The British empire, and a parody about it August 22, 2010Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, poetry.
Tags: "Recessional", Boer War, Diamond Jubilee, Francis William Reitz, Queen Victoria, Rudyard Kipling
This post is about an empire at its apogee and about how that empire was perceived by certain others, in particular by a South African public figure who also happened to write poetry.
In 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the population of Britain itself was 40 million; the population of the British Empire was 370 million. Territories controlled by the empire included Canada, British Honduras, British Guiana, Egypt, Sudan, Guinea, Sierra Leone, British East Africa, Cape Colony, Natal, Rhodesia, Botswana, Basutoland, Swaziland, Zambia, Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Burma, New Guinea, India, Australia, New Zealand, and others.
On June 22, 1897, a parade was staged in London to celebrate the 60th year of Victoria’s reign. A procession was made to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where a service of thanksgiving was held. Eleven colonial prime ministers and 50,000 troops attended. The troops from the colonies made a colorful spectacle. Officers of the Indian troops, with their turbans, sashes, gold buttons, and sabres, were especially impressive. A London newspaper noted also the Jamaican artillery, “very picturesque in their scarlet jackets with white facings and loose trousers with white gaiters”; the Cypriot Zaptiehs, who wore “dark blue uniforms and red fezes and sashes”; not to mention the Dyak Police of North Borneo, the Sierra Leone Artillery, and the Chinese Native Police.
All around Britain towns and cities held parades and celebrations. The events of the Jubilee continued for more than a week, as British subjects reveled in the sense that their nation had achieved unprecedented power and prestige in the world. The British way of life seemed benign and enlightened; surely British dominion over other nations brought progress and prosperity to those formerly backward lands.
Rudyard Kipling, a major voice of the empire, wrote a poem that at one and the same time celebrated its achievement and expressed a concern that the British nation could lose sight of what he considered to be its core values. It was titled “Recessional.” (I am using *** to indicate stanza breaks.)
God of our fathers, known of old, / Lord of our far-flung battle-line, / Beneath whose awful Hand we hold / Dominion over palm and pine— / Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, / Lest we forget—lest we forget! *** The tumult and the shouting dies; / The Captains and the Kings depart: / Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice, / An humble and a contrite heart. / Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, / Lest we forget—lest we forget! *** Far-called, our navies melt away; / On dune and headland sinks the fire: / Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / Is one with Nineveh and Tyre! / Judge of the Nations, spare us yet, / Lest we forget—lest we forget! *** If, drunk with sight of power, we loose / Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe, / Such boastings as the Gentiles use, / Or lesser breeds without the Law— / Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, / Lest we forget—lest we forget! *** For heathen heart that puts her trust / In reeking tube and iron shard, / All valiant dust that builds on dust, / And guarding, calls not Thee to guard. / For frantic boast and foolish word— / Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!
Two years after the Jubilee, Britain would enter into war with the citizens of two republics in southern Africa—the Boers. Francis William Reitz, formerly president of the Orange Free State and, at the time of the war, state secretary of the Transvaal, penned a parody of Kipling’s work. It was titled “Gods of the Jingo: A ‘progressional’ dedicated to ‘Mudyard Pipling’.”
By way of background, the word “jingoism” had come to possess its meaning of “extreme chauvinism or nationalism, especially marked by a belligerent foreign policy” after a certain English music-hall song became widely popular: “We don’t want to fight, but, by Jingo, if we do, / We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.”
Here is Reitz’s parody. When reading the line with the word “nigger, ” bear in mind the ironic tone of the poem.
Gods of the Jingo—Brass and Gold, / Lords of the world by “right divine” / Beneath whose baneful sway they hold / The motto “All that’s thine is Mine,” / Such Lords as these have made men rotten / They have forgotten—they have forgotten. *** The nigger, as is fitting, dies / The Gladstones and the Pitts depart / But “Bigger Englanders” arise / To teach the world the Raiders’ art / Such Lords as these have made men rotten / They have forgotten—they have forgotten. *** They’ve got the gold, the ships, the men, / And are the masters of tomorrow— / And so mankind shall see again / The days of Sodom and Gomorrah, / These are their Lords, and they are rotten / They have forgotten—they have forgotten. *** / Drunken with lust of power and pelf / They hold nor man nor God in awe / And care for nought but only Self / And cent-per-cent’s their only law / These are their Lords, and they are rotten / They have forgotten—they have forgotten. *** Their braggart hearts have put their trust / In Maxim guns and Metford rifles / They’d crush their foes into the dust / And treat what’s Right as idle trifles. / For boastful brag and foolish “fake” / Th’ “Imperialist” must take the cake! / Amen?
It would take three years, and a staggering cost in men’s lives, before Britain would defeat the two republics in a war it had expected to win in a few months.