Strange Little Woman

Ferdinand Mount

  • Empress: Queen Victoria and India by Miles Taylor
    Yale, 388 pp, £25.00, August, ISBN 978 0 300 11809 4
  • Eastern Encounters: Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent by Emily Hannam
    Royal Collections Trust, 256 pp, £45.00, June, ISBN 978 1 909741 45 4
  • Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India 1875-76 by Kajal Meghani
    Royal Collections Trust, 216 pp, £29.95, March 2017, ISBN 978 1 909741 42 3

Fid. Def; Ind. Imp. Were there ever two more outrageous inscriptions on our coinage? Henry VIII remained defender of that particular faith for all of nine years, before Pope Leo X revoked the title he had himself conferred and excommunicated the defecting monarch. The claim was rebooted by a Protestant Parliament in 1544, but it was not quite the same, to say the least. Victoria was proclaimed queen-empress only two decades after Britain had placed the final pink blotches on the map of India and thereby provoked a rebellion in which the savagery of the British retribution far exceeded that of the rebels. Fid. Def. survives on the coinage, though threatened with pluralisation of faiths under Charles III. But Ind. Imp. vanished seventy years ago, a fading embarrassment even then, to be explained away as a typical piece of Disraeli’s showmanship.

Historians have shied away from closer examination of Queen Victoria’s role as empress, but the subject is a fascinating one, not least for the unexpected light it shines on India’s emergence as a nation state. Miles Taylor is better known as a historian of Chartism and Victorian radical politics generally, but this background comes in handy here, as he takes the queen out of court politics and into the popular arena, where she proves surprisingly at home. Throughout his compact, engaging book, Taylor emphasises ‘the agency of the queen’. She was never Melbourne’s puppet, and she did not become Disraeli’s either. In the process, we are made aware of the extreme oddity of Britain’s empire on the subcontinent and the peculiar impact that Victoria herself had on the way things went. She was by turns an evangelical zealot, an enthusiast for the expansion of her empire and a passionate humanitarian. But she was never quiet. In all her mutations she left her own mark on minds and events. It is not too much to say that this strange, self-educated, self-propelled little woman deserves a place among the makers of modern India.

The temptation is to draw a continuous line from the first royal charter granted by another warrior queen on the last day of 1600, through the 18th-century acts imposing parliamentary control, to the new charters of 1813 and 1833, and assume that the monarch was somehow always there in the background, as the ultimate symbol of authority in India. Yet what is striking is the persistent determination of the East India Company to keep the monarch out of it. Taylor points out that by the time Victoria came to the throne in 1837, there were more than forty treaties formalising relations between Britain and India. Not one of them mentions the British monarch. Without exception, the honourable company and not the crown signed them off. It seemed essential to the East India Company to keep the English constitution, and still more the person of the monarch, out of the rough and ready business of governing its Indian possessions. To introduce the king or queen risked elevating the Indian rajas to an inconvenient status, licensing them to consider themselves as lieges or allies of the crown, with the right to approach the monarch directly on all sorts of embarrassing questions.

The rapacious Wellesley and his successors arrogated the right to approve or disapprove the dynastic succession in the so-called native states and, if they did not fancy the heir, to plump another one on the throne. When the Marquis of Hastings egged on the nawab of Oudh (Awadh in modern spelling) to consider himself a king and to wear a crown like the one on European playing cards, this was not to beef up the nawab’s prestige, but to undermine the claims of the Mughal emperor in Delhi to be the nawab’s overlord (Nawab = ‘deputy’ or ‘viceroy’). Only after Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled to Rangoon after the Great Rebellion could there be said to be a vacancy on the imperial throne.

