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Queen Victoria's Empire : History : Passage to India


Passage to India

Scene from a Passage to India
Scene from a Passage to India
On the same day in May 1856 that Queen Victoria held a review in Hyde Park at which she distributed the first Victoria Crosses, earned in the Crimea, she learned of the likelihood that many more medals were in the offing. Indian troops -- Sepoys -- in the subcontinent had mutinied. The news from India, with the "cruel suspense" (as she put it) of weeks of delay in securing information, as telegraphic communication was incomplete, had come just as she was pressing her prime minister, Viscount Palmerston, and the Army secretary, Lord Panmure, to do something about the "defenseless state" of Britain itself in the aftermath of post-Crimea military retrenchments. Suddenly, penny-pinching to reduce taxes had to be abandoned. The commander-in-chief of forces in India, General George Anson, was reported dead. Palmerston had to rush a replacement, Sir Colin Campbell, who departed the next day, on the long voyage around the Cape to a situation bound to be very different when he arrived from anything he knew as he embarked.

With a confident grasp of the military problems he would encounter, in part because of the harsh lessons learned from the Crimean experience, Victoria and Albert -- Campbell had been Albert's choice for the Crimea -- pressed upon the suddenly timid prime minister a realistic strategic view. After sweeping across the map from the original localities of the mutiny to the large population centers into which it had spread, Victoria (coached by her husband) concluded, "Our troops are sure to remain victorious against the Sepoys in the open field, if numbers be not too disproportionate, if they be not badly led, or physically reduced by sickness or fatigue." (She expected, at the least, the last, and possibly all three.) The difficulty for Campbell, she suggested, would be "to try to get a proper 'ensemble' into the military movements, and this will hardly be the case unless an army be formed at Calcutta strong enough to operate from thence with certainty upon the parts of the country in revolt." The Queen cautioned, "Our military reinforcements, [units] dropping in one by one, run the risk of being cut up by being sent on to relieve the different stray columns in distress." These, she implied, were expendable. Then she went on to puncture Palmerston's complacency about reinforcements already en route "which are to give a favorable turn to affairs." Had he considered, she asked, "that the first [reinforcements] which were dispatched [other than soldiers deployed in China] will arrive only in October? The time lost in the arrangements . . . brought their departure to July. There will be, therefore, two whole months . . . when the Indian Government will get no relief whatever, while fighting, marching, &c., lose . . . often as much as 500 men in a day."
Families walking to work.
Families walking to work.
Mary Evans Picture Library


Impatiently, Victoria insisted that "early decisions" were necessary immediately on his arrival, not temporizing "in the vain hope that matters will mend." A few weeks later, exasperated by timidity in Whitehall and in Parliament, she felt compelled to "repeat" that the measures taken were "not commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis." There was no excuse, she warned the stubborn Palmerston, for false economies. "Financial difficulties don't exist; . . . and this appears hardly the moment to make savings on the Army [budget] estimates." To the long history of mismanagement, incompetence, penuriousness, confused responsibility, and indifference, already the source of national embarrassment in the Crimea, were added, in India, guilt on the scale of the subcontinent. Ever since the reign of Elizabeth I, under the transparent cloak of a private merchant company, Britain had exploited teeming subject races occupying vast tracts of southern Asia. The East India Company, prospering under a feudal royal charter, was gradually relinquishing its political powers to the Crown; nevertheless, it was still landlord and tax collector, and paid the bills for the British-officered army that maintained a semblance of order. Overseeing the directors of the Company by the 1850s was a Cabinet minister in London; and the Governor General, ostensibly its appointee, was in fact designated by the Government.

Beneath the unrelenting sun, Indians toiled for a few farthings a day, under Company and civil-servant employees for whom India was largely the safety-valve for British excess population at home, from younger sons to superfluous daughters. Sepoys -- Indian infantrymen serving under British officers in regiments supported by Company funds -- represented five-sixths of the quarter-million troops in India. The rest were in Queen's regiments, British in origin but in effect hired out to serve an Indian tour of duty.
Scene from a passage to India
Scene from a passage to India


Early in 1857, a rumor raced among sepoy troops that their new rifles, lighter-weight Enfields, required greased cartridges, for which the manufacturer had used beef fat or -- even worse -- pork fat. Contact with either meant defilement for Moslems as well as Hindus -- even their rejection from the marital bed. The concern about pollution with unclean grease was real; to save a few pennies, some British weapons manufacturers had substituted for the prescribed mutton fat (acceptable to Indians of whatever caste or faith, but not to vegetarians) bullock's or hog's fat.

When, that April, some troops began to reject the defiled cartridges, 85 sepoys at an encampment near Calcutta were court-martialed for insubordination. Their sentences were 10 years' hard labor, in chains, on road building crews. In the heat and dust of India, it was in effect a death sentence, and when the men were publicly fettered to warn off further dissidents, mutiny was certain. Once it flared, first as an attempt to free the prisoners, the violence spread across India.

One of the first deaths (which came, incidentally, from cholera) was General Anson. Epidemics and massacres would take more lives on both sides than conventional skirmishes. All the belated news from India seemed bad, and Victoria vented her fury on the prime minister. "The Queen must say," she wrote to Palmerston on August 25, 1857, "that the Government incur[s] a fearful responsibility toward their country. . . ." To her uncle Leopold she reported, "There is not a family hardly who is not in sorrow and anxiety about their children, and in all [social] ranks-India being the place where everyone was anxious to place a son!!" No better line could have been written to explain the importance of India in the Victorian era. With the raising of the last significant siege in December 1857, the Queen wrote to Lady Canning, wife of the Governor-General, "Thank God! Lucknow is saved!" Charlotte Canning, one of the Queen's former Ladies of the Bedchamber, had been commanded to send her full reports every six weeks. Reporting on everything but her husband's infidelities, Lady Canning's letters and drawing were, Victoria told her, the most useful information from India, as administrative messages were guarded and self-protective. After Lucknow, the mutiny began to dissipate, although as late as 1859 thousands of rebels still held out on the borders of Nepal. By then it had long been clear, even to the most laissez faire politicians in distant London, that the East India Company was obsolete. Legislation to take royal control of India through a viceroy received Victoria's signature on August 2, 1858, the Queen writing to Canning (who became viceroy, with an earldom) that direct Government responsibility for "that enormous Empire which is so bright a jewel of her Crown" was "a source of great satisfaction and pride."
Painting of the massacre at the Kanpur Ghats
Painting of the massacre at the Kanpur Ghats
British Library


With the Prince of Wales's royal progress through India in 1875-76, and Victoria's new title as Empress of India, engineered at the same time by Disraeli, the subcontinent became the key imperial colony, a position ratified, also, in 1875 by the prime minister's arrangement to purchase, for the Government, shares in the Suez Canal owned by the bankrupt Khedive of Egypt. It gave Britain a controlling interest in that crucial passage to India, opened in 1869. The British obsession with India, which was romantic as well as political and economic, would last until independence, and the tumultuous partition into Islamic Pakistan and mostly Hindu India, after World War II in 1947.

The Queen-Empress never visited India herself, but would bring the vast country to her in many symbolic ways, importing Indian manservants, having an Indian secretary teach her sufficient Hindi to enable her to write diary entries in the language, having an Indian dish on most of her dinner menus, wearing and displaying jewels from India, such as the famous Kohi-noor diamond from the Punjab, and adding a large "Durbar Room" to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, replete with art and artifacts from the country, so that she could step into her own India. So, now, can visitors to Osborne.


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