On the 22nd June 1897, Queen Victoria of Great Britain, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India, Ruler of British Dominions beyond the Seas, arrived at the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, to give thanks for the greatest empire ever known. The representatives of an imperial cast awaited her there. Bishops of the Church of England, fluttered their hymn sheets and remembered half a century of Christian effort, the suppression of slavery and the conversion of heathen tribes. Generals and admirals blazed with medals and remembered half a century of successful campaigning in Egypt or India against Ashanti tribesmen or Maori chiefs. There were aged proconsuls of empire, bronzed or emaciated by a tropical lifetime. There were scholars from Oxford and Cambridge, these twin powerhouses of British ideology. There were poets, musicians and propagandists whose transcendental theme of the day was the splendour of Imperial Britain.
Two great soldiers commanded the guard of honour, on the south side of the cathedral steps, upon a brown charger, was Field Marshal Lord Wolseley of Cairo, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army who, after 50 years constant campaigning, cut a fairly melancholy figure aged 64. On the north side on a grey Arab, which had carried him victoriously at Kandahar, Pretoria and Waterford, was Lord “Bob” Roberts of Kandahar, veteran of two Afghan wars, the Indian Mutiny, and the Abyssinian expedition. Behind these field marshals, like legionnaires from Imperial Rome, soldiers from every part of the Queen’s empire honoured the Royal Presence.
Some of the colonial coloured infantry seemed to be half crippled by the unaccustomed boots. One of the Maori riflemen weighed 28 stones. A Dyak from Borneo had, in his former occupation, taken 13 human heads.
Since the firing of the celebratory guns in Hyde Park, that morning, all London had waited in great expectancy for this moment. The greatest of capital cities, on a climactic day in its history. Vast crowds had applauded the Queen, in her procession, as she made her way from Buckingham Palace, to St. Paul’s Cathedral in a plain open landau, beneath a parasol of white lace.
Among huge crowds, at a balcony window on Ludgate Hill, survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade 43 years previous in the Crimean War had assembled to offer their now frail allegiance. In their number was Sergeant William Jones aged 70 who had set out for London 3 weeks earlier from Reportage, Ontario, Canada.
Buildings were emblazoned with loyal slogans “One Race One Queen”, “God Bless our Sovereign”, “Her Most Gracious Majesty Grand and Glorious innings 60 not out” proclaimed the premises of one sports goods emporium.
In the Strand crowds were singing “Soldiers of the Queen”. A troop of dragoons dismounted for a long halt and found a bottle of whisky lowered to them on a string from a first floor window followed by showers of cigarettes. The ordinary life of the grey and ancient city, its smoky skies illuminated that day by fitful sunshine virtually ceased for the occasion. Everything was set aside until tomorrow, in a glow of boastful, exuberance, affection gratitude and self congratulation.
On arrival at St. Paul's, the Queen was greeted by her own son Albert Edward, the future King Edward VII, mounted, feathered and carrying a marshal’s baton. The Queen was 78 years old and it had at one time been mooted that her carriage be hauled up the steps and inside St. Paul’s, however this was not practical or dignified and so the service was held outside on the steps. The Queen remaining in her seat. The accumulated history of 1000 years gave dignity to her courtly presence.
The power, wealth, beauty, gusto and arrogance of an empire swirled about her carriage. That day not merely a congregation, nor even a kingdom, but one quarter of the world figuratively, sang its loyalty, giving patriotic thanks to a God, who seemed, despite his foreign origins, to have given ample proof that he was thoroughly British. The excuse for this grandiloquent jamboree (the first Pan-Britannic festival), was the Queen’s diamond jubilee. The possession of an overseas empire had become the prime cause of national pride. The historian Sir John Seeley had observed that the British Empire was acquired in a “fit of absence of mind” meaning that it had been acquired gradually, almost incidentally, in piecemeal conquest, diplomatic swaps, penal settlements, for the convenience of trade or hopes of evangelism. One petty acquisition led to another and to secure one possession its neighbour was annexed.
By 1897 the British had proved themselves the most gifted, resolute and formidable people of their day. Their military supremacy had given the world, during Victorian times a general peace (pax Britannica). Small wars there had been by the dozen but no international conflicts.
A list of heroes had brought an unsurpassed reputation in war ; Nelson and Wellington; in letters, Shelley, Keats, Byron, Tennyson and Dickens; in art Turner and Constable; in science, Darwin, Faraday and Lister and in politics Palmerston and Disraeli. It had been an age of giants and Britain was probably respected in the world as no other country had ever been.
