Victorian Period: Introduction

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Victorian Imperialism

Great Britain during Victoria's reign was not just a powerful island nation. It was the center of a global empire that fostered British contact with a wide variety of other cultures, though the exchange was usually an uneven one. By the end of the nineteenth century, nearly one-quarter of the earth's land surface was part of the British Empire, and more than 400 million people were governed from Great Britain, however nominally. An incomplete list of British colonies and quasi-colonies in 1901 would include Australia, British Guiana (now Guyana), Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Egypt, Gambia, the Gold Coast (Ghana), Hong Kong, British India (now Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka), Ireland, Kenya, Malawi, the Malay States (Malaysia), Malta, Mauritius, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Somaliland (Somalia), South Africa, the Sudan, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and Trinidad and Tobago. Queen Victoria's far-flung empire was a truly heterogenous entity, governed by heterogenous practices. It included Crown Colonies like Jamaica, ruled from Britain, and protectorates like Uganda, which had relinquished only partial sovereignty to Britain. Ireland was a sort of internal colony whose demands for home rule were alternately entertained and discounted. India had started the century under the control of the East India Company, but was directly ruled from Britain after the 1857 Indian Mutiny (the first Indian war of independence), and Victoria was crowned Empress of India in 1877. Colonies like Canada and Australia with substantial European populations had become virtually self-governing by the end of the century and were increasingly considered near-equal partners in the imperial project. By contrast, colonies and protectorates with large indigenous populations like Sierra Leone, or with large transplanted populations of ex-slaves and non-European laborers like Trinidad, would not gain autonomy until the twentieth century.

As Joseph Chamberlain notes in The True Conception of Empire, the catastrophic loss of the American colonies had given rise to a certain disenchantment with empire-building. But despite a relative lack of interest in the British imperial project during the early nineteenth century, the Empire continued to grow, acquiring a number of new territories as well as greatly expanding its colonies in Canada and Australia and steadily pushing its way across the Indian subcontinent. A far more rapid expansion took place between 1870 and 1900, three decades that witnessed a new attitude towards and practice of empire-building known as the new imperialism and which would continue until World War I. During this period Britain was involved in fierce competition for new territories with its European rivals, particularly in Africa. It was becoming increasingly invested, imaginatively and ideologically, in the idea of empire. It found itself more and more dependent on a global economy and committed to finding (and forcing) new trading partners, including what we might call virtual colonies, nations that were not officially part of the Empire but were economically in thrall to powerful Great Britain. All of these motives helped fuel the new imperialism. British expansion was not allowed to progress unchallenged — the Empire went to war with the Ashanti, the Zulus, and the Boers, to name a few, and critics like J. J. Thomas and John Atkinson Hobson (NAEL 2.2020–23) denounced imperialism as a corrupt and debasing enterprise — but it progressed at an astonishing pace nonetheless.

The distinction between imperialism and colonialism is difficult to pin down, because the two activities can seem indistinguishable at times. Roughly speaking, imperialism involves the claiming and exploiting of territories outside of ones own national boundaries for a variety of motives. For instance, Great Britain seized territories in order to increase its own holdings and enhance its prestige, to secure trade routes, to obtain raw materials such as sugar, spices, tea, tin, and rubber, and to procure a market for its own goods. Colonialism involves the settling of those territories and the transformation — the Victorians would have said reformation — of the social structure, culture, government, and economy of the people found there. Thomas Babington Macaulay's "Minute on Indian Education" gives us a good sense of this kind of interventionist colonialism at work.

The Empire did not found colonies in all of its possessions, nor were colony populations necessarily interested in anglicizing the indigenous peoples they shared space with, as is clear from Anthony Trollope's dismissive assessment of the Australian aborigines. But in general Great Britain was able to justify its expansion into other peoples lands by claiming a civilizing mission based on its own moral, racial, and national superiority. As we see from the selections by Edward Tylor and Benjamin Kidd, late-Victorian science sought to prove that non-Europeans were less evolved, biologically and culturally, and thus unable properly to govern themselves or develop their own territories. Other writers like W. Winwood Reade and Richard Marsh described the imperfectly evolved colonial subjects as fearsome cannibals and beasts, hardly human at all. Thus they were patently in need of taming, and taking on this job was "The White Man's Burden" in Rudyard Kiplings famous phrase.

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