History of England

Lecture: Victorianism and the New Imperialism

Lecture Outline

Touring Newgate

Victorian Life

One of the most important aspects of Victorian times is the emphasis on the ethics and values of the middle class. To a certain extent, these concerns created the Victorian culture as we know it. The middle class, you'll recall, had no hereditary status, and yet some had become very rich in trade (for example, the "new gentry"). Although they had money, they did not feel respected in British society, which still ranked the aristocracy above them. For many years, the "new rich" had tried to ape the aristocracy with their fancy homes and other accoutrement of culture. During the Victorian era, they made efforts to gain status through respectability.

Victorian Society on Vimeo.

In this scene from "The Great Train Robbery", the middle and upper classes engage in the social occasion of a ride in the park, in this case on the Serpentine in Hyde Park. A secondary source (1978), but very accurate.

Descriptive text of clip

The Victorians created a public morality that was based on a strict upbringing, Christian values, and a public demonstration of virtue. Appearances were very important. The Victorian middle class created status symbols that denoted respectable lives: rich but neat clothing, houses in both town and country, households with servants, the latest in home furnishings, and (for men) membership in gentlemen's clubs. Within this structure, the role of women was crucial. With workplace and home separated, men were responsible for making money at their career. Women were "angels of the home".

The Household

Home was the center of the culture. Having enough servants in the home was a sign that the husband made enough money. Some families whose fortunes declined retained their servants even as they sacrificed necessities like decent food. For a large house, the usual servants included several maids. The kitchen maid cleaned the kitchen (she had to be strong), the chamber maid cleaned the bedrooms (she had to be discreet), the ladies maid assisted Madam in dressing and doing her hair (she had to be a therapist), the parlor maid answered the door and attended to guests (she had to be pretty), and the "tweeny" (between-stairs maid) was usually a young girl in training who ran items up and down the stairs for the other maids. The cook was usually the female servant with the most authority. Male servants included the butler (who was also the manager and first contact with the "staff"), the bootboy (for shining boots), the driver (for taking the family out in the carriage) and the groom (for tending to the horses). The very rich also had footmen for the coach and a valet to tend to the husband's dressing and grooming needs.

Within this household, the wife was responsible for managing the staff and keeping the home cheerful and peaceful. She was expected to entertain her husband's business guests on short notice, and make his home a comforting place to come home to after work. Children were to be supervised (more servants here -- a nurse for babies, nanny for young children, governess for teaching older children) and kept quiet when father was home. The wife must also show taste and economy (if necessary) in her purchases, including food and home furnishings. And, most importantly, she was expected to support her husband unconditionally. Victorian room

The private home, then, was a cultural center, a continuation of the 18th century sentimental idea of domestic happiness. But the contents of the house also showed the varied interests of the Victorian era. Interest in botany and tropical plants spawned a room called the conservatory, which was glassed-in and kept warm so potted plants could be grown. Intense interest in science and technology was demonstrated in the extraordinary variety of clutter in Victorian homes. Next to the overly ornate furniture, Victorians are most known for gadgetry: the new telephone, music boxes, phonograph, and photographic equipment littered the parlor. Homes often had Turkish rugs and exotic art objects from other cultures, reflecting the influence of imperialism. And all Victorian homes sported shelves and shelves of books in the husband's study. During the 18th century, the elite country homes of the new gentry had numerous bookshelves, but the books went unread. In urban homes during this era, however, it was likely that the husband at least had read many of the books on science, travel, and politics on his shelves. Even the novel was popular.

Marital Relations

Victorian marriage added respectability and formality to 18th century sentimentalism. Neo-Gothic angelA serious influence, for both the treatment of women and the institution of marriage, was the neo-Gothic movement. Victorians created an image of the Middle Ages which included noble knights vying for untouchable ladies. This revival of the medieval ideal (the reality, as we know, was much different) made the ideal Victorian woman beautiful and untouchable, and the Victorian "gentleman" virtuous and strong. You can see the ideal played out most strongly in the man's proposal of marriage to the woman (already a significant act in Jane Austen's novels early in the century). Since marriage was supposed to be the goal of every young person, a marriage proposal marked the end of childhood and made it possible for people to fulfill their societal role. It was a highly romantic event. The man was supposed to humble himself before the woman, getting down on his knees and declaring himself unworthy. He would ask for her hand, and entreat her to be so charitable as to make his life one of intense happiness. All the power was hers, because she was pure and virtuous (i.e. a virgin). She, in turn, would either politely refuse or ecstatically accept him.