Taylor records the occasional efforts of Indian potentates to appeal directly to the British sovereign. He mentions, for instance, the gifts sent to William IV and Queen Adelaide by the new king of Oudh in 1834. But he does not record the humiliating fate of those gifts. That story is told vividly by Emily Hannam in Eastern Encounters, the sumptuous volume that accompanied the recent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. Nasir-al-Din Haider had got clearance from the resident in Lucknow, Colonel John Low, and from the governor-general in Calcutta, Lord William Bentinck, to dispatch the offerings: two elephants, two superb horses with jewelled harnesses, sundry necklaces, bracelets and Indian manuscripts galore, together with a bedstead studded with diamonds and pearls, and an enormous oil painting (9'6" by 6') of himself on an elephant greeting Colonel Low on another elephant, with the domes and minarets of Lucknow shimmering in the distance and an attendant taking a tiger for a walk. But when these magnificent presents reached London, the Board of Control panicked. It had already twice decided to depose Nasir on grounds of his debauchery and frivolity (though there was not much to choose between him and the prince regent on those scores). Any moment now, it might finally have to chuck him out. He could not be allowed to curry favour at Buckingham Palace. So the president of the board, John Cam Hobhouse, decided to send the presents back. King Billy didn’t mind a bit. He roared with laughter at the idea that he might have accepted the stuff. The elephants were sent off to various English zoos and the horses to the royal stud, on the grounds that it was unfair to subject them to another long sea voyage. The other gewgaws were returned to Lucknow to be received by the imperturbable Low four years after their dispatch: ‘Every article was as bright and new as when the packages were made up at this place.’ Nasir didn’t live to see them again: he had died a year earlier in the middle of the night. A supposed illegitimate child of his was thrust weeping onto the throne by an ambitious begum. Low sent the British troops in from the cantonment to smash up the throne room, turf out the boy-king and replace him with a respectable elderly uncle; several hundred people were killed. The violence of the proceedings embarrassed the governor-general, the useless Lord Auckland, though he was happy enough with the outcome, which delivered the resumption of a healthy income stream from the so-called Garden of India.

The only article remaining in London was the enormous oil painting of Low and the king, which had been sent off to be engraved by Sir William Beechey. The picture’s immediate fate is unclear, but it turned up at auction in 1841, and it was bought four years later by none other than Queen Victoria – the first concrete expression of her lifelong obsession with India. John Low was my great-grandfather, and I wrote about his tempestuous relations with Nasir-al-Din Haider in my book The Tears of the Rajas. But I was totally ignorant of the gifts and of their embarrassing rejection. It is piquant that pride of place in the recent exhibition went to the picture that Queen Victoria was never supposed to have, now beautifully cleaned and restored and still in the royal collection.

Right from the beginning of her reign, it was known that, as Hobhouse wrote to the governor of Madras, ‘Her Majesty seems to take a deep interest in Indian Affairs’ and was ‘not ill-informed on the subject’. But the first overtures from the government side came from Lord Ellenborough, the disagreeable Tory politician turned governor-general who, as soon as he reached Calcutta, in defiance of all precedent, began writing her a monthly update of Indian news. It was Ellenborough too who, as early as 1843, floated the thought that ‘were Your Majesty to become the nominal Head of the Empire … the princes and chiefs would be proud of their position as the Feudatories of an Empress.’

Victoria, still a mere 24 years old, was obviously flattered, and when Ellenborough made himself so unpopular with everyone that he had to be recalled, she thought it ‘a very ungrateful return for the eminent services Lord Ellenborough has rendered to the Company in India’. When she and Albert actually met him on his return, they thought him a conceited and contemptuous fellow. The services referred to included the reversal of Auckland’s disastrous defeat in Afghanistan, victory in the opium war with China, and the seizing of Sindh by the rascally Charles Napier (who, contrary to legend, did not say peccavi, ‘I have sinned’: that was a joke in Punch). Ellenborough certainly had consolidated the queen’s empire, and she was delighted, just as she was by Britain’s victory in the Sikh wars, which brought her the Koh-i-Noor, the only jewel in the crown which remains in the crown. She particularly requested that several Sikh cannon taken in 1846 be sent to Windsor to be placed on the terrace. She later asked for more cannon plus some chainmail from slaughtered Sikh warriors. At this stage she was herself a warlady.

