She was still a teenager in 1837 when Alexandrina Victoria’s uncle died and she became Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. By this time the royal authority was more ceremonial than governmental, yet this queen became the symbol of an era, an era during which it was said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” This saying was literally true, as the nation had claimed lands in the western hemisphere (Canada, Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean, British Honduras, and British Guiana), in Africa, in south Asia (India and Burma), in east Asia (especially the port of Hong Kong), and in the south Pacific (including Australia and New Zealand). At no time during the twenty-four-hour day was the sun failing to shine on British soil. Its preeminence in worldly politics made the saying figuratively true as well. British power was balanced in Europe by France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Ancient China and the new United States of America also had their place in the grand scheme of things. But for most of the nineteenth century, Britain was the most powerful and important nation on earth, and Queen Victoria was the most power and important person in Britain.
The Industrial Revolution and the European age of exploration had helped to make Britain great. Enlightenment ideas regarding human rights and equality, limited government, and a capitalist economy all contributed to the greatness of Britain as well. Britain shared her greatness with the world, and accomplishments from the rest of the world added to the triumph of civilization in the United Kingdom. Human triumphs increased each year, and it seemed unlikely that human progress would falter or fall anytime soon.
The heyday of modern thought had arrived. Science had triumphed over superstition. Astronomy, chemistry, and biology all contributed to make students wiser than their predecessors, and it seemed that all science needed to do was continue refining its techniques to place the final details on its picture of the world as it truly works. These scientific discoveries were harnessed into technology. Travel was faster and safer than ever before. Electrical power had been tamed and forced to serve humanity. Communication flew from city to city at the speed of light. Photography captured accurate records of images, and ways were also being found to record sound. Travel through the air was within reach, and travel to the moon—and beyond, to the stars—was no longer unthinkable. Education was reaching more and more people. Cheap paper made newspapers and magazines available, and also allowed the mass distribution of new novels and of classical texts. Everything was becoming the work of machines: factory work, agriculture, and even warfare. Humanity was coming ever closer to achieving its full potential… or so it seemed at the time.
This optimism was felt in international politics. The Congress of Vienna resolved Europe’s problems after the Napoleonic wars, ensuring that the powerful governments would no longer battle one another in endless wars. A new liberal notion, called nationalism, was added to the other Enlightenment ideas of human rights and limited governments. Nationalism said that a nation—a group of people with common language, religion, culture, history, values, traditions—could live together in one place under a government of their own people, rather than having to live as part of someone else’s country. Nationalism was breaking apart empires like the Ottoman Empire, while at the same time it united countries such as Germany and Italy, both long fragmented into smaller pieces of property, each with its own government. German unification included brief border wars with Austria, Denmark, and France. Afterward, Otto von Bismarck of Germany pledged faithfulness to the same balance of powers affirmed in Vienna half a century ago. The United States endured a painful and destructive Civil War in the middle of the nineteenth century, but most powerful nations were able to push war to the fringes—to the nationalist revolution in Greece, the border conflict between Russia and the Ottomans in the Crimean region, the British effort to end the resistance of Dutch settlers in South Africa (the Boer War), and similar struggles in India, China, and other places far from the homeland of Enlightenment.
The same optimism prevailed in the United States. Believing that a Manifest Destiny gave them preeminence over North America, Americans defeated the Indian tribes and the Mexican government, soon stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans across the continent. The Civil War ended with the abolition of slavery, and industrialization helped to conquer the economic costs of the war. Education brought science, literature, morality, and patriotism to the growing population. Before the end of the century, America had become a world power, defeating the Spanish Empire, offering freedom to the island of Cuba while adding Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippine Islands to America’s domain.
Optimism was felt in religious spheres as well. Some Christian scholars, building upon the Enlightenment, purged the Bible of superstition and distilled from it ethical guidance for human life. Others held firmly to the historic teachings of the Bible, laboring to bring Christ to people everywhere. Christians countered the oppressive effects of capitalism and industrialism, delivering food and medicine and Gospel comfort to the poor, encouraging business owners and governments to defend the rights of the working class, and rescuing sinners from the evils of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. The same fervor sent Christian explorers into the depths of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the south Pacific lands. The brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ; they also brought medicine, scientific knowledge, and the benefits of civilization while working to counter slavery and other oppression and to gain knowledge of the geography, resources, and populations of previously-unknown portions of the world.
This was the Victorian Age: a time of optimism, accomplishment, and unceasing progress. Science and education would improve life for people everywhere. Heaven on earth was achievable. Queen Victoria’s death early in the twentieth century seemed little more than another ceremonial passing of the torch to the next generation. People did not realize how quickly their optimism could be overturned. J.