Victoria Not Exactly the Prudish Queen of History Books

A photo album celebrating Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee went to auction in October 2014.

By Jim O’Neal

In an era known for great leaps in innovation and industrialization, Mark Twain opined, “She will witness more things invented than any other monarch that ever lived!”

There is no easy way to quantify this observation and no practical value in affirming or refuting its veracity. One only has the luxury of taking a pragmatic assessment of this historical epoch, compounded by the astonishing longevity of her reign as Queen of England (surpassed by Elizabeth II in October 2016).

Christened Alexandrina Victoria, Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was the first British monarch to be photographed, but what we remember is the figure of a monarch in profile: short and heavy. Accident and tragedy put her on the throne soon after her 18th birthday in 1837 and there she stayed for 63 years and seven months until her death following a series of strokes.

Married in February 1840 to first cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Germany), the queen’s power began to erode slowly with an ultimate role reversal. Over the course of their 21-year marriage, Albert became ensconced in the world of governance, while Victoria receded to the domestic realm. Albert was loyal, but he was a diligent misogynist who believed that ruling was a male prerogative.

Queen Victoria was pregnant for a total of 80 months, giving birth to nine children, all attaining adulthood, over a 17-year period. After the ninth child, the royal physicians advised that – at almost 38 years old – this should be the last one. She quickly responded, “Can I have no more fun in bed?” She was a woman who shocked with her candid approach to pregnancy and did nothing to hide her obvious sexual appetite. This is clearly not the prudish queen of history books who lent her name to an entire era known for the repression of emotional and sexual feelings.

A pure iconoclast, she was emotional, demonstrative, sexual and driven. She loved to dance and was fervently opposed to animal cruelty. She gamely survived eight assassination attempts. She was wildly in love with Prince Albert and suffered a bottomless grief at his early death in 1861 – a full 40 years before her own passing. It is commonly believed that after his death, she withdrew from public life, essentially abdicating her responsibilities. Actually, she used the stereotype of her sex to advantage … claiming nervous weakness while ruthlessly micromanaging her political cabinet, often sending them hourly orders.

This apparent dichotomy was fostered, since her historical image was curated by those closest to her. Daughter Beatrice transcribed her mother’s journals. She edited out everything that reflected poorly on her, and then burned the originals in what has been described as “the greatest act of censorship in history.” Yet today, the keepers of the physical details of Victoria’s death prefer they not be published. That the queen lived with a painful prolapsed uterus for decades is a secret that was meticulously concealed.

In a similar manner, her family tried to erase all evidence that she cared deeply for any of the other men in her long life, except for her adored Prince Albert. Victoria’s sanitized, puritanical mythology was a creative act of fiction, intended to illuminate the woman those around her wanted her to be.

Girls just want to have fun.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Maybe the Island of Niue Can Teach the World a Few Things

The first European to sight Niue was Captain James Cook in 1774.

By Jim O’Neal

After recently analyzing foreign travel statistics, I saw that 157 people traveled from the United States to the South Pacific island of Niue in 2015 (latest census data).

This seemed high to me as I recall one of Captain James Cook’s logs had indicated he tried three times to visit Niue in 1774, but eventually gave up. The inhabitants of this small island were painted as “savages” (hence Savage Island) and had a red substance on their teeth that resembled blood. It was later determined that it was from eating hulahula, an innocuous red banana.

Sensing that things had changed in the 240-plus intervening years, I was more than surprised by the following data:

  • In 1889, they petitioned Queen Victoria to “stretch out towards us your mighty hand, that Niue may hide herself in it and be safe.” The ploy eventually must have worked since the Niue Constitution Act vests executive authority in Her Majesty the Queen in the Right of New Zealand. On my numerous trips to New Zealand, Niue had a reputation for a great whale-watching spot (something I regret missing).
  • In 2003, Niue became the first country in the world to offer free wireless internet to all inhabitants.
  • They are reputedly close to becoming the world’s first fully organic nation.
  • As a leader in green energy, they are in transition to 100 percent solar power.
  • In 2008, Niue became the first country in the world to provide laptop computers to all students. I suspect they have upgraded to smartphones and tablets by now.
  • Elections are held every three years. Since they do not allow political parties (everyone is an independent), term limits are not needed. This preserves the institutional memory.

In 2004, Niue was hit by a cyclone that disrupted the Niue Integrated Strategic Plan (NISP). The good news is that they still managed to pay off their national debt and are finally “debt free” – something the U.S. managed to accomplish in the administration of Andrew Jackson.

They have zero population growth so issues like unfunded pensions (e.g. SSA) or long-term healthcare liabilities should not be an issue for the next generation – something our Millennials will eventually find out about. “What?! You spent all our money and left us bankrupt?”

