The Victorian Empire I

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The Victorian Empire I

Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire

The Age of Confidence

In 1853 an American author, George Stillman Hilliard, published a description of the English tourists he encountered in the streets and museums of Rome. His comments capture the essence of the Victorian abroad and sum up the Briton’s view of his country’s place in the world:

They walk over the land as if it were their own. There is something downright uncompromising in their air. They have the natural language of command, and their bearing flows from the proud consciousness of undisputed power. A new sense of the greatness of England is gathered from travelling on the Continent, for, let an Englishman go where he will, the might and majesty of his country seems to be hanging over him like an unseen shield. Let but a hand be laid upon an English subject and the great British lion begins to utter menacing growls. An English man-of-war seems to be always within one day’s sail of anywhere. If there be even a roll of English broadcloth or a pound of English tea to be endangered thereby, within forty-eight hours a frigate is pretty sure to drop anchor in the harbour.

This confidence was evident in British travellers up to the time of the First World War and even beyond. It was the product of centuries of conditioning. In Elizabeth’s reign the Protestant English had seen themselves as a chosen people and their defeat of the Armada as evidence of divine endorsement. They had become the world’s foremost naval power. Over subsequent centuries, numerous victories at sea consolidated a maritime supremacy that came to be taken for granted at home, and which accustomed British subjects to the notion that their government could reach out to the farthest corners of the globe. After the defeat of both France and Spain at Trafalgar in 1805 this confidence increased, for the country’s two traditional enemies, and closest rivals, were now removed from the scene. Neither was ever seriously to menace British coasts, or interests, again, and no other power was to threaten British dominance until the end of the century.

While the Royal Navy saw itself as the world’s only maritime superpower, the Army was also highly regarded. Entirely composed of volunteers, it was far smaller than the great conscript forces with which Napoleon had fought, and its size was to remain a source of derision for Europeans with mass armies at their disposal (Bismarck once sneered that, if the British Army invaded Germany, he would send the Berlin police to arrest them). Nevertheless, it had centuries of success to its credit. In pursuit of Britain’s traditional foreign policy, which was to prevent any one of the European nations becoming powerful enough to dominate the Continent, it had been victorious against the French and Spanish throughout the eighteenth century as well as against Napoleon, and had suffered defeat only from fellow Britons in America.

‘Johnny Foreigner’

The attitude of the British to those near neighbours who had been their recent foes was one of smug superiority (the impertinence and disrespect accorded many native-born French masters at English schools throughout the era was typical). It was taken for granted that most other races were lazy and effete, and that they could not compete either in trade or in arms with Anglo-Saxons. As Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations had said of the 1820s: ‘Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything.’ This attitude was equally characteristic of the rest of the century.

Among foreigners, those from northern Europe were the most respected by the British. They were similar in race and religion, and the efficiency of Scandinavians, Dutch and, above all, Germans was admired. These countries were trading nations too, though they were too small, or too little industrialized, to pose any significant threat. Germany had many and obvious links with Britain’s Royal Family, and even when in 1871 its disparate states combined to form a powerful nation, Britons saw no cause for alarm. It was only in the last years of Victoria’s reign, when the Kaiser’s navy began a programme of ambitious expansion, that Germany began to replace France as the most likely opponent in a future war.

Britons viewed Latin nations, whether they were southern Europeans or South Americans, as quaintly amusing. These peoples, their enterprise sapped by hot climates and the over-abundance of nature, were seen as lacking the necessary qualities of discipline and determination to deserve prosperity, for great powers must be able to lead by example. Where such countries had colonial empires – as did the Spanish and Portuguese – their colonies were badly run and in decay. When, in 1898, Spain’s overseas empire was taken over by the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ United States, it was assumed that the territories concerned would now flourish.

