Monday, 6 April 2009

Climax of an empire

It's a pity that photography was still in its infancy on June 22nd, 1897, when 50,000 troops marched through London, for this picture makes the procession look a rather dull affair. They were marching in two separate columns, converging on St Paul's for a service to celebrate the sixty years of Queen Victoria's reign over the largest empire in the history of the world, covering 11 million square miles with 372 million inhabitants. Actually, it couldn't have been at all a dull affair; it was a superb display of braggadocio:

One half of the procession was led by Captain Ames of the Horse Guards, at six foot eight inches the tallest man in the British Army, and looking stupendous wearing his high plumed helmet, swelled out with breastplate and cuirass, and astride his tall charger. The other half was let by Field-Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar.

Before, behind and among these champions marched a weirdly imperial force of arms. There were cavalrymen from New South Wales—gigantic soldiers, the papers reported, with an average height of five feet ten and a half inches and an average chest of thirty-eight inches. There were Hussars from Canada and Carabiniers from Natal, camel troops from Bikaner and Dyak headhunters from North Borneo, weaing bright red pillbox hats and commanded by Captain W. Raffles Flint.

The seventeen officers of the Indian Imperial Service were all princes, and the Hong Kong Chinese Police wore conical coolie hats. There were Malays, and Sinhalese , and Hausas from the Niger and the Gold Coast, Jamaicans in white gaiters and ornately embroidered jackets, British Guiana police in caps like French gendarmes, Cypriot Zaptiehs whose fezzes struck so jarring a chord that some of the crowd hissed them, supposing them to be Turks, and a jangling squadron of Indian lancers led by a British officer in a white spiked helmet. One of the Maories weighed 28 stone. One of the Dyaks had taken thirteen human heads.

It was a properly Roman sight, a pageant of citizens and barbarians too, summoned from the frontiers to the grey eternal city. The British-bred colonials, said the Golden Issue of the Daily Mail, printed thoughout in gold ink and sometimes breaking into exultant cross-heads, were 'all so smart and straight and strong, every man such a splendid specimen and testimony to the
that there was not an imperialist in the crowd who did not from the sight of them gain a new view of the glory of the British Empire'.
Pax Britannica

Yes indeed, though I daresay there are some today who do not altogether share the Daily Mail's reverence and awe. But who, imperialist or not, would want to miss a show like that?

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