~ Misc Quotes
~ Saul David - Victoria's Wars
~ Fintan O'Toole - White Savage
~ Linda Colley - Captives


We seem... to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.
        - Sir John Seeley, "The Expansion of England" (1883)

The reason why the sun never sets on The British Empire is because God doesn't trust the British in the dark.
        - Anon

The paradox of the British: the weak who wangled the earth and were cursed for it and by it.
        - Felipe Fernandez Armesto

"I think I can save the British Empire from anything—except the British."
        - Winston Churchill

For better or worse — fair and foul — the world we know today is in large measure a product of Britain's age of empire. The question is not whether British imperialism was without blemish. It was not. The question is whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity. Perhaps in theory there could have been. But in practice?
        - Niall Ferguson, "Empire"

The policy 'mix' favored by Victorian imperialists reads like something just published by the International Monetary Fund, if not the World Bank: free trade, balanced budgets, sound money, the common law, incorrupt administration and investment in infrastructure financed by international loans.
        - Niall Fergson, "The Empire Slinks Back", New York Times

The British Empire is no more, but in a curious way, English Common Law and the structure of our institutions and those of the United States and the Western World maintain and expand many of its philosophies.
        - Tony O'Reilly

I thought Benjamin Zephaniah showed ignorance of history when he refused an honour because it was associated with the British Empire, denouncing imperial rule as cruel and oppressive: if he had read certain accounts of missionaries trying to stop little girls of 9 being sold into a dubious marriage or widows being saved from the funeral pyre by the intervention of the Imperial Crown, surely he would not take such an ill-informed view. The British Empire was often a force for good. This is the analysis of my rational mind.
        - Mary Kenny, "The Times"

Now, it is fashionable to decry the British Empire today: but for all its faults — and there were many — India, the greatest democracy in the world, is what it is today because it still draws, in law, parliamentary democracy and its armed forces, on the best of the imperial legacy. That legacy, for good or evil, is partly Irish. From its outset, Irishmen participated in the exploration and conquest of the British empire.
        - Kevin Myers, "The Irish Independent"

It is not fashionable these days to see the good side of the British empire, but it is inconceivable that the Tata company could have prospered as it did without the legal certainties of British Rule: which is no doubt why Tata called his first major enterprise, 'The Empress Mill'. He also founded the Taj Mahal hotel, which, unlike most large European-owned hotels in India, allowed Indian guests. Genius does not normally survive the generations, but it did in the case of the Tatas, who expanded the Tata enterprises through the coming decades after their founder's death... Tata industries now number around 100 companies, employing 250,000 people in technology, dyes, steel mills, foodstuffs, chemicals, aerospace and tea. Tea, ah tea: and it is here that we may see the first elegant turn of a historical wheel. For a few years ago, Tata bought Tetley Teas, the largest tea company in England. Thus it was that the country whose economy was transformed by the English (and indeed Irish) appetite for tea now owns the company most responsible for that development.
        - Kevin Myers, "The Irish Independent"

There is something unedifying in politicians apologising, without cost to themselves, for the sins of their predecessors while deploying all the black arts of their trade to suppress criticism of their own performance. The same goes for society at large. It would be more admirable for 21st-century Britain to be trying to imagine what our successors will see as incomprehensible moral blindness on our part than to be taking easy shots at the morality of two centuries ago. What will look as foul to Britons of 2306 as slavery does to us now? We don’t really want to know, because the answers might well be inconvenient. Abortion? The eating of animals? It is the people who get it right at the time who deserve celebration. Which is why we should honour the remarkable people who put Britain in the lead in suppressing first the slave trade and then slavery itself after thousands of years of acceptance of both by all significant societies in all continents.
        - William Waldegrave, reviewing Tom Pocock's "Breaking the Chains", "The Spectator"

The story of the reverence and awe in which India was held in certain streams of Western thought is a notable corrective to those who see the history of imperialism as solely the high-handed and brutal imposition of Occidental values on indigenous populations.
        - Jonathan Beckman, reviewing "The Bloodless Revolution", "The Observer"

"Now I know it's unfashionable to refer to colonialism in anything other than negative terms. And certainly, no part of the world is unscarred by the excesses of empires. But in the Canadian context, the actions of the British Empire were largely benign and occasionally brilliant."
        - Stephen Harper, Canadian Prime Minister

If you look at GDP per capita in countries with populations over 20 million, the top four are an Anglosphere sweep: America, Canada, Britain, Australia. When it comes to delivering sustained democratic institutions and economic growth among large numbers of people, there is simply no comparison with the Britannic inheritance. And, as Mr. Harper also noted, through the horrors of the 20th century these countries also did more than anybody else to defend and advance the cause of liberty.
        - Mark Steyn, "Western Standard"

Like most things in the political realm, the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was not perfect: beyond the metropolis, in the British colonies, slaves were owned (though could not be sold) for another quarter-century. But William Wilberforce’s life reminds us that great men don’t shirk things because the focus-group numbers look unpromising. For his pains, his countrymen are now raised in schools where they’re taught that the British Empire was the pre-eminent source of racism and oppression, and they never learn that the single greatest force in ending slavery around the globe were a few Englishmen and the ships of the Royal Navy.
        - Mark Steyn, "National Review"

This is not so much a history as a call to arms. Andrew Roberts has clothed himself in the mantle of Winston Churchill and picks up where Churchill left off. The united phalanx of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, he declaims, has saved the world in 'one overall, century-long struggle between the English-speaking people's democratic pluralism and fascist intolerance of different varieties': Prussian imperialism, Nazism, Soviet communism and now the 'feudal, theocratic, tribal, obscurantist' challenge of Islamic fundamentalism.
        - Tim Gardam , Observer review of "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900"

