On 1 May 1876, Queen Victoria was proclaimed as Empress of India after the Indian Rebellion of 1857 led to the dissolution of the British East India Company.
The East India Company
The East India Company was established as far back as 1599 by a group of merchants who sought the sponsorship of Elizabeth I to trade in the East Indies. However, the merchants had to wait another year before being granted a royal charter which would give them a monopoly on trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan. Any traders operating without a licence from the company in those areas were liable for the forfeiture of their vessels and possible imprisonment.
The Company began exploring the possibility of gaining a foothold in India in 1612 and Sir Thomas Roe, an English diplomat, was sent to visit the Mughal Emperor Nur-ud-din Salim Jahangir to negotiate a commercial treaty that would give the company exclusive rights to establish factories in Surat and other areas. In exchange, the Mughal emperor would be provided with goods from the European market. The mission was a great success and the Company established trading posts in Surat (1619), Madras (1639), Bombay (1668), and Calcutta (1690).
Over the next few decades, the British East India Company slowly expanded over the whole of the Indian sub-continent with the help of its private armies which were largely comprised of Indian sepoys split into three armies: Bombay, Madras, and Bengal. The Bengal army was restricted to the higher castes which eventually led to trouble within the ranks whenever they felt their privileges were being infringed upon. As the numbers of European officers in the ranks grew, it became increasingly obvious the sepoys would never gain promotion.
The Indian Rebellion
The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was fuelled by resentments that had festered over a number of years but the last straw occurred when the troops were issued with the new Enfield P-53 rifle which fired pre-greased Minié balls. Rumours began to circulate the balls were pre-greased with tallow, derived from beef, which was offensive to Hindus, and pork, which was offensive to Muslims. In an attempt to quell the subsequent unrest, orders were given for all cartridges to be issued free from grease so the sepoys could grease them themselves. However, the suspicion remained.
At the same time, civilians were growing increasingly restless over the restrictions the East India Company had introduced over land inheritance which had led to many of the noble classes losing their land or falling into debt. The civilians were also concerned but what they perceived as interference in their religion as practices such as the prohibition of sati, the Hindu funeral practice in which a widow sacrifices herself by sitting atop her deceased husband’s funeral pyre.
In May 1857, a group of sepoys gathered outside the apartments of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, but he did not acknowledge them and others within the palace joined the revolt which led to the deaths of many Europeans and Indian merchants. Fearing the sepoys would attack the barracks in Delhi, orders were given to blow up the arsenal and British officers opened fire on the rebels. As news of the rebellion spread, it sparked uprisings in other areas and Bahadur Shah Zafar finally declared his support for the rebels and any Europeans found in the city were killed.
Bahadur Shah Zafar was declared Emperor of India but most historians believe he was coerced to sign the proclamation against his will. The proclamation sparked unrest though as the Sikhs did not want a Muslim leader and they turned away from the rebellion. The rebels initially made headway by reclaiming important towns in Haryana, Bihar, the Central Provinces and the United Provinces. However, they were disorganised and when the European forces began their counterattack, the rebels leaders proved ineffectual and the revolt was eventually quelled.
The effect the rebellion had on the civilian population was devastating though with the death count reaching hundreds of thousands as a consequence of atrocities committed on both sides. The murder of European women and children at Cawnpore by rebel forces led to revenge tactics from the British forces who perpetuated massacres on the populations of the towns they recaptured. Muslim and Hindu rebels who were captures were force fed pork or beef in violation of their religious beliefs and subjected to appalling torture.
The India Office
Unsurprisingly, the atrocities were reported in the British newspapers from a European point of view and there was little sympathy for the Indian rebels. Bahadur Shah Zafar was arrested and exiled to Rangoon where he died in 1862 bringing the Mughal dynasty to an end. The East India Company’s time in India was also at an end and its ruling powers were transferred to the British Crown by the Government of India Act 1858. The India Office was created to govern India and the Secretary of State for India entrusted with formulating Indian policy.
The main aim was reverse the damaging policies instigated by the East India Company and to stop interfering in Indian culture and religion. Indians were admitted into the civil service, in lower posts, creating a new professional middle class which was heightened by the establishments of universities at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.
Queen Victoria, who had been appalled by the atrocities committed on both sides during the rebellion, issued the Proclamation of November 1858, in which it is expressly stated:
“We hold ourselves bound to the natives of our Indian territories by the same obligations of duty which bind us to our other subjects…it is our further will that… our subjects of whatever race or creed, be freely and impartially admitted to offices in our service, the duties of which they may be qualified by their education, ability and integrity, duly to discharge.”
Empress of India
The East India Company wasn’t officially dissolved until 1 June 1874 after which Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister, offered Queen Victoria the title of Empress of India. The Queen formally accepted the title on 1 May 1876 and the first Delhi Durbar (imperial coronation) was held eight months later on 1 January 1877. The idea of proclaiming Queen Victoria as Empress of India was not a new one as it had been first mentioned in 1843, however nothing had happened. Queen Victoria, aware her eldest daughter would be Empress of Germany one day, was anxious for the title to be bestowed upon her as she did not want to be outranked by her own daughter.
Not being able to travel to India herself, Queen Victoria was naturally curious about the country and she decided to bring India to her by surrounding herself with Indian servants. The Queen’s developed a close relationship with a young Indian servant named Abdul Karim who had been sent to England for the Golden Jubilee. Tall and handsome, Karim enchanted the Queen and she asked him to teach her Hindustani. Much to the horror of her household, Queen Victoria was soon showering gifts on Karim and she elevated him to the level of a noble. Karim soon became the Queen’s personal servant, in much the same way as John Brown had, and she bestowed the title of Munshi (teacher) on him. After Queen Victoria’s death, any mention of Karim was erased from her diaries and every letter burned to the point he almost disappeared from history.
Queen Victoria also commissioned an Indian style banqueting hall to be built at Osborne House. The Durbar Room was designed by John Lockwood Kipling, father of the famous novelist, Rudyard Kipling and Principal of the School of Art in Lahore and Bhai Ram Singh, a master carver. The room has been extensively refurbished and there are displays of many of the gifts Queen Victoria received from India. The movie Victoria and Abdul was filmed on location at Osborne House and the Durbar Room was featured.
After the death of Queen Victoria, committees were set up all over India to raise more than fifty statues in her memory but only five remain in their original locations: Bangalore, Madras University Chennai, King Edward VII Market Vizagapatam and 2 statues at the Victoria Memorial, Calcutta.