In this atmosphere, sex was intricate and tricky. Women were perceived as having a refined sense of "delicacy", where the least bad news or base behavior might shock them into fainting or an attack of "the vapors". [In actuality, many Victorian women did faint, but not from bad news -- their corsets were laced very tightly to create the ideal hour-glass fertility shape.] Women were to be protected. As a result, female children were not taught about their own bodies. Even their own mothers did not discuss sexual maturation, menstruation, or sex with them. This made enjoyment of sexuality unlikely for the female, and the wedding night was often the opposite of the proposal: frightening and painful. Men, therefore, were expected to be experienced (perhaps by dallying with the servants or having their father take them to a brothel when they came of age). A man was expected to be gentle and understanding so he wouldn't shock or hurt his wife in bed. The medical profession supported the idea that men are basically base and animalistic creatures who require sex, but that women tolerate sex for the sake of having children. Good women who loved their husbands never said no, but they didn't enjoy it.

Now all this, of course, was the image. In reality, despite the odds, many couples had happy and open marriages. Husband and wife could become attuned to each other. But any sexual happiness they might have would never be discussed, even among friends.

Fringe Sexuality

In a sense, then, "good sex" was not the responsibility of the wife. Rather, a "good wife" was one who was charming and efficient in managing the household, an enjoyable companion and a good mother to the kids. Sexuality in a broader sense went underground during this era, where respectability and family were so important. The baser instincts needed release, and they found it outside the home. There was, in fact, a tacit approval of men having mistresses and visiting prostitutes. It prevented them from imposing too often on their wives. Prostitute whipping customer

Brothels were outrageously popular. They were run by "madams", and there were many different levels and types. In London, there was even a small book available, sort of a yellow pages of brothels. Madams would advertise their establishments in this "Gentleman's Directory". Some houses specialized in "rough trade" (male prostitutes for male clients), others in various fetishes or varieties. (Modern psychologists speculate that the popularity of sexual "deviance" was the result of the repression of sexuality in the public culture.) The largest, most successful brothels offered "virgins". A new virgin prostitute was especially appealing to a man, because veneral disease (primarily syphilis) was rampant. The story of Victorian V.D., and the battle against prostitution, can be seen in many documents. The "new girls" were often auctioned off to the highest bidder. Naturally, since virgins made so much money, there was much deception. Not-so-new girls would use various techniques (such as a small sponge with sheep blood inserted into the vagina) to get their customers to believe they were virgins. Needless to say, this did nothing to stop the spread of disease.

The clients for such services were upper or middle class, of course. And they were of all ages. Fathers or uncles frequently brought young men to brothels as part of their sexual education. "Regulars" would visit the same girl over and over, maybe even setting her up as an exclusive mistress in her own house (the dream of every prostitute). The prostitutes themselves, both female and male, were lower class. Of particular interest to reformers were the "fallen women". These were frequently girls from the country who had come to a city for industrial jobs. They had fallen for the wrong guys, got pregnant, and had no means of support. Sometimes these women were actually middle class, but had run off with the wrong man and been abandoned. Some were just poor urban women trying to feed their children. But the idea of "fallen" is interesting; it's as if all women start off virtuous (the neo-Gothic ideal) but some fall off their pedestal into carnal sin. Even Charles Dickens tried to appeal to these women to get off the streets. But many prostitutes were, of course, professionals who had no intention of giving up a lucrative profession. Oscar Wilde

