Holmes and Watson's Britain

Holmes and Watson's world was vastly different politically to the one we know now - but had parallels

Holmes and Watson lived at the height of the British Empire.

At its most magnificent, just before the turn of the century, arguably, its grandeur and opulence would have been a sight to behold.

London truly was the capital of the industrialised world - but also a den of vice and depravity - the flip side of empire.

Anyone who has ever played the board-game 'Risk' will get a basic but analogous insight into the delicate balance of power which existed at the time.

Behind the facades of mighty empires, the distant sound of drums echoed throughout the century, leading to a symbolic (or ‘cymbalic‘) clash in 1914.

World War I was a cataclysm waiting to happen; the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo was only the leit-motif to the cacophony of the Great War, the perhaps unwitting composers of which were the imperialists of Holmes’ era.

We still live in an age of power blocks which, like the attritive land masses on which their temporary temporal masters act out their orchestrations, continue to grind away, often beneath the humdrum of daily life.

A relative peace has lasted in Europe for well over 50 years. With so many overtures of fraternity being made among the European Community and beyond, how can we best deduce from which direction the next sound of drums - which never truly goes away in human nature - might be heard?






Edited by Martin Hickes

Those of us who can recall the Cold War of NATO and the Warsaw Pact will be familiar with the concepts of huge power blocks aligning themselves discreetly - or not so discreetly - in a bid to gain the upper hand.

Just as the seeds of the Cold War lay in the outcome of WW2, and as the root cause of WW2 lay in the reparations imposed upon Germany after WW1, the phantom menace of WW1 lay in the political jostlings of the 19thC.

Holmes and Watson might have been surprised by the news that two World Wars might despoil the 20th C.

But their England was epitomised by a scramble for power among the major industrial nations after the Franco-Prussian war.

Sometimes referred to as 'empire for empire's sake', the major nations engaged in an unprecedented rubbing of shoulders between 1871-1914.

Writers  have sometimes described elements of this period as the "era of empire for empire's sake," "the great adventure," and "the scramble for Africa."

During this period, European nations conquered 20% of the planet's land.

After the Congress of Vienna (after the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815), the British Navy underpinned a uneasy alliance of free trade across Europe and the world. 

Britain reaped the benefits of being the world's sole modern, industrial power.

As the "workshop of the world," Britain could produce finished goods so efficiently and cheaply that they could usually undersell comparable, locally manufactured goods in foreign markets.

The erosion of British hegemony after the Franco-Prussian War was occasioned by changes in the European and world economies and in the continental balance of power following the breakdown of the Concert of Europe, the balance of power established by the Congress of Vienna.

The establishment of nation-states resolved territorial issues that had kept potential rivals embroiled in internal affairs at the heart of Europe (to Britain's advantage).

Economically, adding to the commercial competition of old rivals like France were now the newly industrializing powers, such as Germany and the United States.

Needing external markets for their manufactured goods, all sought ways to challenging Britain's dominance in world trade – the consequence of its early industrialization and maritime supremacy.

This competition was sharpened by the Long Depression of 1873-1896, a prolonged period of price deflation punctuated by severe business downturns, which added to pressure on governments to promote home industry, leading to the widespread abandonment of free trade among Europe's powers (in Germany from 1879 and in France from 1881).

The resulting limitation of both domestic markets and export opportunities led government and business leaders in Europe, and later the U.S., to see the solution in sheltered overseas markets united to the home country behind imperial tariff barriers: new overseas colonies would provide export markets free of foreign competition, while supplying cheap raw materials.

Britain and the New Imperialism

Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria

Britain's entry into the new imperial age is often dated to 1875, when the government of

Benjamin Disraeli bought the indebted Egyptian ruler Ismail's shareholding in the Suez Canal to secure control of this strategic waterway, since its opening six years earlier as a channel for shipping between Britain and India. Joint Anglo-French financial control over Egypt ended in outright British occupation in 1882.

Fear of Russia's centuries-old southward expansion was a further factor in British policy: in 1878, Britain took control of Cyprus as a base for action against a Russian attack on the Ottoman Empire, and invaded Afghanistan to forestall an increase in Russian influence there. The Great Game in Inner Asia ended with a bloody and wholly unnecessary British expedition against Tibet in 1903-1904.

At the same time, some powerful industrial lobbies and government leaders in Britain, exemplified by Joseph Chamberlain, came to view formal empire as necessary to arrest Britain's relative decline in world markets.

During the 1890s, Britain adopted the new policy wholeheartedly, quickly emerging as the front-runner in the scramble for tropical African territories.

Britain's adoption of the New Imperialism may be seen as a quest for captive markets or fields for investment of surplus capital, or as a primarily strategic or pre-emptive attempt to protect existing trade links and to prevent the absorption of overseas markets into the increasingly closed imperial trading blocs of rival powers.

The failure in the 1900s of Chamberlain's campaign for Imperial tariffs illustrates the strength of free trade feeling even in the face of loss of international market share.

Just as the U.S. emerged as one of the world's leading industrial, military and political powers after the American Civil War, so would Germany following its own unification in 1871.

Both countries undertook ambitious naval expansion in the 1890s. And just as Germany reacted to depression with the adoption of tariff protection in 1879 and colonial expansion in 1884-85, so would the U.S., following the landslide election (1896) of William McKinley, be associated with the high McKinley Tariff of 1890.

United States expansionism had its roots in domestic concerns and economic conditions, as in other newly industrializing nations where government sought to accelerate internal development. Advocates of empires also drew upon a tradition of westward expansion over the course of the previous century.

Economic depression led some U.S. businessmen and politicians from the mid-1880s to come to the same conclusion as their European counterparts — that industry and capital had exceeded the capacity of existing markets and needed new outlets.