Unlike Stalin’s Russia, the British empire was always an open society. What happened in every part of the empire was reported in the press and debated in parliament. Much of the evidence of the torture of prisoners in Kenya was aired in the Commons. Alongside railways, schools, universities, hospitals and sanitation projects, the empire introduced political and social ideas dear to the British. These included extending civil rights to women, a free press and, most important of all, a culture of popular consent and reasoned debate. English spread as the language of learning, law and commerce. After 1945 a combination of domestic exhaustion, American pressure and local nationalisms, which we had neither the will nor the wherewithal to resist, led to the retreat from empire. Unlike the French, Portuguese, Russian and Yugoslav disengagements, the process was largely good-natured and involved little bloodshed.
Words such as 'gulag' and 'holocausts' and crass comparisons with the murderous despotisms of the 20th century are deployed to portray the British empire as a callous, depraved institution. Why is such poppycock believed? One answer is the tendency of some writers and documentary makers to poke about behind the wainscot of history in the hope of finding something nasty that can then be sensationalised. The process is selective and distorting. An empire that lasted 300 years is judged solely on the misconduct or errors of a handful of its servants. The crimes of one vicious intelligence officer in Kenya obliterate all the patient and benevolent labour of hundreds of district commissioners throughout Africa.
        - Lawrence James, "The Lie of the Evil Empire", "The Times"

Britain and France were almost constantly at war during the 'long 18th century' from 1688 to 1815, a war waged to determine who would be master of the world. The so-called War of the League of Augsburg ran for eight years until 1697; after a short breather, the two nations clashed again in the War of Spanish Succession (1702-13). A longish but tense interlude ended with the outbreak of the War of Austrian Succession in 1740. Seven years after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended eight years of fighting, the Seven Years War broke out. France tried, and partly succeeded, in recouping some of the catastrophic losses sustained in the Treaty of Paris in 1763 by a five-year war from 1778 to 1783, which ensured that the United States emerged as an indepdendent nation but thereby bankrupted France and precipitated the French Revolution. Finally, there were twenty-one years of revolutionary and Napoleonic warfare directed against Britain (with a meaningless 'half-time' interval in 1802), ending only with Waterloo in 1815. In 127 years, France and Britain were at war for sixty of them.
By 1755, Britain and France truly were in competition for worldwide hegemony. Both China and Japan had retreated into fearful, self-imposed isolation, sealed off from the outside world... in 1759, the global conflict between Britain and France was fought in three main arenas: North America, Latin America and India. It is part of the fascination of the year 1759 that in each case one can discern another crucial element in our story: the presence of a third military force, affecting both the strategies to be employed and the eventual outcome. In Latin America it was the declining imperial power of Spain that complicated the situation; in North America it was the Native American tribes, and in India it was the disintegration of the Mughal Empire.
France made the fatal mistake in the Seven Years War of devoting most of her energies to continental warfare, largely fought on behalf of Maria Theresa of Austria, instead of concentrating on the crucial areas where the battle for world supremacy with Britain would be decided: in North America, the West Indies and India. The most intelligent British policy on the continent would have been to confine land-based military activity to the periphery, as was done in the Napoleonic Wars until 1814. This option was not open to Britain because of its Achilles heel, the Electorate of Hanover. By placing the Elector of Hanover on the British throne in 1714, the post-1688 elite gave hostages to continental fortune for a hundred years thereafter. The plain fact was that, in terms of British interests, George II as both King of England and Elector of Hanover was a liability.
        - Frank McLynn, "1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World"

The most dramatic example, however, of Anglo-French rivalry in the Caribbean was the controversy, at the peace treaty of 1763, as to whether Britain should restore to France Canada or Guadeloupe, both conquered during the war. The mere equation of the two areas provokes derision today. Yet the foreign offices of the two governments were seriously agitated over the issue, and in England, at least, it gave rise to a violent pamphlet warfare. Eventually Britain restored Guadeloupe and retained Canada. But this decision did not mean that Guadeloupe, in the eyes of the British Government, was less valuable than Canada. In fact, precisely the opposite was the case. Choiseul, the Foreign Minister of France, prided himself on a successful diplomatic coup by which he had retained a valuable sugar island and given up a vast territory which many Frenchmen derided, as Voltaire did, as 'a few acres of snow'.
        - Eric Williams, "From Columbus to Castro"

# VICTORIA'S WARS: The Rise of Empire

[The Young Queen]
When the young, politically naive but fiercely dutiful Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, Britain was the world's leading industrial power, with apparently limitless supplies of coal and iuron, and a virtual monopoly on steam power. London was not only the largest city in the world but also its principal financial exchange. Victoria's navy was recognised as the ultimate arbiter of world affairs, while her army basked in the reputation it had won at Waterloo. Yet Britain's empire was, if anything, in decline. The American Revolution had helped to sour the notion of empire, and powerful commercial interests were arguing for free trade and against the protectionism of the 18th century imperial system. In 1837 the empire consisted of a jumbled collection of territories acquired in bits and pieces over generations, administered partly by government and partly by chartered companies. It nevertheless covered some 2 million square miles and possessed a population in excess of a hundred million. An estimated 1.2 million Britons were living abroad, including 56000 soldiers in imperial garrisons (a large proportion of them in India).

During the period known as the 'Dual Monarchy' - from Victoria's accession in 1837 to the death of her husband Albert in 1861 - the empire almost quintupled in size thanks to territorial acquisitions in Asia, Africa, the South Sea and the Far East. Its cities, canals, railways, and telegraphs were changing the face of continents. It was well on the way to becoming the greatest empire the world had ever seen. This is the story of that extraordinary quarter century of imperial conquest and the people who made it happen: the politicians, colonial administrators, businessmen, generals and ordinary soldiers. It is, in particular, the story of the two major and nine medium-sized wars that were fought in the name of trade, civilization and the balance of power. Of those many conflicts, only the Crimean War was not strictly an imperial war, though it was fought with the security of empire in mind.

When Victoria became queen, the British Army was fighting battles in a manner its 17th century forebears would have recognized. But her reign was to coincide with some of the greatest technological advances of any period in history. By 1861 the advent of steamships, telegraphic communications, rifles and breech-loading cannons had revolionized the business of war. But the conservative nature of the British Army meant that it rarely learnt from its previous campaigns; it preferred to adapt on the job. All of Victoria's early wars were successful but often only after initial setbacks. Incredibly, the greatest industrial nation in the world did not always enjoy a tactical or technical superiority over its foes.

