [M]onarchs tend not to show their emotions, although they're trained not to. I think you could say one effect, the most touching one, is that for the rest of her life, she sleeps with Albert's nightshirt beside her on her pillow. So there was obviously a very powerful emotional and physical attachment. And its severance was quite shattering.

Q: With regard to the Empire, would you say that Britain saw itself acting to civilise the rest of the world?

A: Yes. Britain is a democracy, it has become one by about 1886, and the British people wish to know why their government is behaving in a certain way. If it is acquiring more territory, if it is fighting wars, then they'd like to know the reason. And the simple reason is development of the older idea of Britain as the agent of civilization. Britain is bringing peace and order and stability to the world, to distant regions. In 1896, when the British forces were moving up the Niger River and occupying areas of Northern Nigeria, the Globe -- which was a weekly magazine -- printed a picture of Islamic princes swearing on the Koran that they would renounce slavery. And the caption said, "Here we see our civilizing mission in action." And of course, people liked to read about this. And it made them, if you like, feel good, and also gave a higher purpose to what otherwise might seem to be a rather sordid business of land grabbing.

Q: How successful was Britain in the transfer of ideas, concepts and institutions?

A: Britain is exporting, I suppose, in this period its ideas about law, government, education. The export is very slow, although you may have a growth of universities certainly and schools in India, the development of a transport system. These things actually move slowly and the same with medical services. And they are very expensive. Empire is not seen as a charity. We are not, no British government is going to write out a check to build a hospital in Lagos. The Empire, it is hoped will be self supporting as it is many politicians are very irritable about the sheer cost of administration and of garrisoning the empire. So that in terms of bringing about regeneration in the way that everyone hoped this is slow. And it's uneven progress. Very uneven. And you have the creation -- I mean India is, it sets the pace. There are parts of Africa, at the end of Victoria's reign, which are nominally under her rule, who inhabitants are very rarely if at all, seen a white man.

Q: What was the scramble for Africa all about?

A: The scramble for Africa is, in a sense, based on a general vision that people had in the 1870s and 1880s. That within the dark continent, about which little was known, there were lots and lots of King Solomon's mines. And you just only had to go there and find them, and there was riches waiting for everyone. At the same time, early explorers like Stanley were coming back and saying that these Africans were just waiting to buy British goods or whatever. And that here were great markets waiting, great raw materials. So greed was aroused, and at the same time, large parts of East and West Africa slavery still existed, so there was a moral cause. And of course, there was intertribal warfare. So you could roll all these together, and you got…greed, moral principle and the hope that you were doing something for the betterment of humanity. These run together and Britain, France, Germany, oddly enough, the King of the Belgians, who is almost a sort of private entrepreneurial empire. And Germany gets involved. Up go the explorers, usually with the machine guns, and a pocket full of treaties. They come back, the treaties are looked at, diplomats sit over a map and draw lines neatly on the map, and withdraw to supper.

Q: How did the press of the day affect the way people saw Africa?

A: After 1870, you got mass education in Britain, and by 1890, you got mass newspapers. And wars sell newspapers. And so the average reader's interest in the Empire was whenever there was a war. Newspapers had their own correspondents, war artists, [and] by the 1890s, they were able to reproduce photographs. And so the public is treated to…acts of derring-do, and splendid battles and wonderful tales of pipers leading highlanders up hillsides on the Northwest Frontier. And lots and lots of excitement. And people liked reading about this, and it's quite revealing actually [for] the Sudan war of 1898, a film cameraman [went] out [to photograph it]. Cameramen go out to the Boer War as well, and [were] actually showing film back in the sort of fairground cinemas that were being established at the time. People go along and watch a few flickering images of lancers galloping across the Veldt or whatever. It was very exciting. And you had another form of war reporting that's often forgotten now, in which soldiers at the front used to write back home. And say, you know, "Dear mum," and describe what's been happening, and the family would take this along to the local newspaper, which would publish it. So you had a local boy, you know, out there on the Northwest Frontier and his story. They sometimes used to make them up, and they got into a great deal of trouble when they invented atrocities in the hope that this would interest readers, which of course it did. And also the government.

Q: What was Gordon's mission in Sudan, and what did it end up becoming?