U.S. depression included deflation, rural decline, and unemployment, which aggravated the bitter social protests of the "Gilded Age" — the Populist movement, the free-silver crusade, and violent labor disputes such as the Pullman and Homestead strikes.

The Panic of 1893 contributed to the growing mood for expansionism. Influential politicians such as Henry Cabot Lodge, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt advocated a more aggressive foreign policy to pull the United States out of the depression.

In Germany, Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck revised his initial dislike of colonies (which he had seen as burdensome and useless), partly under pressure for colonial expansion to match that of the other European states, but also under the mistaken notion that Germany's entry into the colonial scramble could press Britain into conceding to broader German strategic ambitions.

The New Imperialism gave rise to new social views of colonialism. Rudyard Kipling, for instance, urged the United States to "Take up the White Man's burden" of bringing the European version of civilization to the other peoples of the world, regardless of whether they wanted this form of civilization.

While Social Darwinism became current throughout western Europe and the United States, the paternalistic French-style "civilizing mission" (In French: mission civilisatrice) appealed to many European statesmen.

Observing the rise of trade unionism, socialism, and other protest movements during an era of mass society in both Europe and later North America, elites sought to use imperial jingoism to co-opt the support of part of the industrial working class.

The new mass media promoted jingoism in the Spanish-American War (1898), the Second Boer War (1899-1902), and the Boxer Rebellion in China (1900).

Many of Europe's major elites also found advantages in formal, overseas expansion: large financial and industrial monopolies wanted imperial support to protect their overseas investments against competition and domestic political tensions abroad; bureaucrats wanted and sought government offices; military officers desired promotion; and the traditional but waning landed gentries sought increased profits for their investments, formal titles, and high office.

The notion of rule over tropical lands commanded widespread acceptance among metropolitan populations: even among those who associated imperial colonization with oppression and exploitation.

For example, the 1904 Congress of the Socialist International concluded that the colonial peoples should be taken in hand by future European socialist governments and led by them to eventual independence.

The transition to formal imperialism in India was effectively accomplished with the transfer of administrative functions from the chartered British East India Company to the British government in 1858, following the Indian Mutiny of the previous year.

The new administrative arrangement, crowned with Queen Victoria's proclamation as Empress of India in 1876, replaced the rule of a monopolistic enterprise with that of a trained civil service headed by graduates of Britain's top universities.


David Livingstone's explorations, continued from the 1870s by H.M. Stanley, opened tropical Africa's interior to European penetration.

In 1876, King Léopold II of Belgium organized the International African Association, which, by 1882, obtained over 900,000 square miles (2,300,000 km²) of territory in the Congo basin through treaties with African chiefs.

France and Germany quickly followed, sending political agents and military expeditions to establish their own claims to sovereignty. The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 sought to regulate the competition between the powers by defining "effective occupation" as the criterion for international recognition of territorial claims.

Léopold was allocated the misnamed Congo Free State in 1885, which became his personal possession. There, the atrocities committed by his agents and European concessionary companies eventually led to international scandal, which forced him to turn over the territory to the Belgian government in 1908.

The codification of the imposition of direct rule in terms of "effective occupation" necessitated routine recourse to armed force against indigenous states and peoples. Uprisings against imperial rule were put down ruthlessly, most spectacularly in German South-West Africa and German East Africa in the years 1904-1907.

Britain's 1882 formal occupation of Egypt (itself triggered by concern over the Suez Canal) contributed to a preoccupation over securing control of Nile valley, leading to the conquest of the neighboring Sudan in 1896 -1898, which in turn led to confrontation with a French military expedition at Fashoda (September 1898).

In 1899, Britain set out to complete its takeover of the future South Africa, which it had begun in 1814 with the annexation of the Cape Colony, by invading the Afrikaner republics of the gold-rich Transvaal and the neighboring Orange Free State. The chartered British South Africa Company had already seized the land to the north, renamed Rhodesia after its head, the Cape tycoon Cecil Rhodes.

British gains in southern and East Africa prompted Rhodes and Alfred Milner, Britain's High Commissioner in South Africa, to urge a "Cape to Cairo" empire linking by rail the strategically important Canal to the mineral-rich South, though German occupation of German East Africa prevented such an outcome until the end of World War I.

Paradoxically the United Kingdom, a staunch advocate of free trade, emerged in 1914 with not only the largest overseas empire, thanks to its long-standing presence in India, but also the greatest gains in the conquest of Africa, reflecting its advantageous position at its inception.

Between 1885 and 1914, Britain brought nearly 30% of Africa's population under its control, to 15% for France, 9% for Germany, 7% for Belgium and 1% for Italy: Nigeria alone contributed 15 million subjects to Britain, more than in the whole of French West Africa, or the entire German colonial empire.

The extension of European control over Africa and Asia added a further dimension to the rivalry and mutual suspicion which characterized international diplomacy in the decades preceding World War I.

France's seizure of Tunisia (1881) initiated fifteen years of tension with Italy, which had hoped to take the country and which retaliated by allying with Germany and waging a decade-long tariff war with France. Britain's takeover of Egypt a year later caused a marked cooling of her relations with France.

The most striking conflicts of the era were the Spanish American War of 1898 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, each signaling the advent of a new imperial great power, the United States and Japan, respectively.

British policy in South Africa and German actions in the Far East contributed to the dramatic policy shift, which in the 1900s, aligned hitherto isolationist Britain first with Japan as an ally, and then with France and Russia in the looser Entente. German efforts to break the Entente by challenging French hegemony in Morocco resulted in the Tangier Crisis of 1905 and the Agadir Crisis of 1911, adding to tension in the years preceding World War I.