No longer could a monarch make or break governments, as George III had done. The steady erosion of royal patronage and the changes brought about by the great parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 had increased the House of Commons' influence over the government and weakened that of the monarch... All this left Victoria in a curious constitutional position: nominally powerful but in reality the weak partner in the precarious balancing act between monarch, government and parliament.

Lord Palmerston, British foreign secretary in 1836, was well aware that Russia was using Persia as its stalking horse, testing Britan's resolve to maintain Afghanistan's terriorial integrity. The best way to foil Russian designs, he decided, was to counter a pro-Russian ruler in Persia with a pro-British ruler in Afghanistan... in what became known as the 'Great Game', the often secret struggle between Britain and Russia for control of the central Asian gateways into India.

Afghan tribesmen were, in effect, mounted infantrymen par excellence and presented the British Army with the same sort of challenege at the beginning of Victoria's reign as the Boers would at the end. Siege operations might not be such a problem, but to combat them in the field the British would need more than their traditional virtues of discipline, courage and massed firepower. They would require, in particular, the skills learnt by their riflemen and light infantry in the two Peninsular Wars of 1808-14, when each company knew how to skirmish and act independently.

[Sindis and Sikhs]
A paternalist Tory, Sir Henry Hardinge arrived in India in September 1844 as governor-general full of good intentions. His achievements, during his four year term of office, were many: advances in education, with more schools and universities, and promises of government employment for college-educated Indians; a massive public works programme, with construction begun on the Ganges Canal and a national railway network, and the extension of social reforms to the princely states, such as the discouragement of suttee, infanticide, and human sacrifice. Yet it if for the first hard-fought war against the redoubtable Sikh nation of the Punjab that Hardinge's term if chiefly remembered.

Because most independent states in India possessed powerful artillery, and none more so than the Sikhs, it was standard practice for Indian artillery, when attacking, to engage the enemy's guns so as to remove the threat of anti-personnel fire. British artillery, by contrast, still clung to the traditional tactic of engaging the enemy's infantry.

Field Marshal Lord Wolseley, who spoke to a number of those present, would later characterize the battle of Chilianwalla as "that unfortunate battle where British courage was a more distinguishing feature than either the strategical or tactical ability of the general commanding."

A crisis in domestic politics drove all thought of colonial wars to the back of the queen's mind. Sir Robert Peel, whom she had come to admire and trust, had recently introduced a bill for the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws over a period of three years. But the majority of his party was fiercely opposed to the bill, regarding it as a betrayal of landed interests, and these protectionists were led in the Commons by a then obscure MP called Benjamin Disraeli. Victoria and Albert were stringly supportive of Peel's measure, chiefly as a means of alleviating the Irish Famine. The queen had already donated £2000 of her own money to a Famine relief fund. Albert topped this by providing moral support at one of the earliest Corn Law debates from the gallery of the House of Commons... the prince had overstepped the constitutional mark by betraying his, not to mention the queen's, political bias. He would not make the same mistake again. Royal support might have helped the measure pass through parliament, but it could save neither Peel's government nor his party.

The row caused by Albert's ill-judged support for Peel's repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 simply confirmed his belief that the crown had to be seen to be above party, or even intra-party, politics. Albert was also making his influence felt in the military sphere. This was a direct result of his successfil effort to heal the rift between the queen and the Duke of Wellington by asking the latter to act as proxy godfather at the christening of their first child. As commander-in-chief, the duke showed his gratitude by encouraging Albert to make recommendations for the army - some of which were acted upon.

Born Henry John Temple in 1784, the son of an Irish peer who was not eligible to sit in the House of Lords, Lord Palmerston had become a Tory MP at the age of 21, a cabinet minister at 24, and by 1850, having crossed the floor, had served a total of 14 years as foreign secretary under three Whig prime ministers: Lords Grey and Melbourne, and now Lord John Russell. His guiding mantra in foreign policy was to regard constitutional states as Britain's natural allies. He tended to support nations struggling for independence, which in turn brough accusations of meddling from absolutist states like tsarist Russia and imperial Austria... Victoria and Albert had long disagreed with Palmerston's heavy-handed foreign policy, particularly his hostility towards France. They were no less disapproving of his scandalous private life.

It took some time to convert the Royal Navy to the idea of steam. This was partly because a steamer's paddles were thought to be vulnerable to enemy fire and did not leave enough room for a full broadside of guns. In 1840, by which time the British merchant fleet had no fewer than 720 large seagoing steamships, the Royal Navy had none. But all this changed with the launch of the first iron-hulled, propellor-driven ship, the SS Great Britain, by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1843. Within two years the Royal Navy had introduced the world's first steam battleship, HMS Ajax... From 1851 to 1871, when HMS Devastation became the world's first mastless warship, all new British warships had sails and screw propellors. The best of the hybrids was HMS Warrior, the first iron-hulled battleship, launched in 1860. She was the fastest, most powerful warship afloat.

In 1852, however, a much smaller steam-powered vessel gave Britain's armed forces a crucial tactical edge: the gunboat. Under 200 feet long, with pivot-mounted guns and a crew of around 30, its greatest asset was its maneuverability. A two-mast sailing rig gave it speed and agility in open sea, while its steam engine allowed it to chug up navigable rivers, deep into hostile territory. "The gunboat", writes one naval historian, "made the Royal Navy for the first time a power on land as well as at sea. Without the gunboat, the navy could never have fulfilled its role as global policeman, intervening at the request of British officials and merchants virtually anywhere in the world".

"Peace is an Excellent Thing, and War is a great Misfortune. But there are Many things More valuable than Peace, and many Things Much worse than war. The maintenance of the Ottoman Empire belongs to the First Class, the Occupation of Turkey by Russia belongs to the Second."
        - Lord Palmerston

"No nation," wrote Garnet Wolseley, "was ever committed to a great foreign war for which it was so unprepared." There is much truth in this. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, military spending had been cut to the bone to the time of Victoria's accession. During the same period the size of the army shrank from a wartime peak of 250,000 men to just 109,000; and of that number more than half were garrisoned abroad. One of the reasons why the duke of Wellington refused to consider any measure of army reform was his belief that it would give the Treasury an excuse to make further cuts. But the consequences for the army was an ossified administration... The 25,000-strong British expeditionary force that eventually took the field in the Crimea in 1854 was a hotchpotch of semi-independent departments that well reflected the administrative chaos.

