Recently I’ve been covering the change in world power status between Britain and the United States on the FDA programme. The discussions have been really interesting, digging down into the British Empire itself: did people support it, and was it even a real actual thing?? After the discussion I realised that I had touched upon this issue in an earlier degree essay in which I assessed how widespread the appeal of imperialism was in the late Victorian period. It could be argued that the empire is more myth than reality, especially in how it impacted the British public. But the myth remains so big and wide that it seems hard to pick it apart and find the truth.


How widespread was the appeal of imperialism between 1880 and 1914?

During the 1982 Falklands War the tabloid newspaper The Sun responded to the sinking of an Argentine ship with the bold headline: ‘GOTCHA’. The war and its subsequent outbreak of patriotic support was a remnant of times past; T-Shirts were sold with the statement ‘The Empire Strikes Back!’1 Two hundred years previous to this an earlier Falklands conflict prompted the much praised Dr. Samuel Johnson to write a pamphlet questioning the motives of war. ‘Patriotism’, he stated, ‘is the last refuge of a scoundrel’.2

Empire and its support has long been a subject of debate. Its meteoric rise in the nineteenth century, which saw it expand ‘so violently that the statistics and reference books could scarcely keep up’, would increase the volume of opinion of a Briton’s place in an imperial world.3 By 1871, the empire on which the sun never set stretched across five continents and comprised over two hundred million people.4 Even from this gigantic share of the globe, the empire grew over the following quarter of century – a period known as “New Imperialism” – adding a further 4,750,000 square miles (comprising one-fifth of the earth’s surface) and 90 million people.5 Its subjects included the white colonies of Australia and Canada, as well as including ‘dependent black, brown and yellow colonies, protectorates, and protected states of many sizes and many races – with India as the greatest dependency of all’.6

During our period in question Britons began looking and interpreting the empire in new ways. The debate for historians since has been of the importance and impact the empire had upon the lives of the home population. Did British imperialism actually penetrate the hearts of Britons; falling, as John MacKenzie claims, ‘like a deep sediment in the consciousness of the British people’.7 Or was it instead a matter of indifference to the public at large who were perhaps unaffected by exploits of generals such as Gordon and Wolseley and far-flung wars against civilisations unheard of. Common sense would tell us that such an empire – such a vast collection with volumes of propaganda evidence – must surely have had an impact on the public conscious. I will be discussing those affected, or not, by patriotic feeling (as linked to empire), to ask the question if empire really was as pervasive as popular imagination would have us believe.

Undoubtedly, the law-makers of the period became more involved in empire concerns. The opening of greater global trade, initially undertaken by private enterprise (in the form of monopolies granted to the likes of the East India Company or the Hudson Bay Company), and its defence further entangled governments. Disraeli’s 1872 Crystal Palace speech is touted by many as the beginnings of the new imperial mood (despite Disraeli speaking of ‘those wretched colonies’ being ‘a millstone round our necks’ back in the 1850s8) – with many symbolic events taking place in the following years, the chief one being that of making Queen Victoria Empress of India in 1876.

Many historians, notably MacKenzie, link the growing governmental involvement with the need to control the masses.  In a time of added voters (due to the 1867 and 1884 reform acts), as well as new perceived dangerous ideologies (such as socialism) a ‘common cause’ was needed, states Denis Judd, ‘to blunt the edge of class warfare and egalitarian philosophies’.9 Empire, then, could serve to be the glue for Britain’s factions. As Cecil Rhodes is reported to have said in 1895:

‘The Empire… is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists’.10

Although Gladstone blasted Queen Victoria’s enthronement as Empress as ‘theatrical bombast and folly’, even the Liberals became increasingly imperialistic as the century wore on.11 Gladstone would be followed by the likes of Lord Rosebery, whilst the Conservative government of 1895-1905 has been labelled ‘aggressive and “jingo-istic”’ by David Thomson.12 Empire became a dominant theme, perhaps personified best in the decision of leading light Joseph Chamberlain’s preference of the once minor Colonial Office to that of the prestigious Exchequer in 1895.

