There were times in the Georgian and early Victorian periods when the British monarchy was downright unpopular. However, Victorian imperialism presented an opportunity to change this situation by connecting imperial power and monarchical spectacle. In 1876, when Victoria had persuaded Disraeli to make her Empress of India, there was widespread approval around the Empire. In India in 1877, a huge durbar, borrowed from Mogul royal examples, marked the invention of a tradition. By the time the British world was celebrating Victoria’s golden and diamond jubilees in 1887 and 1897, the “Great White Queen” had become the personification of imperial power.
Royal Tourists is an interesting exploration of “British World” culture, from 1860 visits when Albert choreographed his young sons’ visits to Cape Colony and Canada, to 1911, when King George V’s coronation durbar in India became the most spectacular imperial royal occasion on record. This book is strongest as a study of the role of the Royal Family in fostering a greater British identity through displays of regal power and awe. The context is the age of early globalisation, when steamships and railways made travel and communication faster, safer and more comfortable.
The Queen herself never visited the Empire. Apart from visits to Ireland in 1849 and 1900, Victoria left imperial sojourning to her children. Her consort, Albert, was among the first to recognise how monarchy could benefit from imperial association. When his son, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, returned from his 1860 trip to Canada rapt by his reception, his father offered a rebuke: the show of fervour was for the Queen, not for him. These tours may have been about image, prestige and power, but they also were personal. Charles Reed reckons that more people overseas saw Victoria’s younger son, Alfred, than any royal “before the advent of the jet age”.
He also considers how colonial subjects themselves used the monarch. For Maori and Zulu chiefs, the Crown, not local authority, was the sovereign power, and they sometimes appealed to regal power in conflicts with colonial administrators. We can see this through indigenous people travelling to the UK to petition against colonial grievances, to which Reed devotes a chapter. He explores, for example, cases in 1884 when Maori travelled from New Zealand to England to pursue disputes against colonials, and in 1909 when whites and blacks from South Africa came to demand ethnic equality within an emerging, unified South African state.
Reed describes the interplay of local, colonial and imperial identities in forging a connected British World. He tries to decentre explanations of imperial networks and favours the colony over Britain. While the royals stand out in this study, so does the emerging indigenous intelligentsia, which straddled both imperial and metropolitan worlds. In telling this story, Reed ably handles a large academic literature. Within the unfolding drama, readers are helped to understand the prehistory of today’s royal visits and how they connected, and still connect, overlapping transnational cultures that always owed more to Empire than to London.
Donald M. MacRaild is professor of British and Irish history, Ulster University.
Royal Tourists, Colonial Subjects, and the Making of a British World, 1860-1911
By Charles V. Reed
Manchester University Press, 256pp, £70.00
Published 1 January 2016