Queen Victoria’s Indians

Abdul Karim, inspiration behind the film Victoria and Abdul, was not the only Indian to find favour at Victoria's court. Miles Taylor profiles some of those who made the journey to the heart of the empire

"Queen Victoria was more than just a token ruler of India. Passionately interested in its people and culture, she intervened frequently in Indian politics," says Miles Taylor. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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The trader: Dwarkanath Tagore

1794–1846

Throughout her long reign, a series of maharajahs and merchants, Hindu and Muslim reformers, princes and princesses came from India to see Queen Victoria. One of the first to be presented at court was Bengali landowner and merchant Dwarkanath Tagore, grandfather of the Nobel prize-winning artist and poet Rabindranath Tagore. He arrived in 1842, and joined the royal party on Victoria’s first state visit to Scotland.

Unlike most Indians, Tagore profited from British colonialism in India, making his fortune out of trading in indigo, opium and cotton. Prosperity brought loyalty, something that could be seen in Indian communities like the Parsi businessmen of Mumbai, who studded their city streets with statues and public buildings to commemorate the queen-empress.

Victoria sketched Tagore on 16 June 1842, commenting in her journal: “He was in his native dress, all of beautiful shawls with trousers in gold & red tissue, & a tartan as in this little sketch.”

Tagore died in London in 1846, many miles from home, and is buried in Kensal Green cemetery.


The royal exiles: Maharajah Duleep Singh and Princess Gouramma of Coorg

1838–93 / 1841–64

Queen Victoria not only produced a family dynasty descending through three generations and stretching by marriage across continental Europe, she was also godmother to more than 60 children. Among them were two Indians: Duleep Singh, the deposed Maharajah of the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab, and Princess Gouramma of Coorg (Kodagu), a small princely state in the south of India.

Both came to Victoria’s court in the early 1850s, shortly before the great Indian rebellion against British rule of 1857–58. Duleep Singh was converted to Christianity before he left India, but Gouramma was baptised at Buckingham Palace, in a ceremony conducted by the archbishop of Canterbury. The two teenagers spent much time at Windsor Castle and Osborne House (the queen’s summer residence on the Isle of Wight), playing with the queen’s young family and learning how to be westernised royals. Later in the decade, Prince Albert took Duleep under his wing, escorting him around Britain, showing him the industrial north, and introducing him to hunting and sports. The queen even hoped that Duleep would marry Gouramma.

However, this story has a darker side. Duleep Singh didn’t arrive in the British court of his own volition. The British had effectively kidnapped him at the end of the Punjab wars in 1849, and he was presented like a prize of war to the queen along with the Koh-i-noor diamond and other booty.

As for Gouramma, she was traded in by her father in the hope of concessions from the British after his territory had been annexed. She married a Col John Campbell and died in England in 1864.


The reformers: Keshub Chandra Sen and Suniti Devi

1838–84 / 1864–1932

Well known for her philanthropy at home, Victoria also championed social reform in India, lending her name to the education of boys and girls, and also to schemes to improve nursing and midwifery. In 1870, the Bengali reformer Keshub Chandra Sen met with the queen at Osborne House, seeking her support for vernacular and Englishlanguage schools in India.

Sen used his good contacts at court to help set up the National Indian Association with Mary Carpenter, raising money for the cause of Indian female education both in India and in Britain. The queen deputed her daughter, Princess Alice, to get involved with the project. In the 1880s, Princess Louise of Prussia (the Duchess of Connaught), who married Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, accompanied her husband to India. With the queen’s encouragement, she used her time in Mumbai and Pune to continue the campaign for extending western-style primary education.

There were, however, limits to the queen’s Indian philanthropy. A beacon of religious tolerance, she steered clear of missionary evangelicalism, and would not lend her name, despite pressure to do so, to reforming the zenana, the secluded status of many Indian women.

Chandra Sen met the queen only once, but his daughter, Suniti Devi, who married the Maharajah of Cooch Behar (the ruler of a small state in Bengal), enjoyed a longer stay in England in 1887, the year of the queen’s golden jubilee. She met with Victoria just ahead of the celebrations, later recalling the intimacy and informality of the occasion. Suniti modelled herself on Victoria as a modernising matriarch, writing a series of books about the role of women in Indian history and culture.


The advocate: Rafiuddin Ahmed

1865–1954

Until Abdul Karim came into Victoria’s life in 1887, she knew relatively little about the 30 million or so Muslims who made up around a seventh of the Indian population during her reign. How much Karim turned her head in the direction of Islam in India is an open question. The India Office suspected he did, as did her advisors at court.

A more likely source for the queen’s growing sympathy for Indian Muslims, however, was a lawyer from Pune, Rafiuddin Ahmed, who came to London shortly after the arrival of Abdul Karim in the royal household.

At the end of 1892, Ahmed pulled off a sensation, publishing – in The Strand magazine – facsimiles of pages from the queen’s journal, written in the Hindustani script that she had been learning from Karim. Ahmed had been given access to the queen’s diary following two audiences with her, one in London and one at Balmoral.

She was clearly taken with the handsome ‘Maulvi’ (lawyer), describing him as “remarkably clever & most loyal & anxious to bring about the best of feeling between England and India”. She gave him her seal of approval by having his portrait painted.

Rafiuddin Ahmed had strong opinions on Hindu dominance of the Indian National Congress, and on the treatment of Hajj pilgrims travelling from India to Mecca. The queen passed on these concerns to her officials in India – and as a result they were forced to act.


The loyal maharajah: Jagatjit Singh Bahadur

1872–1949

The British empire in India held sway over more than 500 princely states. The loyalty of these states to the crown underpinned the security of the Raj down to independence in 1947. From Victoria’s accession to the throne in 1837 onwards, Indian princes showered the queen with gifts, memorials and other expressions of allegiance.

In return, after the great rebellion of 1857–58, the British negotiated treaties that guaranteed the independence of these princely dynasties. The princes were also drawn into the British honours system, particularly through the new Order of the Star of India (1861). With the speedy passage afforded by the Suez Canal (opened 1869), Indian princes began to visit Britain. From the Punjab, the Maharajah of Kapurthala led the way in 1870, but died at Aden before he could get to meet the queen.

His successor, Jagatjit Singh Bahadur, the next Maharajah of Kapurthala, made amends 20 years later, coming over for the opening ceremony of the Imperial Institute in London in 1893, presided over by the queen. Then, in October 1900, circumventing all the protocol that surrounded the ageing queen, he travelled to Balmoral to visit her once again, one of the last foreign dignitaries to see her before her death three months later.

Queen Victoria never visited India – the furthest east she travelled was Tuscany in Italy. And although three of her sons and one grandson toured India in her lifetime, she herself only knew India secondhand – well enough, though, as it turned out to make it a significant part of her statecraft.

But if Victoria could not go to India, then India could come to her. In this way, Indians at Victoria’s court brought the empire to life for the monarch. Whatever your thoughts on the impact of British imperialism on the subcontinent, Victoria was genuinely interested in the lives of her Indian subjects.

Miles Taylor is professor of modern history at the University of York. Between 2008 and 2014 he was director of the Institute of Historical Research.

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A new documentary about Duleep Singh, The Stolen Maharajah: Britain’s Indian Royal, will be broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday 12 August at 9pm.