Queen Victoria is included as a mini-biography in this book not so much for what she accomplished during her long reign, but for the British Empire she represented.
She became queen in 1837 at age 18 and when she died 63 years later in 1901 the news of her death thundered around her empire. Stories are told about how English missionaries, deep in the African jungle, were given the news by the local chief who had heard via the talking drums that relayed it from village to village. “The great she-elephant is dead.”
It is difficult in this day and age to conceive of a situation where a tiny island could literally rule a quarter of the world’s population, but for a hundred years that was the case.
In the early eighteen hundreds, energetic Britons were expanding their influence around the world at an escalating pace. In Asia, Africa, North and South America and Australia, the inhabitants of some of the worlds most fertile and productive regions were submitting to British authority.
The industrial revolution had transformed much of Great Britain into immense factory areas and noisy mills. Rural populations flocked to these cities and raw materials from her colonies poured into Britain to be converted into profitable manufactured goods. All transported by a merchant marine protected by a huge navy that “ruled the waves.”
The affluence of the British business leader astonished the world, while the aristocracy, enhanced by the presence of mines, mills and factories on their inherited land, lived in splendor.
Much of the empire was obtained through the combined force of British trade and the military. In fact, a number of countries became colonies when the British Government took over from trading companies. Parts of Canada, India and Hong Kong are examples of where the British came to trade and stayed to rule.
India was the most prized colony of all — “The Jewel in the Crown” — and, to guard the sea routes to India, the British took over South Africa and later Egypt. After a rebellion in South Egypt led by a religious leader, the Mahdi, Britain annexed Sudan as well. And so it went! When Britain gained control of the French built Suez Canal by buying shares from the Egyptian Government, it took over yet another colony — Cyprus, to guard the canal. By 1815 between ten and fifteen million British people had settled overseas, mostly in America.
This was the world which Victoria entered. As a constitutional monarch, subject to rules and limitations she would reign for the lifetime of many of her people. She moved into Buckingham Palace, young and spirited and passed the first few months of her reign pleasantly entertaining, playing chess and horse riding with as many as 30 other riders. She learned a lesson however when she wrongfully accused one of her ladies-in-waiting and was roundly condemned by parliament and the public. She rode out the criticism and became more serious. Then she met and fell in love with her German cousin, Albert, whom she considered “very handsome” — they both shared the same uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, who would later personally “own” the largest piece of private property in Africa — The Belgian Congo.
Victoria’s marriage to Albert was a happy one and produced nine children —most would later marry into other royal families in Europe. One of her daughters gave birth to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany who would plunge Britain and the world into the First World War (1914-1918).
Albert died in 1861 when he was only 42 and Victoria went into mourning for months that turned into years. Although she was criticized for living in seclusion, she gradually resumed her public duties and British people grew more and more fond of her steadfastness and dignity. No less than seven attempts were made on her life between 1840 and 1882, and she was greatly admired for the courage she displayed.
Victoria presided over many great events both good and bad, in her empire:
- The failure of the potato crop in Ireland in 1846 led to widespread famine and the death of 250,000.
- A huge glass (crystal) palace was built in London to showcase the art, science and technology of the British Empire in the “Great Exhibition of 1851.”
- Fighting the Russians during the Crimean War, the British cavalry were sent on a suicidal charge against the Russian cannons. The famous Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-92) would immortalize the soldiers who gave their lives in the “Charge of the Light Brigade”
“Their’s not to reason why,
their’s but to do and die.
Into the valley of death,
Rode the six hundred.”
- It was to this war, that a Miss Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was sent to care for the wounded, who were left in pitiful condition. Her first action was to produce, not medicine, but 200 scrubbing brushes. Barrow loads of filth were removed, a laundry and kitchen appeared and windows opened to let in fresh air. Then she began to nurse the sick. As one of the wounded soldiers said, “We felt we were in Heaven … what a comfort it was to see her pass even … We lay there in hundreds but we could kiss her shadow as it fell.”