Now at the end of this triumphant century, suddenly, Empire was all the rage, fostered by a “fin-de-siècle” gaudy attitude. The new ‘Penny Press’ preached to a newly literate audience promoting Empire as a circulation builder. In the 1895 general election the Conservatives had won handsomely on a bold imperialist platform. Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury and Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain arranged the Great parade of Jubilee as a grand slam of imperialism. “England without an Empire “ Chamberlain had once proclaimed “Can you Conceive it”? It was a universal craze. The Daily Mail, the mouthpiece of the masses, and also The Times the traditional organ of the ruling classes both were rampantly imperialist.
The Queen-Empress herself, after 60 years of fluctuating popularity, had achieved an almost sacred status, even her mortality was ignored so hard was it to imagine a Britain without her plump and pouch-eyed sovereignty.
Queen and Empire had become synonymous. In Britain at this time, only a few radical thinkers, advanced economists, Irishmen and wild poets objected to the idea of Empire. Morally and politically it was accepted that Britons had a perfect right to impose their rule on less fortunate foreigners. .
The diamond jubilee was not merely a celebration of the glorious present. It announced a yet more tremendous future, a reawakening, a renaissance.
Queen Victoria’s empire embraced nearly a quarter of the earths landmass, and a quarter of its population. The overseas empire was 90 times larger than the little mother country, and during Victoria’s own reign it had expanded from some 2 million square miles to more than 11 million square miles. The most rabid of the imperial activists saw almost no limit to its future expansion. Cecil Rhodes, the South African empire builder was already dreaming of colonising the solar system “I would annexe the planets if I could” he said, “I often think of that”.
There had never been an empire remotely like it before. “No Caesar or Charlemagne” Disraeli once said “ever presided over a dominion so peculiar”. It was strewn in a colossal muddle across the hemispheres, so that the map of the world was splurged untidily and apparently illogically with imperial red.
In effect there were two separate empire, on the one hand was the western (in a cultural sense) empire. This consisted for the most part in English settlements overseas, together with the old plantation colonies having a substantial ruling white class i.e. From the Dominion of Canada to the small islands of the Caribbean.
The Eastern empire was something else. This was empire of an older kind - despotic, raciest with white men on top and coloured men below. Its fulcrum and exemplar was India which had been conquered by swashbucklers and opportunists but was now governed with frigid rectitude. British rule was “more than just kind”.
Among the founders of the British Empire, none was more bizarre than the brilliant Welsh intellectual, John Dee. Mathematician and sorcerer, astronomer and alchemist, geographer and astrologer, he was acknowledged as England’s greatest authority on mathematics of navigation, introduced the cross-staff from Europe, and inspired generations of grizzled navigators to roll back the frontiers of the know world.
He was held in great esteem by such sea-dogs as Drake, Davis and Frobisher, who eagerly sought his advice and hungrily devoured his out put of maps, technical handbooks and navigational essays
But Dee’s geography was essentially speculative. He was a firm believer in the fabled southern continent which was said to lie in the Pacific to counterbalance the weight of the northern land-masses, and staunchly supported the theory that there was a navigable Northeast Passage to China.
The doctor was, however, more than theorist and scientist; he also had a credulous faith in the powers of alchemy and sorcery. For years he struggled to transform base metals into gold and discover the elixir of life. He firmly believed he could use “impious and damnable magick” to conjure infernal spirits who would impart all knowledge and power. Many, indeed, thought that, like Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Dee had made a pact with the Devil in return for the services of demons.
Queen Elizabeth I, like most of her countrymen, took such powers seriously: she appointed him Royal Adviser on Mystic Secrets and loved to visit him in his Thames-side house at Mortlake to discuss astrology.
Tragically his contributions to English expansion were soon forgotten and he died in abject poverty, aged 81, still mesmerised by the gobbledegook of medieval “science”. Yet in one way, he was the greatest visionary of Tudor England: long before it became a reality, he was talking confidently about a “British Empire” and hustling off navigators to claim it.
Also if Britain did not acquire undeveloped territories of the world other Western powers certainly would. To poor people in Britain, Empire was largely a consolation to their lack of bread. The slums of London were horrific, the industrial cities of the Midlands and North whose labourers were the foundation of all this glory, were among the saddest of man’s artefacts. The countryside, so idyllic looking, hid grinding poverty in agricultural workers. Patriotism not religion was the opiate of the proletariat