Transcript - Empire and Commonwealth

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Empire and Commonwealth

Programme Transcript

PRESENTER/WILL GOMPERTZ: We're looking out onto a quintessentially English scene.

JANE ROBERTS: Here at Windsor there are a large number of these wonderful trees which provide hidey holes for children.

PRESENTER: A castle set within rolling parkland, adorned with old gnarled trees. Do you know what sort of tree this is then?

JANE ROBERTS: This is an Ilex otherwise known as a home oak.

PRESENTER: Under which we're sheltering from some driving rain. But that doesn't stop Lady Roberts from filling me in on a bit of local history.

JANE ROBERTS: ... Park was established by Victoria and Albert.

PRESENTER: But all is not quite as it seems. The evergreen Ilex, otherwise known as a home oak is not native to Britain. It was imported here five hundred years ago, evidence of a time when the country's monarchs were encouraging their subjects to go and explore and colonise new and distant lands. Plants, animals, minerals, even human beings were harvested from far and wide in the name of science and trade. The sixteenth century monarchy had an expansion policy. It was going to take the brand global.

Today I'll be looking at six objects from the Royal Collection that represent or reveal how the monarchy has helped build, rule and lose an empire and then bounced back as a head of the globe-spanning commonwealth of nations. Some items are, well, unimpressive at first glance.

It really is like a piece of kindling wood. It narrows to a point at one end. It has absolutely no wood worm.

Some are diplomatic gifts of friendship laden with symbolism.

Caroline de Guitaut: These are the Zulu tribesmen here with their easily identifiable shields and spears.

PRESENTER: But they are all part of the art of monarchy.

Few monarchs were more adept at taking an opportunistic view of the world than Queen Elizabeth the First who began the creation of a global network of strategic outposts nearly four hundred years ago.

JANE ROBERTS: North America is fairly all right although the Arctic area is a bit hazy.


JANE ROBERTS: South America is a very strange shape.

PRESENTER: Isn't it? I'm back with Jane Roberts the Royal Librarian. We're in the library at Windsor Castle.

JANE ROBERTS: And we have the region of the parrots here. This is part of the arctic.

PRESENTER: She's showing me a map of the world but not as we know it. I'm looking at a sixteenth century atlas called the Abraham Ortelius. It was first published in Antwerp in fifteen seventy with fifty three maps and is considered to be the first modern atlas. It's a terrific object. It's a poster size leather bound book with a series of exquisitely drawn maps, albeit not always as accurate as a sat nav.

JANE ROBERTS: This which is called "Prom Terre Australis" which is what we would normally think would become Australia, is below and roughly between Africa and South America.

ANNA WHITELOCK: Elizabeth was looking towards the New World to carve up different areas of the globe that hadn't been discovered before.

PRESENTER: Doctor Anna Whitelock from London University is pointing to Elizabeth's expansionist ambitions which were fired by a sense of competition and avarice. Spain, France and Portugal had all built far-reaching empires. It was about time Britain had one.

ANNA WHITELOCK: It was very much a race for these territories that had yet to be conquered. This atlas is a kind of, well it's a picture of temptation, I mean it's what, I mean monarchs would look at it and be trying to work out where they wanted to go next. They would want to see their colour if you like over those new lands of being lands that they have conquered.

PRESENTER: Queen Elizabeth gave Sir Francis Drake and other merchant adventurers permission to plunder and colonise in her name. It was an aggressive approach which wasn't without risk. Andrew Thompson, history fellow at Queen's College Cambridge says the monarch knew exactly what she was doing.

ANDREW THOMPSON: In a sense it was almost like a joint stock venture that they're given royal approval to go out and look for Spanish treasure ships and that's really what Elizabeth's after. The development of empire in the New World is proceeding apace. The Spanish and the Portuguese have been able to get large amounts of gold and particularly silver from mines in South America and that's really what people like Drake are trying to disrupt, this trade, those treasure ships that are coming back each year to Spain. Now they're doing that for two reasons. One is obviously they want to get hold of the plunder for themselves. They want to enrich Elizabeth. But the other thing is that this treasure is being used to finance Spanish military expeditions in the low countries and for reasons of domestic security Elizabeth is very keen to disrupt those. So in a sense these privateeering expeditions have a dual purpose - expanding trade and empire but also enhancing domestic security as well.

PRESENTER: The high risk strategy worked. The empire was able to expand and the monarchy profited. By the time George the Third came to the throne the empire was run by vast businesses like the East India and Hudson Bay companies. But their success remained dependent upon the royal seal of approval.

