Empress: Queen Victoria and India

 

Miles Taylor’s mammoth study of the relationship between Queen Victoria and India is a pleasing, authoritative, engaging, scholarly piece of writing that should be read by all those with an interest in ways that a queen, as distinct from the government she heads, builds and maintains the governance and respect of a colonial people. The title is critical in understanding that we are discussing a personal engagement. It is the ways in which the Queen engages with India that is important.

The book is structured around three themes, each interwoven through the chronological narrative. The first is described as the agency of the queen. We tend to see her in the same light in which we view her successors. It is more accurate to think of her as representing the extension of the eighteenth century absolute monarch – the Franz Josephs of Austria, the Romanovs of Russia, and Napoleon the Third in France rather than as a constitutional monarch. She was a dynastic imperial ruler. As Franklin states, she has been silenced too long. The second theme investigates the uses to which the Government of India put the name and fame of the queen, while the third theme is the diffusion of representations of Queen Victoria in Indian political culture.

Franklin begins with a provocation that we grow used to as the book progresses. ‘There has never been a full study of the British monarchy and India’ he tells us. We know that Queen Victoria personified British rule in India for almost half a century, formally from 1858, when the Crown took over from the East India Company and by statute from 1876 when she assumed the title of Empress of India. At the outset of the Indian rebellion of 1857 comes a time when we learn about the changing place of India in Victoria’s own statecraft. The queen was perceived as a final court of appeal. The Awadhi court episode emphasizes how “Victoria was a Christian queen within a European culture infused with a heightened sense of religious difference and superiority…she was not neutral when it came to the Christian religion” (65). What historians have overlooked completely is “the extent to which the queen’s proclamation loomed large in both the projection of British power in India after 1858, and the ways in which it was debated and contested. To re-establish control after the rebellion, the queen’s status, and the queen’s image, were played out by the Government of India in an unprecedented fashion…the guarantees of equality given in the queen’s proclamation created a discursive space within which Indian claims for inclusion within the imperial polity might be made” (88).

A great-grandson Louis Mountbatten was there in 1947 as the last British viceroy when the curtain came down on the Raj. When we try to name studies about the monarchy-Indian relationship, we quickly find that Franklin is right. The books that are of any value assess the Crown and India, and not the Queen. It is the Crown and not its wearer that has received attention.

Now this is distinctly odd. At her death Queen Victoria was the focus of millions of eyes. “On her death in 1901 Queen Victoria’s imprint on India was everywhere, indelible and undeniable. Some of this was princely patronage, but there were plenty of examples of less grandiose projects, supported by a wide range of Indians” (3). During her reign she was cast in stone and cement and her likeness was everywhere. She was also a literary phenomenon. “By 1901, around 200 biographies, verse collections and eulogies had been published since 1858 about Queen Victoria and the rest of her family. Her own diary – Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands – was translated into several Indian languages. Queen Victoria’s reign coincided with the flourishing of vernacular print culture across India, as printing press technology, improved communications and greater literacy expanded the reading public. She was eulogized in poetry and song particularly in Bengali. She featured in ghazals of Urdu poets. Many of these writers are revered today as being part of a literary renaissance in colonial India that paved the way for political nationalism in the late 19th and 20th centuries. During Victoria’s reign there was less of a contradiction between nationalist poetics and loyalism than might be supposed” (3 – 4).

In this regard, Taylor makes an interesting observation. “Such a culture of loyalism is easier to measure than to interpret” (5). In no sense were the Indians dragooned into feting their queen. Yet they did, and Taylor has some refreshing ideas as to why that must be so.

Another provocative piece of historical fact keeps the reader’s interest high. He tells us that Queen Victoria never visited India. She received any number of Indians at Court, but for much of her reign India was lived in her imagination, stimulated by sources at home and on the subcontinent. The Indian rebellion of 1857 – 58 moved her into becoming more sympathetic to India and its people, more tolerant and less instinctively racist. She was made known in India by her administrators, visits by her family, and missionaries. She insisted on seeing all dispatches to India, she insisted on her rights to be consulted on Cabinet appointments. It was she who came to be seen as a solution to the problem of authority in the aftermath of the Indian revolt (77). So while she was a force to be reckoned with at home, mostly, however, the queen existed in the Indian imaginary in all its literary, religious, political and cultural forms. Indian people took hold of Victoria and made her their own. For example, Queen Victoria’s image, tailored for Indian use, featured on coins and postage stamps throughout the subcontinent after 1860. By the end of her life she was as much Indian maharani as British majesty.

Again, “for ninety years India was the most extensive monarchical empire ever known, less populous than the India of today, but greater in its girth. At the apex of the Raj for much of this time presided a diminutive white woman, ensconced in a retro-Gothic castle some 4 000 miles away” (11).

Why then was there never a comprehensive study of the relationship between the Queen and India? Taylor suggests that

Proud of their republican present, contemporary India and Pakistan remain sensitive about reminders of the colonial past. Many imperial relics have been removed from prominent public display e.g. in Udaipur a statue of Gandhi has replaced one of Queen Victoria; in Mumbai the main railway station is no longer the Victoria Terminus (1887) but is now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (1996). In modern India the past is a foreign country, and its name is Imperial Britain. Its emblems are no longer welcome; they speak of conquest, not of consent (2 – 3).

While this is undoubtedly true it seems to me to be insufficient. When her Consort Albert died, the Queen removed herself from public view for almost a decade, yet, as Taylor points out, she was more visible in India than ever (85). Working quietly but with decisiveness she continued to pull her Ministers into line when they sought to rule without her involvement, she remained invisible at home but was on full display on the Indian sub-continent.

Miles Taylor’s Empress is a first step in addressing the need for detailed studies of the British monarchy’s interactions with India during the time of Victoria. If such studies investigate their areas of interest to the level that Taylor has with this current study there will be some fine reading ahead.

 

Empress: Queen Victoria and India

(2018)

By Miles Taylor

Yale UP

ISBN: 978-0-300-11809-4

$59.99; 408pp

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