Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Empire of India

"Are there thunders moaning in the distance?

Are there spectres moving in the darkness?

Trust the Hand of Light will lead her people,

Till the thunders pass, the spectres vanish,

And the Light is Victor and the darkness

Dawns into the Jubilee of the Ages."

— Tennyson

T HE stories of Burma and Afghanistan—the two countries bordering on India—have been told. Let us take a last look at the India of to-day, and gather up the threads of this great British dependency, which in 1903 celebrated the accession of her British Emperor with such enthusiasm. Through the dark days of the Indian mutiny, England had saved India from herself. With the death of the East India Company, a Royal Proclamation announced that the Queen of England had assumed the government of British territory in India. A new era opened for the country—an era of religious toleration, of development, and progress under the British flag. With the opening of the Suez Canal, constructed by the genius of a French engineer in 1869, India was brought into closer communication with England. It was through this Suez Canal, that the present King of England visited India in 1875. A warm welcome awaited the "Son of the Great Queen beyond the seas." The visit was rich in results.

On January 1, 1877, a magnificent Durbar, or state reception, was held at Delhi, the old Mogul capital, at which the "Queen beyond the seas" was proclaimed "Empress of India." Nothing could exceed the splendour of native chiefs and rulers who attended: no such gorgeous assembly had ever gathered in India before. And the sun shone down on the brilliantly coloured costumes, till the grounds looked like "an immense Eastern garden in full bloom." Each chief came on his own royal elephant, which was arrayed in gorgeous trappings with a throne of gold on its back. To each was presented a golden banner and a medal bearing the new legend, "Victoria, Empress." Out of compliment to these loyal princes, the English Viceroy, the Queen's representative, came on the state elephant, kept for great occasions. To the strains of the National Anthem, he then took his seat on the throne, twelve heralds sounded a flourish of trumpets, and the Proclamation was read aloud.

"The strong hand of Imperial power is put forth, not to crush but to protect and guide; and the results of British rule are everywhere around us, in rapid advance of the whole country and the increasing prosperity of all its provinces.

"God save the Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India."

This was the final scene in the establishment of the British Empire in India. During the rise and growth of British power, the Mogul Empire had faded away. If fleeting memories of its past splendour flickered in Oriental imagination, they have long since died out in the hearts of the people. Old feuds were forgotten, new friendships were formed. Loyalty had been slow in growing, but as time rolls on, it becomes deeper rooted and wider spread—loyalty to that queen and country which, for 100 years, had ever tried to deal out even-handed justice to all alike.

Meanwhile dark clouds were gathering on the north-west frontier. Chitral was a small mountain state bordering on Kashmir, hidden away amid the snowy ranges of the Hindu Kush. An English resident resided here, to protect British interests. When troubles broke out in 1895, he was driven into a fort with his attendants, and there besieged by the turbulent tribesmen of the country.

Expeditions were immediately despatched to his relief. The famous race for Chitral, fills one of the most thrilling pages of modern history.

While a large force under Sir Robert Low fought its way over the Malakand Pass, Colonel Kelly, with some 400 men, was making his way from Gilgit on the frontier, over a yet higher pass, covered with four feet of soft snow.

It would take too long to tell how this little band of pioneers climbed the snowy mountain-passes, while snow fell heavily from the pitiless sky; how man after man was struck with snow-blindness, man after man was frost-bitten with the stinging cold. Such courage has its reward. After a fortnight's struggle, Kelly reached Chitral to find that the home-made Union-jack still waved over the fort, which had been held by its gallant defenders for forty-six days. Peace was soon restored, and to-day Chitral is the most advanced northern post in India.

Meanwhile trouble was brewing farther south on the Punjab frontier. In 1897, Sir William Lockhart led an expedition from Peshawur to Tirah, the headquarters of a tribe known as Afridis, who had attacked British outposts in the Kyber Pass. Again the advance lay through a difficult mountainous district, where tribesmen on the heights commanded the passes. Severe fighting took place at Dargai, which was strongly defended by the enemy. The British advance was led by native Gurkhas, who climbed up a zigzag path under a perpendicular cliff swept by the enemy's fire. But with all their courage, they could not carry the post, and the Gordon Highlanders were brought to the front.

"Men," cried their Colonel, "the position must be taken at all costs. The Gordon Highlanders will take it."

With fixed bayonets, the Highlanders made one of their famous charges, mounted the heights and carried all before them. The story of the Highland piper, who, though shot through both his ankles, sat on the ground and continued piping, will not easily be forgotten by those who love to hear of heroic deeds.

Having taken Dargai, the expedition marched on to Tirah, but eventually, after hard fighting, peace was restored to the north-west frontier.

Since these days the frontier has been strengthened against all possible invasion, and a line of forts and fortified posts protect the passes into Indian territory.

There is one more scene to describe before we take leave of India. Magnificent as was the Delhi Durbar of 1877, yet perhaps more gorgeous still was the Durbar that met on January 1, 1903, to proclaim the accession of Edward VII. to the Imperial throne of India. Everything was on a gigantic scale. Elephants, with gold and silver howdahs flashing with gems, bore some hundred Indian princes of rank to the old Mogul capital to do honour to the new sovereign. As the sun lit up the brilliant scene, the blazing gorgeousness of the East mixed strangely with the more regulated splendour of the West. The king's brother was with the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, whose speech summed up the advance of twenty-six years.

"To the majority of these millions," he said, addressing the vast multitude before him, "the king's government has given freedom from invasion; to others, it has guaranteed their rights and privileges; to others, it opens ever-widening avenues of honourable employment; to the masses, it dispenses mercy in the hour of suffering; to all, it endeavours to give equal justice, immunity from oppression, and the blessing of peace. To have won such a kingdom is a great achievement; to hold it by fair and righteous dealing is a greater; to weld it by prudent statesmanship into a single and compact whole, will be and is the greatest of all."

Such is—

"The Ocean-empire, with her boundless homes

For ever broadening England and her throne

In the vast Orient."

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