- In 1857 native Indian troops enlisted by Britain’s East India Company staged a prolonged mutiny against British rule, following rumors that they had been using cartridges greased in the fat of cows and pigs — cows being sacred to Hindus and pigs abhorrent to Muslims;
- Most serious at home was the plight of the workers left out of the industrial wealth bonanza. Charles Dickens (1812-70) wrote “David Copperfield” and “Bleak House” and drew attention to the need to reform labor laws and alleviate poverty.
- Charles Darwin (1809-82), the English naturalist traveled to the lonely Galapagos Islands off South America as a young man and noticed many of nature’s oddities. He took voluminous notes then returned to England to write “The Origin of the Species” which showed how we humans had evolved rather than having been suddenly created. When he presented his findings 20 years after his voyage, they sparked a worldwide furor both religious and scientific but they are now widely accepted.
- The empire offered endless opportunities for Victoria’s adventurous subjects — Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Burma, the Caribbean and coastal fringe of China as well as the North and South Pole. But some remained fascinated with the Dark Continent, Africa, of which little was known. The most famous of these was a young doctor, David Livingstone (1813-1873) who took his medical knowledge and missionary zeal into places no white man had ever been. Landing in Cape Town he headed north on a journey that took four years during which he discovered the “Victoria Falls,” then cut east through country terrorized by Arab slave traders to the Indian Ocean. He returned to England a hero and could have rested on his laurels, but he returned to Africa, carefully mapping all he saw until he reached the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Fever-ridden and exhausted, he was cared for by his African servant, Susi. For another four years no news of Livingstone reached the outside world until an American newspaper sent an expedition led by an adventurous reporter H.M. Stanley. Following every clue he could pick up in East Africa, Stanley tracked down a tall bearded white man standing outside a hut and greeted him with the now famous words “Dr. Livingstone I presume.” Stanley tried to persuade Livingstone to return to England but to no avail and a few months later Susi found Livingstone’s dead body in a kneeling position by his bed. He had died saying his prayers. In loving sorrow his black servant buried his heart beside Lake Bangweolo then wrapped his body in bark and carried it a thousand miles to the coast, so that his countrymen could bury him in Westminster Abbey.
- Another of the Victorian era’s heroes was Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) who went to South Africa as a sickly youth and finished up making a fortune in diamonds. He became a leading politician and used his influence and private police force to extend the British Empire to two countries named after him, Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe). Though his political fortunes later plummeted, his private monies have since been used to fund “Rhodes Scholars” to study at Oxford University in Britain.
Control of the empire was maintained through a vast Foreign office with agents in every port and island and a sophisticated intelligence system. A well-disciplined navy plus armies, usually made up of locals under British officers, maintained order and protected British interests. More developed colonies like Canada (1867) and Australia (1901) were granted independence but remained part of the British Commonwealth, still recognizing the Queen as their sovereign. Queen Victoria became more and more imperial as she grew older and in 1876 was declared both Queen of England and Empress of India. She pushed for strict manners and decorum, fearing that the British youth were becoming too “American.” She enjoyed politics and suggested a number of laws to improve the quality of life of working people in the deplorable conditions of British slums. No British Sovereign before her was as well known as Queen Victoria. The invention of photography, the coming of the railway and the rapid growth of literacy combined to spread her fame. No school day began without a prayer for the Queen and Royal Family.
She admired bravery and her “Victoria Cross” or VC award represents Britain’s highest recognition of valor. Over her life she had a number of statues and buildings erected to commemorate her beloved husband “Bertie” — the Victoria and Albert Museum being one.
Finally, a few months before her 82nd, birthday she died peacefully. The Victorian age was over. She had restored stability, honor and popularity to the monarchy and helped guarantee its continuance. Although she was ultra-conservative and, by today’s standards “prissy,” she did set an example of upright behavior for future generations, just as she said she would. When, as a little girl, she was told that she might one day be Queen, she replied “I will be good.”
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