allegory of Africa

Allegory of Africa on the façade of the Colonial Office, Whitehall, London, by Henry Hugh Armstead. [Click on thumbnail for additional information and for a larger image.]

Disraeli is commonly viewed as the great pro-active imperialist who hoped to unite the classes under the banner of Empire. Indeed, such an attitude might be seen as justified in the light of his glorious rhetoric, exemplified in the Manchester and Crystal Palace speeches of 1872. However, such an overly simplistic approach ignores the facts; the Imperial territories did not extend nearly as greatly between 1874-80 as they did under Gladstone, the supposed proponent of "the rights of the savage." Rather, Disraeli took a consolidatory approach, often opportunistic, but always with the definite objective of preserving the Empire according to his principles of "Tory Democracy."

Indeed, Disraeli's purchase of £4 million worth of Suez Canal shares in 1875 may have appeared an opportunistic reaction to the economic troubles of the Khedive, but it certainly made sense. It prevented France from taking total control of a vital trade route, whilst tolls were reduced, making shipping from or to India and the Far East far cheaper. Gladstone, who had claimed that it paved the way to the occupation of Egypt, was later proved correct. Whether or not Disraeli was aware of such a possibility is not the issue; it was a consolidatory rather than expansionist move so as to protect British economic and strategic interests.

The same as which can be said of the Second and Third Afghan Wars. Nevertheless, Disraeli undoubtedly made a poor choice of Viceroy in Lord Lytton, since he was an aggressive imperialist. He gave to Lytton instructions to install a British mission in Kabul, and specifically instructed him not to use force to expel the Russians (who were suspected of having designs on India). Lytton ignored him and invaded anyway, sending in 35,000 British troops. In fact, the army sent in by Disraeli to punish the rebels was the only completely successful move, restoring British control in August 1880. Here, the charge of pandering to Russophobia has been levelled at Disraeli, as the supposedly intermittent surges of Russian fear amongst the public were unjustified, especially in view of the fact that said Russian forces did not rush in when the British left. However, the Penjdeh incident of 1885 suggests that the Russians did indeed have interests in the region; and the lack of a Russian invasion of 1881 might be seen as due to Disraeli's action, as they had indeed learnt that the British were unwilling to relinquish their interests in the region. It would appear, therefore, that Disraeli's defence of British interests, specifically in Afghanistan as a buffer state between Russia and India, was justified and that it was his poor choice of Lytton that caused the problems.

allegory of Asia

Allegory of Asia on the façade of the Colonial Office, Whitehall, London, by Henry Hugh Armstead. [Click on thumbnail for additional information and for a larger image.]

Indeed, in South Africa his choice of Bartle Frere was certainly contentious. Once charged with encouraging Boer membership of a federalised South Africa, Frere attempted to wipe out Cetawayos Zulus in the hope of encouraging the Boers. Hence Disraeli's poor choice of official meant that these highly controversial policies had to be followed through, so the Zulus were defeated . This was not evidence, then, of a cavalier disregard for the wishes of other states, or a belief in a divine dispensation to rule, as British troops had to remain in the area so that Disraeli would not appear weak, especially in the face of public outcry at the Prince Imperial's death. However, Disraeli's critics have with hindsight accused him of creating the germ of Boer nationalism for the sake of the impractical idea of the federation; impractical in that there were eight Zulu chieftains pitted against each other, not to mention other interested groups. However, such critics should recognise once again his faults in choice of man on the spot as opposed to faults in the principles of his ideas — after all the federation had already been seen to work in areas like Canada.

A summary of Disraeli's ideas of imperial action can be seen in his decision in 1876 to make Queen Victoria Empress of India. although it is clear that it was opportunistic, in that it gained him and his party favour with the Queen, it simultaneously asserted British control of India by providing a personal link, especially effective as a warning to the Russians that the Empire was there to stay.

Last modified 5 January 2008