Queen Victoria and India
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.
Hardcover. xix+388 p. ISBN 978-0300118094. $35 / £25
Reviewed by Antoinette Burton
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Following the 1861 Currency Act, coins were issued across British India with the head of Queen Victoria impressed upon them. This new rupee, which replaced the East India Company original in a sign of regime change in the wake of the Mutiny of 1857, featured “an Indian version of the queen” . Based loosely on the bust that graced coinage at home, this version gave her a straitened nose and a crown; pearls adorned her embroidered blouse. The coins, and stamps based on the same retouched image of the “English” monarch, circulated throughout most of the rest of her reign, casting her forever as a young, “orientalized” version of her domestic self. The re-design was supported by the viceroy, Lord Mayo, and warmly recommended by her secretary of State, Sir Charles Wood. Through what we might call a Victorian instance of photoshopping, the British government signaled its intention not just to associate the Raj just with the monarchy, but practically to conflate it with the image of its Queen and later Empress, Victoria Regina.
The symbolic role of the Queen in reorienting British India from a company state to a global empire is well known. The Queen’s Proclamation of 1858—with its reassertion of stability, its professed tolerance for native religions and its disavowal of further expansion—contributed to the tight association of the new British India with its female monarch. Miles Taylor’s study shows how prime ministers, viceroys and generations of imperial officials cultivated these associations in a sustained publicity campaign designed to link Victoria (benignly, inextricably, totally) with imperial rule. Most students of the Raj know the Benjamin Disraeli part of this story. As part of his quest to secure the empire for the Tories (and along the way, to capitalize on the Queen’s allergy to his Liberal political rival, William Gladstone), Disraeli orchestrated the Royal Titles Act of 1876, which allowed the Queen to be recognized officially as the Empress of India. But this is a mere slice of Victoria’s imperial, and imperialized, history. From the very onset of her reign she was called to “the seat of imperial power in all the freshness and fullness of youth” . The Mutiny clearly catalyzed important new directions for her image and her role. But this book seeks to think beyond the constitutional and legislative moments of 1857 and 1876 and consider how embedded the project of Indianizing the Queen was in Victorian political culture.
The PR campaign undertaken to secure Queen Victoria as the face of the Raj was by all accounts a matter of fact in the daily governance operations of empire. There was no opportunity too small when it came to inserting the royal image into discourse and representation, mobilizing the royal authority in diplomacy and policy, or prodding the royal personage to articulate and advise about social and political matters pertaining to India. We might expect the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the jubilees of 1887 and 1897 to be the prime venues for this celebrity-making, and they certainly played their part. Thanks to the recent film, Victoria and Abdul, we know too that the Queen had her favored Indian servants, images of whom grace the cover of this book as well. Yet what is equally important is the ways Victoria was maneuvered and manipulated in all manner of public and private moments to assert the links between her role as sovereign and British sovereignty in India. To some degree this is of a piece with what has come to be understood as Victoria’s active engagement with matters governmental. Thanks to recent scholarship we no longer view her as a completely passive figure but rather as a queen who grew into her role as constitutional monarch and was aware of and opinionated about the affairs of state. That this revisionist view of her reign has occurred at the same historical moment when Elizabeth II’s active role in the making of 20th-century British and international politics is so publicly ascendant is surely significant. Thinking about their historical reputations in tandem is more than these limits of space allow but it is food for thought nonetheless.
Meanwhile, government men at home and in India seized any opportunity they could find to bring the stature and authority of the Queen to bear on negotiations large and small. This might involve the ideological work of linking liberal reformist legislation (e.g., the Penal Code of 1860) with the 1858 Proclamation—even when such reforms tested the very principles of the post-Mutiny settlement. It might equally involve assurances to local Rajputana chiefs that the development of railways and other technological projects in their domains would bring them “nearer to the throne of our Queen” . Rarely in these contexts did Victoria actively or personally engage Indians of any status or rank. And, of course, she never even visited India, though Prince Albert Victor did, carrying her name and fame with them as they opened durbars and met select colonial subjects in situ. But she never had to go in order for her impact to be felt. Victoria’s ministers made use of the Queen precisely because of the enormous, almost boundless, semiotic potential of her image. “The Queen”—the assemblage of images and affective ecologies that constituted that field force, not the person herself—was relentlessly invoked in an attempt to bring charisma to a Raj which never stopped seeking the legitimacy it claimed redounded to it by virtue of its good government model and its providential mission.