The colonial peoples themselves rated below even Latins in the pecking order of nations. Despite the fact that British imperial subjects included members of ancient – and undeniably great – civilizations such as China, India and Burma, these peoples were regarded as incapable of self-government. Britain, like France, saw its empire not only as an economic resource to be used for the benefit of the mother country but as the setting for a civilizing mission. Anglo-Saxon efficiency, enlightened religion, British values, sports and education would eventually render indigenous peoples fit to manage their own affairs, but this was not expected to happen soon. The British founded some excellent schools and colleges throughout their Empire – Raffles Institution in Singapore and Mayo College in India are examples – and these created a native elite with the skills and expectations appropriate to an educated class. That there were no opportunities for them to serve in higher administrative, academic or commercial posts created a frustration that was to increase throughout the period of British rule. Uninterested in their colonies until the latter half of the reign, the Queen’s subjects discovered an enthusiasm for the Empire only gradually. The title Empress of India, assumed by Victoria in 1877, awakened some pride, and the popularity of Empire increased so much in the following two decades that the Diamond Jubilee was treated more as a celebration of the country’s colonial might than of its ruler’s sixty-year reign.

The rush to acquire territories by other powers, including the new nations Germany and Italy, spurred Britain to action; the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the eighties and nineties was expected to be followed by a Scramble for China, as Europe fought over any land or resources that became available. Though the British Government often did not want to take on the administration of further territories, it might do so to protect commercial interests, to acquire strategic positions or simply to prevent other nations from seizing them. Seeing their country as the heir to Ancient Rome, the British thought themselves better suited to the task of running other parts of the world than any nation. Their attitude was, frankly and unapologetically, that the more of the globe that was run by their countrymen, the better for civilization.

In many respects they were right. However fashionable it has since become to hate ‘colonialism’, a visit to any former European colony will indicate a legacy of roads, bridges, schools, churches and hospitals that has often served these communities very well. Planting and irrigation schemes have, often, similarly given lasting benefits to the territories concerned (the tea industry in India and Ceylon, for instance). What must be remembered is that, from the seventies onwards, when candidates for colonial administrative posts began to be selected by highly competitive examinations, the young men going out to run overseas territories were of the highest calibre that Britain could produce (the same was broadly true of the other great powers). They must not only have wisdom, common sense and adaptability, but be able to live under the constant gaze of the local and expatriate population, setting an example of incorruptible impartiality as representatives of the Crown. To an overwhelming extent they succeeded, providing one of the finest and fairest administrative bodies the world has seen.

A Worldwide Network

Britain’s confidence was built on commercial, even more than military strength. As a seafaring nation and the discoverers of whole continents, the British had learned to make themselves at home all over the world. As a manufacturing nation they had built a vast network of trading links that had given them dominance over entire regions, as in East Asia. The country’s commercial network was far greater than its formal empire, covering places, such as Argentina, that were never British territory. No matter where an Englishman went, he would find British products, British traders or agents or representatives. He was always surrounded by familiar goods, accents, uniforms or faces. The knives and forks in a Russian hotel would prove to be from Sheffield. The boat that carried him up a West African river was likely to have been built on the Clyde. The house in which he stayed in Malaya might have been shipped from Birmingham in a crate and then assembled. The railway locomotive that carried him over the Andes might well have been made in Crewe, and the engine driver, the general manager and the engineers would be found to speak in the rich tones of British regions. In any corner of the earth, there was a chance that a Briton would meet some old acquaintance.

As well as the considerable – and expanding – number of territories throughout the world that were governed and garrisoned by Britain, there were informal communities of expatriates to be met with all over the globe. Apart from those who inhabited the French Riviera, or the hills around Florence, there were Welsh settlers in Patagonia who still spoke their native language, and in the Oporto region of Portugal there were English families that had lived for generations among the vineyards whose produce they exported to their homeland. In many instances the trappings of life in Britain – gentlemen’s clubs, foxhunts, Anglican churches, cricket teams – were successfully transplanted in foreign soil.

Leading Nation

The country’s trade had made Britain the world’s richest nation. This position was not to last, but for most of the nineteenth century Britain’s financial confidence, and pre-eminence, were unchallenged. Their nation’s wealth and financial know-how guaranteed respect for British merchants and, by extension, all of their compatriots. An Englishman abroad would expect the locals to honour his credit notes without demur, and he might well find, in banks or shipping agencies in foreign cities, a young clerk from Yorkshire or Scotland learning the ropes.

