Heaven's Command: An Imperial Progress

BOOK: Heaven's Command: An Imperial Progress
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An Imperial Progress






of thee



In 1964 I determined to write a trilogy about the rise, climax and fall of the Victorian Empire, of which this is the opening volume – self-sufficient in itself, but forming, so to speak, the left-hand panel of a triptych. I presumptuously had posterity in mind. It had occurred to me how fascinating it would be to read a book about the later Roman Empire, written by a former centurion, say, who himself remembering that dominion in the last days of its power had set out to create an evocatively retrospective portrait of it, and at the same time to express something of his own responses to its history and its meaning. Such a book would give us, I thought, a very particular view of history – highly subjective of course, but authentically of the period, and illustrating perhaps the sensibility not only of the centurion himself, but of his generation of Romans.

I then set out to write something of the kind about my own empire, the empire of the British, which reached its fulfilment under Queen Victoria; and now that nearly four decades have passed since I first set typewriter to paper (for it was before the days of word-processors), already I see posterity looming up. A new millennium now approaches; a new
will soon make my use of the phrase ambiguous; a new world, one might almost say, makes the Empire I grew up in almost archaeologically remote. All that being so, this evocation of half-forgotten events, loyalties and excitements may now perhaps be acquiring the relevance I imagined for it in the first place. It is not simply history: it is history seen, and felt, and imagined by someone who lived through the last years of it.

I was born in 1926. I was thus just in time to see the schoolroom maps emblazoned pole to pole in the imperial red; I was
in time to witness the immense imperial organism uniting for the last time to fight the greatest war in its history; and I was in time, in 1947, to spend my 21st birthday on a British troop train travelling from Egypt (where the Empire was noticeably not wanted) to Palestine (which the Empire emphatically did not want). For the next fifteen years or so I found myself vocationally engaged in the dissolution of the British Empire, and I watched with mixed feelings the changes that were occurring in Britain itself – its loss of power, its shifts of purpose, its adaptations, sometimes skilful, sometimes clumsy and reluctant, to the new balances of the world.

So my mind turned to that other, lost aesthetic, that dream of empire, which had once so seized the imagination of the nation, and was now so remote I saw it as a kind of flare, a blaze in the historical instinct of the British which flamed spectacularly during the nineteenth century – between Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne in 1837, which begins the narrative of this book, and her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, which ends it. It was, as I interpreted it, a yearning among many British people to break out of their gentle northern setting, all greens and greys, into more vivid places, where fortunes could be made, outrageous enterprises undertaken, and the restrictive rules of scale and conduct flamboyantly disregarded. These impulses were by no means always altruistic, and were often brutal. If my book seems to display a certain sympathy for them, that is because I am a child of my times, and most of my generation have probably felt a little like that sometimes: just as that centurion of mine, I do not doubt, however tender the circumstances of his retirement, would have looked back upon the arrogant march of the legions with comradely understanding.


I dedicated the volumes of the trilogy separately; but I offer the whole work to ELIZABETH MORRIS, herself a child of Empire, as an expression of my profoundest love, gratitude and admiration.









N October 1837 the Honourable Emily Eden, a witty and accomplished Englishwoman in her forty-first year, was accompanying her brother Lord Auckland, Governor-General of India, on an official progress up-country from Calcutta. Lord Auckland was homesick, but his sister was irrepressibly entertained by everything she saw, and she recorded all her impressions in vivacious letters home. She was anything but innocent or provincial. She was born in Old Palace Yard, within sight of Parliament at Westminster, and had lived always near the centre of English power. Her father had been Postmaster-General and President of the Board of Trade, her eldest sister Eleanor had been the only true love of the younger Pitt, and she herself was an intimate friend of Lord Melbourne the Prime Minister. She was accordingly amused rather than awed by the scale and grandeur of His Excellency’s company.

They travelled sometimes by steamer up the rivers which were the principal highways of India, sometimes on camel-back, in palanquins or in elephant howdahs, and they did it with theatrical display. The gubernatorial caravan numbered some 12,000 souls, with hundreds of animals and wagons, and when they stopped for the night a city of tents sprang up, bustling and teeming about Lord Auckland’s quarters, with its own bazaars and workshops and stables, its farriers and its wheelwrights, its redcoat sentries, its aides and commissaries, its delegations of local magistrates or doctors or commanding officers, its gaudy emissaries from maharajahs of the country, its rituals of presentation or official entertainment, its camp fires, its hurrying orderlies, its myriad ragged camp followers, its bugle calls at dusk, its smells of spice and woodsmoke and leather and sweat, all under the Union Jack on its great flagstaff beneath the
terrific Indian sky. Sometimes it took three days for the cortège to cross a river; the pet dogs of the Europeans wore red coats on the march; when the King of Oudh kindly sent his own cook along to accompany the progress, and Lord Auckland was served a succession of highly spiced pilafs and curries, St Cloup the Governor-General’s own chef, who had once been cook to the Prince of Orange, was predictably affronted.

