Magazine article The Spectator

Send Her Victorious

Magazine article The Spectator

Send Her Victorious

Article excerpt

VICTORIA 'SWARS : THE RISE OF EMPIRE by Saul David Viking, £25, pp. 503, ISBN 9780670911387 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

The Iraq war has shed a whole new light on the wars fought by the British during the reign of Queen Victoria. War was more or less continuous during the first half of Victoria's reign, and very few of these imperial wars were actually provoked. The UN would not have approved of the wars in the Punjab or Burma, Persia or China which the British waged in the 1840s and 1850s. As Saul David shows in this new book, the Victorians routinely fought wars of aggression. Some were for reasons of regime change, to replace an unfriendly ruler by a puppet. Others were naked acts of conquest.

The big difference between the wars fought by George Bush today and those of Victorian Britain is that the government back home in London played very little part. Britain's wars of aggression were fought on the far-distant periphery of empire, and they seemed to happen almost by accident. They took place too at a time when the British public showed a marked lack of enthusiasm for empire.

This paradox of expansion at a time when nobody much wanted it has long puzzled historians. One answer is to blame the man on the spot, but that is too easy.

Christopher Bayly, the guru of global historians, has argued convincingly that expansionism was built into the dynamic of British rule in India -- that bizarre anachronism whereby the government of an entire subcontinent was subcontracted to a commercial organisation, the East India Company. The Company was always in the red, and the need to quench its yawning deficit and cut the cost of defending vast frontiers meant that it was under perpetual pressure to gobble up more native states.

Saul David is a military historian and in this book he examines the wars fought by the British between 1837, when Queen Victoria came to the throne, and 1861, when Albert died. It begins with the first Afghan War, which was an attempt at regime change, replacing a disloyal local ruler with a pro-British one to block Russian expansionism. This was a case of unprovoked aggression, and after initial success the British were driven out of Afghanistan, as all invaders have been ever since. Only one lone horseman out of 16,000 survived the ghastly retreat from Kabul through snow and ice, harried and attacked by Afghan war bands. …

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