- Queen Victoria and India, 1837–61
I. The Blot on the Queen's Head
With the passage of the Royal Titles Bill in the summer of 1876, Queen Victoria became Empress of India. Contemporaries saw the measure as a theatrical coup engineered by her prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli had neglected to consult properly the opposition before the announcement of the Bill in the Queen's speech and his critics therefore lambasted his imperial pretensions, which were deemed un-English and despotic (Knights; Durrans; Metcalf 60-61). As David Feldman and Anthony Wohl have shown, antisemitic caricature of Disraeli reached a frenzied climax in 1876. The image of Disraeli as an Eastern potentate, corrupting the English monarchy by turning the Queen into an Empress was a popular theme within this stereotype, exemplified in Punch's "New Crowns for Old" cartoon of 15 April 1876 (see fig. 1), and also in Edward Jenkins's 1876 pamphlet The Blot on the Queen's Head, which sold 90,000 copies within the year (Feldman 94-115; Wohl; Jenkins). By contrast, Disraeli's supporters welcomed the Royal Titles Bill as a brilliant diplomatic move, which underlined Britain's global power in a world increasingly dominated by continental empires such as Russia, bearing down on the northwest frontier of India, and Germany, recently unified under the Prussian imperial throne (Buckle 5: 456-77; Smith 199-200).
But amid all the controversy provoked by the Royal Titles Bill in 1876—concealed by the rush to identify Disraeli as either hero or villain of the piece—lay a rather disturbing truth. Queen Victoria thought she was Empress of India already. Throughout the 1860s and early 1870s she habitually referred to herself as "Empress," and to her Indian dependencies as her "empire." For example, in June 1872, when told that envoys from Burma were refusing to prostrate themselves before her on their being received at court, she declared, "As Empress of India, I must insist on this" (Buckle 2: 218-19). And six months or so later, in 1873, her secretary Frederick Ponsonby enquired on her behalf of the Liberal [End Page 264] Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Granville, "how it was that the title of Empress of India, which is frequently used in reference to her Majesty, has never been officially adopted" (Buckle 2: 238-39).
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The object of the following paper is to attempt to understand the source of Victoria's belief that she had in fact been Empress of India, at least since the East India Company lost control of India in [End Page 265] 1858, and possibly further back than that. The relationship between Victoria and India in the first half of her reign is largely unexplored. We are more familiar with the ways in which India became inscribed at Victoria's court in the latter half of her reign—the Prince of Wales's Indian tours, the creation of a "durbar" room at Osborne House, her summer retreat on the Isle of Wight, the presence of the Munshi in her domestic service, and the prominence given to Sikh regiments at the jubilees of 1887 and 1897. The Raj has come to be seen by scholars as a vital component in the increasingly ornamental and feminized character of Victoria's reign (Cannadine, "Context," Ornamentalism; Cohn; Washbrook; Homans 229-32). This paper looks at two earlier episodes in her reign, and in a highly preliminary manner argues that India played a rather different role in the reconfiguration of the monarchy in the middle decades of the nineteenth century from that emphasized by recent scholars. First, the paper examines the ways in which Victoria upheld the royal prerogative in the military administration of India in the tumultuous 1840s, when the northwest frontier of India became secured from external and internal threat through the annexation of Scinde, the Punjab, and a number of smaller princely states in the interior. Second, the paper describes the significant and largely overlooked role both Victoria and Prince Albert played in the Government of India Act of 1858...