Raj nostalgia: reconsidering the stories through which we view empire

'Raj nostalgia' flourishes in part by showing us imperialism through the lens of romanticised stories like Victoria and Abdul or Viceroy's House, says historian Antoinette Burton. Writing for History Extra, Burton reconsiders the stories through which we view empire today, focusing on the experiences of convict women who were transported forcibly across the empire…

A still from the 2017 film Viceroy's House

Raj nostalgia is back. Since the release of two 2017 films, The Viceroy’s House and Victoria and Abdul, images of India as the long-lost possession of a now faded British empire abound in social media. The former (directed by Gurinder Chadha) is a take on the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, which stages this world-historical human catastrophe as a set of regrettable multicultural misunderstandings. The latter (directed by Stephen Frears) is an imperialised reprise of the 1997 film Mrs Brown, which chronicled the intimacies the queen allegedly shared with her Scottish servant, John Brown. The Abdul in Victoria and Abdul is Abdul Karim, a Muslim servant of South Asian descent to whom Victoria became close in the last years of her reign.

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The popularity of these films amongst a certain anglophilic group in the US follows on logically from the recent Downton Abbey craze. Just as notable are the kinds of historical questions being asked about British imperialism across a number of media platforms in the wake of these new productions. Of the story about queen and servant, Vanity Fair magazine asked its readers: “How did they meet? What did they bond over? How close were they?” Inquiring minds apparently want to know.

 

Figures of the empire

Understanding how the class preoccupations and racial prejudices of imperial Britons shaped global outcomes such as partition or the private workings of the late Victorian monarchy is an important antidote to top-down, official empire histories. And visualising the interracial encounters at the heart of the lived experience of British imperialism in both moments of crisis and in daily life is also key to grasping what the Raj means, then and now. Of course, historians have long taken pains to investigate how imperial policies and power shaped all kinds of small-scale human interactionsand personal relationships, from the lives of colonial governors to the workings of legislation to control of prostitution and the spread of contagious diseases across a variety of imperial outposts. Sex and domesticity are key, in other words, to understanding how empires function.

Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim. (Image by Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo)
Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim. (Image by Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo)

Of interest, too, is that fact that students of empire have long known about Abdul. The work of scholars such as Rozina Visram (author of the 2002 book Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History) on Indians in Britain set the stage for decades of histories that have brought the South Asian diaspora to light. Visram and others have traced the routes of people such as Abdul, who made it to Osborne House or, as in the case of the first Indian UK MP Dadhabai Naoroji, to a seat in the House of Commons (he was elected for Central Finsbury in 1892). Visram, and other historians including Michael Fisher, have also followed the trail of lesser-known people of South Asian descent – lascars (seamen) who passed through the London docks and craftsman who appeared as partof the exhibits of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in 1886, for example.

Because of the way that imperial archives work, the vast majority of Indians ‘at home’ about whom we know something are men. Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954), the first woman from the subcontinent to qualify for the bar –perhaps the most well-known Indian woman in Britain – travelled in elite circles at the very same moment that Abdul would have been attending Queen Victoria. Sorabji, who spent time at the University of Oxford in preparation for her law exams, made many personal connections with powerful Britons, which shaped her life as both a barrister and as a vocal critic of Indian independence activist Mahatma Gandhi and his version of Indian nationalism.

Cornelia Sorabji
Cornelia Sorabji, c1931, making a radio broadcast. Sorabji travelled in elite British circles at the very same moment that Abdul would have been attending Queen Victoria. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What happened at the interpersonal level matters, then, to the outcomes of a global empire such as Britain’s. Yet as a historian of empire and its impact on life ‘at home’ in Britain, I wonder whether the kinds of questions Vanity Fairis asking are the ones that should be preoccupying us now. Empire was a personal affair but it was also a huge, sprawling machinery that attempted to blanket large portions of the globe and to compel, by persuasion or force, its subjects into forms of ‘good’ behaviour and ‘good’ government at all levels of identity and experience. It was more ugliness than romance; more blood and guts than parquet interiors; more struggle and violence – even at the most intimate level – than mere civilising mission. And it was more than just India. What impact does the growing focus on Raj histories, big or small, have on our capacity to see a variety of stories about British imperialism across a variety of colonial locations?

The ABCs of empire

The Raj syndrome tends to promote a narrow view of how empire worked on the ground and of what the range of protagonists and antagonists really was. Even a cursory glance at Queen Victoria’s empire reminds us of how conquest and coercion were standard features of colonialism, both at the point of occupation and well after territorial claims had been ‘settled’.  From Afghanistan – where Britain fought no fewer than three wars between 1839 and 1919 – to Zam-Zammah – the big gun atop which the young hero sits in Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 novel Kim – it’s clear that the story of how imperialism actually played out is rooted in the violence of takeover and its aftermath. Conquest could take many forms, military conquest prime among them. White settlement was also an instrument of empire, one that typically followed on from occupation and the dispossession of indigenous peoples of land rights and sovereignty from Canada to Australia to southern Africa.

