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  • An ABC of Queen Victoria's Empire (Or a Primer of Conquest, Dissent and Disruption) by Antoinette Burton and Contributors
  • Richard Morris
An ABC of Queen Victoria's Empire (Or a Primer of Conquest, Dissent and Disruption) By Antoinette Burton and Contributors. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

This publication draws its initial inspiration from An ABC for Baby Patriots, a nursery book written by Mrs Ernest Ames which aimed to instil in its young readership a sense of the might, majesty and moral rectitude of Britain's sprawling empire at the very end of the nineteenth century. First published in 1899, An ABC for Baby Patriots appeared in a period where levels of interest in the empire among the British general public were arguably at their height. An ABC of Queen Victoria's Empire is aimed at significantly older students of British imperial history than Mrs Ames' target audience, and with entries discussing narcotics, resistance leaders, violent uprisings and sexual diseases this is probably just as well. Moreover, any Baby Patriots stumbling across Professor Burton's book would soon find their confidence in the glory of the British imperial project severely punctured by its contents.

This process begins at the very beginning: having been weaned on the idea that "A is the Army that dies for the Queen. / It's the very best Army that ever was seen," one can only imagine the horror on the face of one of Mrs Ames' infant imperialists upon reading that "A is for the Afghan Wars" and that Britain's military expeditions into this land resulted in some of its celebrated Army's most harrowing and emphatic defeats. With examples—such as Famine, Indenture and Syphilis—drawn from the darkest underbelly of Queen Victoria's empire, Professor Burton (who not only edited the work but also wrote the majority of its entries) provides a sobering antidote to Mrs Ames' rampant jingoism. Whilst An ABC for Baby Patriots may seem a harmless collection of short nursery rhymes and quaint illustrations, many of the sentiments expressed in it still pervade and perpetuate some of the popular myths associated with the British Empire today. Therefore, this provocative rewriting of it, which makes for some uncomfortable reading at times, is an extremely important contribution towards giving today's students a more balanced understanding of the British Empire, warts and all.

As the title suggests, this book concerns itself exclusively with events, personalities and themes that correspond to the Victorian Era. Even though the selection includes Mohandas Gandhi and Winston Churchill, for the letters "G" and "W" respectively, whose periods of greatest achievement and fame lay firmly ahead, the focus is on their exploits and the world they inhabited during this period. This temporal constraint provides a useful methodology as the reader becomes ever more aware that many of the developments described are taking place simultaneously, or at least in a near-simultaneous fashion, across the globe. Of course, Professor Burton and her contributors could instead have produced "An ABC of the British Empire" and drawn their examples from an even wider and more sensational selection. However, not only does An ABC of Queen Victoria's Empire work because this monarch was on the throne for the majority of the empire's heyday, but the employment of this time frame reinforces the notion that the events depicted represent something of a snapshot. This helps the reader to understand that conquest, dissent and disruption, words that also form part of the book's title, were frequent and often longstanding occurrences within the British Empire at any one time. Therefore, the idea that the Pax Britannica was a period of relatively smooth sailing for both the British and the lands that lay in the shadow of the Union Flag is another myth that is emphatically shot down here. The entries take the reader on a journey from convict ships off Australia to the grasslands of southern Africa, from the ravines of the Afghan passes to the sugar islands of the Caribbean. With each entry comprising only a few pages, this is an extremely engagingly and accessible piece of work and provides a great introduction for school or undergraduate students...


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