When underground sexuality became public, trouble ensued. Respectable women were expected to look the other way, and respectable men were expected to keep their liaisons private. One famous court case tells the story of what happens when things go wrong. Oscar Wilde was a famous Victorian playwright, known for his wit and charm although he could be quite vicious. He was gay or bisexual, and took an upper-class young man as a lover. This was quite unusual. Normally, middle class men like himself bedded lower-class guys in a pattern that some social historians have called "sexual colonialism". In this case, the young man's father was disgusted (by the homosexuality or the class difference I don't know), and sued Oscar Wilde for the crime of sodomy. The case was dismissed, but well-meaning friends persuaded Wilde to counter-sue for libel, which he did. In the resulting trial, Wilde's entire sex life became public. He ended up with two years hard labor (which almost killed him) instead of the reestablishment of his tarnished reputation.

The Role of Science

The Victorians loved science, and during the era many advances occurred, some of which have yet to be improved upon. The popularity of social science (the idea that science can be used to improve society) was the foundation for various improvements during the course of the 19th century. The philosophy of utilitarianism also supported the replacement of obsolete laws for new ones which improved the life of the poor.

The death rate in the new industrial towns was high. These places, where neighborhoods had sprung up overnight, had slop sanitation and no clean water source. The fact that London was the stinkiest and filthiest town was actually helpful, because Members of Parliament had only to go out in the street to see (or smell) the problem. Although Parliament did very little to help at the beginning of the 19th century, two things occurred to push legislation along. The first was the cholera epidemic of 1831, which combined with lousy (literally, there were lots of lice) working and living conditions to create riots in poor neighborhoods throughout the country. Death's Dispensary: water pump in poor neighborhoodThe science of statistics was used by a scientist named William Farr to demonstrate that the neighborhoods with improper or illegal wells for water, and which were down nearest the elevation of the Thames River, got the most cholera. (For more information on the responses to the cholera epidemic, see a scholarly paper on the medical response.) Then Edwin Chadwick's report Survey into the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Classes in Great Britain was published in 1842, promoting an engineering solution to a social and health problem. In 1853, a doctor named John Snow found a cesspit leaking sewage into a water well in an area where there was a sudden attack of cholera. When the pit was sealed and the water filtered, the cholera disappeared. By 1855, many members of the medical community were lobbying Parliament for sand filters on all water tracks from the Thames.

James Burke on Cholera

In this clip from James Burke's "The Day the Universe Changed" series, William Farr uses statistics to make the discovery of illegal water as a source of contamination.

Image from Movie

Steven Johnson on the Ghost Map


The second motivator for Parliamentary legislation was the smell of sewage coming off the Thames, which in the summer of 1858 was so bad that sessions were suspended. Sanitary legislation passed very quickly after that.

I should note that conditions in the countryside were not much better. During the Crimean War, the nurse every child learns about, Florence Nightingale, pointed out the unnecessary deaths caused by a lack of basic hygiene in military camps. Upon her return to England, she took up the cause of hospital and sanitation reform, and her Report on Rural Hygiene brought attention to conditions in the countryside. Blood pressure exam

Surgical techniques were also improved during this era. New methods were taught in the surgery theatres of medical schools, where students could watch an operation. The greatest advance was anesthesia. Nitrous oxide was accidentally inhaled by a student of chemistry, and was found to produce giddiness and an insensitivity to pain. Although appropriate for "light" anesthesia (such as in dentistry) it was mostly used at parties by elites (yet another Victorian vice to overcome inhibitions caused by social repression ). But the development of ether made internal surgery possible. Ether put the patient deeply to sleep, so work in the abdominal cavity could take place without pain. It was a forgiving substance: a bit too little or a bit too much did no harm. But ether smelled terrible, and was highly flammable. The ultimate innovation was chloroform. It also put the patient deeply to sleep, but its smell was tolerable and it was not flammable. It was, however, difficult to determine the correct dosage, which led to anesthetics being a medical specialty. The use of chloroform was popularized by Queen Victoria, who for her eighth child wanted something to help her along. It was administered to her by the same Dr. John Snow who had helped solve the cholera mystery (this site also has London maps of the city and water systems).