Those with closest bonds – both economically and emotionally – to empire were those of the higher classes. John Stuart Mill cheekily highlighted this connection by calling the empire ‘a vast system of outdoor relief for the British upper classes’.13 Bernard Porter cites the words of David Cannadine, who believed ‘the uppermost classes of society tended to avoid the practice work of imperialism’ – perhaps due to the emphasis with more hands-on trade.14 Yet it was an economic business in which others, such as the entrepreneur upper middle classes to reap the many rewards within. For example, between the years 1860-1874, 76 per cent of personnel of the Indian Civil Service came from the ‘professional middle class’.15

Such future rulers of empire came from the British public school system. It was here in with the attachment was forged, being ‘bombarded’ by what Lawrence James calls ‘headmasters who were invariably Anglican clerics of the muscular Christian persuasion’.16 John Ruskin’s address to Oxford students in 1870 is much cited in books on the subject:

‘There is a destiny now possible to us, the highest ever set before a nation to be accepted or refused. Will you youths of England make your country again a royal throne of kings, a sceptred isle, for all the world a source of light, a centre of peace…’.17

There are two notable empire-building programmes for children in the period. The earliest was The Citizen Reader which went through numerous editions between 1885-1904. Written by H.O. Arnold-Forster it was an educational handbook of patriotism for young English children, detailing many facts and figures – the pride of the empire. Perhaps more influential, however, was the emergence of the scout movement. Scouting For Boys was published in 1908 and reprinted four times within a year, comprising 100,000 members by 191018 – and was continually popular until later in the twentieth century – a book which, believes Baden-Powell biographer T. Jeal, ‘has probably sold more copies than any other title during the twentieth century with the exception of the Bible’.19 This indoctrinated ‘hundreds of thousands’ with the imperial/ controlling ideal. The second Scout Law states:

‘A scout is loyal to the King, and to his officers, and to his parents, his country, and his employers. He must stick to them through thick and thin against anyone who is their enemy or even talks badly of them’.20

Many other smaller organisations, of which James states were ‘dedicated to the creation of upright and sturdy sons of empire’, such as the Anti-Smoking League and the League of St. George.21 Likewise, girls too were susceptible to imperialist ideas, with the Girl Guides and The Church of England Girls’ Friendly Society which by 1913 comprised around 200,000 members. ‘Girls!’, a leaflet from 1910 states, ‘Imagine a battle has taken place in and around your town or village… are you going to be plucky, and go and do something to help your fathers and brothers?’22

Such organisations were not confined to those of the younger ages. Imperial enthusiasts (middle and upper classes) founded and funded a plethora of voluntary organisations to flame the growing spirit. A shining example was the Primrose League, established in 1883, which by the turn of the century boasted 1.5 million members. James believes the majority to have been from the working classes – heroes such as Gordon and the like promoted, patriotism promoted: ‘through a mixture of entertainments and instruction, paying for lectures, lantern-slide shows, exhibitions and public rallies’. The National Service League, which campaigned for conscription, carted out the ‘aged but still sprightly’ Field Marshall Lord Roberts to address its public meetings – which consisted of 200,000 members of 1914. 23 A campaign was waged to recognise “Empire Day”, becoming official in the middle of war in 1916. The celebrations, with their depiction of English heroes such as Henry V giving battle at Agincourt, appealed to the working-class ‘whose disposition was to favour “a big England rather than a small”…’.24

