Empress of India: Exhibition explores Victoria’s relationship with subcontinent

Portraits of Queen Victoria (right) and Duleep Singh
Portraits of Queen Victoria (right) and Duleep Singh (left).

by AMIT ROY QUEEN VICTORIA was the “Empress of India”, but what did she really think of Indians and India? Kensington Palace, which is inaugurating a new exhibition on Queen Victoria on May 24 to mark her 200th birth anniversary, has consulted a number of historians, including Professor Miles Taylor of York University, author of Empress: Queen Victoria and India, who spoke last month to Eastern Eye. To get an Indian perspective, the palace also incorporated the “nuanced” views of Dr Priya Atwal, who did her PhD on Queen Victoria as a student at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She is now a teaching fellow in modern south Asian history at King’s College London. Atwal’s PhD thesis, which she has given to Polly Putman, curator of the forthcoming exhibition, focused on Queen Victoria’s relationship with the family of Maharajah Ranjit Singh and especially his son, Duleep Singh, to whom she was “deeply sympathetic”. “I spent a lot of time in the royal archives at Windsor Castle and at the British Library in London and various other archives trying to piece together correspondence, the diaries, the photograph albums,” the historian reveals. Atwal says although Queen Victoria became “Empress of India” in 1876, following the uprising in 1857, the monarch’s interest in India dated back almost to 1837 when she came to the throne. This was a passion she was to share with her scholarly husband, Prince Albert, from their marriage in 1840 until his death in 1861. She does not whitewash Queen Victoria but Atwal’s central thesis is that during her reign from 1837 to 1901 – only the current monarch has been on the throne longer – Queen Victoria did her best to make British rule in India as “benevolent” as possible. Atwal is wary of using today’s morality to judge…

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