ANDREW THOMPSON: The existence of monopolistic trading companies is very important for the expansion of the empire. First of all it's partly to do with the sense that trade in this period is a zero sum game. If you are getting more of it it means that someone else is getting less of it and obviously that's to your advantage, so lots of European powers want to set up these sorts of companies to enhance their trading credentials with extra European territories. And the fact that you want official sanction for these often means that in this country these companies were given royal titles and royal warrants and were very closely connected in terms of their official sanction with authority.

PRESENTER: The Empire was seen by government and monarchy alike as a source of revenue, a market with which to trade. But markets needs stimulating. Constant innovation is required. The monarchy of course was well aware of this and in the shape of George the Third helped to add lustre to the empire's world trade with a spot of industrial espionage.

JANE ROBERTS: In my hand I've got this little book published in Edinburgh in seventeen ninety two.

PRESENTER: I'm back out in the Home Park with Jane Roberts and she's telling me a shaggy sheep story.

JANE ROBERTS: The Bee describes itself as the literary weekly intelligencer, consisting of original pieces and selections from performances of merit, foreign and domestic, a work calculated to disseminate useful knowledge among all ranks of people at a small expense.

PRESENTER: The Bee or the literary intelligencer was a scientific journal documenting the dawn of the industrial revolution. Mass manufacturing was on its way and competition between the elite countries of the world was fierce. The winners would be those that grasped the production opportunities offered by new technologies and had a large international market to whom they could sell their goods and services. George the Third looked enviously across to the booming wool industry of Spain. They had something the British didn't have. It was a k... covered in wool, mutton with mohair, the finest b... of wool in the world - merino sheep. Initially thwarted the King took matters into his own hands and imported via the back door of Portugal and France a couple of Spain's finest examples. The results of his efforts found their way into The Bee.

JANE ROBERTS: And here is a rather surprised looking Spanish ram which heads the issue of The Bee. "Our gracious sovereign himself" in other words George the Third "Who has for some years past propagated the Spanish race of sheep in England has, with the most obliging condescension presented the society" in other words the Wool Society "with a Spanish ram".

PRESENTER: George the Third had asked the revered scientist Sir Joseph Banks to help him establish and run his merino sheep enterprise. Banks had sailed with Cook on his great voyage of discovery and introduced us to eucalyptus, acacia and mimosa. Banks the King said would be his shepherd and rear his flock of prized livestock at Kew and here in the grounds at Windsor.

ZOE LAIDLAW: Joseph Banks and King George the Third procure some merino sheep in about seventeen eighty seven.

PRESENTER: Zoe Laidlaw is a senior lecturer in colonial studies at the University of London.

ZOE LAIDLAW: George the Third was known as Farmer George. But he was extraordinarily interested in agriculture, in agricultural improvement, in science and economics.

JANE ROBERTS: But maybe the most important thing about the merino sheep was not just the attempt to improve the British wool stock but the international fame that the merino sheep had.

PRESENTER: Australia had only been a colony for fifteen years when a serving British army officer John McArthur was ordered back to London because he had shot someone in a duel. But the intellectually curious office returned four years later to make his fortune.

ZOE LAIDLAW: McArthur buys about a dozen merino sheep from George the Third when he has his first sale of stock from the flocks that he'd built up with Joseph Banks. And the next year when John McArthur returns to Australia he takes those sheep with him. Twenty five years later by eighteen thirty there were more than two million sheep. So this is a story about not only the massive expansion of agriculture and of the wool industry in Australia, it's also a story about Australia turning from being a penal colony to by the middle of the nineteenth century a very successful settler colony.

PRESENTER: George the Third's farming exploits were politically and commercially motivated. Britain had lost a large and prestigious chunk of its empire when America claimed independence in seventeen seventy six. The loss was a huge blow to the King who recognised the need to quickly re-establish British imperial power and saw trade as a vital component with which to do it. When it came to the waves Britain might have run the show but it was colonising territories that was going to supply the dough. It would provide a captive international market for Britain to sell its home grown produce. The international role of the British monarchy was on the cusp of change. And we can see that change, albeit subtle at first, in the next object from the Royal Collection. It's a splinter of wood that emerged from the past to help heal an old wound.

KIT MAXWELL: Ah, here we are.

PRESENTER: There it is. I'm back in Osborne House on the Isle of Wight with the Royal Collection Curator Kit Maxwell.

KIT MAXWELL: There it is ...

PRESENTER: I mean just to give a sense of what it actually looks like, it looks like a bit of kindling wood doesn't it?


PRESENTER: It's something you'd get the fire going with.

KIT MAXWELL: Exactly that. It is a shard of wood that was taken from the wooden coffin of George Washington and presented by his great, great nephew to the future Edward the Seventh when he made a tour of Canada and the United States.

