The Victorian origins of Will and Kate in India

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at India Gate, a memorial to Indian service in the First World War, its foundation stone laid by the Duke of Connaught in 1921 Credit: @PARoyal
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at India Gate, a memorial to Indian service in the First World War, its foundation stone laid by the Duke of Connaught in 1921
Credit: @PARoyal

As the Duke of Duchess of Cambridge visit south Asia this week, doing the sorts of things that royals are expected to do whilst abroad in the former empire – attend fancy social events, commemorate, inaugurate, and patronize, play cricket, and so on – the celebrity-obsessed global media has enthusiastically followed their every move. An even cursory glance at the tweets tagged #RoyalVisitIndia reveals the performative and visual character of the royal tour – so essential to its purpose since the first visits of the nineteenth century. William and Kate’s touring ancestors would find much familiar in their itineraries, the ceremony, the responses. It’s a quite odd thing, when we think about it, considering nearly seventy years of Indian independence from British rule. Of course, the present Queen’s dedication to the Commonwealth and maintaining the monarchy’s role in the former empire — as chronicled in Philip Murphy’s Monarchy and the End of Empire — explains much of it. But the Victorian history of the royal tour is of equal significance.

The first royal tours were the brainchild of Prince Albert. In 1860, he sent, at the invitation of the Canadian legislature, his older son Albert Edward the Prince of Wales to Canada to inaugurate the Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence River and, at the invitation of Sir George Grey soon-to-be (again) governor of the British Cape Colony, his second son Prince Alfred to tip the first truck of stone into Table Bay and symbolically commence the construction of the breakwater. While different tour architects attached different purposes and significance to the tours, the general motive was to encourage bonds of loyalty and attachment to the British monarchy on colonial subjects, to awe indigenous people into obedience, and to encourage young royals to learn to be useful. Both Albert Edward and Alfred traveled extensively in 1860, meeting dignitaries, greeting cheering crowds and, on occasion, protestors, and participating (sometimes invented) indigenous ceremonies.

Delhi Durbar of KIng George V, 1911 Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Delhi Durbar of KIng George V, 1911
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The first royal visit to India was by Alfred in 1869. The most dramatic was probably King George’s coronation durbar in 1911. But, here I want to highlight the Prince of Wales’ 1875-76 visit to India and idea of the royal tour of a contested space, where various historical actors — among them governors, settlers, indigenous rulers and activists —  staked claims on the meaning of the ritual and their relationship with empire and the monarchy. Even today, the royal tour is no stranger to protest or apathy. As one Twitter user so eloquently explained, in a response to the coverage of this week’s royal visit in Indian Express:

The 1875 tour was contentious from the beginning. Queen Victoria — reluctant to send her son and the heir to the throne abroad — complained that she heard little of the arrangements, though “the newspapers [were] full of them.”[1] The funding was hustled through the Commons by the Disraeli government with the support of William Gladstone. The republican Reynolds’s Newspaper complained of “the rattle of the royal begging box.”[2] In Trafalgar Square, Charles Murray stood on the edge of the fountain, forbidden by the police to speak from the lions at the bottom of Nelson’s Column, and cried out that “the working men had no objection to the Prince of Wales leaving England–(‘Let him go!’)–indeed, the whole royal family might go, ‘and never come back’–(cheers and laughter)–but he objected to their going at the people’s expense.”[3]

Prince of Wales in India, 1875 Credit: Library of Congress
Prince of Wales in India, 1875
Credit: Library of Congress

In India, local communities funded the festivities and tributes of the visit. The collection of voluntary subscriptions on part of local organizing associations to fund tributes to the prince were procured by “extortion and oppression” and demands for “minimum donations.”[4] According to several testimonies, voluntary subscriptions were cajoled out of everyone from the princes to the poorest Indians by bullying and force: “scores of poor clerks, who could ill afford it, had to come down handsomely or incur the displeasure of their chiefs.”[5] Moreover, the South Asian intelligentsia of the independent press questioned the costs of the tour on “this poor country,” as the taxed riches of India flowed out.[6] The native press criticized exorbitant spending by the government and the princes if not directed toward “some permanent institution” as a monument to the visit.[7] They argued that fixing roads and bridges, draining dirty, bacteria-infested water, and performing other improvements, even if only within the prince’s eyesight, would be far more useful than fireworks. Beyond the “profuse distribution of empty titles,” the authors of Native Opinion wondered, “has the prince to do nothing in return for the millions that will be spent in his honor, except the giving of a few paltry presents?”[8]

The Indian press also attended to the treatment of the Indian princes. In spite having been “wronged, robbed, and degraded,” they argued, the South Asian princes remained loyal to the British Crown.[9] This was hardly Ornamentalism. In exchange for their loyalty, princely elites were treated with contempt and abuse. They were pushed and prodded by colonial officials during the royal tour (the Prince of Wales famously complained to his mother about the treatment of Indian princes by their British handlers). In the book, I examine the experiences of two young princes — the sickly Nizam of Hyderabad, who was excused from participation after extensive bullying from the British government in India, and the Maharaja Gaekwad of Baroda, whose predecessor had been sacked by the British government after he was accused of poisoning the British resident’s sherbet (As Laura Benton amusingly notes, “Reading [the resident’s] correspondence, one begins to suspect that there were others besides the Baroda ruler who took pleasure in imagining him dead”).

While protest and contestation were features of the Victorian royal tour, other responses were in fact more common. The most curious to the modern mind are claims on imperial belonging and citizenship. Of course, actual citizenship did not exist in the nineteenth-century empire. But the Indian press  challenged the mercantilist suppression of Indian industry; the “despotism” of British magistrates and the police; the inaction of the British government to widespread famine; and, the heavy burden of taxation.[10] During the tour, they challenged the costs and purposes of the events and defended the Indian princely elite, who they saw as victimized by the visit. Despite this contestation, they generally expressed a loyalty to the empire and a hope that the queen’s son would convey India’s plight to his great mother and to the British people. They did not challenge the empire but envisioned a better and most just future within it.

9780719097010Charles V. Reed is an Assistant Professor of History at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. He is also the managing editor of H-Empire. Royal Tourists, Colonial Subjects, and the Making of a British World, 1860-1911 was published by Manchester University Press in February; it is available from Oxford University Press in the Americas.


[1] Queen Victoria to Lord Salisbury, May 27, 1875, Prince of Wales in India, 1875-6, vol. 1, 1875, RA VIC/MAIN/Z/468/11.

[2] Reynolds’ Newspaper, July 11, 1875.

[3] Reynolds’s Newspaper, July 18, 1875.

[4] Native Opinion, August 29, 1875.

[5] Native Opinion, December 12, 1875.

[6] Hindu Hitoishiní (Decca), August 7, 1875, Report on Native Papers, no. 33 of 1875, 5; Som Prákash (Changripottah), August 9, 1875, no. 33 of 1875, 6; Sáptahik Samáchár (Ranaghat), Report on Native Papers, no. 33 of 1875, 7.

[7] Native Opinion, October 17, 1875; Hindu Ranjiká, August 18, 1875, Report on Native Papers, no. 35 of 1875, 1.

[8] Native Opinion, October 17, 1875.

[9] Native Opinion, October 17, 1875.

[10] These sentiments were most clearly articulated by the Calcutta-based Amrita Banar Patrika on the eve of the royal visit. Amrita Banar Patrika, August 5, 1875, Report on Native Papers, no. 33 of 1875, 4.