Part of the reason why the army had failed to adapt its strategy and tactics to deal with the realities of a modern European war was because it did not expect to fight one. "The army thought small," writes Hew Strachan in his book on post-Waterloo army reform, "because it fought small: the problems had been resolved to meet the demands of imperial garrisoning and home policing, and were therefore adapted to the level of the regiment. After 1815 the empire became the army's raison d'etre. Military involvement in the empire had at least some popular appeal. Radicals were pleased to see the military forsake their aid to the domestic civil power. And finally the soldier overseas became a Christian missionary and the harbinger of British civilization."

He also became a military jack of all trades with experience of many varieties of warfare: he had met the Sikhs in battles remarkably similar to those of the Napoleonic era; he had fought in the mountains of Afghanistan, and in the bush of Kaffaria and New Zealand; and he had campaigned in the cold of Canada and the heat of Sind. He had learnt many lessons - such as the value of mounted infantry, of massed heavy artillery, and of looser infantry formations - but few of them were applicable to a European war.

At a time when the officers of the Royal Navy were becoming ever more professional and technically proficient, thanks to the introduction of entrance exams and a gunnery school at Portsmouth, most of their army counterparts were little more than gentleman amateurs. This was largely because the army's purchase system gave little scope for enterprising men to study their profession. Most officers were drawn from a social class educated in the literary tradition of the public schools.

A bolder commander than Lord Raglan would have used any troops at his disposal to turn a victory into a rout. It is impossible to imagine any of the great commanders in history - from Alexander to Napoleon - acting in such a cautious manner. Only by taking chances are crushing victories won. And the Battle of Alma could have been a crushing victory; it might even have ended the war. Though competent, neither Raglan nor Saint-Arnaud had the genius or nerve required to destroy the Russian Army in a single battle. Instead it was allowed to withdraw largely intact to fight another day - with disastrous consequences for the allies.

All three principals - Raglan, Lucan and Nolan - were partly responsible for the blunder (the Charge of the Light Brigade). Raglan's justification for sending the cavalry forward - that the Russians were on the point of withdrawing from the Causeway Heights - was wildly optimistic. Even interpreted accurately, therefore, his final order was both unnecessary and irresponsible. He should, moreover, have taken into account the fact that Lucan's view of the battlefield was much more limited than his and made the order more precise. Lucan should have insisted on clarification from Nolan. But he allowed his pride to get the better of him and seems to have come to the inexplicable conclusion that Raglan expected him to seize the battery of eight guns in the heavily defended north valley. He also failed to support the Light Brigade with horse artillery and to request the cooperation of the French cavalry. As for Nolan, so contemptuous was he of Lucan's ability, so desperate for the cavalry to show its worth, that he failed in the one essential duty of a staff galloper: to provide the officer in receipt of the message with the necessary clarification... And he may have gone even further by referring to an 'attack' when Raglan had simply intended a display of force. If so, he bears the chief responsibility for what followed. Such was the opinion, according to Frederick Maxse, of most cavalrymen.

If the French had not repeatedly foiled Raglan's plans to take Sevastopol by a coup de main, especially in the days after Alma, the long and costly siege might have been avoided. But Raglan's chief attribute as a diplomat, his equable and convivial temperament, was also his greatest weakness in the field. He may have kept the alliance intact, but he failed to exert sufficient pressure on successive French commanders to act decisively when the time was right. Would another British general have done better? It is difficult to say. The country did not then have a single outstanding soldier of sufficient rank and experience to take command. Given the difficulties of fighting in an alliance, Raglan was probably the best man available. He was not the most imaginative general that Britain has ever produced, but did get the French out of a fix at Alma and tried to do the same again at the Redan. It was not his fault that his French counterparts, hampered by interference from Napoleon III in Paris, were even more averse to taking risks than he was.

The war had cost the British the lives of almost 21,000 servicemen, only a quarter of whom were killed in action. Such a stark statistic only serves to underpin the traditional view of the conflict as one of incompetence and waste; nor did its conclusion, in the opinion of many commentators, result in positive gains for Britain. One historian writes: "The treaty left England largely isolated. Russia was, and would be, hostile for decades, and Austria and Prussia had not laid down their stake. Further, England's sole major-power ally, excepting disintegrating Turkey, was an unstable France only as reliable as its unreliable Emperor."
But was this the case? Trevor Royle, the author of the best recent book on the conflict, insists that the war did result in important gains for Britain: Russian military power had been "revealed as a sham", the threat to India had been "neutralised" and the Royal Navy still controlled the Mediterranean. Moreover, the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire, the ostensible reason for going to war, had been maintained. Now would Britain, having shown she would fight if she had to, be drawn into another Continental war for a further 60 years. As for the British Army, the war helped to quicken the pace of reform that Hardinge and Prince Albert had begun in 1852.

[The Jewel of her Crown]
The great rebellion (or Indian Mutiny) officially ended on 8 July 1859 with the declaration throughout India of a "State of Peace"... Canning continued as viceroy until March 1862, introducing a series of measures designed to make the British Raj more inclusive... he encouraged the founding of universities in Calcutte, Madras and Bombay, and gave grants to private colleges. Such initiatives were designed to create a 'Westernized' Indian middle class that would cooperate rather than confront. Yet the plan ultimately backfired in that it was this English-speaking elite - Gandhi, Nehru and others - that would spearhead the campaign for independence. Canning's other post-mutiny initiatives included the introduction of a penal code and the acceleration of railway building. But the most important reform of his viceregal administration was that of the Indian Army. Canning's government introduced a number of changes to prevent any further uprisings: increasing the ratio of European to Indian troops from the pre-mutiny level of 1:7 to 1:2; concentrating all artillery in European hands; and brigading every two Indian regiments with at least one European, so that no major station was left without a European presence. But it also tackled the fundamental cause of the mutiny by making significant improvements to the army's conditions of service and crucially, shifting the recruitment base of the Bengal Army from high-caste Hindus to Sikhs, Dogras, Pathans, Gurkhas and other 'martial races'. So successful were these reforms that until independence in 1947 there was just one mutiny involving Sepoy violence: that of the 5th Light Infantry at Singapore during the First World War. Otherwise, despite the occasional 'industrial action', the army stayed faithful to its colonial masters to the end.