Her connection with what was not yet often called the British Raj was to be intensified when Charlotte Canning and Susan Ramsay, the wives of notable future governor-generals, became her ladies-in-waiting. The young Lord Dalhousie organised her first visits outside London. In the years that followed, an increasing flow of petitions came to her and Albert from India, as well as a stream of gifts, both splendid and humble, the latter often handicrafts, which she much appreciated. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Indian Court was the star of the show. Victoria can claim to have inadvertently invented the Paisley pattern when she lent one of her Kashmiri shawls to a Scottish textile factory and its teardrop pattern became all the rage. She lent a human face to the empire and at the same time brought India to Britain. As Taylor puts it, ‘royalty was the filter through which the Eastern exotic became ordinary.’

Victoria was a Victorian too, in her evangelical enthusiasm. Certainly in her early years she was as eager to convert as to conquer the subcontinent. She welcomed any Christian baptism – for example, that of her ill-fated protégé the maharaja Duleep Singh. Yet there was a bottom of good sense in her which held her back from favouring missionary excesses, and she was well aware of the slow progress of Christianity in India. When the Mutiny came, she was quick to conclude that, as she wrote to Charlotte Canning, ‘a fear of their religion being tampered with is at the bottom of it.’ By November 1857, she was telling Charles Canning that ‘the unChristian spirit shown by the public’ would not last. She was also sceptical enough about the stories of atrocities to ask him for hard evidence of the maltreatment of women.

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But it was in the aftermath of the Mutiny that she made her greatest impact. As far back as 1844, she had complained to Sir Robert Peel of ‘the very bad system, on which the whole of the Indian possessions are managed’. The East India Company had ‘a negative power, which is quite absurd & prevents everything going on well’. Peel had agreed, and he suggested that it would end ‘in the crown having the management of the whole’. That was the obvious solution, and it entailed the queen herself being actively presented as the symbol of dominion and, even more crucially, of national unity.

It was in her name that the grand proclamation of the new dispensation must go out to the millions of her Indian subjects. When she saw Lord Derby’s first draft, she did not like it one bit and told the foreign secretary Lord Malmesbury that the text ‘must be almost entirely remodelled’. This did not happen, because Derby claimed, as editors often do, that the draft had already gone to the printers and in any case it took account of all the points the queen raised. The final document was indeed eirenic and ecumenical in tone, but the queen’s instructions to Derby went a lot further and deserve to be quoted at length:

The Queen would be very glad if Lord Derby would write it himself in his excellent language, bearing in mind that it is a female sovereign who speaks to more than 100 millions of Eastern People on assuming the direct Government over them after a bloody civil war giving them pledges which her future reign is to redeem & explaining the principles of her Govt. Such a document should breathe feelings of Generosity, Benevolence and Religious feeling, pointing out the privileges which the Indians will receive in being placed on an equality with the subjects of the British Crown & the prosperity following in the train of civilisation.

The proclamation itself may not have included the bit about ‘being placed on an equality’ or the queen’s frank recognition of the events of 1857-58 as being ‘a bloody civil war’ rather than ‘a mere military mutiny’. But it did enter the Indian consciousness. By 1875, many educated Indians could recite it by heart. Meetings of the Indian National Congress would conclude with three cheers for the queen, a reading of the proclamation and, even more remarkably, on three occasions a reading of the queen’s letter to Lord Derby. Taylor argues that ‘the proclamation of 1858 was the only statement of its kind in the world, in which a monarch made a pledge to a subject population.’

