The Victorian Expansion of Empire

In Britain and Ireland, the suppression of the democratic ideals thrown up by the French Revolution culminated in the defeat of the United Irishmen. On the first of January 1801 the 500 year-old Irish parliament was dissolved and the Act of Union came into effect. A new flag, the Union Jack, was unfurled – which added the cross of Saint Patrick to those of Saint George and Saint Andrew. British soldiers would take this new symbol of empire to the far corners of the world as they were used in a long series of engagements to extend the boundaries of British control.

With the police and emergent intelligence forces now taking the front line role in preserving the status quo at home – and with ‘the world’s largest navy’ to protect national interests – the army was left relatively free to concentrate on colonial conquest. So, while the navy protected the Empire and its trading routes at sea, it was the army that forced its extension on the ground.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, from 1837 to 1901, the British Army carried out the following colonial campaigns:
Anti-colonial revolt in Canada, 1837. Capture of Aden, 1838. First Afghan War, 1838-42. Against Boers, South Africa, 1838-48. Opium Wars in China, 1839-42. War in the Levant, 1840. War in Afghanistan, 1842. Conquest of Sind, India, 1843. Gwalior War, India, 1843. First Sikh War, India, 1845-6. Against Native Africans, South Africa, 1846-52. North-West Frontier of India, 1847-54. Second Sikh War, India, 1848-9. Second Burmese War, 1852. Eureka Stockade, Australia, 1854. War with Persia, 1856-7. North-West Frontier of India, 1858-67. Storming of the Taku Forts, China, 1859-60. Maori Wars, New Zealand, 1861-4. Operations in Sikkim, India, 1861. Ambela Expedition, 1863. Yokohama, Japan, 1864-5. Bhutan Expedition, 1865. Expedition to Abyssinia, 1868. Red River Expedition, Canada, 1870. Ashanti War, West Africa, 1874. Expedition to Perak, Malaya, 1875-6. Galekas & Gaikas war, Cape Colony, 1877. North-West Frontier, India, 1878-9. Second Afghan War, 1878. Third Afghan War, 1879. Zulu War, 1879. North-West Frontier of India, 1880-4. Transvaal Revolt or First Boer War, 1880-1. Bombardment of Alexandria, 1882. Expedition to the Sudan, 1884-5. Third Burmese War, 1885. Suakin Expedition, Sudan, 1885. End of the Nile Campaign, 1885. North-West Frontier of India, 1888-92. Minor Operations in India, 1888-94. Siege & Relief of Chitral, India, 1895. Mashonaland Rising, East Africa, 1896. Re-Conquest of Egypt, 1896-8. Tirah Expeditionary Force, India, 1897-8. North-West Frontier of India, 1897-8. Boxer Rising, China, 1900-1.

Besides these conflicts, the Crimean War, 1853-6; the Indian Mutiny, 1857-8; and the Boer War, 1899-1902, involved the British Army in major warfare during this period. Troops also continued to be active in Ireland especially during the Famine, the Young Ireland revolt of 1848 and the Fenian Rising of 1867.

Some historians have described this time as the period of Pax Britannica – the smooth and almost peaceful rise of a great empire. In fact, in the 100 years from Wellington’s victory at Waterloo to the start of the 1st World War, there were only 15 years when Britain’s forces were not engaged in bloody conflict in some part of the world.


To counteract critical voices and win support for further conquests, the expansion of Empire was accompanied by waves of popular jingoism back home. During the Victorian era the music halls often promoted this type of sentiment in songs, like ‘Another Little Patch of Red’:

This John Bull is now a mighty chap, boys
At the world his fingers he can snap, boys
Eastward – Westward – you may turn your head
There you’ll see the giant trail of red
Dyed with the blood of England’s bravest sons
Bought with their lives – now guarded by her guns

Red is the colour of our Empire laid
England will see the tint shall never fade
For of pluck he’s brimming full
Is young John Bull
And he’s happy when we let him have his head
It’s a feather in his cap
When he’s helped to paint the map
With another little patch of red.

Jingoism came to stand for the belief that Britain had the right to conquer and exploit other countries and to decide conflicts of interest in the nation’s favour by armed force. The word itself came into use after 1878, from these lines in G. W. Hunt’s music hall song:

We don’t want to fight; but, by Jingo, if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men,
we’ve got the money too.

W. E. Henley also wrote verse which exalted Empire. He did not deem the casualties suffered by the conquered worth considering. The suffering of his own side was portrayed as a glorious sacrifice:

What if the best of our wages be
An empty sleeve, a stiff-set knee,
A crutch for the rest of life – who cares,
So long as the One Flag floats and dares?
So long as the One Race dares and grows?
Death – what is death but God’s own rose?
Let but the bugles of England play
Over the hills and far away!