Perhaps Albert's greatest achievement was that he helped to rescue the institution of the monarchy from the depths to which it had sunk by the 1830s and reinvented it as a pillar of the emerging constitutional state... Albert's vision of a modern monarchy, with executive duties shared between Windsor Castle and Downing Street, was probably never achievable for long. But it is tempting to speculate on the role the monarchy might have played in British politics had he not died when he did, and had Victoria not withdrawn for so long into mourning and seclusion. That he would have "deplored", in the words of one biographer, "the glamarous, ornamental, impotent Crown that emerged in the next century" is not in doubt. Whether he could have prevented it another matter.

For those born during the 20th century, the idea that an earlier Britain routinely fought wars of aggression might come as something as surprise. Both World Wars, Korea, the Falklands and even the First Gulf War were all, in the most basic sense, "just" wars provoked by a third party's aggression. Part of the reason for the furore over the Second Gulf War is that pre-emptive conflicts have become, for the British at lest, extremely rare. The last genuine example was the Zulu War in 1879. But during the early years of Victoria's rule, wars of aggression (if not always strictly pre-emptive) were far more commonplace than we might might like to admit. You can dress the Opium, Sind, Second Sikh, Burma and Persian Wars in whichever clothes you choose - autocratic rulers refusing the march of progress, extending British trade, strategic security, prestige - but in the end it all comes down to power. Not that all of Victoria's early wars were either aggressive or acquisitive - the First Sikh War, the Indian Mutiny, the outset of the Crimean War... the invasion of the Crimea was the point at which the allies' war became one of aggression.

Of course not all aspects of "imperialism" - whether practised by Britain in the 19th century of the US today - are necessarily pernicious. The imposition of law and order, improved communications and more stable trading conditions will always be welcomed by certain sections of a conquered people. Others marginalized by the previous regime might even encourage foreign intervention. Yet it is hard to get away from the immutable fact that few indigenous peoples like to have their rulers forced upon them by foreigners. Nor do they appreciate the benefits of "civilization" when they included the bombardment of ancient cities like Canton, the looting of national treasures like the Koh-i-Nor diamond and the wanton destruction of fabulous edifices like the Great Bazaar in Kabul and the Summer Palace at Peking.

The irony of Britain's rapid imperial expanion during the early years of Victoria's reign is that little of it was directly sanctioned by the home government. None of her early prime ministers, even "gunboat" Palmerston, was pro-imperialist per se. Most tended to regard territorial empire as an expensive luxury, believing instead in the power of trade and moral prestige. That it took place at all, therefore, was chiefly the responsibility of individuals on the ground: diplomats, soldiers, trading houses and occasionally mavericks. To those at home it seemed as if the empire was growing without thought or design, or, as the Victorian historian JR Seeley put it, "in a fit of absence of mind."

Albert's demise coincided with a change in the fundamental character of empire. Before the Indian Mutiny most Britons saw the empire as a means of spreading civilization through trade and the imposition of superior codes of behaviour. So bloody were the events of the mutiny, however, that when it was over many Britons concluded that the subject peoples of the empire were not capable of being civilized. Imperial rule, therefore, was not a mission but a duty, or as Rudyard Kipling so eloquently put it, "the White Man's burden"... there was also a shift in the axis of imperial expansion from Asia to Africa that reflected the changing commercial and strategic concerns of the British government. Of the fifteen significant wars fought by Victoria's troops after Albert's death, eleven took place on the "dark continent".

At their simplest level, Victoria's Wars can be seen as little more than the flexing of Britain's imperial muscle... yet the climate in which Britain exercised her power changed considerably during Victoria's reign. Broadly speaking, for most of the first 30 years, she operated as the world's sole superpower, much as the US does today. Britain's wars were mostly ones of consolidation and coercion against 'inferior' indigenous peoples, rather than wars seeking to expand the empire or maintain the traditional European balance of power. The Crimean War is the exception... by contrast, most of Victoria's later wars were fought by Britain with half an eye on her European rivals. The rise of a Prussian-dominated Germany, the resurgence of France after her disastrous defeat by Prussia in 1871, the ambitions of a nascent Italy and the relentless Asian expanion of imperial Russia - all posed serious threats to Britain's position as the pre-eminent world power.

Britain's African wars were no longer fought chiefly to expand British trade and influence, but rather to prevent other European powers from muscling into territories that Britain regarded as strategically vital for the safety of her steamer routes to the East, via Suez and the Cape. Late-Victorian Britain was no longer the world's only superpower, though she was still pre-eminent at sea, and her wars reflect the way an increasingly tense Europe altered the priorities of empire. It was a rivalry that required two world wars to resolve.

# WHITE SAVAGE: William Johnson & The Invention of America

The Irish involvment in the shaping of modern America goes back almost to the beginning of the story, making it possible to take a long view. And that involvment has often had to do with mediating between other cultures, The ambivalence of the Irish situation as colonised people who became colonisers, as 'savages' who came to see themselves as civilisers, and as white people who often appeared to official Anglo-American eyes as virtual blacks, has tended to place the Irish at some interesting crossroads. Remembering how some of them behaved at these intersections may helr to unravel, not just some American myths, but some Irish ones too.

In the world of the Iroquois, grief was a terrible force that must be appeased. The dead wished to take the living with them, to keep them in the grip of pain and loss so that their derangement would threaten the order that was necessary for survival. Grief created paralysis, an inability to function. The bereaved covered their faces and clothes with ashes. They lay in the dark, unable to prepare food or hunt or tend children or go to war. Rituals were necessary to 'dispel the insanity of grief'. Without them, in a culture that had known so much grief, it would be impossible to survive. Death would have its way. William Johnson, like the Iroquois, had grown up in a culture that felt itself in danger of extinction, and that responded with a system of ritual in which each individual death had to be treated as a moment of immense danger for the entire society. Just as the mourning half of an Iroquois village chanted death songs, the Irish Catholic culture of Johnson's childhood had a formal system of elaborate lamentation. The Iroquois had the all-female institution of O'gi'weoa'no' - the Chanters of the Dead - whose job it was to sing the songs that would release the earth-bound spirits of those who had died and allow them to depart from this world. The Irish had the similar all-femae institution of keening.