The reality of post-Mutiny India might be, as Taylor also says, ‘barracks, bureaucracy and broken promises’. But at least there was a countervailing vision. India had its own Magna Carta. The queen’s words were constantly deployed to make the government of India more accountable, to fulfil the promises of equality before the law, equality of treatment for all religions and faithful observance of all the old treaties. When the government lagged in opening up the Indian Civil Service to Indians (largely because the entry exams continued to be held in London), when white settlers protested against a bill that allowed European defendants to be tried by Indian judges, Indians invoked the queen’s proclamation – and the white settlers denounced it.

Loyalty to the queen was part of the credo of the early nationalists. At his trial, the great B.G. Tilak declared his allegiance to the queen-empress. B.C. Pal, the first promoter (before Gandhi) of swadeshi (‘home-made goods’) and swaraj (‘self-rule’), had also written a Life of Victoria, praising her kindliness and her perpetual widowhood. In his South African years, and for many years after his return to India, Gandhi was explicitly loyal to the British crown. Even as a republican, he retained a residual affection for the royal family and gave Lord Mountbatten a piece of cloth woven from yarn he had spun as a wedding present for Mountbatten’s nephew Philip and Princess Elizabeth (this piece too still in the royal collection).

By comparison with the 1858 proclamation, the Proclamation of Victoria as empress of India was a botch. Disraeli mishandled the Royal Titles Bill in Parliament so badly that he nearly lost it. In India, the imperial assemblage of 1 January 1877, choreographed by the incoming viceroy, Lord Lytton, was an overblown extravaganza which satisfied none of the hopes stirred by the 1858 proclamation and amounted to ‘a ritual subordination’ of the Indian princes.

Yet while the new title never had much resonance in England, in India the figure of the widowed queen worked on the imagination. Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands was translated into Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati. In an appendix, Taylor lists more than 150 books on Queen Victoria published in vernacular languages between 1858 and 1914. The empressing did keep alive hopes of reform which took decades to fulfil.

Even the imperial assemblage was an India-wide event. No longer did the subcontinent seem to Indians an agglomeration of more or less petty principalities. Whatever the British might pretend, Hindus and Muslims had fought side by side in the Mutiny. India was, if only in embryo, a nation and one with an agenda which the queen herself had already set. The more obdurate viceroys, such as Curzon, refused to recognise the new reality. After the Mutiny, Lord Elphinstone, the governor of Bombay, had declared unashamedly that ‘Divide et impera was an old Roman maxim and it should be ours.’ More liberal viceroys such as Dufferin would protest that nothing could be further from their intentions. But time and again their actions belied them, most notably in the provision of separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims in the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909 – a request from the aga khan, it’s true, but one the British leaped at.

Victoria’s proclamation also provoked a superb counter-proclamation from Hazrat Mahal, the ex-wife of the exiled king of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah. She had stayed on to hold the fort in Lucknow after he had been exiled to Calcutta, and she led the rebels during the Mutiny. I am sorry that Taylor does not quote more from her brilliant polemic, which pours scorn on all Victoria’s promises of toleration and clemency. Had not the British broken every treaty they ever made in India, grabbed territory by force or fraud from their most loyal friends like her ex-husband (the same complaints that Edmund Burke had made in the 1780s)? And then the clincher: ‘It is written in the proclamation that they want no increase of territory, but yet they cannot refrain from annexation. If the queen has assumed the government, why does Her Majesty not restore our country to us when our people wish it?’ Thus proclamation and counter-proclamation by these two warrior queens combined to articulate a new national consciousness. By comparison, the later mutation from monarchism to republicanism undergone by the Congress in the 1920s and 1930s was a relatively modest step.

Hazrat Mahal deserves to be as well known as the rani of Jhansi as a heroine of Indian independence, not least for her amazing rise from being one of Wajid Ali Shah’s dancing girls, or ‘fairies’ as he called them. His fondness for his delightful troupe was one of the many things held against him by stolid British officials. Among the loot rescued from the ruins of his palace after the final relief of Lucknow was the manuscript of his erotic autobiography, the Ishqnama, or Book of Love. The MS was presented to Victoria and is now at Windsor. Among the most enchanting illustrations from it reproduced in Eastern Encounters is one of the dark-skinned Hazrat Mahal (she was probably descended from African slaves) standing proudly, hand on hip, before the lovesick king.

