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Queen Victoria's Empire : History : The Scramble for Africa

The Scramble for Africa

Queen Victoria
Queen Victoria
In the late, chill spring of 1886, with morning frost still on the ground at eleven, the Queen left Windsor by private train early on May 4 to open the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in South Kensington. Her entourage traveled in state carriages from Paddington, passing excited and cheering crowds. The exhibition stood for everything that W. E. Gladstone, again her prime minister, disliked about British colonial involvement -- exoticism, exploitation, public expense, and the exaltation of the misnamed White Man's Burden. There was an Indian Hall, and a facsimile native "Bazaar," and exhibits from Australia, Canada, Africa, and other red-tinted swatches of the globe. For the public flocking to the exhibition, few of whom had ever traveled more than a handful of miles beyond their homes, the event offered a glimpse of Imperial England across the seas, especially an introduction to the Dark Continent of Africa. For Victoria, who would never venture farther south from England than France and Italy, it was a tactile introduction to the Empire that she would never see, a trip into her imperial fantasies. Leaning upon the Prince of Wales, and upon her oaken walking stick, she progressed through exhibitors "in the richest, brightest costumes," was greeted by salaams, and by bands that struck up as she passed them. Then she went on to the Albert Hall for a formal celebration of the occasion, with an ode for the occasion by Lord Tennyson set to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan. "An Address to the Queen" was read by the Prince of Wales, and the Queen replied briefly. Speeches, prayers, and hymns followed, and finally "Rule, Britannia," sung with fervor. No one inside the Hall seemed a convert to Gladstone's unpopular doctrine of diminishing Empire.
Hulton Getty Picture Archive.

The Queen's experience of colonial Africa had been even more direct two years earlier when the deposed and captured Zulu chieftain Cetewayo had been brought to England. His poorly armed tribesmen had embarrassingly defeated the British in the area since called Natal, and the British had returned in force. There was no way that the Zulus could prevent the relentless encroachment of British and Boer settlements on Zulu lands. They would be forced, as the chief civil servant in the region, Sir Theophilus Shepstone described it, for the sake of order and progress "to submit to the rule of civilisation." Yet chaos had followed instead, and, lacking realistic alternatives, the British wanted to restore Cetewayo as a puppet king. He was brought by the imperial authorities from Cape Town to London in 1882, to be overawed by British might. With two of his aides, Cetewayo disembarked wearing as much civilized dress as could be managed for him, and was escorted about London in morning coat, topper, and bare feet. He met Gladstone at Downing Street and was taken by train and steamer to the Isle of Wight to meet the Queen at Osborne House. Through an interpreter she told him that she "recognised in him a great warrior, who had fought against us, but rejoiced we were now friends." After some further commonplaces, the interview terminated, and the three Zulus departed, raising their right hands in a Zulu royal salute. Afterwards a London reporter asked Cetewayo his opinion of the Queen. "She is born to rule men," he said, simply. "She is like me. We are both rulers. She was very kind to me and I will always think of her." He would have little time for that. There was civil war in his kingdom on his return; he had to flee to British protection, to what he called an "armpit," where he died of an apparent heart ailment early in 1884.

Victoria's contact with another regional king would be less direct. In 1887, the year of her first Jubilee, she received a message from Chief Letsie of Basutoland (now Lesotho), who appealed for help against the marauding Boers. He compared her, having had experience of missionaries, to the Queen of Sheba. Years earlier, his father Chief Moshesh had also appealed for help against Boer plunderers, describing his people humbly as "only lice in the Queen's blanket." British troubles with the Dutch settlers called Boers -- farmers -- had existed since the Cape Colony had been annexed in 1806, and the Boers had trekked north to dispossess the Black inhabitants, enslave many of them, and establish colonies they called the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State. With the discovery of gold and diamonds in the Boer Witswatersrand, British exploiters came north, and the lands seesawed back and forth in sovereignty, Gladstone eager to give them back. The "Randlords" up from the Cape openly plotted otherwise.
A scene from the Scramble for Africa
A scene from the Scramble for Africa