PRESENTER: Queen Victoria's eldest son, Albert Edward, provided the blueprint for a modern monarchy on that trip. The royal role was changing. Diplomacy was now the name of the game. Britain needed its monarchy to travel the world pressing the flesh and opening doors and that tradition continues today as can be seen with Prince Harry's recent excursions to South America and the West Indies where he was doing his bit for the Queen's Jubilee and projecting the royal brand.

ZOE LAIDLAW: Prince Albert's visit to the United States in eighteen sixty could be seen as the first royal tour.

PRESENTER: Zoe Laidlaw.

ZOE LAIDLAW: He's also rapturously received in British North America, in what would become Canada. And on that trip to Canada he does the classic things that we would expect of royals touring the Commonwealth today. So he opens a bridge. He lays a foundation stone. So that's the beginning of that tradition that carries on right to today.

PRESENTER: Queen Victoria travelled little but benefited a lot from her son's excursions. He went to India in eighteen seventy five on a four month trip that proved to be a diplomatic triumph. Two years later in eighteen seventy seven Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. She was absolutely thrilled with the moniker and although she'd never actually been to the country dedicated an entire wing of Osborne House to India and its people.

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: Inside the space becomes dedicated to India, celebrating the fact that the Queen is now Empress of India.

PRESENTER: I went there to take a tour of the so called Durbar Corridor with the Royal Collection's Desmond Shawe-Taylor.

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: So we're walking down a lilac-painted corridor, quite broad - it must be seven or eight feet wide - high ceilinged, lined either side with gilt-framed pictures of Indians. And many, many different professions of Indians. On our left hand side there are Indian servants of Queen Victoria and on the right hand side there are people from the sub continent itself.

PRESENTER: Queen Victoria commissioned the Austrian artist Rudolph Swoboda to paint all the portraits. Some are postcard size and mounted nine at a time in a single frame. Others are full length portraits set in an idealised background. Uniting them all is the artist's sensibility to his subjects, all of whom he has painted sympathetically and respectfully.

KAMALESH SHARMA: I think Swoboda felt that these people, these ancient people, had a kind of a dignity ... he was obliged to express that in paint.

PRESENTER: Secretary General of the Commonwealth of Nations, Kamalesh Sharma.

KAMALESH SHARMA: And he succeeded quite well. If these paintings were to be shown to me without a knowledge of their history it would not strike me that these are in any way imperial artefacts or from a colonial period.

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: Well I think deliberately it is trying to express the idea that the wealth of the empire lies in the people, not in that which you can plunder from the ground or from the culture.

KAMALESH SHARMA: I think when she would have seen the portraits she would have seen them as a collection of what she certainly saw as her subjects done in a faithful way and in a way in which preserved their dignity.

PRESENTER: By eighteen fifty seven the fragile relationship between monarch and empire was radically changed when Sea Poise, employed by the East India Company mutinied. No accurate figures exist on the numbers who died that year. Some say it was a hundred thousand, others ten million, but there is no doubt it was a brutal affair. It was the beginning of the end for the East India Company. In eighteen fifty eight the India Act was enforced, leading to the British crown taking direct control of the country. Queen Victoria was now the linchpin of a new strategy for the empire as Andrew Thompson explains.

ANDREW THOMPSON: The idea develops that instead of allowing lots of control to be in the hands of Indian rulers themselves, that you need a much stronger British presence in India. And making Queen Victoria the empress I think was part and parcel of this move towards a greater degree of centralised control but also of having an imperial figurehead. And again it's an example of the way in which the monarchy can adapt. It can use its soft power resources to portray itself in new and different ways and still allow some of the more sort of hard questions about governance and those sorts of things to be done by people behind the scenes but at the same time using the imperial idea as a way of focusing loyalty and attention and using it to project this image of power as well.

PRESENTER: In eighteen eighty five, eight years after Queen Victoria was made Empress of India the first formalised opposition to crown rule was established in the country. The Indian National Congress campaigned vigorously against imperial oppression. It eventually prevailed in nineteen forty seven when Britain was tired and impoverished following the Second World War. Nehru became India's first prime minister.

Archive: At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to light and freedom.

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: ... a little bit more. I think these are ready.

PRESENTER: I'm in Osborne House, Queen Victoria's old holiday home on the Isle of Wight. I'm joined by Desmond Shawe-Taylor, surveyor of the Queen's pictures. We're on our way to see a modest piece of fabric, given to Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip as a wedding present in nineteen forty seven. It's about I suppose two feet square. It's the sort of thing which could be designed to go, it could go over a table, it could go over a back of a sofa, or as it is here could be just laid out as an ornamental piece. Does it have a specific purpose?