In America, Johnson found himself in a culture where belief was not a simple matter of accepting one true faith and discarding all others, but of laying system of understanding on top of another so that they formed shifting strata of meaning. Just as the culture he grew up in encompassed Protestant rationalism, Catholic faith and an older layer of pre-Christian ritual and myth, the Indian culture he had entered did not see attendance at Church, honouring the Great Spirit and appeasing the spirits that pervaded the natural world, as mutually exclusive activities. The Iroquois view of the world as one in which parallel realities co-existed and sometimes met, in which the power of the dead must be taken seriously, was not nearly as alien to this white European Christian as might be supposed.

Johnson had come to live a life in which multiple historical forces - the fall of Gaelic Ireland and the rise of Protestant Britain, the ambition of a European exile and the Iroquois struggle for survival, the reality of conflict and the dream of civility - were in constant motion. Competing visions of the world spun around him. They met but did not always cohere, and were kpt from collision only by the force of his own multi-layered personality.

The Jacobite culture from which Johnson emerged was a kind of archaic radicalism, milennial and even apocalyptic in its dreams of a restored golden age, but pre-modern in its ideal of a good king who would make all things right.

"Reasons... make us think that the natives of this country had formerly among them some sort of worship; for they set apart the seventh day as sacred; but upon my going into one of these Holy houses on that day, I could not observe any circumstance of devotion in their behaviour... They were most of them bowing and curtsying to one another, and a considerable number of them fast asleep."
        - Joseph Addison, satirising English society from an Indian perspective

Gentle and playful as it was, Addison's essay had important implications for British colonial policy in North America. It hinted at an alliance with the Mohawks based, not on their assimilation to a superior civilisation, but on a mediation between different, equally valid, cultures.

"We are all guilty of this narrow way of thinking, which we meet with in this abstract of the Indian journal, when we fancy the customs, dresses and manners of other countries are ridiculous and extravagant, if they do not resemble those of our own."
        - Joseph Addison, "The Spectator"

Joseph Hendrick and his Mohawk nation came to inspire at the heart of the empire feelings of wonder, admiration, excitement, dread, panic. They were noble and majestic, austere and sceptical - a moral rebuke to English dissolution. They were also savage creatures of the night.

Successful go-between need partners. They need to deal with people like themselves, people who are useful to their own side precisely because they have become a little like the other. Hendrick needed, from the British Empire, someone who would imagine him and his fellow Indians, not as savage bogeymen, but merely as human beings with different notions. As an Indian who had become partly European, he required a European who could become partly Indian. He needed a counterpart who could match his own ability to be at home simultaneously in different cultures. In confident, expansionist, triumphalist England it was hard to find such people. In Ireland, on the other hand, they were thick on the ground.

Without the Mohawks, there could be no Iroquois alliance for the British Empire. Without William Johnson, as Hendrick had made clear, the British would have no alliance with the Mohawks.

William Johnson inherited defeat. The new order into which he had been born was one in which all civil and political power was reserved, under the Penal Laws, to members of the Protestant state religion, the Church of Ireland. Both Catholics and dissenting Protestants were excluded from the armed forces and most professions. Catholics faced, in law at least, severe restrictions on the practice of their faith, their access to education and their property rights. For the poor, who never enjoyed such rights anyway, the consequences of defeat were felt most sharply as an alienation from cultural and religious power. For the very rich there were always ways and means of holding onto a position of privilege. Hardest hit though, were those in the middle, like the Johnsons, with high notions of their own place in the world but without the means to sustain them. They needed to be able to turn the advantages of education and connections into military, ecclesiastical or professional careers for their younger sons.

People like the Johnsons needed their poor neighbours because they were the only ones who remembered, or recognised, their former status as important people. Those neighbours, in turn, needed their gentry to uphold the oppressed honour of the tribe in the face of ethnic and religious insult. They indulged them with a residual respect, provided they played their part as local champions.

Johnson's cousins the Corduff Warrens had started out in the same place and in the same political and economic circumstances; they had been minor Catholic and Jacobite middlemen from the fertile plains west of Dublin; and they had ended up in the same nexus of violent imperial struggle, exile and self-advancement. Yet they had fought on opposite sides in world-shaping conflicts. While Peter Warren and William Johnson had chosen the British Empire as the arena in which they would win back their family's prestige and wealth, John, William and Richard Warren of Corduff had chosen the French.
One of the reasons William Johnson took so well to the borderlands between the French and British Empires in North America was that he had grown up along just such a border. Spiritually and culturally, though not literally, the milieu of Johnson's youth was a Franco-British frontier.

At the root of the emergence of industrial society was the creation and satisfaction of new demands. Global trade and the expansion of European empires led to both an awareness of new products and the possibility of bringing them to western markets. A new kind of person - the consumer - was emerging in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Tea and coffee, cotton and china, sugar and spices all became symbolsof status and luxury whose value went far beyond their mere utility.

The Indian societies of north-eastern America came to depend on the purchase of manufactured goods. In their adaptation to European colonisation, they created a new kind of economy, and it could not survive without using commodities it did not make for itself. The basics of everyday living - growing crops, hunting game, cooking, fighting, wearing clothes, even conducting traditional ceremonies - all came to involve the use of European consumer goods.

The high quality and relatively low price of English cloth were so much appreciated by the Iroquois and other Indian nations that they represented perhaps the biggest single advantage the English enjoyed over the French colony in Canada in the competition for trade and allies.

The warrior's sense of self was enhanced by another European object: the mirror. The same rise in male vanity that created the 18th century European fops and beaus was experienced by the Indians. The mirror also to some degree separated women from the preparations for war. Previously, a wife or sister had applied the war-paint to the warrior's face. Now, he could paint himself, weakening the power of the women to veto or sanction war. Mirrors themselves generated a further consumer demand among the Iroquois: cosmetics.

