They cooked up Indian curries, played Indian sports, draped themselves in Indian textiles and even voted for Indian politicians. The Victorian era saw Britons falling in love with the culture of the subcontinent, and it seems that the people took their prompt from the very top. Queen Victoria herself declared a great interest in the empire’s largest possession and greatest trading partner, so helping to popularise Indian delicacies, fashion, jewellery and architecture.
The genesis of this passion for India can be traced back to the 16th century, when British merchant adventurers began to import spices, dyes and, most importantly, textiles from India via newly discovered sea routes. From 1600, the East India Company controlled this trade, and from the 1750s the commercial interests of the company were consolidated into outright political and territorial domination. After a massive rebellion against foreign rule in 1857, the British government decided to place India under the direct control of the crown the following year. Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877.
Victoria’s interest in India sprang, at least in part, from her Indian assistant Abdul Karim, who came to Britain in 1887 to serve the queen. He rose within Victoria’s affections, as well as in status to the title of ‘Munshi’ (teacher or clerk), teaching the queen Hindi and Urdu and advising on all matters concerning India.
Karim was one of a steady stream of Indian migrants coming to Britain during the 19th century (estimates suggest more than 110,000), including domestics, maritime workers, petitioners, performers, royalty, social reformers, students and travellers. Concentrated in Britain’s port cities, especially London, Indians were visible in Britain’s streets, docks, buses, trains, Inns of Court, medical schools, universities, exhibitions and parliament.
Britons were most attracted to those aspects of Indian culture that they could readily consume, such as food and textiles. But this relationship wasn’t always mutually beneficial. While consumers profited from innovations in textile production in Britain, British machine-made textiles destroyed the Indian textile industry that had inspired them, and impoverished Indian weavers.
For good and bad, Indian influences were discernible in all aspects of Victorian society, from novels such as the The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins to politics, sports, popular culture, fashion and diet. Turn the page to find out more…
Indians storm the barricades of parliament… and they ask difficult questions about Britain’s attitude to their homeland
The Victorian era saw the election of two Indians to the House of Commons. Dadabhai Naoroji became Liberal MP for Finsbury Central in 1892, while Mancherjee Bhownagree was elected Conservative MP for Bethnal Green in 1895.
Naoroji was elected by justa few votes, earning him the nickname ‘Dadabhai narrow-majority’. Despite this, he was to become a household name – thanks, in part, to the
Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury’s public declaration of doubt that Britons would elect “a black man”.
Naoroji was a fierce critic of the Raj, arguing that British rule was draining India of up to £300m in the form of lost revenues, interest on loans and excess of exports over imports. By contrast Bhownagree, known in India as ‘Bow-and-Agree’, was a supporter of British colonialism in India.
The two men may not have shared the same views on Britain’s relationship with their homeland but their rise to power ensured that India was discussed and debated at the symbolic heart of Victorian political life: parliament.
Abdul Karim, aka ‘The Munshi’, Indian confidant to Queen Victoria, painted by Rudolf Swoboda in 1888. (Alamy)
Fashion and home: a craze for the east
Victorians loved ‘Indian’ designs, which were produced all over Britain
Victorian fashion was heavily influenced by India – thanks to the use of Indian fabrics, including cotton and silk, in the making of British clothes. Britons also adopted and imitated Indian patterns, style, motifs and even garments – such as pyjamas and the Kashmir shawl.
British women had worn the Kashmir shawl – to provide a little extra warmth over short-sleeved, lightweight dresses – since the mid-18th century. Soon it had become a symbol of status, respectability and fashion, but one that was well out of the reach of all but the wealthiest women.
However, in the mid-19th century everything changed. By then, the demand for the shawl had reached such a crescendo that mills in Norwich, Edinburgh and Paisley, near Glasgow, began producing imitations. Suddenly women of limited means could acquire shawls that, to the untrained eye, appeared to be made in India.
Several emporiums opened in London to cater to the demand for both British and Indian-made shawls, among them the Liberty department store. Opening on Regent Street in 1875, it had soon expanded its range of Indian goods to stock not just shawls, cloaks, scarves and jewellery to adorn the body, but Indian fabric, furniture, carpets, rugs, incense burners and brasses to decorate the home.
