Imperial reputations and early Victorian politics

“The New British Possession in the Eastern Archipaelago.” Illustrated London News [London, England] 9 Oct. 1847 –

“The New British Possession in the Eastern Archipaelago.” Illustrated London News [London, England] 9 Oct. 1847

(c) Illustrated London News


Victorian politics was pockmarked with vigorous controversies over British imperial agents. Oxford alumni will doubtless think first of the debates provoked by the career of Cecil Rhodes, which have come back with such a vengeance in recent months; and next, perhaps, of quarrels over the policies pursued by General Gordon in the Sudan, Lord Cromer in Egypt, and Governor Eyre in Jamaica. Historians have long been interested in how these figures were put to use in party struggles, and in how they helped to expose fault-lines in British political thought. Arguing about specific imperialists was one of the main ways in which Victorian politicians and writers engaged with the empire, channelling wider anxieties about Britain’s imperial systems and responsibilities. We tend to think of this, however, as a phenomenon of the later decades of the nineteenth century – when competitive European imperialism was at its height, and when empire was a consistently important political issue.

Early Victorian politics, by contrast, seems comparatively devoid of arguments about contentious imperialists. There was undoubtedly plenty of empire-building going on in the 1830s and 1840s – especially in India and at the Antipodes – alongside major changes in the way the empire was governed, notably moves towards self-government for the settler colonies. But most historians assume that all this was in the background as far as domestic politics was concerned. They argue that politics was dominated by a set of religious, constitutional, and economic problems, which lacked significant imperial dimensions. But for some irregular noises off, there seems to be a hiatus between the intense imperial debates generated by the American Revolution and expansion of the East India Company in the late eighteenth century, and the emergence of a new politics of empire in the late nineteenth.

In fact, under the right circumstances, imperial questions could and did play a substantial role in early Victorian political life. Perhaps even more so than in the late nineteenth century, imperial political controversy in this era dwelt on individual imperial agents who became targets of domestic celebration, opprobrium, or – most often – both at once. Much like their later-Victorian successors, the questions that such men raised often had to do with the use of imperial violence: but this focus was always an outwork of more fundamental assumptions about British character, and about the moral, constitutional, and financial consequences of the empire for Britain itself. The crop of controversial imperial figures in the 1830s and 1840s, then, was healthy. It included Lord Durham, whose attempts to reform the government of Canada after the revolutions of 1837 briefly dominated domestic politics; Lord Torrington, governor of Ceylon, who crushed an 1848 revolt on the island; and Sir Henry Ward, who performed a similar role in Cephalonia in 1849, asking for the rebels to be delivered to him ‘dead or alive’ (leaving little room for due process). Not all controversial imperialists in this era were British: Colonel Aimable Pélissier, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Arab civilians during the French conquest of Algeria, was another much-debated figure. But this piece focuses on two British imperial agents who highlight in different ways how questions of imperial character could become central to early Victorian politics: Sir James Brooke of Sarāwak, and Edward Law, Lord Ellenborough, governor-general of India in the early 1840s.

James Brooke was responsible for one of the most extraordinary chapters in British imperial history. Born in India, and invalided out of the Indian army, for years he lived an aimless existence; but in his thirties, having received a substantial inheritance, he lighted upon the idea of organising a trading expedition to the Dutch-dominated Eastern Archipelago. On his tour Brooke touched at the state of Sarāwak in Northern Borneo, a tributary of the Sultanate of Brunei, and was immediately drawn in to a complex local politics. Eventually, via a series of complicated political manoeuvres (and a certain amount of support from heavily-armed Royal Navy ships), he succeeded in acquiring the personal sovereignty of the state. The way Brooke’s curious enterprise was understood back in Britain highlights the renown which could accrue from a certain kind of imperial assertiveness within early Victorian political culture, as well as highlighting just how fragile imperial reputations could be.

When an edited version of Brooke’s journals were published in 1846, narrating how he had acquired his anomalous position and discussing his principles of government, he was eulogised across the British press. Here, commentators wrote admiringly, was a man who had single-handedly opened the resources of the Eastern Archipelago to Britain; who was promoting the principle of free trade without the need for costly state interference; who had transformed the head-hunting population of Sarāwak into industrious subjects, and promoted civilization and Christianity among them; who had suppressed the blights of piracy and slavery; and who had done all this while maintaining the most pristine financial disinterestedness. In all these ways, Brooke was used to underpin and renew an exalted vision of the national mission overseas. A further cause for celebration was that he had arranged for Brunei to cede to Britain the island of Labuan, for use as a new colony and coaling station. When he visited Britain in 1847-8, as a result, he was the lion of season. He was admitted to all the best society, meeting various luminaries, ministers, and royals, spoke at well-attended public meetings, and had his portrait painted by the fashionable Sir Francis Grant – all in addition to receiving a knighthood, and an honorary DCL from Oxford.

