Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Dead Queen Watch: 'Famine Queen' Victoria

Queen Victoria died on 22nd January 1901 - which makes today the 105th anniversary of her death. She was the longest reigning monarch - 63 years on the throne - having been coronated in 1837. As a result, she is one of the most famous monarchs, and was memorably and sympathetically played by Dame Judy Dench in the 1997 film Mrs. Brown. Yet the reality of life under her reign for ordinary people in the British Empire was quite different. Colin Gill, co author of Topple the Mighty, has helpfully summarised her rule:

'When Victoria came to the throne in 1837 it was like a breath of fresh air to the middle class compared with her extravagent, arrogant and stupid uncles, two of whom had preceded her as kings. But the working class was not so convinced.

The Chartists’ 1842 petition to the queen demanded she pay attention to "the great disparity existing between the wages of the producing millions and the salaries of those whose comparitive usefulness ought to be questioned, where riches and luxury prevail among the rulers and poverty and starvation among the ruled".

Victoria displayed some signs of sympathy for liberal causes in her earlier years, but this disappeared as her reign drew on.

In 1867 she complained that the Irish had never "become reconciled to English rule, which they hate — so different from the Scots, who are so loyal...We shall have to hang some, and it ought to have been done before".

By the end of her reign she had re-invented herself as the Great White Queen as the prime minister, Disraeli, drove through a murderous imperial expansion across the globe.

Her attitude to British military incursions into Sudan echoes those who justify troops in Iraq today: "A blow must be struck or we shall never be able to convince the Mohammedans that they have not beaten us".'

The blow struck in Sudan was indeed quite some blow. 'In 1898, at the battle of Omdurman those fighting under the Union Jack fired 3,500 shells and 500,000 bullets. The British suffered 28 dead while 11,000 Sudanese Dervishes were killed. Most died from Maxim machine-gun fire: "It was not a battle but an execution ... The bodies were not in heaps - bodies hardly ever are; but they spread evenly over acres and acres. Some lay very composed with their slippers placed under their heads for a last pillow; some knelt, cut short in the middle of a last prayer. Others were torn to pieces..." Wounded Dervishes were shot or bayoneted where they lay. Afterwards General Kitchener boasted that his victory had opened all the lands along the Nile "to the civilization influences of commercial enterprise."'. I don't remember Dame Judy Dench's character mentioning this...

Some idea of the British 'murderous imperial expansion across the globe' under Victoria can be sensed from just reading a list of the 'small colonial wars' (as they have euphemistically been called) undertaken during Victoria's reign:

Anti-colonial revolt in Canada, 1837
Capture of Aden, 1838
First Afghan War, 1838-42
Against Boers, South Africa, 1838-48
Opium Wars in China, 1839-42
War in the Levant, 1840
War in Afghanistan, 1842
Conquest of Sind, India, 1843
Gwalior War, India, 1843
First Sikh War, India, 1845-6
Against Native Africans, South Africa, 1846-52
North-West Frontier of India, 1847-54
Second Sikh War, India, 1848-9
Second Burmese War, 1852
Eureka Stockade, Australia, 1854
War with Persia, 1856-7
North-West Frontier of India, 1858-67
Storming of the Taku Forts, China, 1859-60
Maori Wars, New Zealand, 1861-4
Operations in Sikkim, India, 1861
Ambela Expedition, 1863
Yokohama, Japan, 1864-5
Bhutan Expedition, 1865
Expedition to Abyssinia, 1868
Red River Expedition, Canada, 1870
Ashanti War, West Africa, 1874
Expedition to Perak, Malaya, 1875-6
Galekas & Gaikas war, Cape Colony, 1877
North-West Frontier, India, 1878-9
Second Afghan War, 1878
Third Afghan War, 1879
Zulu War, 1879
North-West Frontier of India, 1880-4
Transvaal Revolt or First Boer War, 1880-1
Bombardment of Alexandria, 1882
Expedition to the Sudan, 1884-5
Third Burmese War, 1885
Suakin Expedition, Sudan, 1885
End of the Nile Campaign, 1885
North-West Frontier of India, 1888-92
Minor Operations in India, 1888-94
Siege & Relief of Chitral, India, 1895
Mashonaland Rising, East Africa, 1896
Re-Conquest of Egypt, 1896-8
Tirah Expeditionary Force, India, 1897-8
North-West Frontier of India, 1897-8
Boxer Rising, China, 1900-1

