Sharp Blue: Heaven’s Command


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In 1837, the year of Victoria’s accession to the British throne, the idea of empire was out of favour in Britain. The aftermath of the defeat of Napoleonic France, a struggle for which the British were the “animating soul”, had left Britain the paramount power. Indeed, the growth of British wealth and industry over the previous decades had left Britain without serious rivals, military or economic. The Royal Navy was the world’s police force, London its financial centre, the freedoms of Britain’s citizens the envy and inspiration of the nations. And yet the British remained obsessed with domestic matters. It seemed to almost everyone that the new doctrine of Free Trade had rendered colonies entirely obsolete: as long as the tarriffs were low, the whole world could be the market for the industries of Britain’s new industrial revolution, and the British would be better off without the need to send armies hither and thither to conquer and organise the affairs of other lands.

However, by the Diamond Jubilee of 1897, the British Empire had grown in size by more than an order of magnitude. It now controlled a quarter of the world’s land surface, and a third of the world’s population were subjects of the Queen-Empress. The temptations of power, the sense of a mission to civilise and Christianise the world, the allure of glory, the taste for the exotic, the splendours of wealth, patriotism, the love of pomp and colour: all these had, by degrees, brought Empire back into favour. (Probably so had an assumption that the increase in the size of the Empire was the cause of the increase of their own wealth, a rather debatable proposition.) The Empire had gone from an anachronism to a central part of how Britons saw themselves. And such an Empire the world had never before witnessed. The vast power and self-assurance of the world’s first industrial power had, by the end of the nineteenth century, given the British a sense of their own invulnerability and manifest destiny, and more than a tinge of arrogance. This sense that the British Empire owned the future extended far beyond the frontiers of the Empire: commenting on the Queen’s jubilee, the New York Times had declared that the United States, too, was really part of Greater Britain.

Cover of Heaven's Command The six tumultuous decades that so transformed the role of Britain in the world are the subject of Jan MorrisHeaven’s Command, the first volume of her Pax Britannica trilogy. This is not analytical history, nor even narrative history, but rather a series of vignettes and sketches that vividly illustrate how Britons were slowly seduced by the glamour of the new imperialism. At the same time, the book is truly an epic painted on a vast canvas. Morris takes us on travels across the whole sweep of British power, from the Canada of the Hudson’s Bay Company to the pitiful end of the Tasmanians. Here we march with the Boers as they try to escape the authority of London, there we witness the attempts of the Raj to exterminate the cult of Thuggee. Wars are fought in Afghanistan, leading to humiliating defeat and retreat. Other wars against Zulus and Ashanti end more to Britain’s liking. Explorers seek the sources of the Nile. The Royal Navy fights to end the slave trade. Ireland starves. The Indians mutiny. The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace displays British technological superiority to the world. The House of Commons debates the morality of empire (the irony does not escape us that Gladstone, one of the greatest of Prime Ministers, presided over much of the rise of Victoria’s empire, and yet hated and despised the imperial impulse). All this, and more, is fitted together into a vast mosaic rendered in the most beguiling prose, full of great sympathy both for the Empire itself and the terrible sufferings it sometimes inflicted on subjects. And, finally, we understand how it must have felt, and how, in other empires, it might feel again.

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