A: The British government ordered General Charles Gordon to evacuate the Egyptian army from the Sudan. It had failed to repress a rebellion led by the Mahdi, a Messianic, fundamentalist Muslim leader. Gordon's orders were to bring what was left of the Egyptian army back into Egypt. Gladstone saw there was no point whatsoever in Britain fighting a war to control an area of sand. And Gladstone the liberal realized that the Sudanese were people fighting for their own freedom. Gordon did not see it that way. He arrived in Khartoum, announced he would stay, dug his heels in and informed the government that the, the Muslims would run away if they saw a single British Redcoat. Which turned out to be untrue in fact. What he was saying was, "Here I represent civilization. Is Britain going to abandon the Sudan to slavery and war and strife?" And the public responded. They thought Gordon was the champion of Christianity, the Christian warrior if you like, as he was normally seen. And the government was forced to send a relief force to try and help him. Amusingly, Gordon said, make sure that the soldiers wear some red coats, because he believed that the Sudanese would not recognise a soldier as being British unless he was wearing red. As a result, at least 30 men of the Royal Sussex Regiment suffered pure hell in temperatures of 100 to 120 degrees.

Q: How does the Gordon saga impact the British psyche?

A: Well it's, first of all, once the expedition set off to save Gordon it became the press story of all time. British Soldiers dashing across the desert, some of them on camels, to save this Christian hero embattled on the banks of the Nile. And this was how the public saw the tale. There were desperate battles, this was the war of the fuzzy-wuzzys, the Hadendower [?sp.?] warriors who had their hair greased and puffed out, who used to charge pell-mell into Gatling guns. It was very exciting. At the same time there was the rush, the dash to Khartoum, which the first gun boat arrives two days late. Then stories come back to Britain of Gordon's death and he is transformed into a martyr and very quickly he is, artists represent him standing on the steps of the residency unarmed, aloof, looking down his nose at the mass of spear waving dervishes underneath. This was, if you like, the Empire's first martyr. And he did it in great style. Interestingly British intelligence discovered that Gordon had in fact been shot dead during an exchange of fire. But it was decided that what might be a very honorable soldier's death, could be put on one side and instead you have this rather spectacular unarmed man representing civilisation standing in front of a ferocious mob. Queen Victoria and everyone in Britain wanted to know what happened to Gordon. And British intelligence operatives were able to get into Khartoum and find out something about his last moments. Those who got out, a very risky mission, came back and said, well he'd been killed in an exchange of fire, gunfire at the residency. And, which was of course an honorable death for a soldier. But it was thought that this story could be put safely on one side because there was another, more attractive version, completely unsubstantiated, that he'd appeared in full dress uniform unarmed on the steps of the residency and faced this ferocious mob of spear armed dervishes. One…hurls a spear at him, and he falls dead. And this is the icon [that] British artists quickly reproduced, and [he] became, if you like, the first Christian imperial martyr. The men who actually saw him die, 40 years later told British officers in the Sudan that he'd in fact died firing his revolver in a corridor in a skirmish. But…it's much better, if you like, almost cinematographic, to have him standing there, [the] noble, upright, champion of England meeting his fate.

Q: How would you describe John Cecil Rhodes?

A: Cecil Rhodes was half a visionary and half a scoundrel. He was an extraordinarily greedy man. It's recorded that once on an expedition in Southern Africa he was sleeping alongside a British officer and there was one blanket between them, and throughout the night Rhodes always managed to get the whole blanket leaving his colleague to remain cold. Rhodes always wanted to get his hands on other people's property. He was also a visionary. He believes that the white Anglo-Saxon race is destined to rule the world. And particularly Southern Africa. And he uses his vast bank balance and his check book to bring this about. As an individual, he always claimed that he thought big and dreamed big, which in effect meant that he was a natural empire builder. Of course, a streak of ruthlessness helped. Rhodes believes that it's Britain's destiny to dominate Southern Africa. It's Britain's destiny because as an Anglo-Saxon race they're rather better, he thinks, at ruling than other people. He also sees the heartlands of Southern Africa, the area south of the Zambezi as full of minerals. After all, they found a lot in the Transvaal the Witwatersrand Goldmines -- can't there be goldmines in [the] area [that] was once called Matabeleland and Mashonaland? There's hidden wealth in them hills, Rhodes believes. And at the same time he sees the, these as empty countries. He forgets about the native inhabitants completely. He sees them, this land being taken over by white farmers, and sometimes his vision tells him that the poor of Britain, Britain's slums, can literally be transported out and brought to Africa and set up as independent farmers. [He's] creating his dream of a great white dominion stretching from the Zambezi to the Cape.

