Queen Victoria and India (Part 2)

As mentioned in part 1, Queen Victoria viewed India as her special fief, and while she showed little interest in the subcontinent at the beginning of her reign, this began to change from the 1840s onwards. First there was her new husband Prince Albert – in his quest to carve out a role for himself, he found himself drawn to causes which involved Britain’s growing empire, such as the abolitionist movement. Secondly, with the fall of the Whigs from power they were replaced by the Tories whose view of governing India was very different from their rivals. As governor-general in the 1840s, Lord Ellenborough undertook the unprecedented move of communicating directly with the Queen especially with regards to information that was supposedly restricted to the East India Company’s Board of Control and the Cabinet. In addition, independent of the East India Company, Ellenborough also began to establish relationships with local rulers in the Queen’s name and helped facilitate direct diplomacy between Queen Victoria and these local rulers.

Some of this direct diplomacy turned into friendships and a few even went further than that. In 1852, Queen Victoria received the deposed Rajah of Coorg, Chikka Virarajendra and his daughter Gouramma (1841-1864) at Buckingham Palace. The purpose of the visit was to petition the Queen for the return of his wealth which had been seized by the East India Company after his kingdom had been annexed, as well as to have his daughter educated in Britain.

Princess Gouramma was also baptised at Buckingham Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Queen was pleased to act as the girl’s godmother and also gave the little princess her own name and from then on she became known as Victoria Gouramma. Although the princess of Coorg was cared for by a succession of aristocratic guardians, Queen Victoria took an active interest in her education and upbringing. Victoria Gouramma was a regular guest at the various royal residences, played with the royal children and sat for the painter Franz Xavier Winterhalter and the sculptor Baron Carlo Marochetti.


Victoria Gouramma grew up to be an attractive and flirtatious young woman and it was the latter that worried her guardians and the Queen. To their relief, she finally married Colonel John Campbell and they had one daughter named Edith Victoria Gouramma but tragically Princess Victoria Gouramma died at the age of 23. She was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery and the inscription in her gravestone was composed by the Queen herself.

Queen Victoria much like with her own children and grandchildren had hoped for a grander match for Victoria Gouramma and the young man she had in mind for her was Duleep Singh (1838-1893), the Maharajah of Punjab who also lost his kingdom after Punjab was annexed by the East India Company. Like Victoria Gouramma, he also received a Western education and converted to Christianity. He was also a regular guest at the various royal residences and maintained a close friendship with the royal family. After Queen Victoria’s efforts to marry him off to Princess Victoria Gouramma ended in failure, Duleep Singh married Bamba Muller, the illegitimate daughter of a German businessman and his Ethiopian mistress. They had five children and Duleep Singh acquired a country home in Suffolk called Elveden where he lived the life of a British aristocrat.


However his extravagant lifestyle and squabbles with the India Office among others apart from his reconversion to the Sikh faith led to his exile and estrangement from Queen Victoria. Despite all these, the Queen never wavered in her friendship and affection for Duleep Singh and they were reconciled before his death in 1893. Much like with Victoria Gouramma, the Queen acted as godmother and guardian to Duleep Singh’s five children.

Had Queen Victoria succeeded with her matchmaking plans to marry off Victoria Gouramma to Duleep Singh, it was hoped that the prospective union would lead to a new Indian Christian dynasty and would lead to the spread of the Christian faith in India although it is doubtful it would be the case even if Victoria Gouramma and Duleep Singh had married and had children.

When Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1887, the Indian army took a prominent role in the celebrations as soldiers from the various Indian regiments marched alongside their British counterparts, their uniforms providing a dash of colour and exoticism in the streets of London. It was also this year that two Indians joined the Royal Household – Mohammed Bukush and Abdul Karim – whose main function was to attend to the Queen during meals and undertake any other tasks Her Majesty might see fit for them to do. Four others joined the following year and they stood out in their distinct livery even when in Scotland where their Indian uniforms were made out of Balmoral tartan.

One of the Indian staff, Abdul Karim eventually stood out and he went from serving at the table to giving the Queen Hindustani lessons and finally becoming her secretary on Indian matters. To reflect this change of status, he was addressed as munshi or secretary and photographs of him waiting on the royal table were destroyed. The rest of the Household worried that they had another John Brown in their midst but as Shrabani Basu perceptively noted, the Munshi just as Prince Albert, Disraeli and Brown before him was able to tap into the Queen’s romantic side for “[a]s a Queen she lived in a man’s world and could have few women friends….and she had no one to turn to or confide in after Albert’s death…..Karim brought her close to India, the country that she had always longed to visit. A skilled raconteur, he told the Queen about his country, the religions and the culture.” (pp. 241-2)


While Victoria saw the Munshi as a romantic figure and someone she could confide to, others did not see it that way. The government was concerned over any leaks of Indian policy and as one of the Queen’s biographers Christopher Hibbert noted that the Queen due to the Munshi’s influence “was persuaded to see Indian affairs from an exclusively Muslim point of view” and which did not go down well with the government in India especially the provincial governors and civil servants. Sir Frederick Ponsonby, the Queen’s Private Secretary and Sir James Reid, physician in ordinary bore the brunt of having to mediate between the Queen, the government and the rest of the Household with regards to the Munshi. There was a mix of racism and snobbery underpinning the dramas over the Munshi but it would be simplistic to dismiss the general household attitude towards him as solely due to those two factors.