Other writers like G. A. Henty, once editor of ‘The Union Jack’ – a ‘One Penny Weekly Boy’s Paper,’ wrote adventure books for boys which glamorised colonial warfare. His fictional public school characters were put into real life actions and were always ‘honourable’ and ‘manly’ and exuded ‘character’, ‘self-discipline’ and ‘authority’. Yorke Harberton, a typical ‘hero’ who went ‘With Roberts to Pretoria’ was:
‘A good specimen of the class by which Britain has been built up, her colonies formed, and her battle-fields won – a class in point of energy, fearlessness, and the spirit of adventure, and a readiness to face and overcome all difficulties unmatched in the world.’

Henty, who was the eldest son of a stockbroker mine-owner, hated trade unions and wrote his books to foster ‘the imperial spirit’, stating that ‘the Negro is an inferior animal and a lower grade in creation than the white man.’ [‘The British Empire,’ vol. 4, Orbis 1979].

For many British youngsters, indoctrination started even earlier, with pro-imperial themes appearing in nursery books like the ‘ABC for Baby Patriots’:

A is the Army
That dies for the Queen;
It’s the very best Army
That ever was seen.

I is for India,
Our land in the East
Where everyone goes
To shoot tigers and feast.

N is the Navy
We keep at Spithead,
It’s a sight that makes foreigners
Wish they were dead.


‘Scientific’ Racism

During the Victorian expansion of empire suspicious and hateful attitudes towards foreigners became widespread in Britain, sustained by jingoism and new pseudo-scientific theories of race. A hierarchy of races was proclaimed, with white Teutonic Anglo-Saxons at the top and black ‘Hottentots’ at the bottom. In between were the Irish, the Jews and the British working classes – about whom it was claimed that they had darker skin and hair than the upper classes. An ‘index of nigrescence’ was produced, so the racial components of any population could be deduced.

The British establishment hailed the quest for empire as a civilising mission and took it upon themselves to become the arbiters of world morality – representing conquest as a duty and exploitation as a noble task. ‘Scientific’ racism fuelled these prejudiced views, which were propagated in the music halls and in the writings and poetry of the pro-imperialists. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling encapsulated this sanctimonious ideology in his poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’:

Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man’s burden –
The savage wars of peace –
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to naught.

While the fighting qualities of Britain’s forces were glorified at home, it was really the superiority of military technology that in many cases won the day. In 1898, at the battle of Omdurman those fighting under the Union Jack fired 3,500 shells and 500,000 bullets. The British casualties numbered in the low hundreds, while 11,000 Sudanese Dervishes were killed. Most died from Maxim machine-gun fire:
‘It was not a battle but an execution … The bodies were not in heaps – bodies hardly ever are; but they spread evenly over acres and acres. Some lay very composed with their slippers placed under their heads for a last pillow; some knelt, cut short in the middle of a last prayer. Others were torn to pieces…’ [‘With Kitchener to Khartoum,’ by G. W. Steevens].
Wounded Dervishes were shot or bayoneted where they lay. Afterwards General Kitchener boasted that his victory had opened all the lands along the Nile: ‘to the civilization influences of commercial enterprise.’

As the superiority of British weaponry and technology over native peoples became greater, so racist feelings increased. Where there had been interest and sometimes admiration for aspects of other peoples’ culture and religion, there was now, all too often, only contempt. Sadly, British society is still permeated by these attitudes today.


The Officer Class

In order to perpetuate their rule and counteract critical voices the establishment had developed the ‘public school’ system of private schools. By the 19th century nearly all officers came to their regiments via public schools, which, often followed by spells at Oxford or Cambridge, had become the training ground for all the ruling class:
‘Around 1800 – over 70 per cent of all English peers received their education at just four public schools, Eton, Westminster, Winchester and Harrow. And in the first half of the nineteenth century, sons of the peerage and the landed gentry together made up 50 per cent of the pupils of all the major public schools … Removed from the private, introspective worlds of home and rural estates, they were brought into protracted contact with their social peers, were exposed to a uniform set of ideas and learnt how to speak the English language in a distinctive and characteristic way.’ [‘The British Empire,’ vol. 4, Orbis 1979].

