Echoes of Empire

Echoes of Empire

Professor Tim Youngs considers how Victorian authors chronicled and questioned Britain’s imperial expansion.
In English literature of the 19th century, Empire is often present. Sometimes it appears in the margins. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), for example, cursorily acknowledges that the estate of the novel’s title derives some of its wealth from slavery. Sir Thomas Bertram has plantation holdings in Antigua and visits there, away from the scene of the novel, to attend to business matters. At the end of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, Mary Barton (1848), the protagonist, her husband and their child are living in Canada. Charles Dickens’s Magwitch in Great Expectations (1861) returns from New South Wales, where he had been deported as a convict. In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Rochester’s insane wife from Jamaica, Bertha Mason, is kept hidden away, locked in the attic for a decade.

Fair copy manuscript of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre

Fair copy manuscript of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre [folio: 237r]

This is the fair autograph copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre manuscript. The novel was published in 1847 under her pen name Currer Bell.

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In other texts, Empire features more prominently. It is apparent in its complexity and ambivalence in the works of Rudyard Kipling. Many of the adventure novels of popular authors G A Henty, H Rider Haggard and R M Ballantyne were set in imperial spaces or promoted imperial values, though it is important to recognise that expressions of jingoism and xenophobia did not go unopposed.


Many of those who travelled in the service of Empire wrote about their journeys. Explorers, missionaries, soldiers, colonial administrators, scientists and others produced accounts of their experiences, whether in the form of letters, diaries, journals, essays or full-length manuscripts. These reflected and could reinforce prejudices against ‘race’, though they could challenge ignorance, too. Their writings should not be seen as entirely separate from the novels or poetry of the time. Explorers and novelists read some of the same books and one another’s works. Exploration and travel narratives employ plots, narrators, protagonists and symbolic episodes, just as autobiographies and novels do. Many British explorers who travelled to Africa, among them Sir Samuel White Baker, Verney Lovett Cameron and Stanley himself, each published at least one novel for children.

Three Sailor Boys: Children's adventure story

Three Sailor Boys: Children's adventure story

An early edition of an adventure novel, Three Sailor Boys, written by the explorer Verney Lovett Cameron. The young protagonists are at one point pursued by cannibals, this was no doubt influenced by Cameron’s travels of Africa.

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Historians disagree about the extent to which the British Empire was formal or informal, driven by government or independent trading and scientific interests, but it is generally accepted that the second half of the 19th century saw a shift from scientific inquiry to more overtly political and material concerns, culminating in the ‘high imperialism’ of the 1870s and 1880s. East and Central Africa attracted particular attention from the 1850s: driven by geographical curiosity, especially the search for the sources of the Nile, and by a quest for wealth. John Hanning Speke’s Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (1863) glows with the prospect of opening up for trade the region around Lake Victoria (as he named it after his monarch). The missionary-scientist Dr David Livingstone was explicit about the benefits of spreading the ‘3 Cs’: civilisation, commerce and Christianity. Livingstone’s goals were taken up, if distorted, by the man who famously ‘found’ him in Africa, the Welsh-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley, whose book How I Found Livingstone (1872), helped promote Livingstone’s image. More than any other figure, Stanley was responsible for erecting the myth of the ‘dark continent’, evident in the titles of two of his books: Through the Dark Continent (1878) and In Darkest Africa (1890). Stanley, who was and remains a controversial figure, was also a professional journalist. His expeditions and writings exhibit a brashness and egotism that divided his companions and his readers. His complex personality mirrors many of the contradictions of the age.

Illustration from How I Found Livingstone by Henry M Stanley

Illustration from How I Found Livingstone by Henry M Stanley

This illustration, taken from Henry Stanley’s book How I Found Livingstone (1872), is of the famous meeting between Stanley and Dr. Livingstone. Stanley allegedly greeted Livingstone with the statement, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”, stated in the caption of the image.

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In Darkest Africa by explorer Henry M Stanley

Map taken from Henry Stanley’s In Darkest Africa (1890). A broken red line is drawn around the Congo Free State and marks the boundary of the Free Trade Area. In the late 19th century, the area was privately controlled by Belgium's King Leopold II who brutally exploited the region’s people and resources.