Jose Harris believes ‘Images of the sea and of Britain’s oceanic dominion were deeply woven into national self-consciousness: into history, poetry, music, and the idioms of everyday life’.25 New interpretations of history are found in the books advocating the new imperial spirit. H. John Field calls John Seely’s The Expansion of England as ‘the single influence (after Disraeli’s death) which did most to develop the imperialist idea’.26 The book sold eighty thousand volumes in the first two years of its initial publication, causing such an impression as for Joseph Chamberlain to send his son (Austen) to Cambridge ‘because Seeley was there’.27 In a reinterpretation of the past, Seeley viewed the colonies as something of prestige, a thought taken further by Charles Dilke’s bestseller Greater Britain. Field cites two other influential books of the early 1890s: Charles H. Pearson’s National Life and Character: A Forecast (1893), and Benjamin Kidd’s Social Evolution (1894) (which went through 19 editions in the four years after its initial publication). New ideas such as Social Darwinism proved to instil the notion that Britain was its own separate race, in rivalry with others of the world. Patriotism was seen as the glue to bound all people and classes of the country together.

The celebration of heroes from history had the effect of revering military leaders in the present. Soldiers become revered as heroes, their actions reported as standout examples of character. MacKezine testifies to its growth, stating ‘the language of war entered into hymns, tracts, and sermons’.28 Statues were erected while the advantages of a military character were instilled in youth in education, with the drilling of wooden rifles for the Boys Brigade. Literature had glorified it, whilst Rudyard Kipling rhymed it.29

The infection found its most vocal support in the spread of jingoism. Field believes that the major incidents of the period – the Jameson Raid, the Diamond Jubilee, Kitchener’s Sudan campaign, the Fashoda incident and the Boer War – were shown through the ‘Englishman’s window’ by the papers of the “New Journalism”.30 This ‘Jingo feeling’, writes Donald Read, was strongest in those of the lower middle classes – ‘white collar workers and the like’ – a belief endorsed by many other historians.31

Alfred Harmsworth’s The Daily Mail is highlighted as ‘the exemplary model’ of this New Journalism. 32 Its circulation reached 200,000 copies a day at the end of three months in business, to 550,000 a day after three years, all to the astronomic million a day by 1901 – coincidentally the period of the Boer War – a conflict much reported on. This new press no longer merely reported events, but gave opinions which were ‘in effect pre-digested for them’. The Daily Mail, with its slogans of ‘Unionist and Imperialist’ and ‘Empire First and Parish After’ became the voice-box of the people.33

Such jingoistic highlights include the 1897 Diamond Jubilee, on which The Daily Mail wrote gloriously of Britain’s unequalled ‘energy and power’,34 and the Boer War, which writes Judd, ‘was presented….as almost a crusade’ to help the English-speaking population of the Transvaal.35 The public, it appears, were roused to fever pitch. The relief of Mafeking was celebrated in May 1900 by hysterical crowds in the capital:

‘At ten o’clock on Friday evening, 18 May, the main public thorough-fairs presented their usual aspect. By half-past ten they were blocked and choked by seething crowds, waving flags, blowing horns, shrieking and howling in a frenzy of delight’.36

Yet despite such a wide array of seeming evidence for support of empire, detractors such as Porter believe the various facets of imperial culture – such as ‘racism, patriotism, militarianism, masculinism, adventure stories…’ – can all exist ‘equally independently’.37 Many historians cite opposition to empire. Most obviously, these included radicals and socialists; Keir Hardie being critical of the Diamond Jubilee, arguing that ‘the cheering millions would be there and cheer just as lustily if the occasion were the installation of the first President of the British Republic’.38 Many pointed to the fact that benefits of empire, and its profits, only sowed the pockets of the advantaged, leaving few benefits for those of the lower classes. Such arguments might be dismissed by the likes of Baden-Powell, who called such groups ‘wishy-washy slackers without any go or patriotism in them’39 – yet valid points. Taken on board by others in the period, most notably J.A. Hobson whose book, Imperialism, (1902) was highly critical of imperial matters.