Undoubtedly the most controversial scientific area was evolution. Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution because new geological information demonstrated that the earth was much older than previously thought. The longer period for geological development allowed for changes in the appearance, characteristics and behaviors of species. Darwin's work presented, among other things, the idea that all species today once had a simpler form. Competition for resources in a changing environment had caused the victory of some individuals over others (those most adaptable survived). Each species therefore evolved into more complex forms. The idea fit in with the Victorian notion of progress and scientific evidence. It did not fit in with traditionalist Christians, who insisted that God had created all living things in their perfect form, and that the earth was only as old as the Bible said it was. If the Bible was the foundation of all Christian morality (very important to Victorians), then Darwin was hogwash. Although there was popular outcry from fundamentalists, the scientific community had little trouble with Darwin's ideas.


Science also influenced the study of crime. Advancements in forensic medicine made evidence more reliable, especially in cases of murder. Autopsies became more common, the use of microscopes increased, and chemical analysis was used to uncover more evidence. Certainly there was a demand for such things, as the Victorian era was crime-ridden. Theft, murder, and sex crimes were all on the rise. This may be indicative of the widening gap between rich and poor, and the lack of social controls on new immigrants to the cities.

London was particularly violent. In 1829, Home Secretary Robert Peel created the Metropolitan Police Force. This consisted of paid policemen under the direction of two Commissioners. The Commissioners had offices at Whitehall. (These offices backed onto a courtyard called Scotland Yard, because the site was formerly occupied by the London residence of the kings of Scotland.) The Metropolitan Police were not the first London police, however. During the 17th century, the West India Merchants Group had created their own force to prevent dock crimes. Then the government had taken it over, naming it the Thames River Police in 1800. It didn't become larger, however, until the savage murders of two families in Ratcliffe Highway (1811), assassination plots against the Bank of England (1820), and a mutiny of soldiers led to demands for more policemen. Peel's police constables, as you know, were named "bobbies" after him. WellingtonThree months after the establishment of the Metropolitan Police Force, Peel was congratulated on the effectiveness of the force by Prime Minister Wellington (yes, the same guy who helped defeat Napoleon, and after whom big rubber boots are called wellies ("put on your wellies, dear, before you go out in the wet"), and for whom Beef Wellington is named). At first, the constables had worn ordinary clothes, were poorly paid, and were liable to be physically assaulted although they were armed only with batons. But their presence led to fewer house robberies and quieter streets. In 1833, a force of 500 policemen dispersed an angry crowd at an illegal political meeting. Despite the death of one policeman and the stabbing of another, no serious injury resulted in the crowd. After this, the police gained a little more respect, and the soaring crime rate began to decline.

There was a deep fascination with crime among Victorians, particularly the gory details of murder and the techniques of solving crimes. Newspapers catered to this by reporting crime in great detail (women, of course, were not supposed to read the papers, or these reports would cause fainting). Sherlock Holmes imageThe first mystery novels also catered to the trend. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes book was published in 1887. Holmes was an independent detective who used scientific deduction to solve mysteries. He was so popular that the public forced Doyle to bring him back when he tried to kill him off. But these were just stories. In the streets of Whitechapel in 1888, a real killer was on the loose. He was called Jack the Ripper, and he killed and mutilated six prostitutes within a few months. Many details were in the newspaper, but police withheld the crucial ones (like that Jack would cut off the nipples and excise the sex organs from his victims and arrange them in smiley faces on their abdomens). There were many copycat killers, but his bizarre sense of humor made his signature clear. He was never caught. Even today, people try to discover who he was. Many assume (as do I) that he was a doctor or had medical training, due to the precision of excision and knowledge of anatomy. Every few years someone thinks they've solved the mystery, only to find that the person accused was somewhere else at the time of the murders.


The Reform Act of 1832 may have been conservative, but it ended the aristocratic monopoly on politics. This act reapportioned and expanded Parliamentary representation. It abolished the right of 86 small boroughs to send two members to Parliament, with the result that 30 boroughs lost a member. It gave 43 new industrial boroughs the right to send members, and changed the boundaries of 65 other boroughs. It expanded the franchise: any adult male leasing or owning a home worth 10 pounds a year could vote.