As the Queen piled on him more honours, money and gifts (among them a land and house in India), he became grander in attitude and bearing which also did not go down well with his Indian colleagues and the princes and other native dignitaries who paid visits to Victoria and the rest of the royal family. As another one of the Indian servants, Ahmed Hussain told Sir James Reid, Karim received a lot of favours from the Queen that even an Indian prince or a long standing servant of twenty years would not get. In addition, Karim was also less than honest about his background, claiming that his father was a doctor when in reality he was a lowly apothecary in India. Karim also brought his wife over from India and she lived in purdah, refusing to go out in public unless veiled – a source of much hilarity for some of his Indian colleagues who knew Mrs Karim back in India and knew that she was never in purdah.

Queen Victoria all her life had been free of racial prejudice and social snobbery and her treatment of the Munshi reflected that. But as Lord Salisbury believed, the Queen enjoyed the squabbles between the Munshi and the rest of the household since they were “the only form of excitement she can have.” That’s not necessarily the case but the issues with the Munshi also revealed the Queen’s stubborn side and her refusal to see the negative side of persons she favoured.

Longing to visit India but unable to, Queen Victoria recreated India back in Britain. This extended not only to having Indian servants and having Indian curry served at the royal table but also to commissioning a room where she could feel that India had come to her and live out her view of India.

The room in question was the Durbar Room at Osborne House in the Isle of Wight. The house was acquired by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as a family home in the 1840s in lieu of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton where the couple together with their nine children could live a much more domestic lifestyle. The house was designed in the Italianate style by Prince Albert which reminded the prince of his study trips and holidays in Italy, with the building work supervised by Thomas Cubitt. Underpinning the fact that this was a family home was in Lauren Palmor’s words that “Osborne lacked the requisite amenities for conducting state affairs – there was no throne room, formal dining room or stateroom” and the opportunity to take a break from her round of official duties meant that Queen Victoria always relished her time at Osborne. As she wrote to her then prime minister Sir Robert Peel: “We are more and more delighted with this lovely spot…the combination of sea, trees…the purest air…make it a perfect Paradise.”

All of this would change after Prince Albert’s death in 1861, when Queen Victoria would spend more and more time at Osborne House, and it was then decided to extend the house in order to accommodate rooms for official entertaining. The grandest of these rooms was the Durbar Hall which was designed and executed by the team of Sir Lockwood Kipling (father of the writer Rudyard Kipling) and Bhami Ram Singh. Both men were connected to the Mayo School of Art in Lahore (now in modern day Pakistan) and this was not the first royal commission they had worked on, the first being that of a billiard room for Bagshot Park, the country home of one of Queen Victoria’s sons, Prince Arthur Duke of Connaught. The Bagshot Park commission would lead to the Osborne House assignment which was built between 1890 and 1891 and the finished room with its teak carvings and intricate plaster would be in Jeremy Musson’s words, “not a room for quiet withdrawal and relaxation but rather for state banqueting; it was designed for imperial hospitality, to impress (and even intimidate) at the highest level.”

Just as in a typical building project, the finished product isn’t always to the original design. Princess Louise, one of the queen’s daughters and a professional sculptor herself, voiced her opposition to the gallery above the fireplace, considering it heavy and suggested a peacock design instead. Her suggestion was incorporated into the final design and one that visitors will see when they step into the room. Ram Singh stayed on to oversee the work and due to the high cost of bringing workmen from India, British builders under the firm of Jackson and Sons were engaged to turn Ram Singh’s design into a reality. However there were fixtures that were made in India such as the rug woven in Agra that brought colour into a room that is predominantly white in colour scheme.


The Durbar Room was not only used for official entertaining but also for family events such as Christmas where during the festive season, the room was decorated with Christmas trees which stood on tables together with presents. This space was also used for tableaus and stage performances put on by members of the royal family and the household for Queen Victoria and her guests.



Another main function of the Durbar Room was for the display of gifts given to Queen Victoria by Indian princes and subjects. What surprises the visitor is that they do not correspond to our view of Indian opulence as this was strictly discouraged by the Queen and the government. Following her proclamation as Empress of India in 1876 and subsequent Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897, the Queen preferred addresses of loyalty as she wrote to the Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir that “kind words from a distant friend are the most precious of all gifts.” Her Indian subjects took this maxim seriously, apart from loyal addresses she was also sent books written about her or her husband Prince Albert as well as tomes dedicated to her. Local authors also took to translating Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands in various Indian languages and sending them as gifts.