Q: What did Queen Victoria think of Rhodes?

A: She was very, I think, discreet, as she often is. What the royal family then and now actually thinks about certain things is something [that] the public is not told. What we get are repeated conversations, bits of gossip, etc. So the Queen, while accepting the idea of empire and I think believing its ideals, may have had, as many people did, reservations about some of the methods employed. Rhodes' methods aroused a great deal of criticism. There were reports during the 1896 Matabele war of massacres, which were not entirely untrue. And there was a widespread suspicion that this sort of activity lead to gratuitous brutality. But remember, all the time there are journalists and members of the House of Commons who pounce on these incidents and give them publicity. You couldn't get away with outrages even in the remotest frontiers.

Q: How would you assess Rhodes impact on Britain?

A: Rhodes [was] a contributor to a change in people's thinking. And I don't think it's a change for the good. Before his time, people had thought of the British nation as having an empire and exporting…what was good about that nation. For instance, the respect for individual rights. Rhodes and those like him at the end of the 19th century were talking about the Anglo-Saxon race. And that's very different. Racial characteristics are inherited, they're biological. And Rhodes and some of those who spoke about the destiny of the Anglo-Saxons were moving into an area by which they said there is some kind of racial superiority here. I mean it's one thing to say the British are a superior people because their experience has led them to develop institutions [that] are very good for running societies. It's another thing to say that there is one race [that] inherently has a right to rule for some genetic reason. And I think there is this strong element in Rhodes and those who thought like him.

Q: When the Queen dies, what is the state of empire at that time?

A: Queen Victoria's death was seen by many as the passing of an era. I mean it's summed up very nicely in Noel Coward's play "Cavalcade," in which those who watch the funeral somehow sense they're witnessing the end of an age. But her empire never looked stronger. Certainly, if you looked at the school room map, there were more bits of scarlet on it than there ever had been. And in some schoolrooms, they also had little charts [that] showed [that] the Royal Navy was twice as large as that of the combined fleets of Russia and France. So on the surface Britain, looked strong and powerful. The Empire is alive, as it were, and kicking. And yet medical officers who'd inspected new recruits during the Boer War had concluded that one in three British working men was unfit for military service. They were underfed, weak, and prone to disease. And people at home were wondering [how] this great imperial power [could have] a base [that] was weak. There were fears that -- people talked about it quite openly -- the imperial race was becoming weak. And if Britain was to rule the world, how could she do so when her own population, perhaps up to a quarter of it, lived in destitution. As one socialist said, the sun never sets over the British Empire; it has never risen over the slums of London. So there was a feeling that this great power needed also to look to itself and to its own population, and to improve them. And of course, by Queen Victoria's death, one quarter of the white population of the Empire live[d] in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Cape. You have seen in her reign a great Diaspora of the British people. Most people were confident that the Empire would succeed. But also in 1901, there were fears that other powers were rising up, particular Germany, which might start to put pressure on Britain to yield its primacy in the world. So that [in] the last days of the Queen's reign, there were fears and misgivings, but at the same time, enormous self confidence. And as for the people who became her subjects during her reign, I sometimes think they could have had worse fates.

Q: Sum up the Empire and the growth of the Empire under Victoria.

A: No one in 1837, I think, could have imagined the nation that would have emerged by 1901. And I think few people would have imagined the size of the Empire at that last date. Somehow, Britain had accumulated a vast amount of territory. And most of it in Africa, and with it, a strong sense there was a responsibility. That sense of moral responsibility [that] had been present in 1837 was strong in 1901. Britain still believed that it had some special duty to regenerate the world, to spread enlightenment. And that theme links the beginning of the first years of her reign with the last. At the same time, many at the very end would have wondered, was this all too much and would Britain be able to sustain the burden of managing this empire, taking care of its subjects? Of attempting somehow to improve their lives and prospects?

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