The British were not, of course, the only trading nation, but they had an important edge in their reputation for honesty and efficiency. With simple logic, they had long since decided that reliable service and financial probity were the best guarantee of satisfied customers and further orders, and they had succeeded in spreading all over the world this notion of themselves. In parts of South America the expression ‘hora Inglese’ (English hour) is still used to indicate punctuality. Because of Britain’s industrial pre-eminence, the goods they sold were usually as dependable as their timekeeping. The image they projected to others was one that they liked to believe themselves. A book that looked back at the nineties summed up their attitude to the rest of the world, and the way in which commercial and military might were often linked in the minds of others:

The vision of a Germany in arms had not [yet] come to discomfort. Nor had the sun of these United States. Pugilists and pork-packers and cowboys it might produce. Financiers–never!

Other empires might or might not have gone the way of all flesh. Not so the British Empire. Who was it that had been set over half the world? England. Who was it that knew how to manage the Indian or the African? England. Who had produced General Gordon, with a cane and a prayer instead of a gun and a curse? England. To whom did the Foreigner pay the secret adulation that vice pays to virtue? Victoria – that is, England. And about this there was a magnificent assurance which precluded hypocrisy. The British Business Man of that day may have been many things – he was never a hypocrite, and though an envious world called him that, it respected him and it especially respected his navy.

While British traders and proconsuls presented the world with an façade of unshakeable self-confidence the reality was somewhat different. The country’s greatest asset had been the head start given it by the Industrial Revolution. This had enabled British firms to mass produce and export items that in other countries were still made, slowly and laboriously, by hand. It was inevitable, however, that any country that possessed sufficient raw materials and was able to raise, or attract from elsewhere, the requisite funds could have an industrial revolution of its own. This happened in France during the post-Napoleonic decades. It happened with increasing speed in Germany after the country’s unification (the German steel industry, in particular, became a serious and growing rival to Britain’s). It was most evident in the United States, which had been industrializing since the end of the eighteenth century. By the last years of the nineteenth it was evident that the future belonged to America. Their early advantage had made the British complacent, and they found themselves as the century went on in an increasingly crowded market-place. Foreign goods were often cheaper because labour costs were lower and quality less important. The Paris Exhibition of 1867 showed how quickly France was catching up with British manufactures, and the Annual Register of that year lamented that the United Kingdom:

Owes her great influence not to military successes but to her commanding position in the arena of industry and commerce. If she forgets this, she is lost: not perhaps to the extent of being conquered and reduced to a province, but undoubtedly to the extent of giving up the lead, and ceasing to be a first-rate power. The signs, for those who can read, can be plainly seen.

In 1870 James Anthony Froude, the historian and commentator, wrote that:

English opinion is without weight. English power is ridiculed. Our influence in the councils of Europe is a thing of the past. We are told, half officially, that it is time for us to withdraw altogether from the concerns of the Continent: while, on the other side of the Atlantic, Mr Emerson calmly intimates to an approving audience that the time is not far off when the Union must throw its protecting shield over us in our approaching decrepitude.

This was, perhaps, somewhat alarmist. Britain was not a Continental power and did not expect her opinions there – unless she held the balance in wartime – to carry great weight. Disraeli, in any case, was to prove an influential figure at the Congress of Berlin in 1877. In the matter of America, Froude was nearer the mark, for that country’s power was increasing so relentlessly that even a long and costly civil war had not arrested its progress. The United States had apparently limitless natural resources, and despite possessing more than enough living space for its large population, by the end of the century it had begun to acquire overseas territories. The famous poem by Rudyard Kipling in which he urged ‘Take up the white man’s burden’ was addressed to America, as a plea for the world’s new great power to take on the same role of benevolent responsibility as had the old.

Guardians of Empire

With the defeat of Napoleon, Britain’s Empire had been expanded by several strategic new territories, including the Cape of Good Hope and Malta. The Royal Navy, which protected these colonies, was the strongest anywhere. The Army, though small by Continental standards, had seen off the French. Yet once the war was over complacency quickly set in, and the military establishment became the target for cuts. The British did not like standing armies or large peacetime navies and it has always been the practice to disband these forces as soon as possible. A standing army of 150,000 was no longer necessary, and the country in any case was suffering from a recession in the aftermath of the war. The Navy, too, was burdening the taxpayer. One task alone – that of guarding Napoleon in his mid-Atlantic prison at St Helena – was costing £300,000 a year. Retrenchment followed swiftly, with the Navy being reduced by 107,000 men by 1817. The Admiralty also continued to believe in the value of Britain’s traditional sailing ships and to resist any suggestion that it convert to steam power.

