In an article that she wrote in 1989 on India in world’s fairs, Carol A. Breckenridge coined the phrase “Victorian ecumene” to refer to a transnational cultural world that “encompassed Great Britain, the United States, and India (along with other places)” (196).
What she argues is that two processes occurred simultaneously in this world during the second half of the nineteenth century: a transnational global elite who shared common cultural practices emerged, and in the respective nation-states of the members of this global national cultures formed as well.
[Carol A. Breckenridge, “The Aesthetics and Politics of Colonial Collecting: India at World Fairs,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 31.2 (1989): 195-216.]
Another way to look at this would be to say that national cultures in these areas developed together with the emergence of a transnational elite.
In his book, Lords of Things: The Fashioning of the Siamese Monarchy, Marizio Peleggi looks at Siam as part of this Victorian ecumene. He shows how the Siamese elite fully sought to participate in the new global elite world that was centered in Europe, at the same time that they also sought to consolidate their control over their own realm.
So Siam fits well as one of the “other places” that Breckenridge alluded to alongside the UK, US and India as part of the Victorian ecumene.
Recently I came across a document which made me realize that another place that should be added to the Victorian ecumene is the Sultanate of Johor. The document I read was a letter that the American consul-general in Singapore, David P. Wilber, wrote to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Loomis in May of 1905 in which he made reference to a visit to the island by Charles Glidden.
Charles Jasper Glidden was an American who promoted the use of new technologies, such as the telephone and the automobile, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
To promote the automobile (or “motor car”), for instance, Glidden embarked on a world tour in a British-made Napier automobile (together with his wife and a mechanic) starting in 1902 in order to demonstrate to people around the globe the benefits of this new machine.
One of the places that he visited was Singapore, where he met Consul-General Wilber. These two men then made a trip together to visit the Sultan of Johor. They did so by driving to Kranji at the northern end of the island of Singapore, and then by taking the sultan’s steam yacht to his palace.
In his description of their visit to the sultan’s palace, Wilber provides many details which demonstrate the degree to which the sultan was a participating member of the global elite in the Victorian ecumene at that time.
After crossing over to Johor, Glidden and Wilber, accompanied by their wives, were met by the sultan and some of his officials and staff, all in full uniform.
Wilber notes that, “When luncheon was ready His Highness escorted Mrs. Wilber into the Banquet Hall seating her at his right, Mrs. Glidden escorted by the Dato Sri Amar d’Raja Minister of Foreign and Home European Affairs were assigned seats opposite the Sultan and Mrs. Wilber. Mr. Glidden with the wife of Dr. Wilson the Medical officer a Scotch lady and myself with the wife of the Minister of Education, an English lady, other Government officials and officers made up the party.”
This lunch was served on “Ellenborough gold plate.” What was that? An earlier visitor to Johor, Florence Caddy, explains in her 1889 book, To Siam and Malaya in the Duke of Sutherland’s yacht ‘Sans peur’, that this was a dinner-set that had been made for Lord Ellenborough when he was Governor-General of India, but had never actually been sent out to India. It was subsequently purchased by the Sultan of Johor.
Wilber continues by noting that, “After luncheon the Sultan requested the entire party to pose for a picture on the front steps of the Palace where he took our pictures operating the camera himself. We then requested he should join the group, he readily consented, a member of the party taking the second picture.”
“Carriages were waiting, the ladies given a drive, after which, tea was served on the front veranda.”
“About five o’clock we took our leave after expressing to the Sultan our sincere thanks and appreciation for the extremely kindly and hospitable manner in which he had treated us.”
“We again boarded the yacht and sailed across to Kranji when we took the motor car arriving home at the Raffles Hotel about six-thirty o’clock.”
“Home at the Raffles”. . . Indeed, that was a fitting place to feel “at home” in the Victorian ecumene, but it looks like the Sultan of Johor’s palace was a place where an American like Wilber could feel equally at home, at the same time that he could likely get a taste of the “exotic.”
It is interesting that there is no mention of any Malay women at the lunch. Gender was one of the areas in which we can see how these simultaneous processes of the development of a global elite and national cultures took place.
The Sultan of Johor participated in a global world as both someone who was familiar and exotic to other members of that global world. These distinctions could work both for and against him, depending on the context and the people he was interacting with.
It is this complex world of the universal and the unequal that Breckenridge draws our attention to through the concept of the Victorian ecumene.
[The image of the Sultan and of scenes from Johor can be found in the book Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, while the one of King Chulalongkorn is from the book, Twentieth Century Impressions of Siam.]