Food and drink
Curry finds favour… plus, it’s thanks to cheaper Indian tea that the Great British tea break is invented
It was during the Victorian period that Britons fell in love with curry, a culinary concoction that is today Britain’s favourite dish. Though it was initially the preserve of the elite, by the 1860s spicy food had percolated down into the middle and working-class diet. During that same period, curry powder, pastes, chutneys and pickles became available on a mass scale, manufactured by companies such as Crosse and Blackwell. Curry was also perceived to be nutritious and economical – particularly when used with leftover meats.
Curry wasn’t the only Indian delicacy to delight the British palate. By 1900, Indian and Sri Lankan tea accounted for 90 per cent of Britain’s tea imports, a fact reflected in a marketing campaign for Lipton tea, which featured an Indian female plantation worker and sandwich-board men dressed as Indians.
Like other colonial goods from India, tea was no longer restricted to an affluent minority. In fact, it became a staple of Victorian Britain, playing a central role in the rituals of daily life. It helped to structure the working day in the form of the tea break, and, among working-class families, it was even employed as a term to describe the meal at the end of the day. New forms of sociability developed around the beverage, which was drunk in a wide range of locations, including family gatherings, political meetings and, of course, tea shops.
Reinventing cricket… and how the ancient art of Indian club swinging entered the classroom
Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji was arguably the most celebrated of all Indians in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, feted as a sporting hero and adored by the British public. And that was because he was a master of a British obsession: cricket.
Ranjitsinhji – or Ranji, as he was popularly known – achieved three notable firsts. He was the first Indian to gain a place on a university cricket team, Trinity College, Cambridge; the first to captain a county cricket team, Sussex; and, most significantly, the first to represent England in test cricket. Widely acknowledged as one of the finest batsmen of the Victorian era and beyond, he brought innovation and style to cricket and changed the face of British sport.
Yet, despite his legions of fans, Ranjitsinhji remained exotic, described in the British press “as graceful as a panther”, with “wrists supple and tough as a creeper of the Indian jungle” – a man who turned cricket “into an oriental poem of action”.
While cricket would go on to be widely popular, polo was a more elite activity, introduced to Britain by Indian army officers in the 1870s. Another subcontinental pastime brought to Britain in the 19th century was Indian club swinging.
Originating from Hindu physical culture, this became a very popular form of gymnastic exercise for both men and women, spreading from the upper to the middle classes. Club swinging spawned exercise classes and competitions and became a part of physical education in schools.
Passion – and ignorance
India’s style was everywhere, yet Britons still knew very little about the country
Britons were continuously exposed to imperial propaganda through advertising, the press, education and the church, as well as popular culture. Theatrical productions with Indian themes – such as The Grand Mogul (1884), The Nautch Girl (1891) and Carnac Sahib (1899) – enjoyed long runs. The Indian pageant performed at Earl’s Court’s 6,000-seat Empress Theatre was particularly successful.
Outside the theatre, Victorians were entertained by Indian street jugglers and musicians – or ‘Tom Tom players’, as the drummers were known in London. According to the Strand Magazine: “Ask the average man for what India is most celebrated, and chances are ten to one that he will ignore the glories of the Taj Mahal, the beneficence of British rule, even Mr Kipling, and will unhesitatingly reply in one word, ‘Jugglers’.”
Another way ordinary Victorians encountered India and Indians was through exhibitions. Some 5.5 million people visited the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in 1886. All aspects of Indian art, architecture, commerce and industry were exhibited, including a living exhibit of Indian ‘village’ artisans, who were in fact prisoners of Agra gaol. As this example proves, it was not just Indians who were put on display during the exhibition: Britons’ ignorance about Indian life was also subjected to the harsh light of satirical scrutiny.
Shompa Lahiri is a research fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. Her books include Indian Mobilities in the West, 1900-1947 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and Indians in Britain (Frank Cass, 2000).
This article was first published in the October 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.