This was the manner of the British in India, where the East India Company had been active for nearly 200 years, first as a trading organization, then as an instrument of supremacy. It was a half-oriental manner, inherited from the Moghuls, intended to overawe the indigenes and perhaps give the Company’s officials a proper sense of their own authority. Miss Eden, who had been in India for two years, and was accustomed to different styles of consequence, found it faintly comic. Her letters show no awareness of majesty. The Governor-General is, after all, only her diffident brother George, pining for a decent inn. His grand officials, advisers and aides are only upper middle class Englishmen, accompanied by gossipy wives, squirmy children and ludicrously cossetted pets. Miss Eden is not moved by the power, or the responsibility, or even the historical continuity represented by their progress. She does not see that vast brown Indian landscape, those half-naked multitudes around them, as a charge upon the English conscience, or a field for high adventure. She sees it all rather as a pageant, and thanks her sister Mary warmly for sending the latest issues of
—which, though it has already appeared in a pirate edition in Calcutta, is fresh and very funny to the Governor-General’s entourage. She sees it, in feet, with the eyes of the eighteenth century. She was born in the old century, and her attitudes are Augustan—elegant, fastidious, entertained, urbane. Her England is the England of the younger Pitt; her style is the style of Sheridan, Addison, and the cool amusing ladies of the age of reason.

But on October 30, 1837, she learnt beside the Ganges that the age was ended. The company, which was sailing up-river by barge and steamer, put ashore for the night in pleasant hilly country some 200 miles north of Calcutta. They looked at some convenient ruins in the evening—‘very picturesque’, Emily thought—gave the
spaniel Chance a run, did a little sketching, and received letters from England. These had come by the steamer
, which had left London on her maiden voyage just three months before.
Emily read them with delight. She noted her sister’s change of address (‘I did not know that there was such a place’); and she noted also the accession to the throne of England of Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, ‘Drina’ to her childhood intimates, 18 years old and rather plump.

So she discovered, beside the holy river, one of history’s allegorical events. The world would never be the same again, and in particular Great Britain, whose lethargic plenipotentiary in those parts was her brother George, would acquire a new character. Before Victoria died a very different kind of empire would acknowledge her sovereignty—a brazen, plumed, arrogant and self-righteous empire, ruling its immense possessions not merely by display of force, but with an obsessive conviction of destiny and duty. Out of Victoria’s Britain would come a new breed of imperialists, unrecognizable in George Auckland and his leisurely assistants, and so constant would be the flow of British capital abroad, the movement of British migrants, the activities of British merchants, the campaigning of British armies, that by the time Queen Victoria died she would be the mistress of a quarter of the world’s inhabitants and nearly a quarter of its land surface.

Miss Eden had no vision of these powers to come. On the contrary, she thought the idea of the little Queen rather touching. It brought a lump to her throat. ‘I think’, she wrote back to her sister that evening, after telling her about the ruins and the sketching, Chance’s run and the quick passage of the
—‘I think the young Queen a charming invention’.


England in 1837 was a country only half-aware of its luck. It was enduring a period of social turbulence, which the more nervous of the landed classes assumed to be the start of a revolution. The first
Reform Bill, the Chartist agitation, the Luddites, Peterloo—all were symptoms of change and uncertainty, in a country which was enduring the menopause between an agricultural and an industrial society. The example of the French Revolution was still forceful, and Disraeli’s ‘two nations’ were more than fictional—at least one in ten of the British people were paupers, naked women pulled wagons through mine shafts, poor little children of eight and nine were working twelve-hour days in the dark factories of the north. The traditional English hierarchy seemed threatened at last—doomed, the gloomier patricians thought, since one man in seven now had the vote.
The Established Church of England was undermined by non-conformism, agnosticism or worse. The nation’s way of life was disrupted by the movement of labour to the towns, and the stylish English cities of the eighteenth century were invested now by tenements and factories: ‘at the corner of Wood Street’ Wordsworth’s Poor Susan habitually paused, to see as in mirage an image of a vanishing England—



The nation was in flux. What the English did not generally realize was that this very flexibility, this clearing of the decks, provided a moment of opportunity unmatched in the history of modern Europe. England had the world at her feet. The very cause of her unrest was her own pre-eminence. Though she still grew 90 per cent of her own food, she was the first industrial nation; and blessed as she was with apparently limitless supplies of coal and iron, during the past fifty years she had so mastered the mechanical arts that she had outstripped all her competitors. The British stood at the threshold of a colossal boom, for they possessed a virtual monopoly of the techniques of steam, which was presently to prove itself the basic energy of the age. In the 1830s their industry was essentially a textile industry, but provided with this marvellous new power they
were soon to manufacture every kind of capital goods—to become, in fact as in phrase, the workshop of the world.