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Questioning empire

The 19th century witnessed the expansion of the British Empire, but this process did not go unquestioned. Doubts about Empire seem to have intensified in the last quarter of a century. Several texts of the 1890s offered warnings about the consequences of Britain’s actions overseas. A passage in H G Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898) compares the Martians’ attack on the human race with the supposed hunting to extinction of Tasmanian Aborigines by European colonists. Dracula’s invasion of England in Bram Stoker’s novel has been labelled by critic Stephen D Arata an instance of ‘reverse colonisation’.[1] Dracula studied England’s language, society and culture to aid his incursion. Published in 1897, the same year as Dracula and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle told of attacks in London by a shape-shifting Egyptian worshipper of Isis seeking revenge on politician and future statesman Paul Lessingham.

The Beetle: A Mystery

First edition of Richard Marsh’s The Beetle: A Mystery (1897).

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Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, which many interpret as a critique of the excesses of imperialism, was published in serial form by Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899 and in book form three years later. It culminates in a vision of the wilderness invading the ‘civilised’ world. Although the Congo is not named in the work, it is identifiable. Critics have put forward various candidates, including Stanley himself, as the model for Kurtz, but the scandal surrounding the conduct of two officers on Stanley’s ill-fated Emin Pasha Relief Expedition (1887-89) forms part of the story’s background. Major Edmund Musgrave Barttelot, whose increasing brutality and apparent mental deterioration aroused hostility among Africans and his fellow officers, was killed, allegedly shot by an African named Sanga. His fellow officer, Irish gentleman James Sligo Jameson, who also failed to survive the expedition, was implicated in what was reported to be the cannibalistic killing of a young slave girl. Whatever the truth of the matter, Jameson’s own account, published by his family after his death, has him unwittingly commissioning the murder by handing over six handkerchiefs as advance payment but thinking it was part of a joke. The dreadful events of this expedition were played out in gruesome detail in British newspapers over several months in the late 1880s, provoking troubled questions about Britain’s role in Africa.

James Jameson's account of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition

Selected pages from James Sligo Jameson’s account of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, published posthumously in 1890. Warning contains distressing scenes.

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Heart of Darkness reads as a journey into moral and psychological disintegration as its protagonist ‘goes native’ but its setting perpetuates the idea of darkest Africa. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe branded Conrad racist, arguing that the tale’s symbolism denied black African humanity and culture. Achebe’s criticism notwithstanding, much European writing on the Congo uses Heart of Darkness as a reference point.

Illustration of Victorian explorer Henry Morton Stanley

Illustration of Victorian explorer Henry Morton Stanley

This image appeared in Funny Folks magazine in December 1899. The image is of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition (1886 -1889); the figure at the front is Henry Stanley and the figure at the back is Emin Pasha. 

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These late 19th-century works of fiction reflect feelings of instability and apprehension. Their use of multiple narrators strengthens the sense of fragmentation and uncertainty. The threat to order and reason is apparent in their movement away from realism. Dracula and The Beetle turn to the supernatural and revive the Gothic. (Patrick Brantlinger labels their type of writing ‘imperial Gothic’.) Wells employs science fiction, or, to use his own term scientific romance. Heart of Darkness employs images and impressions that are often indefinable, as if unmaking the detailed world of the explorers and empire. All of these texts draw on ideas of travel and exploration and take them in new directions. Their metaphors have proved powerful and enduring but are rooted in their imperial contexts.


[1] Arata, Stephen D. ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization’. Victorian Studies, 33.4 (Summer 1990), 621-45.

Further reading

Achebe, Chinua. ‘An Image of Africa: racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.’ In Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965-1987. Oxford: Heinemann International, 1988, pp.1-13.

Arata, Stephen D. ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization’. Victorian Studies 33, 4 (Summer 1990), 621-45.

Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993.

Youngs, Tim. Travellers in Africa: British Travelogues, 1850-1900. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

  • Tim Youngs
  • Tim Youngs is Professor of English at Nottingham Trent University. He is the author or editor of several books on travel writing. His most recent publications are The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Beastly Journeys: Travel and Transformation at the fin de siècle (Liverpool University Press, 2013).

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