Wolfson Prize for History 1999
James Stern Silver Pen Award
for Non-Fiction 1999.
Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee
London: Tuesday, 22nd June 1897
“Scarlet and gold, azure and gold, purple and gold, emerald and gold, white and gold, always a changing tumult of colours that seemed to list and gleam with a light of their own, and always blinding gold,” recorded a spectator.”No eye could bear more gorgeousness.” Field Marshal Lord Roberts VC, the diminutive hero of the Second Afghan War, led the procession on the famous white Arab pony which had seventeen years earlier borne him from Kabul toKandahar. His baton resting on his right thigh, Roberts rode at the head of more than forty-six thousand men, the largest military force ever assembled in London. Queen Victoria had been on the Throne for sixty years, and the units taking part were chosen to emphasise the breadth of her Empire, which stretched over a fifth of the world’s land surface and comprised a quarter of mankind.
There were broad-chested lancers from New South Wales, zaptiehs from Cyprus in red fezes, militiamen from Malta, hussars and dragoons from Canadaand artillerymen from Trinidad. The dyak policemen from Borneo had black-and-white feathers on their scabbards; one of them, so The Times reported, had hunted thirteen heads in his former occupation. There were Ceylonese light infantrymen, baggy-trousered hausas from the Gold Coast, slouch-hatted carabiniers in khaki from Natal and Cape Colony, frontier policemen from Sierra Leone and a Chinese detachment from Hong Kong and the Straits Settlements who wore large, conical coolie hats. Even eighty years later, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Alice of Athlone, could recall the dyed red hair of the fierce Fijian warriors.
There were Sikhs and Malays and 28-stone Maoris and a camel corps donated by the Maharajah of Bikaner. The South Australian Mounted Rifles wore spiked pith helmets, the British Guiana Police white kepis and the Royal Niger Constabulary large red epaulettes. The most admired of all were the Indian cavalry regiments, in particular the Bengal Lancers. Their dark beards, upright carriage and strange and rich uniforms made them the sensation of the procession. The brightly coloured turbans, nine-foot beflagged lances and the proud martial bearing of these elite corps thrilled the million Britons who packed the six-mile route of the procession.
There was much to celebrate. In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the Empire had expanded by four million square miles. The Royal Navy, whose policy it was always to be larger than the next two navies combined, patrolled the oceans in protection of the world’s greatest trading nation. London was the most powerful financial centre on earth. Even the French newspaper Le Monde was enviously but favourably comparing Britain’s imperium to that of Ancient Rome.
The 3rd Marquess of Salisbury and his wife waited on the steps of St Paul ‘s Cathedral during the procession, together with the Cabinet, two military bands, the Corps Diplomatique, senior clergy, 500 choristers, a detachment of Yeomen of the Guard and the Gentlemen at Arms. After the Queen’s carriage drew up in the bright sunshine, accompanied by a cavalcade of thirty-six princes and 100 courtiers, the Te Deum and the Old Hundredth were sung. When the Archbishop of Canterbury called out “Hip, Hip, Hurrah!”, the three great volleys of cheers could be heard all the way to Trafalgar Square. “It will live in history as a unique and unexampled demonstration of the attachment which has grown more and more in intensity between the sovereign of a vast Empire and her subjects in every clime,” the Prime Minister wrote to the Queen that evening.
Lord Salisbury had guided the destinies of the Empire, nurturing and massively extending it, for almost nine of the previous twelve years, and he was to carry on the task for a further five. He knew there were times of great trial approaching: disputes with France on the White Nile, with Russia in the Orient, with the Dervishes of the Sudan, with the United States over commerce, with Imperial Germany and her new High Seas fleet, with Chinese nationalists and with the two small but pugnacious Boer republics in South Africa. “The dangerous temptation of the hour”, he warned a political meeting soon after the Jubilee, “is that we should consider rhapsody an adequate compensation for calculation.” Even as the crowds were rhapsodising their time in the imperial sun, Lord Salisbury was calculating how to keep it from setting.”