Brooke’s apotheosis was short-lived. Naval expeditions against local ‘pirate’ tribes had been at the root of his rule in Sarāwak: commercial competitors in Singapore and disgruntled former associates had long argued that these expeditions were nothing more than murderous razzias designed to protect and expand his own authority. In 1849, after a particularly brutal expedition against a group of so-called pirates, the claims of Brooke’s opponents were taken up by a group of Radical politicians in Britain, led by the celebrated opponent of the Corn Law, Richard Cobden. From a paragon of imperial Britishness, Brooke now became tarred as a power-hungry robber and murderer. How, the Radicals asked, could Britain maintain its claim to be a humanitarian nation of unmatched moral character, immeasurably superior to the oppressive and violent Russians, Austrians and Dutch, if it continued to support Brooke? Extensive debate in parliament and the press went substantially in Brooke’s favour: but the halo was tarnished, and Sarāwak quickly ceased to be employed in domestic politics as a defining example of British international endeavour. Brooke himself faded into relative obscurity.

The Indian Governor-Generalship of Lord Ellenborough, between 1842 and 1844, raised issues of a very different kind, and illuminated how imperial reputations could become a battleground for the major Victorian political parties. For all that it was Britain’s grandest possession, the government of India was rarely a subject of political controversy at this time: one contemporary MP described the subject as ‘the dinner-bell of the House of Commons’. But Ellenborough’s innings was always liable to become politicised. Not only was he a prominent Tory politician being dispatched by the new Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, to replace the similarly prominent Whig Lord Auckland; but he was sent out to disentangle Britain from an embarrassing conflict in Afghanistan, which the previous government had approved. Partisan loyalties were thus deeply implicated in responses to Ellenborough.

Ellenborough oversaw the Afghan retreat, in the face of stormy opposition from Whig politicians who claimed that he had undermined Britain’s military honour. What defined the controversy over his Governor-Generalship, however, was the political style he projected. Ellenborough had idiosyncratic ideas about how India should be ruled: he thought that the British regime should appeal to the natives in terms appropriate to them, and without worrying about opinion at home. In Ellenborough’s mind this meant grandiloquent public proclamations about the purposes of his government, pompous (and hideously expensive) military ceremonial, and theatrical symbolic gestures. Most notoriously, he instructed and trumpeted the return of an ancient military trophy, the Gates of Somnath, from Afghanistan back to India, thought to have been removed by a Muslim conqueror in the eleventh century. He proclaimed that this would act as a symbolic affirmation of Indian nationhood under British sovereignty; domestic critics countered that it would inflame sectarian divisions between Hindus and Muslims. The whole episode ended farcically when it became evident that the original Gates had long rotted away, and Ellenborough had only recovered a replica.

In all these ways, Ellenborough made himself an easy target for Whig and Radical opponents of Peel’s government. They furiously decried his failure to uphold the standards expected of British rulers in India in parliament, periodicals, and prints. Ellenborough was mocked on the London stage, portrayed riding a papier-mâché elephant. Eventually it all became too much, and he was recalled by the East India Company in 1844, sensationally and without ministerial consultation. Peel chose as Ellenborough’s successor Lord Hardinge, a man who fully understood that the Governor-General of India had to be sensitive to domestic opinion, and who went about his business without vanity or boasting – which served swiftly to dampen the party tensions India had raised. This underlined the fundamental problem with Ellenborough, which had been the distance between the fashion in which the British political classes expected imperial rule in India to be conducted, and the way he went about it. He had been regularly compared with the showy, demonstrative, rhetorically overblown way the French supposedly went about governing their empires – it was hard to think of anything more un-English. Partisan point-scoring was here underpinned by less well-ventilated, but nonetheless fundamental, assumptions about the proper character and style of British imperial rule.

So early Victorian politics was not insulated from imperial issues in the way it is sometimes thought to be, by comparison with the later nineteenth century. When imperial rule was seen to be done particularly well or particularly badly, it attracted considerable public attention, and this attention often focused on individual imperial agents. Discussion of these individuals could provide a way of drawing out what was distinctive and superior about British imperial rule, as opposed to that of other ages and nations. More often, it was a way of drawing attention to Britain’s imperial failings – and hence the need for reform – or of scoring political points. The particular debates outlined here may not have had hugely significant domestic political consequences, as no government fell nor election turned on the empire in this period. But they are vital to understanding the dynamics of early Victorian politics and political ideas, and the shaping role of ideas about national character and identity therein. And surely students of later-nineteenth-century imperial politics – and the reputations of its rather more notorious imperial agents – have something to gain from looking further back.


- Alex Middleton

Junior Research Fellow

Corpus Christi College, Oxford