Queen Victoria: how and why did she become Empress of India?

When control of the subcontinent came under the British Crown in 1858, it marked the start of a turbulent relationship. Writer Lottie Goldfinch explains how Queen Victoria fell in love with a country she never stepped foot in

Photo of Queen Victoria

On 1 January 1877, while Queen Victoria was quietly celebrating the new year with her family at Windsor Castle, a spectacular celebration was taking place more than 4,000 miles away in Delhi, India, to mark the Queen’s new imperial role as Empress of India. Determined to flaunt the power and majesty of the British Raj, Lord Lytton, Viceroy of India, chose to revive Mughal traditions for the extravaganza, confident that it would be well received. A plan was coordinated to present leading Indian chiefs and princes with shield-shaped silk banners emblazoned with their coat of arms, albeit in a deliberate European style – “the further east you go, the greater becomes the importance of a bit of bunting”, the Viceroy is recorded as saying. By the end of 1876, more than 400 Indian princes, chiefs, officials and their retinues had gathered together in Delhi in preparation for the grand ceremony.

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The resulting pageant was a sumptuous demonstration of British authority. The Viceroy and his family processed through the streets of Delhi on elephants, entering the specially constructed Throne Pavilion to a fanfare of trumpets and royal salutes.

For the proclamation ceremony itself, Lord Lytton sat enthroned beneath a huge portrait of Queen-Empress Victoria. Facing him were 63 ruling Indian chiefs, “all in gorgeous costumes of satin, velvet or cloth of gold”. A telegram sent by Lytton to the Queen later that day expressed his satisfaction and delight at the occasion: “There can be no question of the complete success of this great imperial ceremony,” he announced happily.

The road to India

The elaborate proclamation ceremony may have, on the surface at least, neatly papered over the cracks in Anglo-Indian relations, but resentment and anger at British involvement in Indian affairs had been simmering for more than 300 years, well before Victoria came to the throne.

British presence in India had begun in 1600, with the formation of the East India Company (EIC) – a company whose purpose was to exploit trade with East and Southeast Asia and India. For years, Britain had desired a share in the rich and profitable East Indian spice trade monopolised by Spain and Portugal, and in 1588, the defeat of the Spanish Armada had helped break European domination of the market. Despite Dutch opposition, England won trading concessions from the Mughal Empire and began to trade in cotton and silk, fabric goods, indigo dye, saltpetre (used to preserve meat and also make explosives) and spices.

Resentment and anger at British involvement in Indian affairs had been simmering for more than 300 years, well before Victoria came to the throne

The Company’s first ships arrived at the Indian port of Surat in 1608, and in 1619 a factory was established in the same city with the permission of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. By the 18th century, the EIC had expanded massively, eclipsing its European rivals and establishing several trading posts and communities along the east and west coasts of the Indian subcontinent.

Did you know?

When Victoria became queen, the empire stood at 2 million square miles. Twenty-five years later, it had grown to 9.5m square miles

Read more about the expansion of the British empire during her reign

But in 1757, the company’s fortunes took a different turn. East India Company civil-servant-turned-militaryman, Robert Clive, defeated the Nawab (governor) of Bengal and his French allies at the Battle of Plassey. It was a clash that, in part, had erupted over EIC abuse of the trade privileges that had been granted to them.

The British victory enabled the company to take over the administration of large parts of India, with British communities established around Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Seven years later, the young Mughal emperor Shah Alam too was defeated by EIC troops and exiled from Delhi. His Mughal revenue officials in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa were replaced by a set of English traders who had been appointed by Clive, who was now governor of Bengal.

Picture of officers of the East India Company being entertained by musicians and dancers
Officers of the British East India Company being entertained by musicians and dancers. One of the officers is smoking a large hookah. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

The impact on the Indian states under the company’s rule was disastrous

From this moment, the EIC morphed from an international trading corporation into a privately owned colonial power, becoming the effective rulers of Bengal and expanding its territory at an alarming rate.

The impact on the Indian states under the company’s rule was disastrous. Far from wishing to preserve and nurture its newly gained territories, men of the EIC plundered and pillaged Bengal, leaving it in a state of destitution. Crippling taxes destroyed the economic resources of the rural population, compounded by a devastating famine between 1769 and 1773, which is thought to have caused the deaths of up to 10 million people.

Indian influence on Britain

Language

Words of Hindi and Urdu origin soon infiltrated the English language. ‘Pyjamas’ comes from the Urdu word payjamah, meaning leg garment, while ‘shampoo’ is from the Hindi word čāmpo, meaning to press and knead.