Interestingly, Hugh Cunningham believes ‘it is worth noting’ the overriding masculine connection with the empire:

 ‘For women and for those men whose sense of their own masculinity failed to measure up to the requirements, empire must have been viewed with, at best, ambivalence’.40

Such symbols as John Bull, the National Anthem and the decree to “Rule the Waves” appear to support Cunningham’s assumption. Clare Midgely has researched the topic, citing Flora Shaw’s words of those males who saw females, and the woman’s suffrage movement in particular, as ‘threatening the Empire with “weakness at the heart”…’41 However, Midgely also provides ample evidence of propaganda and groups (such as the Women’s Guild of Empire, founded in the First World War) which ‘stressed the impulse of “imperious maternity”’, describing those emigrating as ‘the future nursing mothers of the English race to be’.42 It is an argument backed by other feminist historians, such as Barbara Caine, who claims ‘many feminists devoutly supported imperial ambitions’43 – as shown in the high figures of the Primrose League. An imperial colonist was to remark in June 1902: ‘Englishwomen make homes wherever they settle all the world over and are the real builders of Empire’.44

Support of empire, then, is not so easily determined as definition of gender roles. More worthwhile, when assessing the impact of imperialism on the general public’s lives is to see the destinations to those who emigrated from Britain. Propaganda at home told the British to go forth and spread their race across the globe. Between 1815-1914 twenty million are estimated to have left the British Isles – three quarters of which never ended on empire soil, whilst the majority ended on the shores of the United States.45

Described by James Morris as having ‘cracked the imperial spirit’, the Boer war was particularly attacked by the anti-imperialists.46 In short, it was a disaster. What had once been expected to be a quick, standard-colonial war turned into a fiasco costing the British coffers over two hundred million pounds – an astronomic sum for the day47 – along with many stories of the concentration camps in which over 20,000 women and children are reported to have died.48 More damaging to the patriotic spirit, perhaps, was the true reflection of British strength when faced against rivals (such as Germany) who were strengthened their military might.

Needless to say, anti-imperialists such as the left-wing intellectuals and pro-Boers despised the jingoist rants of the newspapers, ‘the swagger and bluster of the music-halls’, and their hollow echoes by the masses.49 Hobson attacked such behaviour (in Psychology of Jingoism, 1901) by decreeing: ‘Vainglory is a characteristic which a jingo-ridden people exhibits in common with the child and the savage’.50 Such a statement questions the sincerity of imperialistic sentiment. Richard Price cites the despair of a radical contemporary of 1899, who complained:

‘You can get up a demonstration one Sunday in favour of universal peace, and on the next Sunday you can get up another, which would be attended by the same people in favour of war’.51

Furthermore, recent studies have questioned the over-riding influence of jingoism as a whole. Judd believes such displays of forthright patriotic behaviour, such as the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations and those of the Relief of Mafeking were ‘periodic indulgences’, MacDonald calling it mere ‘spasms of public interest’.52 Judd further puts questions over the already-mentioned celebration of the relief of the siege of Mafeking, stating it:

‘owed a good deal of their fervour to the fact that the news arrived in the United Kingdom at the weekend, when large numbers of people had finished work on Saturday afternoon and had their wages in their pockets to spend on a celebratory drink’.53

Even if we accept that this last statement of Judd’s is not wholly convincing, the indecisiveness of many can be in no doubt. Many of the activities linked to empire were so enthusiastically participated in due to social opportunities rather than real commitment. Price, Read, and Porter especially, verify such a view. Read looks at what is apparent patriotic enthusiasm with the enlistment of 200,000 volunteers to join a part-time force to defend the British Isles from perceived invasion from France in 1870. ‘About one Victorian male in twelve joined’, states, ‘without payment in spare time, with cost of uniforms met by the men themselves’. Yet “patriotism” cannot explain such a large call-up rate, with the force offering ‘attractive recreational opportunities – fetes, dinners, outings, band playing, sport’.54 Porter believes the same can be said for the celebration of Empire Day, in that working-class children were attracted to ‘the half-holiday; to scouting, the outdoor activities; to the empire exhibitions, the funfairs…’55

Was such jingoistic support, then, a “deep sediment” as MacKenzie wrote, or rather mere fickle and ever changing opinion? Although the occasional celebrations of empire provided a release for the majority of Britons, ultimately the concerns of the working classes were the ‘balancing of the household budget and finding adequately paid employment’.56 Matters from across the world, in relation, little affected them, as stated by one man from ‘one north Devon village’ in the late 1880s, who explained:

