The Ends of Empire

By Gilmour, David | The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

The Ends of Empire


Gilmour, David, The Wilson Quarterly


Until the last quarter of the 19th century, the ruler of the world's largest empire possessed no imperial title. Russia and Austria-Hungary had been ruled by emperors for centuries; Germany, recently united under Prussia, had just acquired its first, while France had just discarded its second. But Queen Victoria remained merely a queen until in 1876 her prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, persuaded Parliament to make her empress of India.

The title was of purely symbolic significance: it did not apply to other parts of the empire and it did not even affect India, which continued to be administered by a viceroy responsible to the cabinet in London. But it reflected an increased sense of imperial purpose, a strong and growing belief in the permanence of British role overseas. The empire still had a long way to expand: large territories in Africa and Asia had to be added before it could be claimed that a quarter of the globe was painted red. But 1876 may be seen as the apogee of imperial self-confidence. The 1857 Indian Mutiny, which briefly threatened British role in the north, was almost a generation in the past; the "scramble for Africa" had not begun; and Britain's economic predominance was as yet unchallenged by Germany and the United States. Lord Mayo's belief that Britain should hold India "as long as the sun shines in heaven" was widely shared.

The Victorian sense of empire was concentrated on India partly because of the subcontinent's strategic importance. As Lord Curzon, the queen's last viceroy, observed, the loss of India would reduce Britain to the status of a third-rate power. But India also provided the Victorians with an imperial calling which they could not pursue in other parts of the empire. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were settler societies responsible for their own government and without large native populations to administer. The South Africans had problems peculiar to themselves, but they too were white colonists with a hunger for land. When the writer John Buchan remarked that the empire was about "a sense of space in the blood," he was talking about the great and sparsely inhabited tracts of the white colonies. But in India, the Victorians were not colonists. They saw themselves as people with a mission, administrators entrusted by Providence to rule India for the sake of the Indians and to implant British ideas of justice, law, and humanity.

It had not always been so. Since the 17th century, Britons had been sailing to India to enrich themselves. Many had been adventurers who risked the ravages of climate and disease to bring back large fortunes from Bengal. Some had liked India for itself, immersing themselves in native culture and adopting local styles of living. Both types became almost extinct in the Victorian period, victims alike of a high-minded and intolerant zeal for Westernization.

Victorian attitudes toward empire were shaped by the Evangelical and Utilitarian movements in Britain, neither of which had sympathy for Indian customs or religion. Many people dreamed fantastically of a mass conversion of Hindus to Christianity. William Wilberforce, who was largely responsible for the abolition of the slave trade, regarded the conversion of India as even more important, "the greatest of all causes." And even though the number of converts from Hinduism turned out to be very small, the last Victorian bishop of Calcutta believed as late as 1915 that an Indian "Constantine" would emerge and bring his followers into the Christian fold.

Few of the administrators shared this aspiration. Curzon regarded missionaries as a nuisance and believed that conversion was both improbable and undesirable. But members of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), that elite body of 1,100 men that administered the Indian Empire, were heavily influenced by the idea of secular Westernization explicit in the writings of the Utilitarians. The crucial figure was the philosopher James Mill, who in 1806 began writing a six-volume history of British India, a study regarded by Thomas Babington Macaulay as "the greatest historical work" in English since Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. …

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