The British Empire Library

Empress: Queen Victoria and India

by Miles Taylor

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This is a biography of Queen Victoria like no other. Plenty of other books chronicle Victoria's robust common sense, coupled sometimes with a certain wilfulness, and those qualities are present in this book. But there is also a strong historical dimension in the tale of the Queen's lifelong love affair with India. Most of us know about her munshi, Abdul Karim, who at the end of her life taught her Hindustani. For her courtiers and to many of us now he seems to be just John Brown Mark II and it must be no accident that both have figured in films about her. But this book makes clear that her interest in India goes right back to the earliest years of her reign.

In 1841 her mentor Lord Melbourne was replaced as Prime Minister by the uncharismatic Peel. But Peel's cabinet included some more colourful characters. One was Lord Ellenborough, at that time President of the Board of Control overseeing India in uneasy tandem with the East India Company. In 1842 he became governor general of India. He immediately began writing monthly dispatches direct to Victoria. This was without the approval (or probably the knowledge) of the Company. His purpose in this was to cast Victoria in a special role: He wrote to her in 1843! 'were your Majesty to become the nominal Head of the Empire.... the princes and chiefs would be proud of their position as Feudatories of an Empress'.

This was, of course, at a time when the demise of the Company's hold on India was still to come. It also casts the maharajahs and other princes of India in a romantic glow, like fairly altruistic members of the House of Lords, in rather the same way as taluqdars were thought of by many 19^ century Indian Civil Servants (ICS) as English country squires. This romantic view captured Victoria's imagination. Her love affair with India continued. Most of Ellenborough's successors continued his habit of sending separate Indian dispatches for royal eyes only. This was helped by the fact that both Lady Dalhousie and Lady Canning were former ladies-in-waiting to the Queen. What more natural than that Charlotte Canning would send back detailed accounts together with sketches and photographs of all she saw in India? Victoria was rapidly becoming an expert in Indian affairs. When Charlotte Canning sent her news of the outbreak of the Mutiny, Victoria immediately put her finger on the matter: 'a fear of their religion being tampered with is at the bottom of it'.

The suppression of the Mutiny led to the Proclamation of the abolition of the Company's rule m November 1858, and this opened up another facet of Victoria's interest in India. The Proclamation was read out all over India in English and in the vernacular languages. It had been put together with amazing haste. Some officials only got their copy four days before it was due to be proclaimed. The most important aspect of the Proclamation was the attitude to the inhabitants of India. Victoria disliked early drafts, and insisted that the Proclamation named her, rather than the Government, as exercising British dominion over India. She also asked that Peel include mention of future prosperity and general welfare 'pointing to the privileges which Indians will receive in being placed on an equality with the subjects of the British Crown & the prosperity following in the train of civilisation'.

This last phrase did not appear in the final text. Instead it says the Queen 'holds Ourselves bound to the Natives of Our Indian Territories by the same obligations of Duty which bind Us to all our other Subjects'. Despite these relatively circumspect words, Victoria herself from then on took a much more paternalistic (or rather maternalistic) attitude to India than her ministers, and was consistently more libertarian than her viceroys with the exception of Lord Ripon. She enjoyed the flummery of the Durbars, Lytton's Imperial assemblage of 1877, Disraeli's formal conferring of the title of Empress of India. But she also had a real sense that she had a duty to the people of India which was not always shared by her viceroys or ministers, and it also seems her reading of the Proclamation was shared by many of her Indian subjects.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that she saw farther than most of her viceroys, and her emotional but warm response, though out of tune with her ministers, seems to us today much more constructive. (Professor Taylor takes his story to the end of the Raj where we see the unhappy sequel.) It is against this background that we can place Victoria's learning Hindustani at an advanced age from her munshi. Professor Taylor has produced a fascinating book and anyone interested in India, or Victoria, will find much to enjoy and learn from. He writes well and his book is impeccably structured. One very small criticism: the full text of the 1858 Proclamation should have been included as an Appendix.

British Empire Book
Miles Taylor
First Published
Yale University Press
Review Originally Published
Spring 2019 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe