One of our enduring images of Queen Victoria is the woman always dressed in black with a white widow’s cap atop her head. Her jewel are also devoid of colour, not for her coloured stones such as emeralds and rubies but always pearls and diamonds and in some portraits, she is depicted wearing a pearl and diamond bracelet with a miniature portrait of her husband Prince Albert. His untimely death in 1861 sent the Queen into mourning from which she never recovered and for the next forty years until her own death in 1901, she wore black in Albert’s memory.
Her only concessions to colour were the orders and decorations she would wear for state portraits and occasions. These included the sash and star of the Order of the Garter and pinned on her left shoulder were the badges of the Order of Victoria and Albert and the Order of the Crown of India. The latter was established to mark Queen Victoria’s proclamation as Empress of India in 1876 and was one of the three Indian orders of chivalry that cemented the link between the British crown and her Indian subjects, most especially the various princes.
The insignia of the Order of the Crown of India contained the initials “VRI” which stood for “Victoria Regina Imperiatrix” (Victoria Queen Empress) and underlines Queen Victoria’s relationship with and image of India. In this blog, I will be looking at this relationship through two prisms; first with Queen as Empress of India and secondly, her fashioning an image of India based on her dealings with individual Indians and the addition of the Durbar Room at Osborne House.
Queen Victoria as Empress of India
On 27 April 1876, Queen Victoria was proclaimed “Empress of India” after the passage of a bill granting her the title and style of empress was passed in both Houses and received royal assent. In reality, the title was a watered down version of what Victoria originally wanted – “Empress of Great Britain, Ireland and India” which the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli with his customary tact and flattery was able to dissuade the Queen from assuming said title as well as avoid controversy by giving assurances that Britain and Ireland would not be included.
This is not to say however that the move to grant Queen Victoria the title of “Empress of India” was smooth sailing, far from it as from the moment the Queen articulated her desire for the title, most explicitly when she opened Parliament in person the year before, what became known as the Royal Titles Bill was dogged by controversy. The debates over the Royal Titles Bill not only reveals to us Queen Victoria’s view on foreign and imperial matters as well as that of the political establishment but also says a lot about how the British saw themselves and crucially how the British saw India. In many ways, the assumption of the title “Empress of India” by Queen Victoria represented the triumph of the romantic over the liberal view of India which for better or for worse has coloured British policy in India during the days of the Raj.
What were these two views? The first was influenced by late eighteenth and nineteenth century liberalism which viewed that India was corrupt and decadent. Their solution lay in reforming India through education, rule of law and free trade which the Liberals believed would result into a prosperous land freed of its decadent past. To this end, officials such as Lords William Bentinck and Dalhousie presided over policies and reforms that provided infrastructure, an administrative system among other things. The most significant however came with regards to education and stamping out practices that the British found abhorrent such as sati or wife burning. Education along Western lines, a Westernised code of laws and administrative system were among those heavily promoted and enacted with the optimistic view that would result the creation of, in Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s words, “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, morals and intellect.”
This optimism was not to last however as the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 led to the Government of India Act the following year which transferred the functions of governing India from the British East India Company to the Crown. This also led to a shift in view with regards to how best approach Indian affairs. The Liberal view of a corrupt India which could be improved through education and rule of law was set aside in favour of the more romantic view that India was “unchanging” and its traditions should be cherished rather than changed or suppressed. Corollary to this was the belief that Indians were not like the British and it was unfair to treat them as such.
In February 1876, opening Parliament for the first time since the death of Prince Albert, the Queen spoke of “the hearty affection with which he has been received by my Indian subjects of all classes and races assures me that they are happy under my rule, and loyal to my throne.” This was reference to the tour of India being undertaken by her oldest son and heir Albert Edward Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) from 1875 and its success became the impetus for Queen Victoria to request Parliament to add “Empress of India” to her existing titles.
The success of the on-going tour was not the only motivation for Queen Victoria to request for the title of Empress of India. First of all, Victoria in her mind was already empress since the Government of India Act if not even earlier. This view was exploited by politicians such as Lord Ellenborough who as Governor-General in the 1840s was extending her authority in India through the annexation of territories and facilitating relationships with the various Indian princes and the Crown independent of the East India Company. These bonds were cemented with the exchange of gifts, correspondence and crucially the establishment of an honours system with the creation of the Order of the Star of India. The latter was established following the suppression of the mutiny as a way to reward the princes who remained loyal to the British. Its insignia and motto “Heaven’s Light Our Guide” was designed and conceptualised by Prince Albert and this honour could be seen as being in line with the Government of India Act’s provision for the princes becoming central to British policy in India.
Secondly was with regards to Britain’s relationship with Russia which could be described as cool even chilly due to two main issues – the so-called “Eastern Question” regarding the concerns of the European Great Powers with the Ottoman Empire’s continuing political and economic instability. Britain’s view was that the Ottoman Empire was an important buffer state in order to check Russia’s desire to exploit nationalist sentiment in the Balkans and position itself as the champion of the Slavs. The other was with regards to the “Great Game” which came about due to Russia expanding its empire into Central Asia which placed its borders next to India. There was fear on the British side about a possible Russian incursion into India while the Russians were suspicious of British commercial attempts into Afghanistan and Central Asia.
The antipathy towards Russia also spilled over closer to home. In 1874, Queen Victoria’s second son Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh successfully courted and won the hand of Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. The courtship opposed by both sets of parents – Queen Victoria was a passionate Russophobe who was not thrilled with the idea of a Russian daughter-in-law while Tsar Alexander II and his wife were loath to lose their only daughter on who they relied on heavily. Despite misgivings, the marriage went ahead and there arose issues of precedence as the Duchess of Edinburgh would rank third behind the Princess of Wales and the Princess Royal. The Tsar also made matters worse by requesting that his daughter should retain her style of “Imperial Highness” which displeased Queen Victoria. In the end, a compromise was made where the new princess was styled “Her Royal and Imperial Highness the Duchess of Edinburgh.”
The question over precedence and status also played an important factor with the Queen’s desire for the title. In reality Queen Victoria was not as status conscious as her continental counterparts however she was annoyed at continental royals maintaining that her children were socially inferior to the children of a Russian tsar or an Austrian emperor. What aggrieved her further was after German unification in 1871, the new emperor Wilhelm I (father-in-law of her oldest daughter Victoria Princess Royal and Crown Princess of Germany) thought that he ranked higher than Victoria who was a mere queen.
All these also chimed in with the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s vision of empire which would be a source of national pride. It was during his premiership that Indian and Imperial interests became synonymous with national interest and having Queen Victoria assume the title “Empress of India” would not only appeal to the Queen’s vanity but also to put her on equal footing with the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Royal’s Russian and German in-laws respectively. As Disraeli’s biographer Robert Blake observed: “[b]asically the Royal Titles Bill, like the Prince’s visit, was a counter-blast to the threat of Russian invasion or subversion of India, a measure designed to reaffirm and symbolize British power.” (p. 562)
When the Royal Titles Bill was announced on 17 February 1876, it was greeted with derision and met with stiff opposition not helped by the fact that Disraeli had failed to inform the opposition of plans to introduce the bill through Parliament. The debates in Parliament and general public opposition to the imperial title tell us a lot about how the British saw themselves as a people. As the Liberal MP Robert Lowe pointed out, “sentiment clothes the title of emperor with bad associations” and used the Roman empire as an example which he described as “the wretches who have filled the throne of Imperial Rome, who have been often raised to their position by military violence, and who sank below ordinary human nature in debauchery and crime.”
Disraeli’s reply to Lowe’s charge of Roman emperors coming to the throne through violence was to cite the example of the Antonines or the “Five Good Emperors” who reigned from 96-180AD. And while it may be true that Rome flourished under the reigns of these five men and that the succession was peaceful, it did not detract from the fact that a cursory glance at the list of Roman emperors, the great majority obtained the throne through the sword and died by the sword.
Opposition to the title also featured in the press. The Times called the idea of Victoria as Empress of India “tawdry” while cartoonists had a field day lampooning Disraeli’s imperial pretentions. A famous cartoon by John Tenniel (who famously illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) depicted Disraeli dressed as a Jewish peddler brandishing a foreign and gaudy crown in front of the Queen who is shown carrying a much more modest crown. Captioned “New Crowns for Old Ones” it was a play on the story of Aladdin and reflected what Malvina Pollock Kalim called a “widespread concern over corrupting influences that would either degrade her as the successor to a weak and degenerate Mughal ruler or encourage her to turn to an ‘Eastern potentate’.”
The debates also showed how much Disraeli and Queen Victoria betrayed an ignorance of the British public. They did not foresee the popular opposition to the title of Empress with its negative connotations not only to Rome but also its association with autocratic European states such as Russia, Germany and Austria as well as France with its Napoleonic past. The British were proud of their constitutional and democratic (by the standards of the time) institutions and practices which did not sit well with the “autocratic flavour” of an imperial title. As Jan Morris mused, “in those days the word ‘Empire’ still referred in liberal British minds, to the dominions of foreign tyrants, and the idea of a British empress seemed a monstrous negation of principles.” (pp. 37-8) and this was a theme William Gladstone returned to during his famous Midlothian campaign where after dismissing the title as “theatrical bombast and folly” asked his audience in Glasgow:
“But I will now assume that it was right; and if it was right, gentlemen, I call upon you to agree with me in this, that in order to complete the transaction, that assumption of a higher title ought to have been accompanied, in the face of the vast Indian people, by increase in franchise or of privilege, by augmentation of benefit, by redress of grievances and correction of abuse. Is that the course of government, which has since been pursued in India?”
The answer to these questions as Gladstone outlined in the rest of his speech was a resounding “no.” In the end, the title of empress was simply in Ralph Metcalfe’s words “a determination to assert Britain’s equivalence as a major power with her European rivals” as well cement the bonds between the British crown and the Indian people and princes under the person of the British monarch.
Contrary to Queen Victoria’s view that the bill was passed by a large margin, in reality it was only a slim one and on the condition that the new title only applied to India. The Prince of Wales meanwhile only learned of the passage of the Royal Titles Act not through official channels but through the newspapers while still on tour. This was something that the press picked up on as shown in a cartoon by John Gordon Thomson for Fun magazine which depicted a bewildered Prince of Wales upon seeing his mother Queen Victoria riding in state atop an elephant and attended by the assorted paraphernalia of Indian royalty. Outwardly, the Prince received the congratulations and felicitations graciously but behind the scenes, he wrote a stinging letter to Disraeli miffed at not having been informed, stating his opposition to the title and any moves to change his style to that of “Imperial Highness.” The Prime Minister having handled the passage of the bill badly was afraid that the press and public would find out about the Prince’s opposition to his mother’s new title quickly wrote to reassure him that there would be no change to his title and the rest of the royal family.
The Prince of Wales was partly mollified by Disraeli’s reassurance but as his recent biographer Jane Ridley wrote: “Bertie had good reason to feel ill-used by the Queen. Victoria had strenuously opposed his plan to travel to India, but when the trip succeeded, she executed a spectacular U-turn and, without consulting him, stole his glory by upstaging him with this coup de theatre. The Queen, who took a close interest in India, which she saw as her special fief, had no intention of leaving all the kudos to her son.” (p. 181)
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Cartoons taken from the http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/history/victoria/20.html
Durbar Room photos taken by blogger who visited Osborne House on 11 June 2018