The cadet forces in public schools were steeped in patriotic traditions and these became the seedbeds for the officer class. This concentration of young aristocracy and gentry, in institutions which moulded their perceptions and formed their ideology, helped create a cohesive and integrated ruling elite:
‘Patriotic duty was stressed in practical ways, as when public-school masters encouraged boys to participate in national subscriptions and to celebrate British military and naval victories. And patriotism of a kind was embedded in the classical curriculum. The emphasis on Greek and Roman authors and ancient history meant a constant diet of stories of war, empire, bravery and sacrifice for the state.
… Classical literature was doubly congenial because the kind of patriotic achievement it celebrated was a highly specific one. The heroes of Homer, Cicero and Plutarch were emphatically men of rank and title. As such, they reminded Britain’s élite of its duty to serve and fight, but in addition, affirmed its superior qualifications to do so.’ [‘The British Empire,’ vol. 4, Orbis 1979].

In 1864, a Royal Commission stated that public schools were:
‘The chief nurseries of our statesmen; in them, and in schools modelled after them, men … destined for every profession and career, have been brought up on a footing of social equality, and have contracted the most enduring friendships, and some of the ruling habits of their lives; and they have perhaps the largest share in moulding … the character of an English gentleman.’


‘Old Boys’

In the past primogeniture had tended to restricted opportunities in ruling families to all but the male first born, but empire and industrialisation now opened the way for all ‘gentlemen’ to gain fame and fortune. James Mill described the colonies as being ‘a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes.’ Armed with a comprehensive view of their superiority and right to dominance, ‘old boys’ spread out into positions of power and influence both at home and abroad.

In 1878, G. A. Denison, the son of a Nottinghamshire landowner, wrote ‘Notes of My Life,’ in which he told of his brothers and sisters:
Six of us were at Eton, one at Harrow … My eldest brother John, Viscount Ossington … after 30 years of Parliamentary life, became Speaker of the House of Commons … William went from Eton to Woolwich, then into the Engineers … After employment at home and abroad, he became in 1846 Governor of Van Dieman’s Land; Governor-General of Australia, KCB, 1855; Governor of Madras, 1861.
Stephen, … was for many years Deputy Judge Advocate. Alfred, after some 20 years of laborious, honourable, and successful life in Australia, returned finally to England, and became Private Secretary to the Speaker. Charles was in the 52nd Regiment, and became Colonel in it. He had sundry Staff employments in India; and afterwards … was Chief Commissioner of Civil Service at Madras.
My sister Charlotte, … married Charles Manners Sutton, then Judge Advocate General; afterwards, for seventeen years Speaker of the House of Commons.’

The British Army’s primary role as an imperial guard was affirmed in the Cardwell reforms in the 1870s, which strengthened the links between the officer corps and the government as well as recommending innovative procedures and logistics. The linked-battalion system would see one of a regiment’s battalions away on Imperial duty while the second unit remained in Britain. This system allowed a flexibility for individual units to develop their own techniques and procedures for waging colonial warfare. It also ensured there was, throughout the army, a shared experience of such methods. The second battalion, stationed at home, was handily available to use a refined version of this type of warfare against any internal threat.

Other Western countries had also carved out colonial empires. However, in the rest of (landlocked) Europe the primary role for most national armies was to provide defence from any external threat. Conventional warfare was the normal function, with colonial duty, entailing more irregular forms of warfare, tagged on. In island Britain the main defensive role fell to the navy, leaving the army relatively free to concentrate on the task of conquest and subjugation overseas.

While the foot soldiers came from the poor and colonised, the officer corps, produced by the public school system, ensured the perpetuation of the status quo. The history of the army can be traced back to Cromwell’s New Model Army, but its enduring character was forged, and the hierarchy strengthened, during the Victorian colonial wars. It was then that the British Army acquired its contemporary reputation among the armies of the major powers of the world as a ‘counter-insurgency’ force.

‘Pictures for Little Englanders’ was a Victorian book for young children. Under a sketch of Kitchener the soldier and Kipling the writer, the following lines were written:

Men of different trades and sizes
Here you see before your eyses;
Lanky sword and stumpy pen,
Doing useful things for men;
When the Empire wants a stitch in her
Send for Kipling and for Kitchener.

In the last years of Victoria’s reign England did send for Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the ‘great warrior hero’ of Khartoum and the battle of Omdurman, who was dispatched to South Africa to deal with the Boers who were waging guerrilla warfare against the British forces. He ordered that Boer homesteads be burnt and the women and children herded into ‘concentration camps.’ Over 60,000 ended up in conditions that an Australian reporter called the ‘criminal neglect of the simple laws of sanitation.’ By the end of the war 28,000 Boer detainees had died – 22,000 of them were children.