A number of territories in Africa, quarreled over by European nations that cynically carved them up over inadequate maps in remote conference rooms thousands of miles away, would swing back and forth in effective sovereignty. What gains there were in national pride and access to raw materials would often be offset by the high costs. One British example had been Egypt and the Sudan, where indigenous uprisings threatened to oust the British, who had themselves ousted the French. In 1884, the year of the Colonial Exhibition, General Charles ("Chinese") Gordon, a hero of the Crimea and the Taiping Rebellion in Shanghai, was sent for a second time to Africa, where he had helped to suppress, at least temporarily, the slave trade in the Upper Nile. His new task was to evacuate British residents from Khartoum, where they were threatened by Sudanese rebels led by an Islamic mystic known as the Mahdi. Gordon arrived with his force just as Khartoum came under siege, and a month later, on January 26, 1885, the Sudanese broke through and murdered the defenders, displaying Gordon's head on a pike. Because Gladstone had been so slow to send help to the doomed and quirky Gordon, Victoria was publicly outraged. The fanatically religious Gordon became, briefly, a martyr and saint, but the Mahdi had little time to enjoy his victory, succumbing to a fever five months later. Only in 1898 were the Mahdist forces defeated at Omdurman by an army under Sir Horatio Kitchener. A cavalry subaltern under him was a young imperialist named Winston Churchill. British dominance resumed.

In December 1895, new trouble had arisen for the British to the west. In the Ashanti tribal country, King Prempeh of Kumasi was raiding the Gold Coast for slaves, a human dilemma still ongoing in the twenty-first century. The Ashanti wars of the 1870s had largely pacified the foreshore, where the British had been trading for two centuries, but the Imperial sway did not extend very far inland from Accra. A new military expedition was organized, and the Queen's son-in-law Liko -- Prince Henry of Battenberg, Princess Beatrice's husband -- wanted to go. Bored with his life as an elevated gentleman-in-waiting, he appealed to the Queen, who told him "it would never do." Still, he went personally to the War Office, and received a staff assignment. Victoria warned him of the unhealthy climate of equatorial western Africa, but he left anyway, joining the main column of the British force on December 27, 1895. The heat was intense. Three weeks later, Liko was dead of fever, and on February 3, 1896 his body, preserved in rum in a makeshift tank of biscuit tins, arrived back in England for burial. The price of Africa was high.
A scene from a Scramble for Africa
A scene from a Scramble for Africa

Far to the southeast on the frontier with the Transvaal Republic, a motley amateur British force backed by mining entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes and led by Dr. Leander Starr Jameson had been attempting to sir up a war with the Boers in order to reincorporate the landlocked highlands, rich in mineral wealth, into the Empire. They crossed the unmarked border on December 29, 1895, and were captured easily on January 2, 1896, near the boomtown of Johannesburg. Victoria was not amused. Tensions in southern Africa remained high even after Jameson's raiders were released, and the Queen with some reluctance suggested that her Government review British legal status in the Transvaal. Such rights were only a scrap of paper, but in the year of Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, 1897, the Uitlanders in the Witswatersrand raised a bronze monument to Her Gracious Majesty. The next year, Uitlanders sent a petition to the Queen asking for protection from the Boer regime, and in the face of what seemed legitimate grievances and pretexts about national humiliation raised by radicals in the Cape Colony, Britain was soon at war to reclaim what was suzerainty rather than effective rule. The conflict would be a long and severe embarrassment for Britain. Viscount Wolseley, a general on the scene, assured the Queen blandly, "I still cling to the idea that the end we shall have no serious fighting." The costly war, against shrewd but outnumbered guerrillas who knew their terrain, and opposed inadequately prepared and poorly led British troops shipped out in vast numbers, outlasted the Queen. When she died in January 1901 it was still going on. When the war ended the next year and the British unified South Africa under the Union Jack, it would be a paradoxical victory. The defeated Afrikaners would have a larger country to run. At the bottom of Africa, the decline and dismemberment of the British Empire was beginning.

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