Emigration schemes abounded in the early 19thcentury, though settlement was far from pretty or peaceful. Many thousands of emigrants were convicts: men and women who had been charged with petty theft and other minor offences and were transported to the colonies to face harsh labour regimes and the unrelenting contempt of ‘proper’ white society. Driven from home and family, convict women faced banishment from all they knew, a long sea journey, and incarceration in institutions designed to teach them industriousness and keep them in line. The rate of onboard pregnancy was high, as was flogging on land and off. Once placed in respectable homes as domestic servants, convict women were equally vulnerable to exploitation, sexual and otherwise.

Transportation of convicts from Britain to Australia
Emigration schemes abounded in the early 19th century, though settlement was far from pretty or peaceful. This engraving depicts the 19th-century transportation of convicts to Australia. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

More than a few convict women responded with acts of resistance, escape, physical violence and even murder – as with one Sarah McGregor, who killed the man who threatened to report her to police for bad behaviour in 1834.

White settlement, then, was hardly romantic – or peaceful. Indigenous peoples who had been pushed to the margins of European societies pushed back. New Zealand settlers were openly at war with Maori people for decades. In southern Africa, a series of frontier wars signalled how insecure white settlement was, and how subject its advocates were to the dissent and disruption of local tribes and communities who did not see fit to submit to the will of the conqueror.

In fact, rebellion, dissent and disruption were characteristic features of British imperial rule during Queen Victoria’s reign and throughout decolonisation process of the mid-20th century. In plantation economies from the Caribbean to Queensland, indentured workers challenged the brutal discipline of overseers through open revolt or simple abscondment. In Ireland, men and women of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (who opposed British colonial rule there) plotted to kill Queen Victoria, to explode bombs in London subways and even to invade Canada – all in the name of an Irish Republic that eventually became reality after the First World War. And jihadwas an ongoing condition of life on the Northwest frontier of India, where the British strove in vain to keep tribal fighters at bay and ultimately failed to settle the region, with ramifications for the state of present day Afghanistan.

There’s plenty of drama to be found in these narratives, and opportunities for visualising intimacy and cross-cultural encounters too. If A is for Abdul, then S is for Syphilis, the contagious disease that ravaged British (and some native) troops who sought sex with local women entangled in the prostitution trade from Calcutta to Shanghai. Nor were these encounters limited to empire ‘over there’. Debates about the threat of sexually transmitted diseases to ‘pure English racial stock’ began in Victorian Britain, with evidence in barrack towns such as Aldershot that soldiers were bringing the empire home to the civilian marriage bed in unspeakable ways. Think too of the dark interiors of the opium den as conjured by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, where those seeking relief from the pressures of modern life encountered both a drug made available by imperial trade with China and a species of ‘oriental’ experience at the heart of the empire.

Reconsidering the Raj

Raj nostalgia flourishes in part by implying that India is the part that represents the whole, in this case telescoping our view of imperialism through the lens of events such as partition in 1947 or romanticised stories such as that of Victoria and Abdul. Such postcolonial nostalgia also succeeds via narratives that favour sentimentalised histories of imperial life and experience over more sanguinary stories which offer a less sugar-coated account of empire as it happened. The ABCs of empire are not jolly or sweet or especially user-friendly, and they are not child’s play, either then or now.

Lord Louis Mountbatten, British Viceroy of India
The British Viceroy of India (centre) meets with British and Indian leaders in 1947. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

We shall certainly see more books and films such as The Viceroys’ House and Victoria and Abdul in the years to come. The reasons may have to do, undoubtedly, with how enthusiasm for empire is being revived in the wake of the vote for Brexit. That Stephen Frears directed both the caustic 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette and decidedly milder Victoria and Abdul makes for an interesting contrast. Empire may be over and done but imperial memory helps to perpetuate its eternal return. How post-empire and post-Brexit Britons (re)claim the Raj is certainly something to watch for.

It’s not that the individual colonial encounter or the micro-historical imperial focus we see on the screen isn’t important or fails to serve a purpose. It’s that we need a wider-angle lens for understanding what empire was, and what it can and should mean in the present. And a greater degree of fearlessness about representing the full spectrum of imperial power, violence and the forms of unrest and disorder it generated. That’s the stuff of British imperialism; there is no Raj without it. Inquiring minds should want to know.

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Antoinette Burton is a professor of history at the University of Illinois with a speciality in 19th and 20th-century Britain and its empire. She is the author of An ABC of Queen Victoria’s Empire; Or, a Primer of Conquest, Dissent and Disruption (Bloomsbury, 2017).