A Golden Age of Empire
In the modern imagination, Queen Victoria's reign is perhaps most remembered as the great age of the British Empire. Indeed, British holdings around the globe expanded under Victoria's watch to the greatest size of any empire in the history of the world. It is remarkable that Great Britain, a relatively small island nation, was able to dominate world politics by the end of the nineteenth century, with its queen governing over an empire over which, as it was said, the sun never set.
Victoria was a proud imperialist in her politics, which is one of the reasons she favored Conservative ministers such as Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury over the less imperialistic Liberals such as William Gladstone. While her direct political power decreased steadily at home in domestic politics, she enjoyed her role as the figurehead of sprawling international dominions. This role as figurehead was not inconsequential. It united British colonists around the globe in a genuine spirit of unity with other British subjects who sang "God Save the Queen" in the same language in far distant countries. Victoria, for her part, often felt united to her people around the globe. In this connection, she has been credited with genuinely respecting the people from the native populations under British rule—this in a time when it was not rare for British men and women to harbor racist opinions.
One of the Queen's proudest possessions was the Indian subcontinent, which had for over 150 years been under the military domination of the East India Company. The framework for British India was completed in 1849, with the annexation of the Punjab region and the governorship of Lord Dailhouse. A major change occurred in the manner of governing India after the great mutiny of 1857–1858. The mutiny was an uprising of the native population, and British troops were sent in to aid the East India Company's privately-run armed forces. Both sides inflicted extensive cruelties in the struggle, butchering of women and children, and sacking cities. The British forces won, and direct rule over India was placed in the hands of the British Crown and its Army. Victoria was crowned Empress of India in 1876; British rule over the country continued well into the twentieth century.
Like India, Australia was a large imperial possession far from the British Isles. It was often used as a penal colony, to deal with criminals cheaply and usefully. Many criminals were men who owed debts to the government. In 1851, however, gold was discovered in Australia, and many adventurous British immigrants in search of their fortunes sailed the toward the South Pacific. By 1861, there were more than one million British inhabitants in Australia, peopling four independent, self-governing colonies: New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria and Queensland, which were named in honor of Queen Victoria.
Another great landmass under British control was Canada. Parliament passed the British North America Act in 1867, which joined all the Canadian provinces into one giant confederation known as the Dominion of Canada. While effective self- government and freedom from the interference of the British Crown or Parliament was the rule in Canada, most of the people there considered themselves—as many to this day consider themselves—subjects of the Queen.
Perhaps the most dramatic area of British imperial expansion was that in the African continent. By the 1870s, the British had a firm footing in Africa, and the stage was being set for the great scramble for Africa in the following decades—the scramble which involved most of the major European powers' carving up the giant continent and exploiting to the maximum level possible its rich store of natural resources. The conquest of Africa became the subject of famous British literary figures, such as Joseph Conrad, author of the great novel Heart of Darkness, written in 1899, as well as Rudyard Kipling, the man who invented the phrase, the "White Man's Burden." The concept was embraced by British imperialists, who believed it their duty to Christianize and civilize the darker-skinned races of men around the globe.
Great Britain's African possessions included Cape Colony and Natal on the southern tip of Africa—both part of present-day South Africa. Natal was located nearby the Transvaal, a formerly Dutch but now British possession effectively in the hands of the Boers, white Africans descended from Dutch settlers. In 1880, an army of Boers invaded Natal and defeated a British force at Majuba Hill. A decade later, this conflict ignited into the Boer War. In the meantime, a treaty was signed which maintained nominal British rule over the Transvaal, but guaranteed the region its effective independence. British adventurer and diamond-hunter Cecil Rhodes entered the scene, securing for the Crown the area west of the Transvaal in 1885, and taking over the lands to the north. Rhodes wished to see a united dominion in South Africa, which included the Transvaal region. His actions furthered the tensions that led to the Boer War.
The Boer War broke out in 1899 after the discovery of gold in the Transvaal region. By this time, the British possessed Kenya and Uganda, as well. Many at home in Britain opposed the war, and many foreign powers criticized the British as well for what seemed to be an unnecessary stretching of imperial muscle. Initially the British forces suffered heavy defeats at the hands of the Boers, but victory came in 1902 after Queen Victoria's death, setting up for the creation of the British dominion of South Africa.
As her empire around the world grew larger and larger, Queen Victoria's popularity at home increased. The benefits of empire to the British economy were enormous, with great tracts of lands from which to harvest natural resources, and also with ready-made markets around the world for goods manufactured in Britain. The final decades of the Victoria's reign were, for a number of British subjects at the top of the economic pyramid, a truly gilded age.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!