On January 22, 1901, the news was flashed all over the world that the long reign of Queen Victoria had come to an end. She had reigned for nearly sixty-four years, and died at the age of eighty-one. She had been a loving wife and mother, and a good Queen. Her reign was glorious, not because of wars and conquests, be because of the progress of good which it brought, and the uplifting of the people.
Queen Victoria, in Old Age
In her last years a cruel was was fought between the British and the "Boers," or inhabitants of the Dutch republics in South Africa. Great Britain was successful in the end, and the Boer republics were annexed to the British Empire; but the British suffered many defeats before this was accomplished, and the gallant fight which the Boers made aroused great sympathy. The Queen was much distressed by this war, and her last words were:
"Oh, that peace may come!"
Queen Victoria was succeeded on the throne by her eldest son, Edward VII., who had long been known as the Prince of Wales. He was sixty years of age, and was well prepared to continue the wise rule of his mother. He had four grown children, and the eldest of these—George Frederick, now the Prince of Wales—in turn has four sons, so that it is not likely that this line of English Kings will die out.
The British Empire, as Edward VII. received it from his mother, is one of the greatest that the world has ever seen. It includes lands all over the globe, and if it is wisely ruled—as it seems likely that it will be—it will continue to be held together, and prove a great source of good to the world.
But the problem is how to unite the widely scattered lands, by giving them a voice in the central government of the Empire.
The greatest of the possessions of Great Britain, and the most important, perhaps, after the mother country itself, is Canada. This was taken from the French in 1763, and settlement in it has since spread to the Pacific Ocean. It is a rich and fertile land, in spite of its cold climate; and its people are mainly of British blood and speech. Its different provinces have their own legislatures; and since 1867 Canada as a whole had had a federal government somewhat like that of the United States. In nearly everything the Canadians govern themselves, though the Governor-General is sent out to them from Great Britain by the home government. In the Boer War the Canadians proved their loyalty by sending soldiers to aid the mother country.
Australia is the second in importance of the British colonies. The coasts of this island-continent were explored by Captain Cook, an officer in the British navy, in 1770; and the first settlement was made there by the British in 1788. Gold was discovered in Australia in 1851, and great fortunes were made by lucky miners; but a more important source of wealth was found in the raising of sheep. Five colonies were established on the mainland, and another in the near-by island of Tasmania, each with its own legislature and governor; and in 1901 all five were united together into a federal government, under the name of the Commonwealth of Australia. This, too, is a self-governing colony, made up of men mainly of British blood and speech; and it, also, proved its loyalty and affection for the mother country by the aid which it sent at the time of the Boer war.
The two great islands of New Zealand, which together are twice as large as all England, are more than a thousand miles distant from Australia, and thus are not included in that commonwealth. They make up a separate self-governing colony, which is very progressive and prosperous.
Cape Colony, in South Africa, was conquered from Holland in 1806, while that country was aiding Napoleon in his wars against Great Britain. Gold, and also diamond mines, were discovered here, and the white settlements have greatly increased, though the natives (negroes) are still twice as numerous as the whites. The conquest of the Boer republics strengthened British rule in South Africa, and the fairness with which the conquered Boers were treated reconciled them to that rule. Here, too, a movement was successful, in 1909, in uniting all the different British colonies into a federal state, called United South Africa. One of the ablest and broadest-minded of the statesmen who brought this about was the Boer leader, General Botha. "I want the King and the British people to realize," he said, "that the trust reposed in us has been worthily taken up, and I hope that they will have cause of pride in the young South African nation."
Egypt, in Northern Africa, is not properly a part of the British Empire, for it has its own ruler (called the Khedive). But since 1881 British soldiers have guarded the country, and British officers have aided the Egyptian rulers. This "British occupation" has been of very great advantage to the country, for taxes have become less, justice has become more certain, order has been kept, and great public works have been built, so that the condition of the people has greatly improved. Especially noteworthy is a series of enormous dams, which pen up the waste waters of the river Nile, while it is in flood, and gradually let them out later, so that the desert lands become rich fields of cotton, sugar-cane and rice. Another great thing which they have done is the building of a railroad southward, which will meet one which is being built northward from Cape Colony. When this is completed it will be possible to go by rail for five thousand miles—through Egyptian desert and tropical jungle, where lions, elephants, and rhinoceroses abound—from Cairo in Egypt to the Cape of Good Hope. It is likely that the British will stay in Egypt for many years, and so that land may almost be counted as one of the countries over which they rule.
Then there is the great Empire of India, won for Great Britain by the East India Company, and now ruled by the British government. This is half as large as the whole of the United States, and has four times as many people as our country. Unlike most other British possessions, India had an old and very highly developed civilization when Europeans first went there. There was no room for new settlements, so the British still continue very few in that land. As a result, India has not been given the right of self-government, as have other lands named. But, even in India, some share in the government is now promised to the people.
Map of British Empire
These are the chief lands which make up the British Empire, outside the mother country herself: Canada; Australia and the neighboring islands of New Zealand; South Africa; and India. Besides these there are many islands, and small possessions on the continents of South America, Africa, and Asia, which cannot be shown on the accompanying map. War and commerce, the explorer's lonely courage, and the colonist's hardy enterprise, have all contributed to its up-building.
"Time, and the ocean, and some fostering star,
In high cabal have made us what we are,
Who stretch one hand to Huron's bearded pines,
And one on Kashmir's snowy shoulder lay,
And round the streaming of whose raiment shines
The iris of the Australasian spray,
For waters have connived at our designs,
And winds have plotted with us—and behold,
Kingdom on kingdom, sway on oversway,
Dominion fold in fold!"
What is it that binds together this vast empire? Is it the power of Great Britain's army and navy?
India and Egypt are partly held by military force, but this is not so of those great lands which are inhabited by men of the same blood and speech as the British themselves. It is affection that keeps them true to their imperial mother, and the knowledge that membership in that Empire makes them all safer and more prosperous. A poet has described Great Britain as a lion, and the self-governing colonies as its full grown cubs, ready to come at the lion's call to its assistance:
"The Lion stands by his shore alone
And sends, to the bounds of Earth and Sea,
First low notes of the thunder to be,
Then East and West, through the vastness grim,
The Whelps of the Lion answer him."
But what does this growth of England, and the spread of its power through the British Empire, mean for the rest of the world? Does it mean war, and conquest, and tyranny, and oppression?
No, it means peace, and good order, and above all the spread of free institutions.
Great Britain has given the world improved machinery, and cheap goods of many sorts. Her merchants and sailors, more than those of any other nation, have helped to knit the whole world together into one society. The food upon our tables, the clothes which we wear, and the furnishings of our houses are brought together from all over the world largely by their enterprise. She has made the English language the most widely spoken tongue in the world, and has given to those who speak it a priceless literature. In the days following the Reformation in religion, England was the chief champion of Protestantism, when it seemed that the Protestant religion was about to perish. In more modern times, Great Britain has been foremost in putting down slavery everywhere, and in movements of bettering the world's conditions.
Most of all, we owe to Great Britain the spread throughout civilized lands of such rights as trial by jury, free speech, and constitutional government. It was the English people who first discovered and established these rights, and it was from England, and English-speaking peoples, that the rest of the world received these priceless gifts.