The conventional view of Victoria might assume that she would have recoiled from such a sensuous exploration of the self as the Ishqnama, but as her letters show very vividly, her sympathies were always broader than the epithet that clung to her era. She was especially sympathetic to the plight of women in India and encouraged a succession of vicereines to found schools and hospitals for women. Though an anti-suffragist, she even devised a new order of honours exclusively for women, the only one in British history.

As other British dignitaries became more reactionary and fearful of the mob, she stuck to the spirit of her proclamation. As late as 1891, she protested against the execution of a group of prisoners caught up in a palace coup in northern Burma. ‘Why,’ she angrily asked the secretary of state, ‘shd. the Indian penal code be so different to ours?’ She especially resented that the prisoners were being executed for ‘waging war against the queen’ without her having the power to commute the sentences. The secretary of state got a full blast after the executions. She told him of ‘her strong feeling that the principle of governing India by fear, & by crushing them, instead of only by firmness & conciliation is one wh. never will answer in the end, and the Queen Empress shd. wish to see more & more altered.’

Not surprisingly, many servants of the Raj found her views tiresome in the extreme. In 1897, Arthur Godley, later Lord Kilbracken, who was under-secretary for India for 26 years, counselled his boss against republishing the 1858 proclamation to mark the Diamond Jubilee: ‘This is hardly the moment to remind the world that the queen promised to make no distinction of race. The less said about it the better.’

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With the death of the old queen the royal link began to fade. She who never visited India left a far stronger impression there than her son, grandson and great-grandson, all of whom did. George V, though, became deeply attached to India and, while reading his farewell address on the pierhead at Bombay, broke down in tears at the thought that he would never see the country again. Queen Mary, too, loved India, and with her incurable acquisitiveness built up quite a collection of South Asian art which she donated to the V&A. In a rare histrionic moment, she borrowed the words of an earlier Queen Mary: ‘When I die, INDIA will be found written on my heart.’

It was Edward VII who, as prince of Wales, made the most prolonged tour of India, in 1875-76. In contrast to William IV forty years earlier, there were no restraints on his accepting the gifts that were showered on him from princes all over India – necklaces, bangles, crowns, earrings, daggers, shields, swords, opium boxes and perfume holders, inkstands in the shape of peacocks, all beautifully worked in gold and silver and encrusted with diamonds, pearls, emeralds and rubies. All these were on show in the Queen’s Gallery and are reproduced in Splendours of the Subcontinent, the other magnificent volume that accompanied the exhibition. How mean and pinched the hesitations of the East India Company seem beside the cornucopia of imperial high noon.

One raja who was not invited to the splendid receptions hosted by the viceroy –not the prince (Victoria wanted no mistake about who was still in charge) – was the ex-king of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, still living in exile on the shores of the Hooghly, close enough for his courtiers to see Bertie’s yacht Serapis steaming up the river and to hear the guns boom out from Fort William to welcome him. According to Wajid Ali Shah’s Indian biographer, the ex-king said he was too proud and too poor to attend the durbar. Instead, Bertie, unstuffy as ever, slipped his minders and paid a surprise visit himself. The two plump princes got on splendidly, and when Bertie left, Wajid Ali Shah, despite his protestations of poverty, presented him with a walking stick studded with diamonds and pearls.

Alas, no such walking stick can be found in the inventory of the royal gifts, and we must assume that no such visit ever took place. For never was an ex-king more inexorably ex than when deposed by the British. But the face-saving myth of Bertie’s visit to Wajid Ali Shah lingers on, for where else does royalty truly exist if not in the imagination? And who in the history of the British Empire displayed more imagination than its first and only empress?