Rumor has it the people of Niue are puzzled by the inability of most modern nations to simply spend less than they make, and by the partisan rancor that causes so much gridlock and divisiveness. As you might recall, even our first president, George Washington, warned about the dangers of political parties.

Go Niue!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

It Was a Rough Road, but After His Presidency, Grant Found His Way

This oil on canvas portrait of Ulysses S. Grant by Freeman Woodcock Thorp (1844-1922) sold for $10,456.25 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

After President Ulysses S. Grant left office in 1877, he went on a world tour that lasted two years. Some of the highlights included dinner with Queen Victoria, and meetings with Pope Leo XIII and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in Europe.

After a trip to India, Grant and family turned to Asia and visited Burma, Siam (Thailand) and Cochinchina (Vietnam). On mainland China, they visited several cities and he ended up brokering an agreement between China and Japan regarding the Ryukyu Islands (sound familiar?).

Eventually, they returned to America and Grant was broke and badly in need of income. He tried several things, including a railroad in Mexico. Nothing was remotely successful and he was desperate.

The biggest disappointment was yet to come and it involved a brokerage house at 2 Wall Street that Ulysses Jr. started with a close and trusted friend. At first there were years with double- and triple-digit returns and Grant was feeling more secure. Then the firm had a cash crunch and Grant borrowed $150,000 from businessman William Vanderbilt. However, it was discovered to be a Ponzi scheme, which left Grant destitute and in debt … unable to repay the loan.

He then agreed to write an article for a magazine on the Battle of Shiloh (where he led Union forces to victory) for $500. Not only was it well received, but Grant truly enjoyed the writing and it lifted his spirits to recall his earlier days. After several more articles, including accounts of Vicksburg and the Battle of the Wilderness, it led to negotiations over a book.

Enter good friend Mark Twain.

Twain convinced Grant that he would give him 75 percent of the royalties in return for the publishing rights. Then Grant discovered he had throat cancer (remember all those cigars?) and it became a race between death and finishing the book. The book won (barely) and the royalties provided the Grant family with enough money to be comfortable after his death. Estimates range from $400,000 and expectations were exceeded.

The combination of ex-President Grant, his memoirs, a surprisingly literary ability and the experience of Mark Twain produced a happy ending to a remarkable period of American history.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Queen Victoria Found Creative, Complicated Ways to Mourn

This Queen Victoria military commission document, signed “Victoria RI” and dated Jan. 20, 1860, references her beloved husband Prince Albert – a year before his death of typhoid fever.

By Jim O’Neal

A good friend of mine died recently and the family is naturally in a state of grief and making plans to include others in the mourning process. This is a custom that has undergone many changes over the centuries and is still evolving.

The “Masters of Mourning” surely must have been the Victorians. Rarely have groups of people become more fascinated by death or found so many creative and complicated ways to acknowledge it.

Society, in general, evolved strict mourning rules that were remarkably comprehensive. Every conceivable relationship had specific guidelines. One example was for an uncle by marriage. He was to be mourned for two months if his wife survived him, but only one month if he was a widower or unmarried.

This continued through the entire canon of relationships and, in a quirk, one needn’t have even met the people being mourned. If a woman’s husband had been married before and widowed, the second wife was expected to engage in “complementary mourning” – a type of proxy mourning on behalf of the deceased, earlier spouse.

Even mourning clothes were dependent upon the degree of one’s bereavement. Widows, already burdened by suffocating pounds of broadcloth, had to add black crepe, a type of crimped silk. Crepe was scratchy, noisy and maddeningly difficult to maintain. Even raindrops left whitish blotches and the crepe ran onto the skin underneath, where it was almost impossible to wash off. The amount of crepe was dictated by the passage of time. Just a glance could tell how long a woman had been widowed by the amount of crepe at each sleeve.

Then after two years, a widow moved into a phase of “half mourning” and the crepe could be gray or pale lavender.

Servants were required to mourn when their employers died and a period of national mourning was decreed when a monarch died.

Queen Victoria may have been the most prominent person to conjure up ingenious ways to mourn. Her beloved Prince Albert died in December 1861. Victoria decreed that the clocks in his bedroom be stopped at precisely the minute he died: 10:50 p.m. Then, in another odd ritual, the service to his room was continued as if he were merely on a trip.

A valet carefully laid out fresh clothing for him each day, in addition to hot water, soap and towels for his daily bath, and then removed at an appropriate time later in the day. Of course, his remains were actually interred in a mausoleum on the castle grounds.

Ironically, when Queen Victoria’s reign ended in 1901, after nearly 64 years, no one could agree on how much mourning was appropriate. It had been too long since the last one and there was no precedent for this length of time.

Since then, Queen Elizabeth II has eclipsed her as the longest-lived British monarch, and on Sept. 9, 2015, she became the longest-reigning monarch ever (as Prince Charles knows so well, as he yearns instead of mourns).

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].