Why the change? It's not just a sudden recognition that industrial areas should have a say. In fact, it was partly the result of the Irish problem, and the issue of Catholic emancipation. The Tories were against "inclusion" (remember this issue?). But then the Irish legally elected a Catholic M.P. (Member of Parliament) in 1828. According to law, Parliament couldn't seat him. Peel and Wellington realized that the Irish would rebel if the new M.P. weren't seated, and they forced passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act. This gave English Catholics the right to vote and hold office. The Tories responded by backing a larger franchise, hoping to ensure Anglican domination of the Commons.

As a result, the Parliament of 1833 was dominated by (mostly Whig) reformers and new voters. They did a lot. They abolished slavery in the colonies (the trade had already been outlawed in 1807). They passed the Factory Act, limiting child labor: only kids over 9 years old could work, and then only 9 hours a day, with inspectors to enforce the act. They assumed responsibility for the poor, establishing workhouses. (These workhouses were horrible places; their only value was in demonstrating the government's responsibility to do something.) They also made towns more democratic, permitting taxpayers to elect their own city councils.

In 1837 Victoria came to the throne. She was 18 years old, and would marry her cousin Albert in 1840. She only became queen because of the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817, which changed the line of succession. It was a time of enlarging political participation. Some said there was too much opportunity in government; that the system was corrupt with people purchasing political careers. But the great political battles were not petty. They included women's suffrage, the cause of small bookEmmeline Pankhurst (you can read more about her here) and other suffragettes who were willing to use violence in the cause of women's rights. Expansion of the suffrage had included any man worth ten pounds, but not educated women.

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Gladstone Disraeli

Major battles also took place from the 1850s to the 1880s between William Gladstone (Liberal) and Benjamin Disraeli (Conservative). The Liberal party was in many ways simply a reformed Whig party. The Conservative party had been created by Robert Peel from the ruins of the old Tories. Neither side were vigorous reformers, which is why reforms happened so slowly, as seen in the case of urban sanitation. Gladstone tended to emphasize morality, was in favor of Irish Home Rule (establishing an Irish Parliament), and championed the oppressed people in other lands. He was aware of the harms of imperialism on foreign peoples, although many were critical that he didn't care enough about the poor at home. Disraeli emphasized the glory of the Empire, nationalism, and support of the working class in an effort to ally workers with the upper classes. He helped pass trade union acts, food and drugs acts, and some public health acts. The fact that neither side championed no-holds-barred capitalism is very telling. DIsraeli was a conservative, and yet he worked for unions. Gladstone was liberal, and yet he was worried about the adverse social impact of imperialism. Each side, ironically, tried to expand the franchise to get votes for their party, which may be why both supported social reforms. The divisions were more about foreign policy (and the personal differences between the two men); otherwise, the two parties looked very much alike.

The British Empire

Foreign policy was indeed something to have differences about. The British Empire grew to its height during the Victorian period (an Overview of the British Empire is available here). Britain became the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. Britain's strong government, advanced technology, and superlative culture led to an unabashed arrogance and extreme patriotism. This attitude created an empire, and conflict with other nations. Before 1851, foreign policy was in the hands of Lord Palmerston, a paternalistic and conservative aristocrat with a knack for steering clear of permanent alliances or permanent enmities. According to some historians, who feel that Palmerston has been overly criticized, his pragmatic approach may well have prevented war between Britain and Europe after the fall of Napoleon. But after 1851, foreign policy was handled by the likes of Gladstone and Disraeli.

Crimean War (1854-56)

The political cause of the Crimean War was Russian victories against the Turks in the Black Sea region. Russia was trying to control the Black Sea so as to get access to the Mediterranean. In the process, she was cutting off overland routes between Britain and India. The British public was angry at Russian aggression, and when France and Austria joined with the Ottoman Empire in Turkey to resist Russia, Britain joined the coalition. But the emotional cause of the Crimean War was that Britain felt it was time to push her considerable weight around.

