Goodbye Britannia - and not even a sunset to sail into

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The Independent Online
The British Empire slipped a little further into history yesterday morning as, with little cere- mony and under grey skies, the royal yacht Britannia left Portsmouth for its final cruise. The climax of its last long voyage will be at the beginning of July when it picks up Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, as the colony is handed over to China.

The end-of-Empire theme permeates 1997: not only is Hong Kong being handed back to China, but it is the 50th anniversary of Indian independence. And next year is the 50th anniversary of the creation of Israel out of the British mandate in Palestine.

The royal yacht itself will be decommissioned by the end of the year. As yet, there are no plans to replace it. If the Royal Family wants another one, they will almost certainly have to buy it themselves. Although the Ministry of Defence insists that it has not finalised its plans, it looks unlikely that the defence budget will subsidise a new one - even one that has a theoretical wartime role as a hospital ship.

In spite of yesterday's historical significance, only a handful of spectators were on the quay right by the yacht before it left, although by the time it headed out of the harbour more had gathered on the old fortifications in Old Portsmouth, outside the naval base. No one, it seemed, had a great deal of sympathy for the crew who were heading for seven months in the sun, first stop Malta, and then on, via the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean to the Far East.

At 10am, Britannia slipped her moorings and headed out to sea, ushered by two tugs, Sheepdog and Setter. Television crews and photographers followed, and two helicopters carrying television crews circled overhead. But for an event so symbolic, there was very little interest. The British Empire was exiting, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Last Monday, a big naval force had left the same harbour for exercise Ocean Wave, which will visit some of the same places as Britannia but is largely separate from her cruise. The aircraft carrier, Illustrious, the destroyer, Gloucester, frigates, Chatham, Beaver, and Richmond and seven Royal Fleet Auxiliaries will be taking part. But only Chatham and one RFA, Sir Percivale, will join Britannia in Hong Kong.

Much of Britannia's tour will be commercial in orientation, including calls in Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Japan and South Korea before it returns to Britain in early August.

The strong commercial emphasis would have been familiar to those who built the empire which is now entering the final stages of dissolution, including the hard-headed Scottish businessmen who built Hong Kong.

In one way, yesterday's scene was strikingly un-Victorian. As Britannia headed out with a Royal Marine band on board, it contrasted with the sleek shape of the moored Victorian battleship, HMS Warrior. Built in 1860, black with a smart band of buff just above the water-line, the Warrior represented the acme of Victorian technological and military supremacy. The first iron-framed, armoured, steam-powered ocean-going battleship, it was the stealth bomber of its day.

Lord Palmerston, seeing it among wooden ships, called this vicious killing machine "a snake among rabbits". That is how the Victorians came to rule much of the world. Comparing it with Britannia at a theme park promotion for UK Limited may give a clue as to how we lost it again.