Sport

The modern game of polo originated in northeast India in circa AD 33, and was adopted by English plantation owners in Assam from c1854. The sport was later popularised by the British upper classes.

Fashion

Materials such as cotton and silk, accessed through trade with India, were increasingly used in British clothing. Indian-inspired patterns such as paisley also became popular in fashion.

Food

Once Indian spices were widely available in Britain, curries and chillies featured regularly in the British diet. London’s first Indian restaurant opened in 1810, but it was Victoria’s love of curry that made its popularity spread.

Drink

Indian tea culture gave rise to the tradition of afternoon tea, together with the establishment of tea shops and tea rooms. Victoria’s expansion of trade with India made products such as tea cheaper and more plentiful.

Huge military expenditure saw the EIC run into serious financial difficulties, and in 1773, the British government was forced to step in and help the ailing company, with William Pitt’s India Act of 1784 seeking to bring it under closer parliamentary supervision, namely through the rule of a governor-general.

But the EIC continued to expand and by 1803, its reach extended up the Ganges valley to Delhi and across most of the peninsula of southern India. Fifteen years later, the EIC had become the main political power in India, with direct control over around two thirds of the subcontinent.

Photo of the scene of the Indian Mutiny
General Wheeler’s entrenchment at Cawnpore, scene of the worst massacre during the Indian Mutiny of June 1857. (Photo by Felice A Beato/Getty Images)

Early empire

When Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, few would have predicted how far British influence would spread during her reign. Imperial expansion had been haphazard, and predominately the result of victory in military conflicts or settlements founded by Britons seeking new lives abroad.

At the start of the 19th century, most of Britain’s jumbled collection of territories – such as Canada, South Africa and Guiana – had been unintentionally acquired by previous monarchs, rather than as a result of a deliberate programme of expansion. These territories were only partly administered by government, with chartered companies such as the East India Company holding significant power.

At her accession, the inexperienced Queen was initially content to follow the instruction of her advisors when it came to matters of foreign policy. But, with eleven wars fought during the first quarter of her reign alone, Victoria soon began to take a keen interest in British affairs abroad. Although she no longer had the power to make or break governments as she saw fit, Victoria took her queenly duty to advise, consult and warn seriously, and ultimately helped shape government policy.

British influence on India

Education

The British wished to create “a properly articulated system of education from the primary school to the university”, and vernacular education and mass education were deemed incredibly important. In 1857, universities were established in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.

Postal service

The Indian Post Office was established in 1837, with the first adhesive stamp following in 1852. Under the British Raj, the postal system expanded rapidly, with 889 post offices handling some 43m letters and more than 4.5m newspapers annually by 1861.

Sport

The first reference of a cricket match being played in India is in 1721, by sailors of the East India Company, and from there the sport grew. The start of first-class cricket in the country is said to have been a match between Madras and Calcutta in 1864.

Common law system

India’s tradition of Hindu and Islamic law was broken under the British Raj in favour of British common law – a system of law based on recorded judicial precedents.

Language

In 1837, English became the official language of Indian law courts, and in 1844, preference in government posts was given to those who had received an English education. It also became the accepted language of the social elite and national press.

One of her chief demands was that military consequences be considered first and foremost, if Britain was to pursue the type of aggressive foreign policy that it had become famous for in the 19th century. Supportive though she was of Britain’s imperial ‘duty’ to spread civilisation to the darkest corners of the globe, Queen Victoria was deeply concerned for the fate of the ordinary solider who was putting his life on the line for his country.

But the people Victoria sought to rule did not take British colonisation lying down. One of the biggest events of her rule took place in India, where, in 1857, widespread unrest at increasing westernisation, challenges to traditional Hindu culture and British dominance in all areas of Indian life exploded into a mass uprising against the EIC’s rule and the authority of the British Crown.

The rebellion began in March 1857, when an Indian sepoy (soldier) named Mangal Pandey attacked officers at the garrison in Barrackpore, North Calcutta, and was subsequently executed. A few weeks later, trouble erupted again when a group of solders were imprisoned at Meerut for refusing to use gun cartridges rumoured to have been greased in pork fat, as it offended their religious beliefs. The two incidents and the harsh punishments inflicted on the perpetrators led to a military uprising in May, which saw Indian soldiers shoot their British officers and march on Delhi. Word spread quickly, and similar mutinies took place across all of northern India.

The British acted quickly to suppress the rebellion, and the desperate struggles for Indian independence were quelled in a flurry of bloodshed. Thousands of sepoys were bayoneted or fired at with cannons, and even women and children failed to escape the reprisals. Around 100,000 Indian soldiers are believed to have died in the mutiny, although historian Amaresh Misra claims that British reprisals continued for a decade after the event, with millions more killed.

Painting of Queen Victoria presenting a bible
Queen Victoria presenting a bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

British imperial duty

When news of the uprising reached Britain, there was widespread public horror at the level of bloodshed on both sides of the conflict. Newspaper headlines shouted of the massacre of captured Europeans – including women and children – by the rebels, as well as the indiscriminate killing of Indian civilians at the hands of the British armies.

Queen Victoria herself followed the uprising closely, writing in her diary for 3 August: “Dreadful details in the papers of the horrors committed in India on poor ladies and children, who were murdered with revolting barbarity! An awful state, and the crisis, in every sense, an alarming one…”

But despite widespread condemnation of the violence, voices of sympathy to those involved were also raised, and many Britons – including Victoria – still retained a sense of imperial duty that continued to have a profound influence on its colonial expansion. In places like India and Africa, this had historically manifested in an influx of Christian evangelicals, many of whom sought to convert native peoples to Christianity.

The nation was divided between those who believed it was Britain’s duty to Christianise the people of its empire, and those who believed that those living in its colonies would never be able to reach the same level of development as those living in Britain.

People such as Cecil Rhodes, a dedicated imperialist, believed the empire should be run and ultimately populated by members of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ race, who had a duty to found colonies and populate them with men and women who would advance Britain’s power.

“There is a destiny now possible for us, the highest ever set before a nation… This is what England must do or perish: she must found colonies as fast and as far as she is able, formed of her most energetic and worthiest men; seizing every bit of fruitful waste ground she can set her foot on, and there teaching these her colonists that the chief virtue is to be fidelity to their country and their first aim… to advance the power of England.”

Photo of the Durbar Room, Osborne House
View of the Durbar Room looking towards the gallery, Osborne House. The architect was Bhai Ram Singh. (Photo by Arcaid/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Royal response

Like many of her subjects, Victoria, while believing in many of the ideals of empire, was not wholly unsympathetic to the men and women of the nations she wished to rule, and had reservations about some of the methods of colonisation employed.

In the wake of the Indian Rebellion, the British Parliament had passed the Government of India Act, which transferred the administrative authority and rights of the EIC to the British Crown. Wishing to reassure the Indian people of their rights as British subjects and to help restore peace in the country, Victoria issued a proclamation on 1 November 1858 that became known as ‘the Magnacarta of the People of India’. In it, Victoria stated that Britain desired “no extensions of Our present territorial possessions” and promised to “respect the rights, dignity, and honour of Native Princes as Our own”.

Religious toleration was also assured with the line “we disclaim alike the Right and Desire to impose our Convictions on any of Our Subjects” with “none molested or disquieted by reason of their Religious Faith or Observances…” And with that, India was annexed to the British Empire.

Punch cartoon depicting Benjamin Disraeli offering the crown of India to Queen Victoria. (Photo by: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Punch cartoon depicting Benjamin Disraeli offering the crown of India to Queen Victoria. (Photo by: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Of course, ruling a country as vast as India would not have been possible without the cooperation of its princes and local leaders. During the period that followed the 1857 rebellion – known as the British Raj – some 20,000 British troops and officials were able to govern 300 million Indian people with relatively little trouble. Some historians have attributed this to British divide and rule techniques, which played on the many divisions in Indian society, while others have claimed that India was actually accepting of British rule and the benefits it brought.

Life in the British Raj

The majority of the first British inhabitants in India were men who enjoyed the luxuries the country could offer, at a small cost to themselves – Indian servants, mistresses and fine dining were all enjoyed with gusto. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, however, made travel between India and Britain a lot quicker, and British women and families began to make the move.

Tensions between Britons and India’s native population remained in the wake of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, exacerbated by the air of racial superiority with which Britain viewed the subcontinent. It was, in the thoughts of many Victorians, a country that needed to be held in trust until its people were deemed civilized and competent for self-rule.

The British community in India may have kept itself separate from Indian communities but it was not immune to the perils of the country’s climate. The average lifespan for an Englishman in India was 31; for an Englishwoman just 28. Cholera, typhoid, malaria and dysentery were just some of the dangers facing British men and women.

Despite this, many British reformers were determined to bring western technologies and ways of life to India. In 1853, the first Indian railway opened, stretching from Bombay to Thana, while the machines introduced during the Industrial Revolution made major changes to agriculture. Roads, canals and bridges were all introduced, together with telegraph links.