‘Rumours might reach us of a war with the Zulus, or the tragedy of General Gordon: but it was all too distant to disturb our sleep, or excite our fear’.57

But the working-classes were not entirely dumb. But rather indifferent. Price notes various discussions that took place in working men’s clubs of the period, such as that at the Holborn Gladstonian, in which they asked themselves ‘how much stake in the Empire has the working man got’.58 Realistically, the answer was not a great deal. Many were still denied the vote at home. More immediate concerns, as stated above, grabbed at their collars than all the smoke and mirrors of empire.

The emotions of those that were captured completely were the people who had gains and connections with empire: the businessmen of the upper middle classes. For the masses it can be said England meant something to them, even Britain – but empire was a further remove from their hearts.

 


End-Notes:

1 Denis Judd, Empire (The British Imperial Experience, From 1765 to the Present), Fontana Press, Great Britain, 1997, p.405

2 J.M. & M.J. Cohen (eds.), The New Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, Penguin Books, St Ives, 2002, p.222

3 James Morris, Pax Britannica (The Climax of an Empire), Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1980, p.22

4 Donald Read, England 1868-1914, Longman, Great Britain, 1979, p.189

5 Hugh Cunningham, The Challenge of Democracy (Britain 1832-1918), Pearson Education Limited, Dorchester, 2001, p.181

6 Donald Read, England 1868-1914, Longman, Great Britain, 1979, p.189

7 John M. MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire, Manchester University Press, Great Britain, 1990, p.258

8 David Newsome, The Victorian World Picture, John Murray (Publishers), Cambridge, 1997, p.131

9 Denis Judd, Empire, Fontana Press, Great Britain, 1997, p.4

10 Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists, Oxford University Press, Great Britain, 2004, p.168

11 James Morris, Pax Britannica, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1980, p.38

12 David Thomson, England in the Nineteenth Century (1815-1914), Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1962, p.203

13 James Morris, Pax Britannica, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1980, p.119

14 Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists, Oxford University Press, Great Britain, 2004, p.40

15 loc.cit

16 Lawrence James, The Rise & Fall of the British Empire, Abacus, Great Britain, 2007, p.329

17 Denis Judd, Empire, Fontana Press, Great Britain, 1997, p.121

18 Lawrence James, The Rise & Fall of the British Empire, Abacus, Great Britain, 2007, p.330

19 Denis Judd, Empire, Fontana Press, Great Britain, 1997, p.201

20 ibid. p.202

21 Lawrence James, The Rise & Fall of the British Empire, Abacus, Great Britain, 2007, p.330

22 ibid. p.331

23 ibid. p.327

24 David Newsome, The Victorian World Picture, John Murray (Publishers), Cambridge, 1997, p.136

25 Jose Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit, Oxford University Press, Great Britain, 1993, p.6

26 H. John Field, Toward a Programme of Imperial Life, Clio Press, USA, 1982, p.40

27 ibid. p.41

28 John M. MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire, Manchester University Press, Great Britain, 1990, p.5

29 I feel I owe a debt to this statement: ‘Literature had glorified it, whilst Rudyard Kipling rhymed it’, as it was modified from James Morris’s statement: ‘Victoria approved of it. Tennyson had hymned it’ (James Morris, Pax Britannica, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1980, p.38

30 H. John Field, Toward a Programme of Imperial Life, Clio Press, USA, 1982, p.28

31 Donald Read, England 1868-1914, Longman, Great Britain, 1979, p.366

32 H. John Field, Toward a Programme of Imperial Life, Clio Press, USA, 1982, p.108

33 ibid. pp.109-110

34 James Morris, Pax Britannica, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1980, p.31

35 Denis Judd, Empire, Fontana Press, Great Britain, 1997, p.155

36 Anglo-Saxon Review, June 1900, from: Donald Read, England 1868-1914, Longman, Great Britain, 1979, p.366

37 Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists, Oxford University Press, Great Britain, 2004, p.12

