The Imperial Assembly at Delhi: The Chief Herald [Major Barnes] Reading the Proclamation. . Artist: Lieutenant C. Pulley, of the 3rd Ghoorkahs. Source: Internet Archive web version of The Illustrated London News (10 February 1877): 137 [Click on images to enlarge them.]
s Robert Blake explains in his biography of Benjamin Disraeli, “proposals to adopt the imperial title for India had been in the air ever since the Mutiny. The plan can only be understood if the traumatic nature of that disaster is remembered” (539). In addition to creating what Blake terms a “lasting apprehension about the stability of British rule,” the 1857 mutiny made British rule seem especially vulnerable to Russia’s advance into central Asia. Since the “the Tsar was an Emperor,” Victoria, the head of the country opposing him in Asia, should be an empress. In other words, as Blake puts it, “Basically the Royal Titles Bill, like the Prince’s visit [to India], was a counter-blast to the threat of Russian invasion or subversion in India, a measure designed to reaffirm and symbolize British power” (540).
According to Blake, the bill granting Victoria the title of empress “was a case of Disraeli’s yielding to the Queen. Not that he disapproved of the contents, for he was all in favour of her becoming Empress of India; but the timing was inconvenient and he would have postponed it if he could. He did not wish, however, to cross his ‘Royal Mistress’, who had set her heart on the idea” (540)
Three Punch cartoons by John Tenniel: Left: The Queen with Two Heads. middle: Empress and Earl. Right: New Crowns for Old Ones. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
The Return of the Wanderer. His Wonder. The cartoonist in Fun depicts thr Prince’s shock on discovering his mother is now Empress of India.
The Queen and her Prime Minister were both surprised by the hostility to the idea “excited both in London society and in the Liberal Press, quarters seldom in harmony,” and part of the reason for the opposition lay with Disraeli, who made two blunders, the first of which was failing to “inform the Opposition in advance, as was the normal convention with regard to such legislation.” Secondly, Disraeli also “forgot to tell the Prince of Wales, who, returning from his tour, was understandably cross when he learned for the first time from the newspapers that he would one day be Emperor of India” (540). Although Queen Victoria “took the blame for both these omissions,” Disraeli nonetheless had a far more difficult time passing the bill than would have otherwise been necessary.
For all the fodder it provided for The Illustrated London News and cartoonists like John Tenniel, “whether it made any difference to the average Indian is very doubtful.”
Blake, Robert. Disraeli. New York: Anchor, 1968.
Last modified 30 December 2011