A new era

Although she didn’t officially assume the title of Empress of India until 1877, Victoria’s keenness to elevate her royal title was evident as early as 1873 when she complained to her secretary Henry Ponsonby: “I am an Empress and in common conversation am sometimes called Empress of India. Why have I never officially assumed this title?”

Her eagerness to assume the title had begun in 1871, following William I of Prussia’s elevation to Emperor. Victoria’s daughter, Vicky, who was married to William’s son Frederick would therefore become Empress when her husband took the throne, effectively outranking her mother. Victoria was not amused. Prussia, Russia and Austria all had emperors and Victoria felt unable to compete unless she, too, assumed the title.

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was the force behind overcoming parliamentary opposition and in 1877, Victoria became Empress of India, sealing the relationship between Britain and India. It also marked the beginning of the Queen’s love affair with India and became a symbol of the responsibility she felt towards her Indian subjects.

A passion for Indian culture swept through Britain

Although she never visited the subcontinent – her son Edward VII would be the first British monarch to set foot on Indian soil – Victoria had a particular fascination with the country, and a passion for Indian culture swept through Britain in the late 19th century. Victoria’s love of curry is well documented, while at Osborne House, the royal family’s Isle of Wight seaside retreat, the magnificent Durbar room was added in 1890-92, designed by John Lockwood Kipling and Sikh architect Bhai Ram Singh. Built for state functions, the room boasts intricate Indian-style plaster work and exhibited the Queen’s magnificent collections of gifts from Indian princes.

Britain’s wider relationship with India – the jewel in the crown of the empire – would continue for nearly half a century more, however, with both Edward VII and George V retaining the title Victoria had fought so hard for. British rule would end eventually – with as much pomp and circumstance as it had begun – but to this day, ties with India remain as hardy as the toughest diamond.

What happened next?

On 15 August 1947, after more than 300 years of British control, India finally achieved its independence. But its route to freedom had come at a high price. Official calls had begun as early as 1885 with the founding of the Indian National Congress, the first modern nationalist movement to emerge in the British Empire in Asia and Africa. The movement initially sought a greater share in government, but with continued British opposition, its demands became more radical. Gandhi, who became the main voice of the Indian National Congress, transformed it into a mass movement, advocating civil disobedience. He believed that no lasting reform was possible with an alien government, and instigated strikes, marches and boycotts.

World War II did much to aid India’s call for independence. During the conflict, Britain had called upon its colonies for manpower and, in order to secure Indian support, promised to hand over political power in exchange for cooperation. India’s contribution to the allied war effort was immense, with some 2.3 million soldiers manning the Indian army.

When independence eventually arrived, the country was divided into two independent dominions – Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The British Raj had ended, but partition plunged the subcontinent into a new era of blood and brutality.

Q&A: The impact of British rule in India

Dr Xavier Guegan is Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial History at the University of Winchester. He publishes and lectures on British Indian and French Algerian history.

Q How did East India Company rule and Crown rule of India differ?

A The 18th-century mercantile system, which revealed corruption on the part of the East India Company, was replaced by more direct colonisation and an economic, social and cultural imperialism that left little space for Indians’ voice in their own country.

Q Did British rule after 1858 bring more negatives than positives for India’s population?

A From the 1820s, the British government via the East India Company colonised further territory, justified on moral and economic grounds: the events of 1857-58 were a reaction to these changes. The official transfer of power to the Crown in 1858 further reduced decision-making by Indians, limited freedom of speech, and introduced the infamous ‘divide and rule’ policy that strongly disturbed the harmony within communities, especially religious differences.

High taxation and the establishment of the cash crop system orientated to industries in Britain meant that no real internal industrialisation was possible for the subcontinent. On a more positive aspect, the second empire meant the increase of movement of people across the world, and gender issues (here meaning women, and not other minorities) began to be debated. We should not idealise India before the time of the British rule, but nor should we romanticise British colonialism as beneficial. What is certain, however, is that India has benefitted the Britain of yesterday and today.

Q How did Indian people view British presence in India?

A The Sahibs and Memsahibs were a very small minority in a large country. Thus they had to show, via the ‘Illusion of Permanence’, both their physical presence and the visibility of their rule through the establishment of cultural and economic signs such as monuments, new buildings and technology (photography, the railway, etc). If the Indian population was indeed under the control of British colonisation, many areas such as rural villages were not directly confronted by Crown rule. Yet lives were affected by Western globalisation, and Indian thinkers, artists and political activists were well aware of this influence.

Lottie Goldfinch is a freelance journalist specialising in history

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This article was first published in the November 2017 edition of BBC History Revealed