the great rebellion of 1857 -- 5/08/18

Today's selection -- from India: A History by John Keay. India rebelled against the British in 1857, a year stands out as one of the most important in the history of India. For more than 100 years prior to that point, the British conquest and rule of India had largely been through British companies. But with this crisis, the British government took overt control, and Queen Victoria became the "Empress of India." The ceremony in Delhi to recognize this was attended by 84,000, but not the queen herself. In fact, she never visited India. And though many reforms were put in place to prevent a recurrence, this new, more overt control would eventually fail as well, and India would become independent in 1947:

"Measured in terms of concessions the Great Rebellion was far from being a disaster for the insurgents. Obviously the British made sure that military vulnerability would never again be the undoing of the Raj. By 1863 the Indian component in the Bengal, Bombay and Madras armies had been reduced by about 40 per cent and the British component increased by nearly 50 per cent. This gave an Indian-British ratio of less than 3:1, which was henceforth considered the bare minimum; in 1857 it had been more like 9:1. ... Rapid expansion of the railway system and of the telegraph further precluded the danger of mutiny. The 250 kilometres of track laid by 1856 had become 6400 by 1870 and sixteen thousand by 1880. Moreover in 1869 the opening of the Suez Canal slashed journey times between Europe and India, while the 1870 completion of an overland telegraph link brought closer co-ordination of imperial policies and more supervision from London. ...

"In recognition of the fact that the mutineers had genuinely feared conversion to Christianity, missionary activity was curtailed and the public funding of mission schools reduced. Queen Victoria's proclamation of 1858 specifically disclaimed any 'desire to impose Our convictions on any of Our subjects' and ordered British officials to abstain from interfering with Indian beliefs and rituals 'on the pain of Our highest displeasure'. ...

The Delhi Durbar of 1877. The Viceroy of India is seated on the dais to the left.

"Existing treaties with India's five hundred princes were now to be 'scrupu­lously maintained' while the detested 'doctrine of lapse' did just that; it lapsed. With few exceptions, the princes had remained loyal during the rebellion; in British eyes such loyalty now commanded a higher premium than enlightened rule.

"The status of the princes was further enhanced by a new constitutional relationship between Britain and India. The royal proclamation of 1858 announced a decision of the British Parliament that all rights previously enjoyed by the East India Company in India were being resumed by the British Crown. Victoria thereby became Queen of India as well as of the United Kingdom, and India's governor-general became her viceroy as well as the British government's chief executive in India. The fiction of Company rule thus finally ended. Long as irrelevant as the Mughal, the Company now shared his fate as a casualty of the Rebellion. Instead of pining away in Rangoon, it would linger on for a few more years in a London office 'unhonoured and unsung, but maybe not altogether unwept'.

"So India had a new sovereign; and just as in Britain the monarch's position was buttressed by a hierarchy of hereditary nobles and by the award of honours, so in India similar structures were created. The Star of India, a royal order of Indian knights, was introduced in 1861, and the first tour by a member of the British royal family took place in 1869. ... Only when this structuring was complete was the keystone installed. In 1876, on the advice of Disraeli, the Queen announced to the British Parlia­ment that, satisfied that her Indian subjects were 'happy under My rule and loyal to My throne', she deemed the moment appropriate for her to assume a new 'Royal Style and Titles'. The style, it was later revealed, was to be imperial and the titles, in English, 'Empress of India' and, for the benefit of her Indian subjects, the rather unfortunate 'Kaiser-i-Hind'.



John Keay


India: A History. Revised and Updated


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2000, 2010 by John Keay


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