It was not European products themselves but the Indians' failure to learn the mysteries of their manufacture that revolutionised their culture. The European industrial revolution had resulted from centuries of change, and could not be suddenly reproduced within Indian cultures. Not only did the Iroquois come to depend completely on colonial traders for the basic tools of their livelihood, they also lacked the ability to maintain and repair these goods. The guns were useless without gunpowder, which only the Europeans could supply and the repairs which only European smiths could effect.

"If they are to be killed, they are too many; if they are to fight, they are too few."
        - Joseph Hendrick, objecting to Johnson's detachment of a troop

In the ideology of European warfare, honourable enemies were to be treated honourably even in defeat. The dead were not scalped. As arms had become an established profession, the enemy could be seen as fellow professionals. When the job was done, it was in the mutual interest of both sides to behave well, not least because the same conventions would apply to today's victors when they became tomorrow's vanquished. Indian warfare was different. Indian warriors were not paid professionals. They fought to bring honour to their nation and the tangible proofs of honour were plunder brought back to the village, trophies and capitves. Booty, scalps and prisoners were the point of the fight, and to return without them was to be defeated, even if their European allies claimed victory.
At the end of his first real battle, Johnson found himself occupying each of these conflicting European and Indian positions. As General Johnson, he was a representative of the British Empire. As Warraghiyagey, he was a Mohawk war captain, expected to send tokens of victory back to the villages of Iroquoia. If he allowed his Indian allies to scalp prisoners or take European captives to replace their dead, he risked being seen as a savage. If he did not, he risked his prestige with the Indians, who were still the source of his power.

Though he did not know it, Johnson was an official military hero of the British Empire, triumphantly victorious not just over France, but over (local rival) Governor William Shirley. The delay in the transmission of correspondance between America and England meant that Johnson's complaints against Shirley and Shirley's suggestions that Johnson be replaced were reaching London alongside reports of Johnson's apparent victory at Lake George and Shirley's failure to mount an attack on Niagara. After a dreadful year in the war, the crown needed a glorious triumph to celebrate and Lake George fitted the bill far more neatly than any other event. It was decided that Johnson had indeed won a great victory and that he was therefore a hero. It followed that Shirley, whose denunciations of the hero were flowing in, was a villain. Johnson was now to be Sir William Johnson, first Baronet of New York. Had Shirley known of it, he would surely have tempered his attacks on the now-official hero. As it was, he fell headlong into the communication gap.

The old Iroquois policy of neutrality which Johnson had undermined in the mid-1740s had helped to hold the pro-British and pro-French factions of the Great League together. Johnson's success in drawing the Mohawks and some members of the other nations into action on the British side had, however, shattered the facade of unity, and by 1755 the pretence of a single political strategy was gone. The Mohawk villages, under Johnson's influence, were staunchly pro-British. The Oneidas were split down the middle. Pro-French or neutralist sachems prevailed at Onondaga, the ritual centre of the league. The Cayugas and Senecas favoured the French. As a force for the co-ordination of political and military strategy among the nations, the confederacy was effectively dead. Disunited, the Iroquois could no longer hold the balance of power between the British and the French.

Though he had never seen it, William Johnson had long had his eye on Fort Niagara. It stood towards the western end of Lake Ontario, a defiant outpost of Europe in the New World. At its centre, a handsome, grey granite castle, built on a bluff at the mouth of the Niagara River, overlooked the lake. The citadel was the only fort in the American interior protected by extensive, European-style earthen outworks. The quality of these defences reflected what Johnson understood to be the strategic importance of the place. France's far-flung settlements in North America - Canada, the forts and trading posts in the Ohio valley, Louisiana - were connected by water. The point where, 17 miles from Lake Erie, the Niagara River drops down a series of rapids and takes its fearful plunge over Niagara Falls was a nerve centre without which movement between Canada and France's possessions in the rest of North America was unviable.

Whatever joy Johnson felt at the end of the conflict in which he had been embroiled, on and off, for most of his time in America was tempered by his realisation that his world had changed profoundly. His dominion - the exercise of influence among Indians who held the balance of power between rival European Empires - had disappeared. One side of the scales, the French, had been lopped off and the delicate operation of shifting the equilibrium through Indian influence was now a redundant skill. He himself was partly responsible for this change, of course. He had kept the Mohawks loyal, and through them limited the capacity of the French and their Indian allies to sweep away the frontier settlements of New York. At Lake George in 1755 he had delivered a victory, however equivocal, that for a long time stood out as an island in a sea of French success. He had educated the British and the colonials in the virtues of Indian woodland warfare and, with his creation of the rangers, he had sowed the seeds of a new American military style. Through skillful diplomacy and cool command, he had taken Niagara and caused the collapse of French power in the west. And Johnson's neutralising of the Canadian Indians had not just turned the fall of Montreal into a relatively bloodless affair, but had made Britain's new territories far more governable than they otherwise would have been.

When it went on display in the Royal Academy Exhibition Gallery on Pall Mall, in London, in April 1771, the crowds who queued excitedly on the street watched as the great personages arrived in their carriages and went in to see Benjamin West's epic painting "The Death of General Wolfe". It was the sensation of the hour, a heart-stopping emblem of the conquest of America. Wolfe was a secular martyr for a Protestant country, a hero who had given his life in the capture of Quebec. In West's colossal canvas, Wolfe dies at the very moment when a messenger is spied on the edge of the picture, coming to announce victory. For public consumption at the heart of the Empire, West's painting was the fall of Canada. The chaos, confusion and horror of war are transformed into a glorious tableau of sacrific and triumph.

"To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation that is governed by shopkeepers."
        - Adam Smith, "The Wealth of Nations"

General Amherst was not entirely impervious to the romantic European view of the Indians. He had named the armed sloops on which he had taken his troops down the St Lawrence to attack Montreal the Onondanga and the Mohawk, inaugurating an American tradition of drawing on Indian imagery to enhance the allure of advanced military technology.