Those who want to read more about these battles might like to try to track down Victor Kiernan's book, European Empires from Conquest to Collapse. As well as presiding over bloody British efforts in the 'Scramble for Africa', which of course later included the Boer war, particularly noteworthy are her attitudes towards Ireland and India. Wikipedia notes that Victoria was called the "Famine Queen" after the British Government chose to let the free market take its course in the Irish Potato Famine (An Gorta Mor), which cost the lives of over one million Irish people and saw the emigration of another million from 1845-9. In 1856, - one hundred and fifty years ago - Frederick Engels visited Dublin and gave his view of the country: 'Ireland may be regarded as England’s first colony ... the so-called liberty of the English citizen is based on the oppression of the colonies. I have never seen so many gendarmes in any country and the sodden look of the Prussian gendarme is developed to its highest perfection here amongst the constabulary, who are armed with carbines, bayonets and handcuffs.'

If one million Irish people were left to die from malnutrition by the British commitment to 'free trade' and profits in the 1840s, it has been estimated by Mike Davis in his book Late Victorian Holocausts (2001) that between 12 and 29 million Indians were to die from famines under her reign. Queen Victoria had become Empress of India in 1877, but as she travelled around in luxury she seemed quite unmoved by the sheer numbers dying of poverty. George Monbiot has summarised the famines under 'Pax Britannia' - about which, it might be noted, in Britain at the time only the tiny Marxist Social Democratic Federation campaigned against:

'When an El Nino drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau in 1876 there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the viceroy, Lord Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent its export to England. In 1877 and 1878, at height of the famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4 million hundredweight of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, government officials were ordered "to discourage relief works in every possible way". The Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877 prohibited “at the pain of imprisonment private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market fixing of grain prices.” The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labour, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. Within the labour camps, the workers were given less food than the inmates of Buchenwald. In 1877, monthly mortality in the camps equated to an annual death rate of 94%.

As millions died, the imperial government launched "a militarized campaign to collect the tax arrears accumulated during the drought." The money, which ruined those who might otherwise have survived the famine, was used by Lytton to fund his war in Afghanistan. Even in places which had produced a crop surplus, the government’s export policies, like Stalin’s in the Ukraine, manufactured hunger. In the North-western provinces, Oud and the Punjab, which had brought in record harvests in the preceding three years, at least 1.25m died.'

A 'memorable quote' from the 1997 film Mrs. Brown was when Queen Victoria tells a Princess at dinner that 'You're not eating enough. One must not let vanity overrule appetite'. If the real Empress of India ever uttered such a statement then it is criminal that she did not apply the same principle more widely. Queen Victoria, as we have seen, was more than happy to let her imperial vanity overrule the appetites of millions.

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At 8:24 am, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

Interesting post. Thank you.

At 11:33 am, Blogger syndicalist81 said...

Technically it was two rebellions in 1837: The Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837 and the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837-8. That means you can expand the list by one :)

At 12:02 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers - were they much to write home about as rebellions go? Which was the most militant?

At 11:28 am, Blogger syndicalist81 said...

Err sorry I took so long to respond - the weren't spectacular in any sense, but they were certainly important, in fact crucial to the development of capitalism in Canada. The Lower Canada (Quebec) rebellion was when Quebec nationalism becomes a material force, and still going strong in 2006. It was really two waves of rebellion and included real battles with many dead. The Upper Canada rebellion was relatively small and crushed very easily.

The rebellions led to British intervention to solve the political and economic problems plaguing British North America. They essentially dismantled the dominance of the commercial/land-owning bourgeoisie and established the key conditions for industrial development by the 1850/60/70s.

A survey of the development of Canadian capitalism, by your's truly, can be found here: http://chat.carleton.ca/~djnesbit/docs/cdncap.htm

At 5:21 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Nice article, cheers Doug. I now know more about where I stand on the question of self-determination for Quebec, which I hadn't given much thought to before.

At 12:39 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a load of rubbish.

At 10:44 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That wasnt good, I cant be othered to read it

At 11:04 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also refer to The Victorians at War, 1815-1914: An Encyclopedia of British Military History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004), by Harold E. Raugh, Jr. An insightful volume.

At 1:40 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

some people are rude...it was a very good article...

At 9:19 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...









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