Monday, June 4, 2012

A Second Diamond Jubilee

Yesterday, Great Britain celebrated only the second Diamond Jubilee in that nation's storied history.  All the regalia and pageantry was for Queen Elizabeth II, of course.  Being the United Kingdom, water vessels were most appropriate for such an occasion, symbolic of the great naval power that England was (and still is to some degree), making their former worldwide empire possible.  This procession carried on down the Thames River.

More than 1,000 small ships and rowers joined The Spirit of Chartwell for the once in a lifetime event.  I am not a fan of the British Monarchy (or any other for that matter) but I am a sucker for uniforms and flags and such, particularly when it is an historic event.  If history "lives" at all it is in and through such wonderful events as this. 

I am reminded of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and the interesting contrast it provides for Elizabeth's celebration.  Yesterday was an intermingling of Royalty with its "subjects" to some extent.  The Royal Barge was followed by a rather motley assortment of commoners, dressed in all sorts of ways, flying all sorts of flags.

In June 1897 Queen Victoria was treated to a somewhat different display.  The Royal Navy offered its Queen an official review of massive war ships off of Portsmouth.  Britain's finest naval vessels were accompanied by ships from fourteen other navies.

Two lines of British battleships and cruisers formed, 49 vessels in the first line alone. Beyond this massive array of sea firepower was a third line of foreign warships.  From Japan, Norway, France, Russia, America, Germany, and Italy, each country sent her best ships so as to appear worthy by comparison with the unmatched British might.

"The British Empire, guarded by this fleet, was the largest in the history of the world.  In 1897, the Empire comprised one-quarter of the land surface of the globe and one quarter of the world's population..."  (Massie, page xx)

"Onshore, all was noise and tumult.  The Southwest Railway Company had promised to dispatch forty-six trains from Waterloo Station to Portsmouth between the hours of six-thirty AM and nine-thirty AM on Saturday morning.  Trains ran every five minutes from Waterloo, arriving in Portsmouth and pouring their human cargo, slung with field-glasses, cameras, and guidebooks, onto the cobblestones of the station square.  From there, rivers of people flowed through the town to the piers and beaches.

"At twelve-twenty PM, the first two royal trains bearing the reviewing party from Windsor Castle arrived..."  (page xxvi)

The Royals boarded a special steamer and made their way out toward the warships at precisely 2 PM.  For two hours the boat toured the lines of ships.  After briefly boarding the British ship, Renown, the party was back in Portsmouth harbor at 5 PM just as it started to rain.  Being Britain, it had to rain - just as it did yesterday for Queen Elizabeth.

At any rate, rain never deters those Brits.  Eventually, it stormed.  Lightning flashed.  The show went on.  Everyone waited for darkness and then all the vessels, probably the most massive display of naval firepower ever assembled up to that day, were illuminated.  The crowd was delighted with the effect of dozens of large ships shining with the relatively novel toy of electricity as the storm subsided.

"For almost three hours, this unique technological and imaginative accomplishment glimmered in the darkness.  From shore and aboard the ships, people stared.  Around ten PM the Prince and Princess of Wales came out again from Portsmouth in the small royal yacht Alberta to cruise through the fleet.  At eleven-thirty...as the yacht departed, bands again played 'God Save The Queen.'  Then, in a final salute to the Queen and her Heir, all the warships in the anchorage fired a royal salute.  The ships were wreathed in curtains of smoke, illuminated by lurid red flashes from the guns.  It was a spectacular climax: the continuous roar of the naval cannonade, tongues of bright flame leaping from multiple broadsides, smoke rolling in red clouds across the myriad of glowing electric lights."  (pp.  xxx-xxxi)

Today such a brash display of power would be too heavy-handed and unseemly.  But, it was all very proper in those more Imperial times.

Empires decline and fall, military might comes and goes, political alliances shift like sand in the wind, but a Royal Jubilee is still a pretty cool thing to behold.  Even if all those old battleships are replaced by a raucous collection of mismatched row boats and private yachts running down the Thames.  The Royals kept a stiff upper lip and, of course, carried on in spite of the rain.

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