deorated initial 'A'ussia loomed as the consistent major threat to Great Britain’s power, prosperity, and prestige throughout the nineteenth century. It cast such a dark shadow on British foreign policy because the Tsar pushed into two areas of importance to England and its prize colony, India. First, imperial Russia’s desire to push down toward Turkey and the Mediterranean presented a great challenge to England’s involvement with commerce there, its naval domination of that part of the world, and therefore its ability to protect sea routes to South Asia. Second, and perhaps even more important in the eyes (or fears) of a series of British governments, Russia, like Burma before it, wish to grab parts of India for itself and therefore continually threatened to destabilize Afghanistan and bordering sections of India.

The British lion, the Russian bear, and Russia as monkey: Left: Save me from my friends by John Tenniel from the November 1878 Punch. Middle: The Shadow on the Hills! by Charles Keene from the October 1878 issue of Punch. Right: Requesting an Explanation by Gordon Thomson from the October 1878 book. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

India had such special importance to England's commercial and military power that it became the focus most of the mother country’s dealing with other nations. It provided scarce resources and captive markets for British exports. Equally important, as the authors of Africa and the Victorians (1961) explain, “the Indian empire provided a uniquely self-financing army, which allowed Victorian governments to exert power in the Far and Near East without always having to foot the whole bill . . . Between them, the sepoys and Royal Navy guarded the commercial empire throughout the eastern seas and the Pacific” (13).

Three of Thomson’s cartoons in Fun threatening Russia for its interference in Afghanistan: Left: The Situation. The Spirit of India Invoked (May 1878). Middle: Russian Crackers. (November 1878). class="tcartwork">The Situation. The Spirit of India Invoked (November 1878)..

Therefore, Egypt and the sea route from England to India, which provided the only efficient way of moving people and goods between the mother country and colony, remained absolutely crucial. Britain, along with other European countries, sought “to protect and strengthen the Turkish empire as a shield against Russia” (77), and they fought the Crimean war “to halt the Russian advance toward Constantinople and the Straits” (78).

Related material


Claeys, Gregory. Imperial Sceptics: British Critics of Empire, 1850-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Robinson, Ronald, John Gallagher, and Alice Denny. Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialism (1961). Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1968.

Tarling, Nicholas. Nations and States in Souutheast Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Last modified 16 August 2020