The same year that saw the Federation of Canada found Benjamin Disraeli, the son of an Italian Jew, at the head of the Government in London. It will be well to get a clear idea of what he had already accomplished since his opposition to Free Trade in 1816.
"You will see," he had said emphatically as a young man—"you will see I shall be Prime Minister."
"Something within me whispers that one day I shall be famous," he had said as a boy, when the idea of life without fame and power seemed intolerable.
Already he was a man of mark by reason of his three novels, Vivian Grey, Coningsby, and Sybil, the first of which represented his own political aspirations. But he suddenly leaped into fame in 1846, by his strenuous opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws by Sir Robert Peel.
Mr. Gladstone at the age of 35.
From this date onwards, Disraeli, for the next twenty-eight years, was the pillar of the Tory party. He led the opposition against powerful Whig Governments, never disheartened, never hopelessly discouraged. During this long period he held office three times. In 1852 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, but his Budget was so vehemently attacked by Mr. Gladstone that the Tory Government fell. This was the beginning of a long duel between the two most famous Victorian statesmen, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone.
The passing of the Reform Act of 1867 was one of Disraeli's greatest triumphs. He had to persuade his followers to support a measure which they had condemned all their lives, to "educate his party" into doing the very thing they had once cordially denounced.
The Second Reform Act became law in 1867, by which householders in the United Kingdom were given the power of voting. But Disraeli's term of office was short, and the following year found him once more thrown into the "cold shade of Opposition", while great measures were passed by a strong Liberal Government.
The tide turned at last, and at the age of seventy, in 1874, Disraeli, for the first time in his life, became Prime Minister with the command of a large Tory, or Conservative, majority. For the next six years he was in supreme power, and one of the most striking figures in Europe. He had, as his wife expressed it, "climbed to the top of the greasy pole at last."
India at once claimed his attention. Whether he was an Imperialist at heart or not, he sought to draw closer the scattered possessions under one head.
"There must be no more annexation, no more conquest," he had exclaimed eighteen years before this in an important speech. "You ought at once to tell the people of India that the relation between them and their real ruler, Queen Victoria, shall be drawn nearer."
He proposed to cement the union by sending the Prince of Wales to India on a triumphal progress through the land as a representative of the Queen. No English prince of royal blood had as yet visited India, and the prince was received with great enthusiasm by the loyal native princes. He was in the midst of his tour when a piece of news was flashed through Europe, which was destined to have a far-reaching effect on Indian matters.
On November 26, 1875, it was suddenly announced that the British Government had bought the Khedive's shares in the Suez Canal for four millions of money. Though nobody quite knew what it meant, the news was received by a very "trumpet of approval".
The Suez Canal.
This is the story of one of the boldest strokes of policy in our history. The Suez Canal had been open about six years, the first spadeful of earth having been turned at Port Said in 1859. The wondrous engineering feat had been performed by a Frenchman, M. de Lesseps. Britain had played no part in the great enterprise. The Khedive of Egypt owned half the shares, the rest were mostly owned by Frenchmen. But the Khedive had got into money troubles, he owed large sums of money that he could not repay, and he wished to sell his shares in the Suez Canal. This wish reached the ears of Mr. Greenwood, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. He mentioned it at once to the Prime Minister, who saw at a glance that if any of the other Powers of Europe bought these shares it might be very awkward for Britain.
There was not a moment to be lost, not even time to call a Cabinet meeting, but Disraeli did not hesitate. He bought the Khedive's shares, and Britain awoke to find herself in possession of half the Suez Canal. The sea route to India was now secure through times of peace and war. The shares rose rapidly in value, the number of ships passing through the canal doubled and trebled year by year, and the canal had to be widened and deepened more than once.
The Prince's return from India was followed by a "Royal Titles Bill", by which the Queen was called "Empress of India", thereby adding "splendour even to her throne and security even to her empire". From this time forward she bore the great title, "Victoria by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, and Empress of India".
Henceforth she signed all documents, "Victoria R. & I." (Regina & Imperatrix), and in 1893 the addition of "Ind: Imp." (Indiae Imperatrix) was engraved on our English coinage.
"My lords," said Beaconsfield, six weeks before he died, "the key to India is in London. The majesty and sovereignty, the spirit and vigour, of your Parliament, the inexhaustible resources, the ingenuity and determination of your people—these are the keys to India."
This same year Disraeli made his last speech in the House of Commons, of which he had been a member for thirty-nine years. He was now to pass into the House of Lords as the Earl of Beaconsfield. "What our duty is at this critical moment is to maintain the empire of England—nor will we ever agree to any step that may hazard the existence of that empire."
These were his last words, as he passed from the scene of so many triumphs.
The "critical moment" was a renewal of the old Eastern question. The weakness of Turkey and the increase of Russian influence in the East was causing difficulty. Certain provinces had risen in revolt against Turkey's tyranny, and terrible atrocities were reported in the English newspapers. Great excitement arose in the country, and Mr. Gladstone made a series of powerful speeches, demanding that Britain should act on behalf of the oppressed peoples. Indignation was at its height, when Lord Beaconsfield delivered one of his greatest speeches.
"We have nothing to gain by war," he said. "There are no cities and no provinces that we desire to appropriate. We have built up an empire of which we are proud, and our modest boast is this, that that empire subsists as much upon sympathy as upon force. But if the struggle comes it should also be recollected that there is no country so prepared for war as England, because there is no country where resources are so great. In a righteous cause England will commence a fight that will not end until right is done."
The following April Russia declared war against Turkey, and in 1878 the vanquished Turks sued for terms of peace. Lord Beaconsfield was determined that these terms of peace should not be settled by Russia alone, but by a conference of all the Powers. Accordingly, a conference was held at Berlin, under Prince Bismarck, the German Chancellor, at which Lord Beaconsfield and Lord Salisbury represented Britain. For a time matters seemed to be drifting towards war, when the British representatives won the day. Lord Beaconsfield explained Britain's demand. "If you accept these," he affirmed, "Peace; if not, War."
His return from Berlin was a triumphal progress. Amid tremendous enthusiasm he assured his fellow countrymen that he had brought them "Peace with Honour".
No wonder Prince Bismarck, admiring the man's courage, was heard exclaiming, "Disraeli is England". This was his last work. In 1880 the country returned Mr. Gladstone to power, and Lord Beaconsfield retired to Hughenden, his country seat in Buckinghamshire. Here he wrote the last of his novels, Endymion.
Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield.
The following year he died, at the age of seventy-seven, to the great grief of the Queen. Like every statesman, he had his friends and his enemies. His friends planned and carried out the great organization of the Primrose League, the fivefold petals being taken to indicate the five divisions of the British Empire—Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Australia.
To the end of his life he was a puzzle to his countrymen.
"An adventurer, foreign in race, in ideas, in temper, without money or family connexions, climbs, by patient and unaided efforts, to lead a great party, master a powerful aristocracy, sway a vast empire, and make himself one of the four or five greatest personal forces in the world. . . . Whatever judgment history may ultimately pass upon him; she will find in the long annals of the English Parliament no more striking figure."