The “Planting of People and Habitations”
When Shakespeare wrote of Queen Elizabeth as “our gracious Empress”, and when Spenser dedicated his “Faerie Queene” to her under the same title, this was no mere poetic hyperbole; for a Statute of her father had enacted that England should rank as an Empire. “The Imperial crown of this Realm” thenceforth became the official formula. Nevertheless, when Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Richard Grenville, and other “Gentlemen of the West” approached Queen Elizabeth in 1574 with their “Supplication for a new navigation” it was several years before they could win her to understand and countenance their aims. In their appeal for permission to seek “rich and unknown lands” they explained they sought to discover and annex “all or any lands, islands, and countries beyond the Equinoxial, or where the Pole Antarctic hath any elevation above the horizon”: such lands not being already possessed by any other Christian Prince.
The “planting of people and habitations” in “strange and unknown lands” – it was urged – need not offend foreign powers or provoke war, provided no attempts were made to take from other civilised nations anything they “already possess”. Such expeditions should be composed of voluntary adventurers; but under patronage and benediction of the Crown; the leaders having authority from the Queen to require that “obedience, quiet, unity, and order” be maintained.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert had previously pointed out to her that such undertakings would provide work and livelihood for many of her subjects; and also bring “honour and strength to Your Majesty with immortal fame, … besides great enrichment of Your Highness and your country, with increase and maintenance of the Navy”.
Portugal and Spain had led the way in discovery and conquest, and had hoped to divide between them the Nuevo Mundo: but Gilbert, Grenville, Raleigh, and other vigorous Englishmen were of opinion that the world was wide enough to allow of England building a third Empire, without injury to the others, and with growing advantage to the mother country. In this conviction they persisted. Prior to embarking for Newfoundland in 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert reminded the Principal Secretary of State how he had endured “the scorn of the world for conceiving so well of a matter that others held so ridiculous; although now by my means better thought of”.
From St John’s in the “New Found Land” Gilbert wrote to Sir George Peckham: “On the 5th of August I entered here in the right of the Crown of England…Be of good cheer, for I have comforted myself answerable to all my hopes”. For seventeen years he had persevered against discouragements, reverses, and losses which would have daunted any less resolute soul. “Give me leave”, he had written “to live and die in this opinion: that he is not worthy to live at all who for fear or danger of death shunneth his country’s service and his own honour”.
How he perished in an Atlantic storm on his homeward voyage, in the Littell Squirrill (10 tons); how his last words that “Heaven is as near by sea as by land” were long remembered; how Raleigh’s Virginian colonists of 1584 and 1585 were so unhappy that the few survivors in 1586 implored Sir Francis Drake to bring them home; how Virginia did not flourish until governed by Captain Smith; how the far-seeing projects devised while Elizabeth reigned were brought to maturity in times nearer our own, – this is a story which should appeal to all men and women who have the good fortune to be born into “an Empire on which the sun never sets”, a phrase coined for Spain in the sixteenth century and adopted by us in the twentieth.
“The reign of Elizabeth marks the future direction of the energies of the British race…the spirit of enterprise which was to make the Ocean our highway.” No reasonable mind should “refuse to the adventurers and pioneers, whose enterprise has built up the Empire, a generous recognition of their difficulties and a just appreciation of their motives“. A “vague attachment to the whole human race is a poor substitute for the performance of the duties of a citizen”; and “professions of universal benevolence” are of scant practical utility unless combined with the power to appreciate the labours of “our own countrymen”. Thus spoke Joseph Chamberlain at Glasgow University in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee…
Repeated allegations from Berlin that our Empire was built on piracy and robbery are often believed by our own folk at home; for it is astonishing how relatively little teaching is given as to the way our Empire came into being and expanded – not under bureaucratic control and supervision, but through personal effort and initiative, often misunderstood and feebly supported from England; sometimes even rebuked, opposed, and partly undone by the political personages in power.
Whereas the marvellous though short-lived Empire of Alexander the Great, the superb Empire of Rome, the earlier Empires of the ancient Eastern world, all were built on slave labour, the British conception of Imperial Unity and co-operative defence arose on a voluntary basis; and the spontaneous rallying of the Oversea Peoples to the assistance of England in 1914 and again in 1939 speaks for itself. We should not allow the present emergency system of conscription and state control to divert us from the fundamental fact that we owed our Empire to men who combined daring initiative and a spirit of independence with a high sense of duty and devotion, prompting them to exertions some of which retrospectively appear almost superhuman. Let us also never forget that the abolition of slavery was the work of the English-speaking races; and that “suttee” and human sacrifice were terminated by British influence.
As men and women grow to resemble what they admire, Mr Jarvis, by bringing before us our obligations to the dead, may inspire the living to recognise and appreciate the qualities which mark the difference between lasting greatness and meteoric celebrity. It is not wealth or geographical position which decides the rise and fall of races. It is – as already said – a matter of personal character.
We may be grateful, therefore, to Mr Jarvis for his well-merited tribute to those who of their own free choice laid the foundations of our Empire, wherein the moral intention and practical effects have been to carry the principles of justice and compassion, steadfastness and sympathy, mercy and enlightenment, wherever the British flag flies.
Abridgement of Lord Queenborough’s Foreword to HW Jarvis’ Let The Great Story Be Told, 1946, London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co Ltd, pp vii-x