The Victorian Age, part two

The Victorian Age was, in some ways, an idyllic time in human history. Science and technology were providing many benefits, including improving nutrition and health. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was finally being preached in all nations. Courtesy and good manners were routine.  Fine arts were available to more people than ever before, from museums and public libraries to pianos in the average home. The average standard of living was improving. Hope was widespread that, in a few more generations, war and poverty and disease would be abolished around the world.

But the Victorian Age had a dark side. Part of that dark side was racism. Many educated Europeans interpreted Darwin’s theory of evolution, survival of the fittest, to mean that some humans are fitter than others and should rule over others. Even as slavery was abolished, a new wave of colonialism put much of the world under European control. Otto von Bismarck hosted a meeting in Berlin in which representatives of European nations divided Africa among themselves, leaving independence only to the Kingdom of Ethiopia and to Liberia—a country created by the United States to contain former slaves. India, Indochina, and Indonesia were similarly claimed by European powers, while native governments in Siam and China were tolerated so long as they did not interfere with European interests. Indeed, before Victoria became queen, the British had already fought a war in China to maintain their right to sell opium to Chinese people. (Imagine Mexico fighting and winning a war with the United States to guarantee the right of Mexican citizens to sell illegal drugs in the USA!)

The British spoke of the “white man’s burden” to provide “civilization” to the darker-skinned people of the world. While the British were willing to grant self-government to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (all populated and controlled by people of European ancestry), they delayed indefinitely the same sort of freedom to India and to other colonies in the British Empire. In 1857, the British interpreted a series of local protests in various parts of India as wide-scale rebellion, and the British used military might to increase their control of southern Asia. In the United States, jobs were provided for freed slaves and for immigrants from Asia and Europe, but every new wave of workers was viewed with suspicion and dread. American cities were divided into neighborhoods of various cultures—Irish, German, Italian, Swedish, Polish, eastern European, Chinese, black, Jewish—and members of each culture stuck to their own kind.

Industrialization created problems of pollution and of an impoverished working class. In theory, capitalism provided relief by promising that the best workers would receive the highest wages and best working conditions, forcing employers to treat their workers well. Government regulations also helped to prevent abuse in the workplace. Among the most important regulations was recognition of labor unions—groups of workers united to negotiate wages and working conditions with their employers. Meanwhile, voting rights were granted to a larger segment of society, giving common workers power to elect government officials who would protect their rights and provide relief to their grievances.

During the Victorian Age, many intellectuals anticipated further changes in society that would eliminate the problems of industrialization. These changes were all called “socialism,” although they were not all the same. Some socialists created small communities where people who worked together also profited together, sharing the benefits of their labor and supporting their neighbors in the community. In some cases, these communities became the property of the business owners, who also ran the company store, the schools, the municipal government, and even the churches. Other socialists envisioned new communities in which families would each have a private apartment for sleeping but would eat together in cafeterias and share public transportation between their dwellings and their workplaces or schools. One group, called the Fabian Society, predicted and encouraged small and gradual changes aimed at a new socialist world. Others, including Karl Marx, predicted and encouraged sudden violent changes in which workers rebelled against business owners and their partners, the government leaders and church workers. The workers would take control of society, have the government run businesses for a while (socialism), and then allow the government to wither and die while people shared the benefits of their work—“from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need.”

Japan began the Victorian Age as a nation closed to the world, carefully limiting the number of people who could enter Japan from other countries or who could leave Japan to visit other countries. This practice ended when an American gunship threatened violence unless Japan would sign a “Treaty of Friendship.” This embarrassment overturned the Japanese government, and the new leaders toured Europe and North America to see what was working in the rest of the world. They brought modern ideas back to Japan—modern schools, modern military training and equipment, modern government with elected officials but also a centralized executive leader, and the best modern economic system (which was capitalism). The government built factories but quickly sold them to Japanese corporations. They improved the status of Japan so quickly that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, Japan was able to overcome China and even Russia in military confrontations.

Japan joined the party late, but the nation still benefited from the good things the Victorian Age offered. In the coming century, Japan would also experience some struggles from the dark side of the Victorian Age, a dark side that would first be felt in Europe. J.