All sides were ill-prepared for war. British troops were poorly equipped and supplied. The leadership was terrible. Most officers had purchased their commissions. Although this wasn't always a sign of poor leadership (Wellington himself had owned a purchased commission), in this case it was. The Earl of Cardigan, for example, purchased commissions for all his officers, none of whom had any field experience. The soldiers themselves, however, were experienced. Many of them had come from conflicts throughout the empire, with several battles under their belt. The result was that the courage and resourcefulness of the infantry was responsible for some successes, in spite of great losses due to foolish leadership decisions. The famous charge of the light brigade, about which Tennyson wrote his poem, resulted from a misunderstood officer's order. It resulted in incredible losses (there is currently a monument in the Ukraine), but the fallen were heroes.

The first winter was appalling. The hospitals were filthy, and were short of food and fuel. There was little medicine and, as Florence Nightingale noted, many useless deaths. Nightingale brought in nurses from England, strong women in an age where war-time nursing was considered men's work, and bullied the leadership into clean hospitals and priority of food for injured men. She had little impact on other conditions, but later began the movement for hospital reform in England. The British public became aware of both the camp conditions and the war itself because of William Russell. Russell was the first real war correspondent, covering the story for the London Times. He used the telegraph to report his stories, which was the first use of this new device in war. Ultimately he was able to report victory at Sebastopol.

India and Africa

Map of British Empire

You may recall that India, the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire, had begun with ports established by the East India Company in the 18th century. By the 1780s, the British government was supervising the operations there. In the 1790s, the Company began forming military alliances with various Indian princes, taking advantage of the factionalism in the country by playing off one prince against another. By 1830, the Company ruled most of India through puppet rulers. This had been possible due to aggressive governors working for the Company, and several aspects of British society back home.

India seemed to give everyone opportunity. For aristocrats, conquering such a colony and governing it provided the chance of a lifetime. For civil servants, India provided a starting point for a great career. For investors, missionaries, and political reformers, India provided a place to do great work, including setting up schools and churches. A meritocracy, where any man with gumption could do well, could be set up in India. The Raj ("rule" in Hindi) was established.

But in 1857, everything changed. The Company's army contained some British regulars, some opportunistic British men, and many sepoys (Indian troops). The sepoys had served well; many had gotten medals in service and become officers. Their families were proud of them. But in 1857, the army was supplied with a new weapon: the Enfield Rifle. This rifle was a vast improvement over earlier weapons. Instead of having to worry about powder and shot, the Enfield rifle used a paper cartridge containing both, and was conveniently breech-loading. The cartridges were greased to prevent moisture seeping in. To load the weapon, you bit off a bit of the greased paper so the powder could ignite, and popped the cartridge into the breech. Sepoys were instructed how to load the weapon, and many refused. The cartridges were greased with pork and beef fat. The religious beliefs of the Hindus forbade any contact with beef, and the Muslims were similarly prohibited from contact with pork. Sepoys who refused to load their weapons were stripped of their rank and dishonorably discharged. These sepoys returned home, where they created a mutiny against the British officers, who had undermined their culture in many ways. The Great Mutiny (Indian historians call it the Great Rebellion) raged in northern India, and quite a few British people, military and civilian, were killed.

After the mutiny was put down, the British government took over direct rule of India from the Company. More civil servants and their families came to India. And a segregation of British and Indian people took place that had never existed before: white-only clubs and restaurants, white-only railroad cars. Indians became second-class citizens in their own country, providing the labor for the jewel of the empire. In the last half of the 19th century, much British policy revolved around India. The Suez Canal (1857) was built to provide easier sea access to India, but it was owned by France and Egypt. In 1875, Disraeli purchased enough shares of the canal from Egypt's bankrupt ruler to control the Suez. In 1877, Disraeli also got Parliament to confer on Queen Victoria the title "Empress of India".
Cecil Rhodes
by Edward Linley Sambourne, 1892

Africa, on the other hand, became the place for no-holds-barred entrepreneurship. In the 17th century, British interest in Africa began with a small port at Gambia in West Africa. By the 18th century, there were forts along the west coast protecting trade, especially the lucrative slave trade. But the slave trade was outlawed in 1807, and the forts were turned over to independent merchants under minimal government supervision. At one point, these merchants battled the Ashante people after allying with their enemies. As the 19th century continued, the Niger River trade in palm oil became profitable. By the 1880s the French were trying to muscle in, and African tribes were rebelling against the interference.

