This is the story of the greatest empire the world has ever known, is a story of brilliant contrasts, of triumph and disaster, of wise rule and bitter oppression, a story that shows what Britain took from the world but also what it GAVE to the world. For a chronological overview of the development of the burgeoning empire CLICK HERE to view a TIMELINE of events.
The Empire’s first magnificent era dawned with the exploits of Elizabeth 1st’s daredevil explorers. These men charted the icy wastes of the arctic, braved Indian deserts on foot and voyaged south to hurl their challenges in to the face of Spain. Spain still claimed half the world as her own God-given right, but it trembled in the face of a tubby red-faced Cornishman by the name of Francis Drake whom, the Spaniards called “El Draque”. ‘The Dragon’.
Towering ambition and greed has its evil sides, see how the traders of the East India Company, dazzled by the wealth of the Mughal empire, made fortunes out of the vulnerable and simple Indians. Read one of history’s grizzliest episodes of how sea captains, crammed the fetid airless holds of their ships with African slaves for sale across the Atlantic. In the 3 centuries of slavery, more than 3 million Negroes died, many of them in British vessels.
Trace Britain’s great power struggles with France, which reverberated across the world. In North America, General James Wolfe led a British Army up a cliff path to seize Canada from the French. In India, it was a pro-French rajah who threw 123 Britisher's into a sweltering 18 foot square dungeon, in Calcutta and let them suffocate.
Did you know that Captain Cook, when putting Australia on the world map around 1770, actually sailed to quell the French challenge in the Pacific.
After Napoleon was defeated, and the French bogey had been laid, Britain began a new century of unprecedented imperial expansion.
In 1857 Indian soldiers, distressed by the British reforms ( including the need to bite the tops off ammunition coated in pig fat) plunged the continent into a round of bloodletting and convinced many Englishmen that an enlightened if more remote rule was the only way to guarantee peace. The 50 years after the Indian Mutiny were a monument, not only to British power but also to the highest ideals of imperial service. Yet the British nation which had produced moralists and humanitarian reformers also produced unscrupulous fortune hunters.
Elsewhere, Britain expanded voraciously. In New Zealand the fiercely independent Maoris were crushed and then incorporated into the world’s first welfare state. In Australia settlers rushed headlong to search for gold, railways drove westward across Canada and explorers like Livingstone focused Britain’s attention on the African interior.
South Africa was the setting for the greatest disasters of the late 19th Century. In 1879, The Zulus, Black Spartans, armed only with spears overran a British Army, because ammunition boxes were so rusty they could not be opened quickly enough. Then the patriarchal Boers, the best mounted infantry since the Mongol Hordes, as Churchill called them, won their independence by humiliating the British at Majuba Hill.
The same struggle broke out again in 1899, the spectre of defeat for the British loomed large as the Boers proved frighteningly adept at guerilla warfare. It took two more years and the introduction of the first concentration camps before victory was won.
Queen Victoria now ruled impassively over one quarter of the land surface of the globe. British rule seemed to many to be God-given and immutable.
It was not to last, many of the people, who believed the empire to be indestructible were alive to see the whole gigantic edifice gradually dismantled. Built up haphazardly over centuries, the empire was dissolved in decades. There was no lasting warfare. There was, despite errors of imperial rule, little grief on any side, a lasting tribute to the men who represented the mother country overseas.
For 300 years British traders, adventurers, and politicians acquired the scattered bits of land that came to be called “the Empire”. But it was only in the 1890’s that the fact of Britain’s rule over these far flung possessions fired the imagination of her people. The “Imperial Frenzy” culminated in June 1897 at the diamond jubilee that celebrated the 60th year of Victoria’s reign. This first pages of “The British Empire” recalls the concentrated emotion of jubilee year as a prelude to the extraordinary story, which will be traced in other pages of this web site of how the British came to rule over one quarter of the earths surface.
The foremost and predominant movement in art and literature during the reign of Victoria was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was an influential group of avant-garde painters associated with John Ruskin who had a great effect on British and indeed European and American art.
The Brotherhood was founded in 1849 by, among others, William Holman-Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais The work of the brotherhood reflected the thoughts of John Ruskin who wrote in praise of the artist as a prophet. They hoped to create an art suitable for the modern age...
In addition to the formal members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, other artists and authors became part of the greater pre-Raphaelite circle. These included painters Ford Maddox Brown and Charles Collins, the poet Christina Rossetti and the artistic and social critic John Ruskin.
The second form of Pre-Raphaelites, developed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was Asethetic pre-Raphaelites, which in its turn produced the ‘Arts and Crafts movement’, modern functional design, the Aesthetes and the Decadents. Rossetti and his follower Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) emphasised themes of eroticised medievalism and pictorial techniques producing a moody atmosphere. This form of Pre- Raphaelitesim had most relevance to poetry; for although the earlier combination of a realistic style with elaborate symbolism appears in a few poems, particularly those of the Rossetti’s, this second stage finally had the most influence upon literature.
Poets who were associated with the Pre-Raphaelite painters included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, George Meredith and Algernon Swinburne.
THUGGEE - DISPOSE OF THE BODIES OF THEIR VICTIMS
William Wilberforce, a devout Christian, led a campaign in the British parliament to eradicate slavery, and succeeded in 1834
In India, British officials ended the murderous activities of the “Thuggee” who strangled some 10,000 wayfarers every year. A notorious leader was very disappointed to be arrested as he was about to achieve a coveted ambition, the brutal murder of his 1000’th victim!