|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
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