A pattern began. Parliament did not want colonies to govern; it was too expensive. They preferred to turn over control to entrepreneurs and trading companies through old-style charters (only these were given by Parliament, not the king). This approach allowed small bookCecil Rhodes and others to take over the Zambesi basin, control the Boers in south Africa, and check Germany's strength in southeast Africa. Prime Minister Lord Salisbury used these charters strategically to counter the ambitions of other countries. He also felt that Britain had to answer to demands for assistance from British traders, missionaries, and governors (like Rhodes). This belief in the government's responsiblity led to an expansion of an imperial military that was often at the disposal of guys like Rhodes.

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Justification and Technology

To many Brits, the Empire was important as a way of expanding British power. But it was also good for: Disraeli making Victoria empress of India

  • expanding Christianity and Christian values
  • providing technology to "backward" peoples
  • the playing out of social Darwinism, as explained by small bookKarl Pearson
  • the acquisition of raw materials
  • the increase of employment in Britain, as explained by small bookJoseph Chamberlain
  • a source for scientific data
  • an opportunity to advance in government
  • party rivalry (both Liberals and Conservatives could use imperial issues to get votes)
  • a place for ambitious young men to make their fortune

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Among all these blessings, it was possible for most people to find one they could agree with, and justify their support of imperialism. Many of these justifications were behind small bookKipling's White Man's Burden, a poem which expresses the ambivalence toward empire felt by many well-meaning people.

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But there was also conscientious protest to the imperial experiment, the most convincing made by small bookJ.A. Hobson.

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So how did the British create such an Empire? Was it just through big talk and clever political alliances? No. According to Daniel Headrick, author of The Tools of Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), it was through three specific technologies.

The first was quinine, a chemical isolated from South American cinchona tree bark. It had been discovered by Jesuit missionaries as the native means of avoiding malaria, and was being manufactured as tablets by the 1820s. With quinine, taken continually just before and during ones stay in tropical climes, it was possible to avoid contracting malaria, or at least dying from it. This allowed the British to explore the interiors of the African and Asian continents, where before disease had prevented their incursion.

The second technology was the steamboat. Exploring and conquering tropical regions involved going up rivers in boats. Wooden sailboats were ineffective: the wood rotted, the draught (depth of the hull) was too deep, and there was often no wind for the sails. Metal steamboats solved all three problems. They couldn't rot, had flat bottoms, and ran on coal. They could also be heavily armed, as was evident in the Opium Wars, which opened China to unrestricted British trade during the 1840s.

The last technology was the railroads, which were built using the capital of the chartered companies. Railroads throughout the Empire moved men, stock, weapons and tourists. They were a symbol of "civilization" and the connecting of the Empire.

Check your Knowledge

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1. My lecture suggests that the middle class strove to demonstrate respectability because historically they had no:
a) money
b) status
c) morals
d) control

2. The average Victorian home was
a) decorated in the Oriental style, with sparse furnishings and open space
b) plain and modest
c) cluttered with new and old family possessions
d) kept clean by the housewife personally

3. Female sexuality during the Victorian age
a) was open and frankly discussed in society
b) was repressed through images of modesty and virginity
c) was flaunted by wealthy women
d) is not mentioned in any of the primary sources

4. The soaring crime rate in London lowered because of the
a) suffragettes
b) Whigs
c) Jack the Ripper case
d) bobbies

5. The Great Mutiny in India could be used to show
a) the kindness of Britain toward her imperial subjects
b) the direct involvement of Queen Victorian in politics
c) the insensitivity of the British regarding their native troops
d) the effectiveness of the Enfield Rifle in battle

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All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.