- Dilke, Sir Charles
- (1843–1911)A fervent Liberal imperialist, Charles Dilke was born into the bosom of the British Liberal establishment. His father was given a baronetcy for his work with Prince Albert on the Great Exhibition of 1851, which Dilke inherited in 1869. As a boy he was introduced to most of the great figures of the age, from Victoria herself to the Duke of Wellington and Lord Palmerston. Dilke was educated at Cambridge, and after graduation he embarked on a then unusual grand tour around the world. The result was a two-volume memoir, Greater Britain: A Record of Travel in English- Speaking Countries during 1866 and 1867. The work was an instant success, going through many editions, and propelling Dilke into Parliament.Greater Britain tells the tale of an observant but highly opinionated young man traveling westward across the United States, with a brief excursion to Canada, then across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia, and thence to India, returning to England by the Suez Canal. Although often remembered today as a celebration of imperialism, Dilke’s vision was that of a free-trading radical, and his volumes were not uncritical of the British Empire. In India, for instance, he labeled the Anglo- Indian government “a mere imperialism, where one man rules and the rest are slaves,” and saw with some prescience that “by means of centralization and railroads, we have created an India which we cannot fight.”For Dilke, the term Greater Britain meant the countries that had been influenced by British emigration and culture or by British rule. It was the United States in which he was most interested, and which was for him Britain’s exemplary colony. For Dilke, as for many Victorians, the term colony had classical associations and did not necessarily imply political subordination. In his preface, Dilke wrote, “In America, the peoples of the world are being fused together, but they are run into an English mould . . . through America, England is speaking to the world . . . If two small islands are by courtesy styled ‘Great,’ America, Australia, India must form a ‘Greater Britain.’”It was a combination of ethnic and cultural pride in his country that was rather more self-confident, and less inclined to focus purely on political ties, than the avowed imperialism of later decades. Nevertheless, the primary impact of Dilke’s volumes, aside from giving an initial boost to his own political career, was to raise the profile of Britain’s overseas possessions in the minds of the book-buying public, and to suggest that colonies might be a source not merely of expense and danger, but also of pride and strength to Britain. In that way, he played some role in preparing the ground for the more aggressive imperialism of subsequent decades.Dilke began his political career as a radical, going so far to the left as to dally with republicanism in the early 1870s. He served as the representative of William Gladstone ’s 1880–1885 government during the unsuccessful attempt to renew the Cobden-Chevalier Free Trade treaty of 1860, and represented the Admiralty in the House of Commons during the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. He was seen as a man of great ability and a potential future Prime Minister, but his political career was destroyed by a divorce scandal in 1886. He became in his later years a respected and cautiously imperialist commentator on imperial and military affairs, publishing Problems of Greater Britain in 1890, and in 1899, a volume of essays entitled The British Empire.See also <
>; < >.FURTHER READING:Jenkins, Roy. Sir Charles Dilke, A Victorian Tragedy. London: Collins, 1958;Matthew, H.C.G. The Liberal Imperialists. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.MARK PROUDMAN
Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.