by Claudia Willetts
The British interest in India began with commercial explorations in the sixteenth century, culminating on the last day of the century, with the granting of a royal charter to the East India Company by Queen Elizabetb I, according to The Development of the British Empire, by Howard Robinson. By 1610, the launch of merchant vessels trading to India under the aegis of the Company, was sufficiently important to be attended by King James I. An important step was taken in 1661 when Bombay was ceded to England by Portugal as part of the dowry of the Catherine of Braganza, Queen of the future Charles I.
A Wyatt Tilby discusses the stormy relationship between the Crown, Parliament and the East India Company over the twenty-five years between 1772 and 1798, in The English People Overseas. He mentions that commercial charters were personally granted by the sovereign, since all foreign matters were the traditional prerogative of the Crown. Parliament intervened on the premise that subsequent colonisation required representative institutions. In time power shifted to the Parliamentary side, primarily during this period.
By the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign, British sovereignty in India was direct in about three quarters of the whole, and indirect in certain States which continued to be ruled by Indian Princes, according to James Morris in Pax Britannica: The Climax of An Empire. Acting on Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s inspiration, the Queen styled herself Empress of India in late 1876, as we read in Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress, also by James Morris, and accordingly, she was seen as the spiritual successor of the imperial Moghul dynasty. Her elevation was celebrated with a Durbar or formal levee, 1 January 1877 in Delhi. Though the Queen did not attend, her Viceroy, Lord Lytton resplendently received homage from the Indian Princes in the most flamboyant pageant, a combination pseudo-feudal, pseudo-religious ceremony, that India had ever seen.
Another Durbar followed in 1903 arranged to proclaim King Edward VII’s coronation, presided over by the Viceroy Lord Curzon, although the King’s brother the Duke of Connaught, later Governor General of Canada, was present. The event was a triumph of organisation by the Imperial Viceroy, and was a resounding success, according to Marc Bence-Jones in Viceroys of India. Lord Curzon rode at the head of a picturesque elephant procession for the State entry into Delhi, New Year’s Day, 1903, watched by more than a million people, as told in India Britannica, by Geoffrey Moorhouse. Perhaps the most colourful description of the spectacle can be found in Farewell the Trumpets: An Imperial Retreat, by James Morris, who tells us that the British deliberately used the mystique of monarchy as an instrument of dominion through elephant parades, palaces and impressive durbars: trumpets sounded, drums rolled, guns fired, soldiers presented arms, plumes waved, elephants snorted, and jewels glittered. He also mentions that the impressive equestrian Durbar statue of Edward VII was removed and now resides as a centrepiece of Queen’s Park, Toronto. A third and last magnificent Durbar, was held in Delhi in 1911, in the presence of King George V and Queen Mary.
In 1961, the Queen made her first visit to India, following its Independence in 1948. Arthur Bryant wrote in The Illustrated London News: Royal Home-coming Number, March 1961, that the vast crowds were a popular tribute to the Queen’s grace of spirit and of person. The ILN’s Special Supplement shows the Queen visiting the Gandhi memorial, riding atop a majestically caparisoned elephant, viewing a horse race, meeting Sherpa Tensing, conqueror of Everest, and speaking to a crowd of half a million people in Delhi.