This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics
On the night of 23 June 1897, one participant described the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in her diary as a “never to be forgotten day”. Few had a better view of the festivities than Queen Victoria herself, and she was clearly touched by the warmth of the crowds, as the rest of her entry shows: “No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those six miles of streets… The crowds were quite indescribable and their enthusiasm truly marvelous and deeply touching. The cheering was quite deafening and every face seemed to be filled with real joy.” Their ecstatic disposition reflected deep affection for a beloved monarch who had become a bastion of strength, and pride in an Empire that dominated the globe.
By this time Victoria had surpassed her grandfather George III as the longest reigning monarch in England or Scotland’s history, and presided over an Empire that comprised some 300 million people, covering more than a quarter of the world. Britain was a nation without equal, standing in ‘splendid isolation’. What was ostensibly billed as a celebration of Victoria’s reign developed into a demonstration of Britain’s imperial reach, a move welcomed by the ageing monarch despite her earlier hopes for a quiet commemoration. This would be a celebration not merely of one woman’s longevity, nor even just of national unity, but of the greatest Empire the world had yet seen as it reached its zenith.
The term ‘Diamond Jubilee’ was unknown before this occasion; it was created specifically for this, as there was no precedent for a 60th anniversary of a ruling monarch. The 50th had been a Jubilee, so one suggestion put forward from her home secretary was for the ‘Jubilissimee’ – literally, the ultimate Jubilee of Jubilees. The term ‘diamond’ was already understood to mark the completion of 60 years of married life, but Queen Victoria’s private secretary did not think she would approve. She did: the Diamond Jubilee it was.
The planning for the celebrations had begun the year before, and Victoria agreed to participate only after three conditions had been met: state ceremonial would not be used, Victoria would not be required to get out of the carriage on Jubilee Day, owing to her failing health, and the occasion would not use any money from her Privy Purse. The Golden Jubilee had cost her £50,000, several million in today’s money, and the Queen was not prepared all over again to take on the feeding and housing of the large contingent of European royalty accustomed to her hospitality.
The ban on all crowned heads had the added boon of avoiding any need to entertain Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who was once again proving difficult, a trait that, within two decades, would cause the great resources of the Empire to be mobilised for total war. Her cabinet reluctantly accepted the ban and it was the enterprising colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain who proposed transforming the event into a grand celebration of Empire. As he remarked to prime minister Salisbury: “There has never been in English territory any representation of the Empire as a whole, and the colonies have, hitherto, taken little part in any ceremony of this kind.” The Diamond Jubilee would put paid to that in spectacular fashion.
Chamberlain’s plan chimed well with Victoria’s disposition towards the Empire, in which she took a keen interest, none more so than in its most populous possession – India. Benjamin Disraeli is usually credited with the creation of the title of “Empress of India”. It marked a significant point in Victoria’s return to full public life in 1876, following the death of her husband Albert 15 years earlier. It was a title she took up eagerly. In an illustration of Victoria’s affection towards her Indian dominions, it was she who insisted on the title of ‘Ind.Imp’ being added to new coinage issued in 1886. Most of her ministers were sceptical about the title and insisted she only use it for correspondence involving India, but the Queen was clearly fond of it. From then on, like it or not, those ministers had to get used to Her Majesty signing herself as not only as Regina but also as Imperatrix.
Invitations were issued to all the Indian princes to attend the celebrations, but many stayed at home to deal with the aftermath of the devastating famine of 1896-97. Those who did attend were accompanied by many troops, including the Bengal Lancers, adorned in resplendent military garb, further brightening a day already gifted with glorious sunshine. Victoria’s affection for the jewel in the Empire’s crown was captured at the accession anniversary, held a few days before the procession on 20 June. The landmark was celebrated with special services around the country, and Queen Victoria chose to enter St George’s Chapel in Windsor on the arm of an Indian servant. It is not surprising that she showed such affection for her Indian subjects – they comprised nearly two-thirds of her subjects – but the Jubilee was a celebration of the totality of the Empire.
