Cricket, curry and cups of tea
As Queen Victoria’s friendship with her Indian attendant is explored in the new film Victoria and Abdul, Shompa Lahiri examines how the queen helped popularise India’s cultural influence on all areas of British society, from polo to pyjamas
Shompa Lahiri explores how Queen Victoria helped popularise India’s cultural influence on British society
They cooked up Indian curries, played Indian sports, draped themselves in Indian textiles and even voted for Indian politicians. The Victorian era saw Britons falling in love with the culture of the subcontinent, and it seems that the people took their prompt from the very top. Queen Victoria herself declared a great interest in the empire’s largest possession and greatest trading partner, so helping to popularise Indian delicacies, fashion, jewellery and architecture.
The genesis of this passion for India can be traced back to the 16th century, when British merchant adventurers began to import spices, dyes and, most importantly, textiles from India via newly discovered sea routes. From 1600, the East India Company controlled this trade, and from the 1750s the commercial interests of the company were consolidated into outright political and territorial domination. After a massive rebellion against foreign rule in 1857, the British government decided to place India under the direct control of the crown the following year. Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877.
Victoria’s interest in India sprang, at least in part, from her Indian assistant Abdul Karim, who came to Britain in 1887 to serve the queen. He rose within Victoria’s affections, as well as in status to the title of ‘Munshi’ (teacher or clerk), teaching the queen Hindi and Urdu and advising on all matters concerning India.
Karim was one of a steady stream of
Indian migrants coming to Britain during the 19th century (estimates suggest more than 110,000), including domestics, maritime workers, petitioners, performers, royalty, social reformers, students and travellers. Concentrated in Britain’s port cities, especially London, Indians were visible in Britain’s streets, docks, buses, trains, Inns of Court, medical schools, universities, exhibitions and parliament.
Britons were most attracted to those aspects of Indian culture that they could readily consume, such as food and textiles. But this relationship wasn’t always mutually beneficial. While consumers profited from innovations in textile production in Britain, British machine-made textiles destroyed the Indian textile industry that had inspired them, and impoverished Indian weavers.
For good and bad, Indian influences were discernible in all aspects of Victorian society, from novels such as the The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins to politics, sports, popular culture, fashion and diet. Turn the page to find out more…
Indians were visible everywhere from Britain’s docks and buses to Inns of Court and medical schools
FAR LEFT: An advert from the 1890s exhorts Britons to “drink and enjoy” Lipton’s teas LEFT: Indian princes and British Army officers in a polo team, c1880 BELOW: An 1888 painting of Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria’s Indian assistant