Victoria the warrior queen
Queen Victoria's reign witnessed a massive expansion of the British empire. Saul David explains how such huge growth was accompanied by a constant series of wars of conquest
Kensington Palace, London, six in the morning. Princess Victoria is woken by her mother and told that two men are there to see her. She rises quickly, throws a dressing-gown over her nightdress and, with her fair hair still loose about her shoulders, receives the two visitors in her sitting-room. She recognises them as Lord Conyngham, the portly lord chamberlain, and Dr William Howley, the septuagenarian archbishop of Canterbury. They have come from Windsor Castle and their presence can only mean one thing: her uncle, King William IV, is dead. The king “had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning”, she records later in her journal, “and consequently I am Queen”.
Victoria was just 18 when she became Queen on 20 June 1837. At the time, Britain was the world’s leading industrial power with apparently limitless supplies of coal and iron and a virtual monopoly of steam power. London was not only the largest city in the world, but its principal financial exchange. Victoria’s navy was recognised as the ultimate arbiter of world affairs, while her army basked in the reputation it had won at Waterloo. Yet the British Empire was, if anything, in decline. The American Revolution had helped to sour the notion of empire and powerful commercial interests were arguing for free trade and against the protectionism of the 18th-century imperial system. In 1837 the empire consisted of a jumbled collection of territories acquired in bits and pieces over the generations, administered partly by government and partly by chartered companies.
It is hard to believe, then, that during the period known as the Dual Monarchy, from Victoria’s accession to the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, the British Empire almost quintupled in size thanks to territorial acquisitions in Asia, Africa, the South Sea and the Far East. By the end of the 19th century it had become the greatest empire the world has ever known, covering a quarter of the earth’s surface and a quarter of its population. What made this huge initial period of growth possible was a series of ruthless wars of conquest.
The British Empire almost quintupled in size… What made this huge initial period of growth possible was a series of ruthless wars of conquest
The one constant in this period of unprecedented expansion, always at the centre of the imperial web, was the formidable figure of Queen Victoria herself: shaping, supporting and sometimes condemning her government’s foreign policy – but never ignoring it. Though British monarchs no longer had the power to make or break governments, they still had, in the words of Walter Bagehot, the great constitutional historian, “three great rights”: to be consulted, to advise and to warn. Aided and abetted by her hugely underrated husband, Prince Albert, Victoria made full use of these rights to influence government policy.
Doing the right thing
Of course Victoria took time to find her political feet. During the lead-up to the First Afghan War of 1839–42, for example, she was briefed by her ministers but played a largely passive role. Told by her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, on 28 October 1838 that the Indian government had done the “right thing” by mobilising its troops for an invasion of Afghanistan, she made no objection. Young and inexperienced, she was content to follow the advice of her prime minister.
At first all went well, with the Anglo-Indian invasion force capturing Kabul and installing the pro-British Shah Shuja as its new sovereign in August 1839. But after just two years of Shuja’s hugely unpopular rule, a major revolt broke out in Kabul and quickly spread to the other major towns, effectively trapping the British garrisons in their forts and cantonments. With little hope of relief, the British commander at Kabul brokered a deal for the safe conduct of all British troops to the Punjab. So began the disastrous Retreat from Kabul which ended, on 13 January 1842, with the arrival of a single Briton, Dr William Brydon, at British-held Jelalabad. The rest of the 4,000 strong force, not to mention 12,000 camp followers, had been killed or captured during the horrific march through the snow-covered passes of Eastern Afghanistan.
Queen Victoria’s chief concern, now, was for the fate of the British hostages, many of them women and children. For much of the summer, as the war swung in the balance, she agonised over their predicament. Finally, in November, came the welcome news that British troops had recaptured Kabul and released “all” the hostages. Such “brilliant successes” deserved recognition, wrote Victoria, and she was only too happy to approve honours for her senior commanders and a campaign medal, the first of its kind, for the troops.