The notion that brotherly love was a hard currency did not appeal to Jeffrey Amherst. Now that military alliances were no longer necessary, he saw the marketplace as the proper arena for British-Indian relations. Once he started to scrutinise Johnson's accounts of expenditure on Indian relations, Amherst identified the whole idea of giving presents as both a fiscal and a political mistake. He had began to see the whole business of presents and alliances as essentially a system of blackmail. He felt that His Britannic Majesty was being held to ransom by the implicit threat of a revolt by the savages.
Johnson's diplomatic system had enhanced and sustained the prestige of older sachems. By giving them presents to distribute and conducting negotiations with them, he had restored some of their traditional authority, which had eroded over time. This system had created a mutual dependency: the sachems needed Johnson to uphold their position; he needed them to exercise influence on his behalf. Now, by cutting off the supply of presents, Amherst undermined this nexus of mutuality. As the older sachems lost influence, the young warriors came to the fore.

There was an element of the Indian uprising of 1763 that mirrored the genocidal fantasies of Amherst. Pontiac and many other Indian leaders were animated by a vision of a world free of whites. Johnson's middle ground of cultural, diplomatic and economic exchange was under threat from both sides. Indian atrocities spurred on Amherst's drive to wipe out his Indian enemies. His underestimation of Indian power, and overestimation of his own, however, led to a military stalemate. By the end of the summer, more than 400 redcoats had been killed. hundreds more were in captivity and perhaps 2,000 civilians had died in Indian attacks along the frontiers from New York to North Carolina.

Johnson wrote to Amherst in October denouncing his policy of attempting a military solution to the crisis and puncturing his illusions of success. He reminded him that if Johnson had not succeeded in detaching their Indian allies from the French 'without derogating from the known bravery of our Troops, we might not as yet be in possession of their country'. He pointed out the difficulty of inlficting a real defeat on the Indians.

Johnson's aims in organising Indian war parties to accompany the expeditions against still-recalcitrant nations were twofold. One was to demonstrate in a tangible way the restoration of the British-Indian alliance, and thus, paradoxically, to encourage a general peace. The campaign against Montreal in 1760 had shown how effectively an Indian war party could act, in fact, as a diplomatic mission.

Pontiac's great achievement had been the restoration of Sir William Johnson. The Indian revolt had not been powerful enough to destroy British America, but the Anglo-Americans were not powerful enough to defeat the wider rebellion. Both the Indians and the British needed him to make peace.

The colonial authorities needed Indians as allies and therefore had to give them, at least collectively, some respect. Slaves, on the other hand, were required not to cooperate but to obey. For the Indians themselves, the sight of black slaves was a constant reminder of the condition to which they might be reduced. To counteract this reasonable anxiety, it had to be made clear that the Indians were more highly respected than the blacks.

The intertwining of sectarian and imperial struggles in the America of the 1740s and 1750s meant that Catholic Indians would be anti-British and Protestant Indians pro-British. Abstract goals like the saving of souls were meaningless in this context.

Johnson's dream of a final settlement between the white colonies and the Indian nations, made incarnate with the boundary line, provided predictably illusory. He had pleased the Iroquois, the traders and the land speculators, but his opening up of the Ohio valley had merely outraged the western Indians without putting an effective stop to illegal white settlements.

Johnson was but dimly aware of the great irony of the British victory over France. Just as Johnson's role in that victory had helped inadvertently to weaken his Indian allies by depriving them of the balance of power, so it had also weakened his own imperial masters. Freed from the threat of an assertive French presence in North America, the colonial population had been given the opportunity to assert itself as a political force in its own right.

William Johnson's ancestors had had their property seized for being disloyal to Britain. His heirs had their American property seized for being loyal to Britain.

The Iroquois, and the Johnsons, had been pulled into the revolutionary war largely against their will. Initially, the Six Nations had been determined to remain neutral between the British and the Americans... but at a council with the British at Oswego in the early summer of 1777, the Six Nations agreed to take up the hatchet against the Americans... The villages at Onondaga, the ritual centre of the confederacy, were burned to the ground by the American General John Sullivan in 1779. The great Iroquois confederacy, which had lasted for at least 300 years, tore itself apart as pro-British Mohawks attacked pro-American Oneidas. The great longhouse was permanently broken in two, with one new league at Grand River and the other at Buffalo Creek.

The imagined freedom of the Indian - physical, political and sexual - carried an erotic charge, but freedom was also a rank and swampy wilderness, where energy and righteousness could get lost. The nobility of a doomed people gave a heroic, tragic cast to the grubby business of extermination. The rapid clearing of the great forests was hailed as progress but also induced an immediate nostalgia for the once pristine landscape. The way through this confusing cultural landscape lay in the figure of the White Savage, the virile, racially pure embodiment of American values who is yet at home in the wilderness because he had adopted the best of Indian culture. An American with white skin but Indian dress, Christian decency but Indian simplicity, European accomplishments but Indian skills, would have the right to take the West. William Johnson began to be woven into this nascent national myth of the triumph of civilization over savagery in James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking novels of the 1820s, such as "The Last of the Mohicans". Johnson lies behind the figure who came to embody a specifically American style of manly virtue, Natty Bumppo, also called Leatherstocking and Hawkeye. Cooper's white Indian is a protege of Johnson, who followed him to the battle of Lake George.

Robert Louis Stevenson wanted a story that would somehow bring together the intimate tragedies of the Jacobite wars with a global epic, and that would end with death and resurrection 'in the icy American wilderness'. It somehow came into his mind that this ghostly gothic tale, "The Master of Ballantrae" (1888), would culminate in the domain of Sir William Johnson. The story dramatises the painful choices that families like Johnson's had to make between pragmatic submission and loyalty to the old cause. The Durie family in Scotland hedges its bets when the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, invades. A coin is flipped. James, the heir, goes with the Pretender. His younger, duller brother Henry stays at home, and when the heir is reported dead, inherits both the land and his brother's sweetheart. The supposedly dead James repeatedly returns, however, full of evil intent and sexual allure. His is the undead spirit of Jabobitism, repellent but seductive, violent but infinitely more compelling than the boringly decent Henry, that refused to be excised from history.

>> Read On >> More quotes on British History >> Captives by Linda Colley
>> Read On >> Conquests and Cultures by Thomas Sowell

>> Return to Quotes index, or Site homepage.