Loyal addresses were sent in cases that reflected the skill, materials and design special to a particular region or area and the result is a microcosm of the Indian subcontinent all displayed in one room. The corridor leading to the Durbar Room is a preview of the room the visitor is about to enter as it is lined with portraits of the Queen’s Indian subjects, those of her staff painted by the artist Rudolf Swoboda (which included that of Abdul Karim), the architect Bhami Ram Singh and portraits of Indian princes presented to the Queen. Also in this corridor are the portrait of Duleep Singh by Winterhalter and the bust of Victoria Gouramma by Marochetti.


So all in all, what do all these tell us about Queen Victoria? As the writer Theo Aronson mused, India held an enduring fascination for the Queen for its exoticism, mystery, excitement and colour and we can see this with the portraits and the rooms that she commissioned, not to mention the gifts she received and the uniforms worn by her Indian members of staff. As he continued:

“The Indians were a subject people, ‘belonging to me’ as she would say. More so than any of the other colonies, the Queen felt personally associated with India; she regarded herself as being directly responsible for ‘that enormous Empire which is so bright a jewel in her Crown.’” (p. 142)

However this was only one side of the story. As her relationships with Duleep Singh, Victoria Gouramma and Abdul Karim showed, the Queen was not bothered by differences in skin colour, status or religion, she was naturally a curious person and they whetted her appetite to know more about a country so different from the one she reigned over. They brought out her maternal side as well and she was prepared to overlook their caprices in a way that she would not have tolerated in her children and grandchildren.

Proclaiming Queen Victoria “Empress of India” represented a triumph of the view that Indians were different from the British and that having the British monarch as emperor or empress would appeal to the perception that Indians were very conscious of gradations in status. The Imperial title would make these distinctions clear and appeal as a symbol. In addition, it would help foster a closer bond between the monarchy and the Indian princes that would remain in force until 1947.


Further Reading:

Robert Blake. Disraeli (London, 1966)

Robert Blake. Gladstone, Disraeli, and Queen Victoria Centenary Romanes Lecture (Oxford, 1993)

C.P. Belliappa. Victoria Gowramma: The Lost Princess of Coorg (Kolkata, 2010)

Michael Alexander and Sushila Anand. Queen Victoria’s Maharajah, Duleep Singh, 1838–93 (London, 1980)

Thomas Metcalf. Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge, 1994)

C.C. Eldridge. England’s Mission: The Imperial Idea in the Age of Gladstone and Disraeli 1868-1880 (London, 1973)

Jan Morris. Pax Britannica: The Climax of an Empire (London, 1968)

Christopher Hibbert. Queen Victoria: A Personal History (London, 2000)

Shrabani Basu .Victoria and Abdul (London, 2010)

Elizabeth Longford. Victoria R.I. (London, 1964)

Jane Ridley. Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (London, 2011)

Kate Hubbard. Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (London, 2012)

Hannah Pakula. The Last Romantic: A Biography of Queen Marie of Romania(London, 1984)

HRH The Duchess of York and Benita Stoney. Victoria and Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House (London, 1991)

Michaela Reid. Ask Sir James: The Life of Sir James Reid, Personal Physician to Queen Victoria (London, 1987)

Kajal Meghani. Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India, 1875-1876 (London, 2016)

Emily Hannam. Eastern Encounters: Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent (London, 2018)

William Ewart Gladstone. Midlothian Speeches 1879 (Leicester, 1971)

Milinda Banerjee. ‘Ocular Sovereignty, Acclamatory Rulership and Political Communication: Visits of Princes of Wales to Bengal’ in Frank Lorenz Műller and Heidi Mehrkens (eds) Royal Heirs and the Use of Soft Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe (London, 2016), pp. 81-100

Julius Bryant. ‘Kipling’s Royal Commissions: Bagshot Park and Osborne’ in Julius Bryant and Susan Weber (eds) John Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London (London, 2016), pp. 434-467


Lauren Palmor. ‘Queen Victoria’s Durbar Room: The Imperial Museum at Home’, Past Tense: Graduate Review of History, vol. 3 no. 1 (2015), pp. 60-74

L.A. Knight. ‘The Royal Titles Act and India’, The Historical Journal, vol. 11 no. 3 (1968), pp. 488-507

Miles Taylor. ‘Queen Victoria and India, 1837-61’ Victorian Studies, vol. 46, no. 2 (2004), pp. 264-274

David Washbrook. ‘After the Mutiny: From Queen to Queen Empress,’ History Today 47 (1997), pp. 10-15

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


2 thoughts on “Queen Victoria and India (Part 2)

  1. Elveden is not far from where I live, and the local news often features Duleep Singh, and his connections to this region. He is buried in the church there, and has a memorial statue in the nearby Norfolk town of Thetford. Both are places of pilgrimage for Sikhs at certain times
    Best wishes, Pete.

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