A further two major and eight medium-sized wars were fought by the British during the first quarter century of Victoria’s reign. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (her first-cousin whom she married in 1840) took a keen interest in all of them, and were staunch supporters of generals and pro-consuls who, they felt, had done their duty in difficult circumstances. So when Lord Ellenborough, the governor-general of India, was recalled in 1844 by Sir Robert Peel’s Tory government for launching an unauthorised war against Sind, Victoria voiced her disapproval. The decision to sack him was, she told Peel, “very unwise at this critical moment, and a very ungrateful return for the eminent services Lord Ellenborough has rendered… in India”. This time her objections were not heeded, though she would have more success supporting Lord Raglan, the British commander in the Crimea.
It helped that after the break-up of the Tory party in 1846 (over the repeal of the Corn Laws), ushering in a long period of coalition and minority governments, the monarch often held the balance of power – and Victoria was not afraid to use it. In 1850, she told Lord Palmerston, the headstrong Whig foreign secretary, that once she had “given her sanction to a measure”, she did not expect it to be “arbitrarily altered or modified by the minister”. When, a year later, he failed to consult either her or his cabinet colleagues over his approval of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état in France, he was forced to resign.
Victoria’s chief concern, if British interests were involved, was whether her government understood the military consequences of its aggressive foreign policy. “The Queen wishes to ask, before she sanctions this draft,” she wrote to the foreign secretary in 1856, “whether the Cabinet have fully considered the consequences of this declaration to the Persians, which may be war; and if so, whether they are prepared to go to war with Persia, and have provided the means of carrying it on?”
The royal couple were most closely involved, both emotionally and practically, with the two major wars of the period: the Crimean War of 1854–6 and the Indian Mutiny of 1857–9. They worked hard to keep Britain out of the former war – the first European conflict for 40 years – but when it became inevitable they threw their energies into supporting the troops. On the departure of the Scots Guards to the seat of war, Victoria wrote: “They formed line, presented arms, and then cheered us very heartily, and went on cheering. It was a touching and beautiful sight; many sorrowing friends were there, and one saw the shake of many a hand. My best wishes and prayers will be with them all”.
Socks knitted by the Queen
Later, when it became clear that British troops were suffering in the Crimea from a want of supplies and organisation, Queen Victoria personally superintended relief committees, knitted winter clothing (and encouraged her daughters and ladies-in-waiting to do the same) and eagerly seconded the efforts of Florence Nightingale. She also visited crippled soldiers in hospital and in 1856 instituted the Victoria Cross, the first all-ranks gallantry award, making it retrospective for those who had served in the Crimea. Albert was instrumental in the setting up of the Patriotic Fund which raised £1m for the widows and orphans of the dead.
During the Indian Mutiny Victoria’s sensitive and broad-minded reaction to rebel atrocities – “They should know there is no hatred of brown skin” – did much to calm the near hysterical cries among the British press and public for “fire and sword” retribution. And it was she who insisted that the 1858 “Proclamation”, announcing the transfer of authority from the East India Company to the Crown, contained a clause guaranteeing religious freedom. Albert’s clever diplomacy may even have averted a war between Britain and the United States in December 1861. But Albert's death a few days later was very much the end of an era, not only because the Queen withdrew from public life for years, but also because, even when she did return in 1866, she was never as effective or influential as she had been with him at her side. Disraeli admitted as much when he wrote: “With Prince Albert we have buried our Sovereign. This German Prince has governed England for 21 years with a wisdom and energy such as none of our Kings have ever shown”.
Albert’s demise coincided, moreover, with a shift in the axis of imperial expansion from Asia to Africa that reflected the changing commercial and strategic concerns of the British government. During Albert’s marriage only a couple of minor wars were fought in Africa (on the Cape frontier), whereas 10 were fought in Asia. Yet, of the 15 significant wars fought by Victoria’s troops after his death, 11 took place on the so-called “dark continent”. Lastly there was a change in the fundamental character of empire. Before the Indian Mutiny most Britons saw the empire as a “powerful force for the spread of civilisation”. So bloody were the events of the mutiny, however, that when it was over many Britons concluded that the subject peoples of the empire were not capable of being civilised. Imperial rule became, therefore, not a mission but a duty: or, as Rudyard Kipling so eloquently put it, “the White Man’s burden”.
Saul David is the author of three acclaimed books on the wars of the Victorian period. Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire is published by Viking
This article was first published in the May 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine
Saul David is a historian, broadcaster and author of several acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction, including SBS Silent Warriors: The Authorised Wartime History (William Collins, 2021)