Tommy Atkins – dreams of love and hate

In Victorian Britain, just like in our own time – despite the waves of pro-imperial propaganda – many people had misgivings about the morality of taking and holding other peoples’ land by armed force. This often gave rise to contradictory feelings about Britain’s soldiers, which were expressed by Francis Adams in his poem ‘England in Egypt’:

From the dusty jaded sunlight of the careless Cairo streets,
Through the open bedroom window where the pale blue held the palms,
There came a sound of music, thrilling cries and rattling beats,
That startled me from slumber with a shock of sweet alarms.
For beneath this rainless heaven with this music in my ears
I was born, and all my boyhood with its joy was glorified,
And for me the ranging Red-coats hold a passion of bright tears,
And the glancing of the bayonets lights a hell of savage pride.

So I leapt and ran, and looked,
And I stood, and listened there,
Till I heard the fifes and drums,
The fifes and drums of England
Thrilling all the alien air!
And “England, England, England,”
I heard the wild fifes cry,
“We are here to rob for England,
And to throttle liberty!”
And “England, England, England,”
I heard the fierce drums roar,
“We are tools for pious swindlers
And brute bullies evermore!”

And the silent Arabs crowded, half-defiant, half-dismayed,
And the jaunty fifers fifing flung their challenge to the breeze,
And the drummers kneed their drums up as the reckless drumsticks played,
And the Tommies all came trooping, tripping, slouching at their ease.
Ah Christ, the love I bore them for their brave hearts and strong hands,
Ah Christ, the hate that smote me for their stupid, dull conceits –
I know not which was greater, as I watched their conquering bands
In the dusty jaded sunlight of the sullen Cairo streets.

And my dreams of love and hate
Surged, and broke, and gathered there,
As I heard the fifes and drums,
The fifes and drums of England
Thrilling all the alien air! –
And “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,”
I heard the wild fifes cry,
“Will you never know the England
For which men, not fools, should die?”
And “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,”
I hear the fierce drums roar,
“Will you always be a cut-throat
And a slave for evermore?”

Francis Adams was a writer and poet who produced a sizeable quantity of work in his short life. He was the son of an army surgeon and his mother was a novelist. He joined the Social Democratic Federation in London in 1883 and moved to Australia the following year. He dedicated his life to writing and, at the end of 1887, Adams wrote what became his best-known collection of poems, ‘Songs of the Army of the Night.’ This provoked mixed feelings – rage from the establishment and affection from the downtrodden – in first Australia and later in London. The extracts here are from two poems taken from this collection.

This was a time when our soldiers were expanding and consolidating the empire – and throughout this period there were frequent revolts against British rule. Adams was deeply affected by the suffering of people, wherever he found them. His poem, ‘Hong-Kong Lyrics,’ was about the plight of those suffering under the yoke of British colonialism in various parts of the Empire:

I stand and watch the soldiers
Marching up and down
Above the fresh green cricket-ground
Just outside the town.

I stand and watch and wonder
When in the English land
This poor fool Tommy Atkins
Will learn and understand?

Zulus, and Boers, and Arabs,
All fighting to be free,
Men and women and children,
Murdered and maimed has he.

In India and in Ireland
He’s held the People down,
While the robber English gentleman
Took pound and penny and crown.

To make him false to his order,
What was it that they gave—
To make him his brother’s oppressor?
The clothes and pay of a slave!

O thou poor fool, Tommy Atkins,
Thou wilt be wise that day
When, with eager eyes and clenched teeth,
Thou risest up to say:
“This is our well-loved England,
And I’ll free it, if I can,
From every rotten bourgeois
And played-out gentleman!”

There was a sad end to the life of Francis Adams, which was cut short because he suffered from an incurable lung-disease. In 1893, when he was 31 years old, Adams shot himself while suffering a massive haemorrhage caused by tuberculosis.

Adams often pitched his poetry to contrast his ‘dreams of love and hate’; feelings of love and respect for our soldiers and a hate and disrespect for what they were ordered to do – and ‘their stupid, dull conceits.’ His answer was to suggest that ‘Tommy Atkins’ should revolt against those who controlled him. The best way to honor the memory of Francis Adams is to support, or if a veteran join, Veterans For Peace and help us to take up his task of opposing our establishment’s occupations and wars in other people’s countries – and, like him, to expose the contradictions caused by our soldiers having to take part and fight in such actions.

Aly Renwick served with the British Army he is now a member of Veterans For Peace UK

1 Comment

  1. Ellen Barfield says:

    Groan. Well, as a USian I knew in general where our colonial behavior came from, but this clarifies it a lot. As my husband and fellow Veteran For Peace, Baltimore, MD, USA, puts it, the British Empire has never yet ended,
    just moved its capitol to Washington, DC. Yes we veterans in particular must resist empire and its constant wars. Thanks for the explication.

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