38 Denis Judd, Empire, Fontana Press, Great Britain, 1997, p.134-135

39 ibid. p.208

40 Hugh Cunningham, The Challenge of Democracy (Britain 1832-1918), Pearson Education Limited, Dorchester, 2001, p.189

41 Clare Midgley, Ethnicity, “race” and empire, from: June Purvis (ed), Women’s History (Britain, 1850-1945), UCL Press, Norwich, 1995, pp.262-263

42 ibid. p.264

43 Barbara Caine, English Feminism 1780-1980, Oxford University Press, Great Britain, 1999, p.168

44 Clare Midgley, Ethnicity, “race” and empire, from: June Purvis (ed), Women’s History (Britain, 1850-1945), UCL Press, Norwich, 1995, p.264

45 D.F. MacDonald, The Age of Transition, MacMillan, Great Britain, 1967, p.183

46 James Morris, Pax Britannica, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1980,  p.11

47 Donald Read, England 1868-1914, Longman, Great Britain, 1979, p.365

48 loc.cit.

49 Bernard Porter, Critics of Empire, MacMillan, Great Britain, 1968, p.39

50 Donald Read, England 1868-1914, Longman, Great Britain, 1979, p.366

51 Labour Letter, January 1899, from: Richard Price, An Imperial war and the British Working Class, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Bristol, 1972, p.239

52 Denis Judd, Empire, Fontana Press, Great Britain, 1997, p.235 &

D.F. MacDonald, The Age of Transition, MacMillan, Great Britain, 1967, p.185

53 Denis Judd, Empire, Fontana Press, Great Britain, 1997, p.235

54 Donald Read, England 1868-1914, Longman, Great Britain, 1979, p.189

55 Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists, Oxford University Press, Great Britain, 2004, p.208

56 Denis Judd, Empire, Fontana Press, Great Britain, 1997, p.230

57 Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists, Oxford University Press, Great Britain, 2004, p.125

58 Richard Price, An Imperial war and the British Working Class, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Bristol, 1972, p.239


Bibliography:

Caine, Barbara, English Feminism 1780-1980, Oxford University Press, Great Britain, 1999

Cohen, J.M. & M.J., (eds.), The New Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, Penguin Books, St Ives, 2002

Cunningham, Hugh, The Challenge of Democracy (Britain 1832-1918), Pearson Education Limited, Dorchester, 2001

Field, H. John, Toward a Programme of Imperial Life (The British Empire at the Turn of the Century), Clio Press, USA, 1982

Harris, Jose, Private Lives, Public Spirit (A Social History of Britain 1870-1914), Oxford University Press, Great Britain, 1993

James, Lawrence, The Rise & Fall of the British Empire, Abacus, Great Britain, 2007

Judd, Denis, Empire (The British Imperial Experience, From 1765 to the Present), Fontana Press, Great Britain, 1997

 MacDonald, D.F., The Age of Transition (Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries), MacMillan, Great Britain, 1967

 MacKenzie, John M., Propaganda and Empire (The manipulation of British public opinion 1880-1960), Manchester University Press, Great Britain, 1990

 Morris, James, Pax Britannica (The Climax of an Empire), Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1980

Newsome, David, The Victorian World Picture, John Murray (Publishers), Cambridge, 1997

Porter, Bernard, Critics of Empire, MacMillan, Great Britain, 1968

Porter, Bernard, The Absent-Minded Imperialists, Oxford University Press, Great Britain, 2004

Price, Richard, An Imperial war and the British Working Class, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Bristol, 1972

Purvis, Purvis, (ed), Women’s History (Britain, 1850-1945), UCL Press, Norwich, 1995

Read, Donald, England 1868-1914 The Age of Urban Democracy, Longman, Great Britain, 1979

Thomson, David, England in the Nineteenth Century (1815-1914), Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1962

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