At the same time they had emerged victorious and aglow from  the unexampled struggle of the Napoleonic wars, to stand alone  among the Powers of Europe. It was ultimately their wealth, their  leadership, their power which had defeated Napoleon—they had provided, as Canning had said, the ‘animating soul’ of the struggle. They had largely dictated the terms of the peace, tempering the revenge of the Germans and Austrians and magnanimously restoring France to the comity of nations. Nelson and Wellington were international heroes—the one nobly dead in his catafalque in St Paul’s, the other very much alive as the most tremendous of party politicians. The British fleet was recognized as the ultimate arbiter of the world’s affairs. The British Army basked in the reputation it had won at Waterloo. London, with a population of two million, was not only the world’s largest city, but also its principal financial exchange, the Rialto of the age.

To liberals everywhere England had replaced Napoleonic France as the hope of mankind. Beethoven in his late years assiduously followed the debates at Westminster, and wrote a respectful set of variations upon Arne’s
: Wagner seized upon that stirring melody too, thought its first eight notes expressed the whole character of the British people, and in the year of the Queen’s accession wrote an overture based upon it. The romantic legend of Lord Byron shone over Europe still, and the contemporary English taste for tournaments, tales of knightly contest and Arthurian myth was seen as a true reflection of the national chivalry. So perfect were the institutions of England, thought the Abbé de Prat in France, that it must be her destiny to give the world a new aspect; ‘To The Glory of the British Nation’ cried the obelisk erected by the islanders of Cephalonia in the Adriatic;
when the East Indiamen put in for provisions at Johanna in the Comoro Islands, north of Madagascar, the local boatmen used to cry ‘Johanna man Englishman, all one brother come, Englishman very good man, drinkee de punch, fire de gun, beatee the French, very good fun!’ And though the English gentry might feel insecure in their country houses, unblemished still
within the walls of their estates, still to the outside world the island presented a very assurance of stability: a constitutional monarchy of defiant habits and humours, unmoved it seemed by the vagaries of international fortune, safe behind the moat of its Channel, blessed with a stolid, unsoaring, insular certainty of temperament, and passionate chiefly, it we are to go by Turgenev’s Anglomaniac Ivan Petrovich, about port wine and underdone roast beef.


Alone among the Powers, Britain possessed freedom of action, but her statesmen did not covet the mastery of the world. It was only fifty years since they had lost an empire, in America, and they did not wish to acquire another. Their aim now was a balanced peace, enabling the British people to seek their fortunes wherever they chose without undertaking vast new responsibilities of defence or administration; they accordingly gave back most of the territories their arms had captured during the wars, retaining only a string of bases, Heligoland to Mauritius, which they thought essential to their security at sea.

England had been an overseas Power for nearly 900 years—never since the Norman conquest had the Crown been without possessions across the water. But the idea of empire was suspect in the Britain of the 1830s. It went with foreign despotisms and aggressors, and had long lost the stately pacific meaning that Spenser and Milton had given the word, when they wrote of the Britannick Empire long before. Westminster was called the Imperial Parliament only because it had, since 1800, incorporated the parliament of Ireland, while the State Crown was Imperial only in ancient defiance of the Holy Roman Empire. The eighteenth century British Empire, before the loss of the American colonies, had been a self-contained economic system, protected by tariffs, producing its own raw materials, providing its own markets, shipping its own products in its own vessels. The Corn Laws kept foreign competition to a minimum: the Navigation Acts ensured a British monopoly of trade throughout the empire. Now the economic arguments for such a system seemed to be discredited. The progressive theory now was Free Trade, which
would allow the goods of all nations to flow without tariffs and restrictions all over the globe, and seemed to make the possession of colonies obsolete. With Great Britain mistress both of the means of production and the means of distribution, was not the whole world her market-place? Why bother with the expense and worry of colonies? Free Trade was not yet accepted British policy, but already powerful lobbies were pressing for the repeal of the Corn Laws and the Navigation Acts, and deriding the idea of empire. Colonies, said Richard Cobden, ‘serve but as gorgeous and ponderous appendages to swell our ostensible grandeur without improving our balance of trade’, and if
was the watchword of the nation’s new economic instincts, a suggested slogan for colonial policy was

Memories of the American Revolution, too, helped to sour the notion of empire. A great deal had happened to the world since then, but there were still many Britons alive who had fought against the rebels of the thirteen colonies, or their sons in the war of 1812. The American Revolution had seemed to show that the more successful an overseas settlement, the more certain it was to break away from the Mother Country, and probably set up in rivalry against her. Besides, it had convinced many people that colonialism necessarily led in the end to repression—if not of one’s own fellow-countrymen, only striving to be free, then of foreigners in whose affairs the British had no right to meddle. Power corrupted. The British remembered still the trial of Warren Hastings in 1785: though it had ended in acquittal it had served its purpose—to warn the nation against the danger of ambitious satraps, made rich by the spoils of empire and seditious by the temptations of distant authority.

BOOK: Heaven's Command: An Imperial Progress
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