The extent to which the Queen’s charisma impacted the course of political events is an interesting question. At moments of acute geopolitical crisis—that is, when domestic politics like the Midlothian election collided with military disaster, as in the 1879 Afghan War—the Queen was isolated in her views about how the war on the ground should be carried out, calling for the continued occupation of Kandahar and the possibility of annexation to boot. Predictably, the effectiveness of her celebrity was uneven and historically contingent. Some Indian princes and some Indian nationalists may have waxed enthusiastic about the Queen Empress, but like their equivalents in Whitehall they were being strategic. The fact that the Indian National Congress president and M.P. for Finsbury, Dadhabai Naoroji, failed to indict Victoria in his speeches and writings about imperial economics suggests performative politeness at worst, politically astute logic at best. And as Taylor’s later chapters show, the Empress’ stature ran afoul of late-Victorian nationalist eruptions. Again, if Bal Gangadhar Tilak referenced the Queen on the occasion of his trial, it was from a keen sense that the official hype around her allowed him to split opinion and throw some shade onto his more moderate INC contemporaries. Divide and rule was as much an aspiration of anti-imperial nationalism as of the Raj itself, and the Queen was as useful a pawn in that game as was Macaulay’s Indian Education Act and other promises of access and equality deferred.
As colonial modernity’s female monarch par excellence, the gender politics of Victoria’s Indian career is very interesting indeed. Taylor is alive to some of these aspects, as his chapter “Mother of India” suggests. Here he explores the Lady Dufferin Fund for women medical students, of which the Queen was a patron, and her relationships with powerful Indian women leaders such as the Begums of Bhopal. As with more public aspects of the royal branding efforts in India, sisterhood could be a bumpy road. The history of the Empress’ brand as a whole would look bumpier still if we had a better sense of how people—rulers and subjects—actually received the impressive variety of queenly images that circulated so widely. The Queen was certainly the object of satire in print culture; princely state rulers, for their part, may have basked in her reflected glory but depending on their own status and the politics of the day, they might find themselves competing with the uber-imperial monarch for estimation and authority locally and beyond. And while the man or woman in the street may have revered the Queen thanks to coins and postage stamps and public monuments, we have a long way to go before we can generalize about Indian opinion on the subject. Although Taylor does not mention it, two American missionaries, Elizabeth Andrew and Katharine Bushnell, published a sensational book in 1898 called The Queen’s Daughters in India, connected with Contagious Diseases Acts campaign. These particular “queen’s daughters” were Indian prostitutes caught up in a system of venereal disease regulation which involved medical inspection and other forms of bodily intrusion and violation. These spectacularly degraded figures operated in ironic and discomfiting counterpoint to the Raj’s illustrious monarch, all in the service of Christian feminist opposition to imperial policies—hardly the kind of publicity anyone in Whitehall or Delhi would have wanted for an imperial sovereign cast as the embodiment of unblemished motherhood and widowhood.
Queen Victoria was famously anti-suffrage. In many ways, she rose above the gender politics, imperial and otherwise, of her day. But as with all modern celebrity, once you are out there, you are available to all comers. Your image can be appropriated by friend and foe alike; imitation may not be the most pleasing form of flattery; and neither you nor your handlers have control over the spin. That the Queen was as intentional in her self-promotion as her ministers is hard to read with any accuracy; her agency goes in and out of view. That the Raj was a place where the pleasures and dangers of political celebrity were rehearsed and tested at multiple scales makes Empress compelling and instructive reading. This is especially true at a moment when the House of Windsor is engaged in a global branding campaign of its own, designed to repurpose the Queen’s family for a postcolonial, newly nationalist and utterly unforgiving media-savvy age. Meghan Markle might do well to take a page from this book.
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