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: Not that anybody has ever been able to discover. You can see it's just described in the, in the list of gifts which were put on exhibition in St James's Palace, it's just described as a cloth.

PRESENTER: Well OK, let's call a spade a spade Desmond. It looks a little bit like a doyley doesn't it?

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: It's somewhat like a doyley in its appearance. That's absolutely true.

PRESENTER: It tends to be referred to as a shawl and was given to the royal couple by one of the most famous people of the twentieth century.

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: It's designed as a series of ..

PRESENTER: Those flowers.

DESMOND SHAWE-TAYLOR: .. flowers arranged with lace-like pattern in between them and a central episode in the middle of this square formed with the words "Victory to India".

PRESENTER: The royal couple's wedding took place two months after India had gained independence. The shawl was a gift from Mahatma Ghandi. It was made from khadi, a traditional form of hand spun cotton produced in India. The material became a potent political symbol for Ghandi. To him it was an assertion of Indian self sufficiency. The country would thrive as an independent nation he said if it didn't have to rely on foreign imports such as cotton from Britain.

ZOE LAIDLAW: I think this shawl is a wonderful object.

PRESENTER: Zoe Laidlaw, Senior Lecturer in Colonial Studies at the University of London.

ZOE LAIDLAW: It symbolises so much, not only about nineteen forty seven, not only about the relationship between Britain and Britain's monarchy and India but it also encapsulates a couple of hundred years of colonialism, all in this one simple object.

PRESENTER: Having the words Jai Hind, meaning victory to India, woven into the fabric could be seen as Ghandi making a belligerent, nationalistic proclamation, something of a rebuke. But Kamalesh Sharma, Secretary General of the Commonwealth of Nations thinks not.

KAMALESH SHARMA: Victory to an India which is now being born and there would not be anything I think which would mean to suggest that India had prevailed over Britain or anything like that.

PHILIP MURPHY: I think Ghandi meant it in good faith but a gift which said well our relationship has changed.

PRESENTER: Professor Philip Murphy from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies agrees that the shawl was not an aggressive political statement but does think that woven words were a little pointed.

PHILIP MURPHY: "Jai Hind" has a slightly sinister connotation in a post war sense in that it was the rallying cry of Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian national army which fought alongside the Japanese against the British in the Second World War. And that would not have gone unnoticed in London.

PRESENTER: The newly independent India had all but brought an end to the British Empire. No future monarch would have the title Emperor or Empress of India. After such a long campaign by the Indian Independent Movement you'd have thought they'd be delighted to see the back of the British. But in the time it takes to say "Jai Hind" Nehru had signed up to join a new club headed by a British monarch, the Commonwealth of Nations.

KAMALESH SHARMA: Nehru actually justified his decision in a very simple way. He said if you're entering a new world and if people from different parts of the world entering this new world as free nations can meet and exchange views of how to look at the world from wherever they are and thereby develop a view of the world which they can all share, surely this is to the good of everybody.

PRESENTER: That's India's rationale. But what was the point of the commonwealth for Britain and its monarchy? Philip Murphy from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

PHILIP MURPHY: Its principal value to the British is as a kind of smoke screen to end of empire. So the colonies ..

PRESENTER: What a face saving smoke screen?

PHILIP MURPHY: A face saving smoke screen, so that Britain doesn't lose its colonies, the colonies just move seamlessly into the British Commonwealth.

PRESENTER: But by the nineteen sixties British politicians were starting to wonder if the Commonwealth still served any useful purpose.

PHILIP MURPHY: Their question is answered by a group of very charismatic independence leaders like Nkrumah, like Kauanda, like Nyerere, who say the Commonwealth has a mission to complete the process of decolonisation where it stalled and that's in Southern Africa to free Southern Africa from these white settler regimes. And that gives the Commonwealth a momentum and a purpose which lasts pretty much until South Africa has its elections in nineteen ninety four which the ANC win.

PRESENTER: Queen Victoria presided over an empire and gained a title. Our present Queen presides over the Commonwealth and gives titles out which tells us plenty about the changing role of the monarchy on the world stage. Nowadays it is more give than take, a game of soft diplomacy that's hard work. Building and maintaining the Commonwealth has not been easy. South Africa for example was a constant problem during the apartheid era and only returned to the fold once Nelson Mandela became president in nineteen ninety four. Two years later the Queen invited him on a state visit to Britain. Their president like Ghandi had done nearly fifty years earlier came bearing a handmade gift for the Duke of Edinburgh.

