Some of us are old enough to have had grandparents who were alive when the British Empire was at its peak. Back then it covered a ﬁfth of the world’s land and embraced a quarter of the earth’s population.
British subjects, including Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, were then protected by the most daunting naval fleet of the time, and were able to travel almost anywhere without “let or hindrance”.
On those sad occasions when war could not be avoided, the overwhelming power of the imperial navy often allowed conﬂict to be resolved with a minimum of suffering. For instance, the shortest war in recorded history took place on the 27th of August 1896, between Britain and Zanzibar. The British fleet under Rear-Admiral Rawson ordered the local Sultan to quit his palace and surrender. When he failed to obey, the ﬂeet opened ﬁre at 9.02 am. Just 38 minutes later, at 9.40 am, the war was over.
Military might was not the only reason for Britons, wherever they lived. to be proud. The Victorian era saw the ﬂourishing of an astounding range of British genius in almost every ﬁeld of human endeavour.
Many of the great statesmen of the period are still honoured by place- and street-names, so that it is difﬁcult to travel in any English-speaking country without being reminded of Lords Melbourne, Palmerston, Beaconsﬁeld, Russell, Salisbury or Gladstone. The deeds of these men may be largely forgotten today, but they were giants compared with the heads of state of modern English-speaking nations.
Literature also ﬂourished during the reign of Queen Victoria. A list of great Victorian poets would only begin with Tennyson, Arnold, the Brownings, Swinburne, Hopkins, Housman and Kipling. Equally, among prose writers, there are few readers today who haven’t been touched by Darwin, Dickens, Thackeray, Carlyle, Ruskin, Bronte, Eliot or Hardy.
The visual arts of the Victorian period are only now coming to be appreciated again after decades of ofﬁcial neglect. Fairness to the sheer quantity and diversity of talent would make any list of outstanding painters and sculptors too long for the space available here.
Inventors, scientists, and engineers abounded, people whose pioneering achievements the world relies on today. Without the discoveries of Michael Faraday, Lord Kelvin, William Crookes, or Graham Bell, to name a few, our lives would be so much poorer.
It was a glittering period, larger than life, and yet constantly seeking improvement. For instance. while there were inequalities and injustices, many of the subsequent reform movements gained their strongest impetus about a hundred years ago. The Colonies and Dominions shared fully in the adventure of the time. All citizens of the Empire seemed to be marching forward together, and the centre didn’t always lead the way. Women, for instance, first received the vote in New Zealand.
The more backward regions under British administration also beneﬁted from being part of the Empire. Even India enjoyed great progress due to internal peace and new roads, railways, canals, sanitation systems and so on.
Despite prejudice against this period during much of the 20th century, it should come as no surprise that when Queen Victoria proceeded in state to St Paul’s Cathedral for her Diamond Jubilee, she was escorted by the Premiers of all the chief colonies, and a magniﬁcent array of British, Indian and Colonial troops. As Queen of a united people, her Jubilee was celebrated with unbounded joy throughout at least the Anglo-Celtic parts of the Empire.
Flash forward to 1996, when English writer Peter Hitchens compared the British today to a hospital patient with amnesia, having “suffered a collective blow on the head which has wiped out our understanding of who we are and what we are for.” He warned that “Unless we swiftly ﬁnd a cure, then we will be adrift in a world only too ready to take advantage of our weakness.” 1 His answer was to cultivate a deeper knowledge of and pride in our past.
The malaise diagnosed by Hitchens seems to be common to English-speaking peoples, whether we live in the UK, Canada Australia, New Zealand, or even the US. Perhaps it is time for all people of British Isles origin, wherever we were born, to take a ﬂesh look at the Victorian period – when we were united, proud, innovative, knew where we had come from and where we were heading, and gave so much to the rest of the world.
l. Peter Hitchens, ‘Why are we so ashamed of our glorious past?’ The international Express, 26/6/96