The British Empire Library

Princely India and the British: Political Development and the Operation of Empire

by Caroline Keen

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
According to Rudyard Kipling 'God created the Maharajas to offer Mankind a Spectacle' and to observers in the second half of nineteenth century India, his words seemed to ring true. A series of Durbars, each more elaborate than the last, gave the native princes, as they were known, an opportunity to shine, if not to glitter, as they paid homage to Queen Victoria and her heirs. But the author challenges the commonly held view that this period was a 'golden age' for the princes, and instead sets out to demonstrate that it was, in fact, a time which saw significant losses of power and authority by these dazzling figures. There is the caveat that a general rule cannot be applied to every area ruled by hereditary princes. There were estimated to be over 600 such states, covering nearly 600,000 square miles, but with a great diversity in size and population. Hyderabad was the principal state, with a population of over 14 million people, while the smallest, Veja, consisted of only one village. Spread throughout the subcontinent, the princely states obviously differed enormously, not only in climate and resources, but also in customs, beliefs, and history.

The maharana of Mewar, based in his marble palace at Udaipur, for example, traced the descent of his Sesodia family from the sun. Fateh Singh, whose rule lasted nearly fifty years, to 1930, had very ambivalent feelings towards the British government, particularly as he regarded himself not only the ruler of Udaipur, but head of the Rajputs too. Major A.F. Pinhey had the unhappy task of Resident during this period, when the maharana sacked his diwan (prime minister), abolished the State Education Board, and refused to let the proposed railway anywhere near his city. In the end government officials backed down, and the maharana continued his autocratic rule as his ancestors had done before him.

There was much interference with rulers considered more malleable than the Sesodia dynasty. British Residents did not hesitate to involve themselves as marriage brokers, for example in Mysore, Bikaner, Jind and Rampur, to mention only a few. To some extent the British government itself had created problems over finding suitable partners for the princes. English tutors had been introduced into a number of states, particularly where young heirs to the throne were to be educated in the western manner to give them 'some insight into the ideas of morality and social habits'. Exposure to the West inevitably meant in some cases exposure to European women, and government was unable to prevent a few very unsuitable liaisons.

The most interesting chapter is on the education of the princes, not only by English tutors, but in schools sent up specifically for the 'sons of princes' like the Rajkumar College in Kathiawar, described as an 'Eton in India', Mayo College in Rajputana, and others. Initially things did not go well, several of the young noblemen soon deserting the classroom 'for the more comfortable surroundings of the zenana', and others, who stayed the course being accompanied to their lessons 'by bands of armed retainers, strange, wild-looking creatures, who might have come out of the middle ages'. The tussle between the royal women, who wanted to rear the princes in the traditional manner, and the Oxbridge graduates appointed as headmasters, was not really resolved. It led to the princes acting as westernised in public, but remaining Indian in private, much as one would expect.

This study concludes in 1909, so events like the princes' reaction to the first world war, and their appointments to the Council of Princes in 1921 are not really touched on. There is much here of interest, although the author has a tendency to examine specific areas of conflict between the princely states and government without always giving the outcome, so one is left asking 'what did happen in the end?' Nevertheless, it is a wide-ranging book that does successfully demolish the myth of the so-called 'golden age'. It is a pity there is not a bit more fun in it. Some of the princes were fairly outrageous characters, particularly when defying the advice of their long suffering Residents. And although authors have no control over the price of their books, nearly £60 for a book without photographs is pretty outrageous too.

British Empire Book
Caroline Keen
I.B. Tauris
978 1 84885 878 7
Review Originally Published
Spring 2013 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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