Throughout the century the Royal Navy was to enjoy immense prestige in the world. The skills of its sailors in manning a ship and in gunnery were unmatched by any rival. It acted as a highly successful international policeman, and no stretch of water in the world was beyond its reach. With no feasible opponent to challenge it, the Navy devoted its efforts for several decades to stamping out the slave trade, not only stopping slaving ships on the high seas but raiding the assembly ports along the West African coast. As a result, more than 150,000 slaves were freed over a period of fifty years. Pirates were another problem. In 1816 British vessels forced the surrender of Algiers, a hornets’ nest of piracy for three hundred years. The last battle fought by British sailing ships was at Navarino Bay in October 1827. They, together with French and Russian fleets under overall British command, were assisting the Greeks in their struggle for independence from Ottoman rule, and the Turkish fleet was wiped out. The British public expected its sailors to give equally short shrift to any other international bully.


Between 1830, when he became Foreign Secretary, and 1865, when he died, Britain’s foreign policy was dominated by the personality of Lord Palmerston. Twice Prime Minister, he took a view of the world that was common among the upper and middle classes. He epitomized the smug confidence of the world’s richest nation and the home of the world’s most powerful fleet. He would brook no insult to the British flag anywhere in the world, and had no qualms about exercising his trademark ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in defence of national interests. This was no mere cliché. A British vessel sent to lie at anchor off a foreign coast was not only a threat of impending violence, but a symbol of the might that could be summoned to reinforce it.

On 30 November 1840, Acre, a Turkish possession in the Middle East, was bombarded with devastating effect, for one projectile hit the gunpowder magazine and blew up the entire port. The local Turkish ruler, Mehmet Ali, withdrew from all his conquests in the region. Infamously, Britain also engaged the Chinese, who were attempting to end the opium trade that was being forced on them by the East India Company. After the seizure of an opium cargo in the Chinese port of Canton by local authorities, Palmerston sent a letter of protest. This was returned. There followed a period of insult and counter-insult, and punitive action by the British then began. The Navy bombarded Canton and several other ports. The island of Hong Kong was seized and the Chinese were forced, by the Treaty of Nangking in 1842, to accept a humiliating peace that opened several ports to British trade and ceded Hong Kong – a valuable entrepôt that would come to dominate trade in the region – to Britain for ever. The result of the opium wars was to confirm British mercantile dominance in the region, a position the United Kingdom would keep until the Second World War.


The Royal Navy was, on the whole, popular with the public. While the Army was used to quell civil disorder (most notoriously in the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819, when cavalry broke up a demonstration and killed a number of civilians), the Navy did not impinge on the life of those ashore – except in the occasional form of the press gang. This system of compulsory recruiting, the scourge of Britain’s coastal towns during the Napoleonic Wars, had often brought misery to those affected, but had benefited the majority by making it unnecessary to introduce conscription. In the decades after 1815 the press gang remained theoretically in existence, but with the reduction in ships it was no longer necessary to fill crews by these methods. However the harsh shipboard discipline of Nelson’s era, based largely on floggings, remained, and ensured that the Navy was kept in a state of sullen efficiency. The public loved the sentimental image of the sailor (as opposed to the soldier, whom they usually mocked and disliked). One of the bestselling books of 1841 was a collection of the naval songs of Charles Dibdin, with illustrations by the Dickens illustrator George Cruikshank, of which Queen Victoria bought fifty copies and the Admiralty five hundred.

