Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialism in the Dark Continent

By Ronald Robinson; John Gallagher et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
Repercussions south of the Sahara

A lthough Egypt and the Transvaal had divided Gladstone's second ministry, it was Ireland that was to destroy it. The cleavage which in 1886 resulted in ninety-three Liberals, led by Hartington and Chamberlain, leaving Gladstone over Irish Home Rule had been widening since 1880. The Egyptian and Boer problems had multiplied these dissensions. Indeed, the three crises had much in common. They were all caused by national rebellion against British sway. All three movements came to a head together in crises which were more or less unsolved when the century closed. Each in a different form set the problem of how to deal with nationalist challenges without damaging imperial unity and security; and in all three the choices lay between different degrees of conciliation and coercion, between conceding rights of self-determination and asserting imperial authority.

These questions stirred the liberal and imperial sentiments of the Victorians against each other and set the exponents of different traditions of national expansion at odds. In the Irish, as in the Boer and Egyptian crises, the Gladstonians' approach was cautiously Cobdenite. They sympathised with national sentiment, and if they could not concede all its aspirations, they inclined to accept it as a creative force which could not and should not be suppressed. They continued to rely on influence, trade and liberty to protect British interests and unite the empire and its allies. They preferred to attract peoples, rather than to coerce them or keep them under centralised control. Home rule had reconciled colonial nationalists to Britain in the past. And the Gladstonians saw no other way of binding the Irish, the Boers, and in the end, even the Egyptians for the future.

Whig 'realists', such as Hartington and Northbrook, who were to become Liberal unionists after 1885, disagreed with these Cobdenite views for much the same reasons as Palmerston had done, namely, for not recognising sufficiently that trade, liberty and international peace depended upon power and prestige. They distrusted popular political movements, whether at Home or abroad, and rejected the

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