The Victorians - Towards the Modern World

The empire on which the sun never set...

It's often said that the British acquired an empire by accident. No Roman politician could hope to succeed until he had conquered a province or two but prestige of this kind never accrued to the mix of merchants, pirates, refugees, and adventurers who between them added territory after territory to the dominions of the British crown. India was typical of the way the empire grew without any plan or order. Finding their operations increasingly disrupted by the civil wars that resulted from the decline of the Moghul empire, the merchants of the East India Company found that the safest solution was to install their own 'puppet' rulers. In this way they became masters of most of the sub-continent without any formal annexation. However, this policy fell apart when native troops in the service of the Company turned on their officers (the Indian Mutiny, 1857), resulting in the abolition of the East India Company and the imposition of direct rule from London.

In the decades that followed attitudes it the empire changed. What had previously been seen as a commercial venture became something of a crusade. Disraeli's Colonial Secretary, Lord Carnarvon (father of the man who discovered Tutankhamen's tomb) described the empire as a ?world-wide trust, keeping the peace, elevating the savage, relieving the hungry and uniting in loyalty all the British people overseas.? Such a vision ?certainly entailed expansion but it was not bullying expansion, merely the extension of British institutions and wholesome influences, if necessary by force.?

Of course these high ideals proved less elevated in practice. During the last twenty five years of Victoria's reign there were few years when British troops were not in action somewhere in the world (eg the Ashanti and Zulu Wars) and there were times when imperialism cloaked shabby adventurism and greed (as in the Boer Wars). Nevertheless it made a hero of the ordinary soldier.

No longer one of Wellington's 'scum' he was now 'Tommy Atkins', one of the 'salt of the earth' who could be trusted to keep 'a stiff upper lip', carrying the 'white man's burden' in the face of impossible odds. The change was symbolised by the inauguration of the Victoria Cross in 1879. The first eleven were won by men defending the tiny mission station of Rorke's Drift against an attack by thousands of Zulus. Amongst them were private soldiers as well as officers. In a society that was still incredibly class-conscious it was a very significant gesture.