Flogging, like the press gang, declined in use rather than being abolished (the last flogging in the Royal Navy took place in 1880) as conditions gradually improved. In 1831, small pensions were granted to sailors with twenty-one years’ service. Regular long-term engagements for sailors were introduced in 1853, and all who signed on for these were entitled to pensions. Though there was a Naval Hospital at Greenwich for the care of old and wounded sailors this closed in 1867, for the Navy had been involved in so few major actions by that time that there were not enough veterans to make it worthwhile. The pensioners were sent home and paid what was owing to them there. For officers, there was no question of superannuation. They did not retire, for they held commissions for life. They were put on ‘half-pay’ (in practice often less than half) and sent home, in theory to be called back when circumstances required. Because no officers left the Navy except through death, junior men – whether able or otherwise – could not gain promotion except on the principle of dead men’s shoes, and many naval officers remained captains, lieutenants, or even midshipmen, throughout their careers. Those at the top, in the Admiralty, could retain their posts in perpetuity. The result was a moribund and ineffectual body that had no taste for innovation and did not grasp the importance of new technology. Only in 1860 – presumably after the last Napoleonic relic had left the Admiralty – did the Navy have its first ironclad warship. The conversion to steam was followed through, slowly and late, for the same reason.


When Victoria came to the throne, the British Army was largely still a relic of the Napoleonic Wars, its recruits drawn, in the Duke of Wellington’s much-quoted phrase, from ‘the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink’. Fully a quarter of its manpower came from the poorest part of the United Kingdom – Ireland – and one of them described it as: ‘the dernier resort of the idle, the depraved and the destitute’, adding that ‘the larger part . . . make good soldiers, and useful, if not valuable, servants of the state.’

The Queen’s reign would see constant warfare, though most of it would be minor. Only in a single year – 1862 – would her soldiers not be involved in conflict somewhere in the world. These actions would accustom British troops to fighting on all continents and in all conditions, and render them the world’s most battle-hardened army. There would be a steady evolution in their tactics, weaponry, organization, planning and quality throughout the Victorian era, though the reign would end in military ignominy with the Boer War, and the quality of the British soldier – in terms of initiative rather than bravery or doggedness – would still leave something to be desired. Only two years before the outbreak of the South African conflict, Besant wrote what he may have assumed would be an end-of-term report on Victoria’s Army. His choice of battles is interesting, for several of those he mentions were embarrassing debacles, while others are entirely forgotten. One of them, the landing at Tel-el-Kebir, was not even opposed:

If, during this period, our Navy has proved our ‘first line of defence’, it is equally true that of our Army that it has been employed as our ‘first line of offence’ in almost every quarter of the globe., and in no era of our history of the same length have our soldiers reaped so many laurels. They have had their reverses, their checks and their disasters; but their colours have also been blazoned with some of the proudest victories in history. Alma, Balaclava, Inkerman, Sevastopol, what heroic memories do these not recall! They have quelled the unruly tribes of the Niger, broken the military power of the brave savages south of the Zambesi, subdued an Egyptian rebellion on the Nile, and inspired with a wholesome dread of the British name the death-despising hordes of the Soudan; and the Queen’s troops are prouder of no victories than those of Tel-el-Kebir, El-Teb, Tamai, Abu-Klea, Kirbekan, and Tofrek.

In peacetime the Army was scattered throughout the world, manning garrisons in colonies and protectorates and spheres of influence. The forces involved varied in size from the vast armies (mainly native) in India to the single soldier – a bombardier – garrisoning Tristan da Cunha in 1841. Like other armies in colonial situations, they were not only soldiers but policemen and engineers, creating roads, towns and bridges and surveying territory. Units would be sent around the world as circumstances required, postings perhaps including Ireland, Canada, India, South Africa and Bermuda as well as spells at home in stations like Aldershot, Colchester or Hounslow.

In 1854 the total number of men in the British Army was 140,043, of whom 29,208 were in India and 39,754 in other colonies. From the 1870s onward, local forces in the self-governing colonies took a more prominent role in the defence of their territories, freeing British troops from some of this duty. In 1860 the members of Volunteer units totalled 124,000.

At the beginning of Victoria’s reign the Army was reduced to the level at which it had been after the defeat of Napoleon. It was to be built up again only when circumstances made this necessary, at the time of the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny, and when the Boer War broke out. In between, many regiments were reduced to a single battalion.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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