All 11 premiers of the self-governing dominions were invited as guests of the government along with representative military escorts, providing a unique spectacle for the thousands who had flocked to London. The Daily Mail captured the political significance of the vast procession: “Up they came, more and more, new types, new realms at every couple of yards, an anthropological museum – a living gazetteer of the British Empire.” Chamberlain took the opportunity to preside over the first meeting of leaders from all the self-governing states within the Empire. When Commonwealth heads of state meet today, they are part of that tradition.
Anticipation of the Jubilee celebrations was feverish. American reporter Richard Harding Davis, visiting Britain at the time, noted how interest in it grew as the day drew closer, “spreading and growing until it overwhelmed every other interest in the Empire”. As an illustration of the sheer scale of the event and its far-reaching impact, preparations for the festivities – they included ensuring the receipt of enough potatoes from Ireland and beef from New Zealand – caused a rise in global freight rates.
On the morning of the procession itself, the Queen transmitted a telegram across the world: “From my heart I thank my beloved people. May God bless them.” The sentiment was sincere. By the 1890s, despite the vexing domestic issue of Irish Home Rule, Victoria’s role as head of the Empire had become her most significant duty. Her presence within Britain’s colonies and dominions was ubiquitous, her image adorning calendars, oleographs, mugs, commemorative plates and every postage stamp printed since 1840. Her reign had become iconic, even legendary, by the time of the Diamond Jubilee.
The day itself came to a climax with a religious service outside St Paul’s Cathedral. A grandstand had been set up for thousands of dignitaries from across the Empire, but Victoria remained in her carriage, owing to her frailty. That did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds. After a brief lull at the end of the service, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave an unscripted cry of “Three cheers for the Queen”. The spectators erupted and the band and chorus burst into God Save the Queen. The return journey to Buckingham Palace passed deliberately through the poorer sections of London, south of the Thames, an illustration of Victoria’s affection for all her people. They, in turn, gave her a rousing reception that prompted the gushing entry in her diary later that day.
Victoria’s strength as a ruler was rooted in the humility of her public character, as captured by Vanity Fair magazine, published two days after the procession: “For in Her Majesty, as she sat in her magnificent carriage, amid all the splendor of her court, the glistening of gold, the shining of sabres and the pomp of cavalry, in her quiet simple dress, all of us recognised a grand example of humility, of patience, of long suffering – in a word, womanliness.” The adulation at times veered into the sycophantic, but not without good cause. It is hard to fundamentally disagree, for example, with the assessment of Lord Dufferin, career diplomat and Viceroy of India, that a “more prosperous reign, a more blameless ruler, or a more beloved sovereign, the world has never seen”.
The praise for Victoria’s reign came not just from her subjects. In describing the Diamond Jubilee, American satirist Mark Twain noted, without irony, that: “British history is 2,000 years old, and yet in a good many ways the world has moved further ahead since the Queen was born than it moved in all the rest of the 2,000 years put together.” The transatlantic Review of Reviews published a tribute to the Queen in 1897, juxtaposing a picture of Victoria with Abraham Lincoln, and going so far as to boast that they represented the “high water-mark of realised success in the Evolution of Humanity”.
Despite the efforts of Chamberlain and others to characterise the Jubilee as a celebration of British Imperial power, which it undoubtedly was, the event was also, inescapably, recognition of a remarkable reign; a public love letter to the revered ‘Mother of the Empire’. By the time she died, few of her subjects could remember any other figure on the throne and the British crown seemed as secure as it had ever been in its tumultuous history.
Within a decade, however, Chamberlain’s vision of imperial trade preference was losing ground, and his ultimate vision of an imperial parliament was getting nowhere. Within 50 years India would be celebrating independence. The crowds, who would have thought that they lived in an age of continuity and British power, might have been surprised if they had known another Diamond Jubilee would be held only 115 years later, but astonished by the idea that, by then, there would be no Empire at all.
Chris McCarthy is associate editor at e-IR and also blogs for The Huffington Post