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

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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

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