CAROLINE DE GUITAUT: This is a chess set which was presented to the Duke of Edinburgh by President Mandela of South Africa in nineteen ninety six on the occasion of President Mandela's state visit here to the United Kingdom.

PRESENTER: I'm with Caroline de Guitaut, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Royal Collection.

CAROLINE DE GUITAUT: It is very unusual in that the figures of the chess set represent the Zulu and Ndebele tribes of South Africa. And they are these extraordinary, very highly decorated terracotta figures. These are the Zulu tribesmen here with their easily identifiable shields and spears.

PRESENTER: We have here a zebra and I'm thinking that might be the knight.

CAROLINE DE GUITAUT: I think that could be the knight.

PRESENTER: What was President Mandela saying with this? What's the symbolism of this gift?

CAROLINE DE GUITAUT: At that time South Arica having obviously come back into the Commonwealth after a long period of absence and the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh having made their historic return visit, state visit in nineteen ninety five to South Africa and this was the return visit of President Mandela to England. It's celebrating the different cultures of his country.

PRESENTER: I mean these are not insignificant events are they in the story of the empire?

CAROLINE DE GUITAUT: No they're not. And the Queen of course, I think the nineteen ninety five visit was particularly significant. The Queen of course hadn't visited South Africa since nineteen forty seven and this was ..

PRESENTER: Before she was Queen.

CAROLINE DE GUITAUT: Before she was Queen indeed. So this was her visiting as head of state and as head of the Commonwealth and with South Africa just having rejoined two years earlier, the Commonwealth, this was an incredibly significant time.

Archive: This visit holds many personal memories for the Queen. And during the years of South Africa's turmoil her wish to return has never deserted her.

KAMALESH SHARMA: What's beyond doubt is that Her Majesty's presence has given a kind of continuity which has allowed this organisation to mature, to develop the characteristics which it now has and have a sense of togetherness and belonging. And it certainly is very difficult to imagine the Commonwealth developing the same way without that kind of presence. You can't put your finger on it exactly but inside the Commonwealth we all sense it, that this is inseparable from the fact that Her Majesty has been the head of it for sixty years.

PRESENTER: There was a message contained within Nelson Mandela's gift which came from the ancient heart of South Africa. The chess set didn't feature any white characters or allusions to modernity, it was a tribal artefact which celebrated the culture and customs and independence of the country's indigenous people over whom the British monarchy had once ruled. It was a friendly gift that reflects a Commonwealth that appears to be as stable as at any time in its past as does the Queen's position at its head. But it's not a role that future British monarchs can necessarily take for granted as Philip Murphy points out.

PHILIP MURPHY: No thought was given at the time to whether the post should be hereditary. And the notion was that George the Sixth and then Elizabeth the Second in nineteen fifty two were the symbol of the free association of the Commonwealth. The big question is whether Elizabeth the Second's successor as British monarch is a suitable symbol for the Commonwealth as a whole.

PRESENTER: And whose decision is that?

PHILIP MURPHY: There will have to be some very swift consultations between all fifty four Commonwealth members and theoretically any one of those members could exercise a veto.

PRESENTER: What would that mean for Britain and what would that mean for the monarchy?

PHILIP MURPHY: I think it would change the nature of the monarchy. I don't think anyone could safely bet on Charles succeeding the Queen as head of the Commonwealth.

PRESENTER: If that was the case it would be a blow to the monarchy. For centuries it's had a place on the world stage, a big player from a small country. Part of the reason it has survived for so long stems from its instinct to look beyond Britain for international allies and opportunities. Way back in the sixteenth century Elizabeth the First was already taking a world view. She laid the foundation stones for the building of a British empire. Queen Victoria oversaw its completion. Even now when the monarchy is a more benign institution than it once was the Queen has worked tirelessly as head of the Commonwealth to help develop and maintain an impressive globe spanning alliance. Her efforts have given the position of British sovereign additional substance and scope. It stands to reason then that the role would be diminished without. But if there is one thing that has become clear from exploring the six objects in the Royal Collection this week it is that the monarchy has always found a way to extend its sphere of influence. It is after all part of the art of monarchy. Next week I'll be examining one of the most essential tasks incumbent upon a king or a queen to complete and that is to provide an heir and a legacy upon which he or she can rely. Failure to do could put the future of the institution in jeopardy. When it comes to the art of monarchy nothing succeeds like succession. And proving you're right to the throne.

JENNIFER SCOTT/Royal Collection: That paint was added to make the shoulder look higher which seems to tie in so well with this defamation of Richard the Third that was happening particularly during the reign of Henry the Eighth.


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