5 Things I Learned About Colonial India

My main character, one Miss Victoria Ponsonby-Courtney, was born in India in 1873. Although my story takes place in England and Victoria was sent to England to live at age six, she carries a few memories of her Indian childhood and they help illustrate her insecurity–in herself and her familial and social position. It’s not a huge portion of the story, but it’s important to the character and the era.

Queen Victoria wasn’t the Empress of India for nothing, after all, and the 1890s, when Victoria lives, was very much a time of the British Empire.

1. Colonial India wasn’t just India.
What the British referred to as “British India” included modern-day Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Burma. At first, the British East India Company set up trading posts in India, along with other countries like Portugal, Holland, and France. By the mid-eighteenth century, the East India Company and its army defeated Mughal emperors, other Europeans, and local princes alike and began to establish presidencies all over India–the big ones being the Presidency of Bengal, centered around Calcutta (Kolkata), Presidency of Bombay (Mumbai), and the Presidency of Madras (Chennai).

The Company was fond of treaties with local rulers and then the outright “annexing” of land. Oh, and battles.

2. The East India Company did not directly rule all of British India.
There were (and are) many princes and rulers all over regions of India. Some of them were deposed by the British, others were made to sign bad treaties, and still others were allowed to keep ruling their lands by signing treaties or depending on the Brits to defend them. These places were called the princely states.

When the British government took over the governance of India, they had eight large provinces, a few minor provinces, and the princely states.

3. The East India Company was abolished after the Sepoy Revolt of 1857, so the British government assumed control. 
Basically, the Company did what colonizers do:
They had a large standing army of Indian soldiers and a large civil service, but they didn’t bother to understand (or particularly care about) the culture of their soldiers. In 1857, the army received new rifles with new cartridges. In order to rip the cartridges of gun powder and shot open, one had to bite the thing to get the powder and shot out, then jam it down the rifle. Well, the cartridge pouch was lined with grease and rumors began in the Bengal Presidency Army that the grease was pig grease (which offended the Muslim soldiers) or cow grease (which offended the Hindu soldiers).

It was the spark that set off the revolt, but there were, of course, plenty of other factors: lack of pay, less promotion in the army, forcing men to serve in foreign territories. For the civilians, it was the everyday things that pissed them off: the British economic policies, the justice system, the missionaries, etc. By 1858, the Company was disbanded and the British government took over direct rule and had to massively reorganize the administration, including the army.

4. The British who went to live in India were mostly middle class.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, stories abounded about Englishmen who went to India, found some jewels or owned a bunch of tea plantations, made a lot of money, and came back to England to live as nabobs.

According to The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, not many aristocrats–even the ones who were losing money and land in the Victorian era–went to India to either work, loaf around, or make a fortune. The Indian Civil Service required an examination, an education in law, governing, and history as well as learning the language of whichever region they wanted to work in. And that’s the key word: work.

Aristocrats didn’t work. Many of them had a pretty crappy education as well, so it was mostly the middle classes who entered the civil service or the other aspects of the running of the Indian subcontinent, like trading or the railroads or other institutions.

5. A lot of famous Brits were born in India…
…And sent to live and be educated in England as very young children. This became more common as the nineteenth century wore on because the family either wanted the kids to receive a very English education or because of a fear of the tropical diseases or because it was what people did.

The Secret Garden, anyone?

William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair, was born in Calcutta in 1811 and sent to England in 1816. His mother stayed in India, remarried, then returned to England, but the separation was said to have affected Thackeray for the rest of his life.

Vivien Leigh was born in Darjeeling in 1913 and sent to England to be educated at age six.

Alan Turing was born in England to parents with connections to India–his father was in the Indian Civil Service and his mother’s father ran the Madras Railways. His parents left he and his brother with a foster family in England and traveled between India and England for many years. Alan developed a stammer as a child, but was clearly a boy genius and later invented machines and broke codes during World War Two.

Merle Oberon was Anglo-Indian (of mixed white and Indian descent) and born in 1911 in Bombay. She concealed her mixed heritage her entire life, saying that she was from Tasmania and that all her vital records had gone up in flames. She began her acting career in Calcutta before leaving for Europe.

George Orwell was born in Motihari (Bihar) in the Bengal Presidency in 1903. His father worked in the Opium Department. His mother was born in Burma. At age one, his mother took him and his sisters back to England and they lived together with only very brief visits from his father. He returned to British India—to Burma–in the 1920s to be an imperial police officer.

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865 and sent to England at age five, where he boarded with a family. He was to return to India to work as a magazine editor in Lahore and became one of the most famous authors of his day. Many of his works–The Jungle Book and Kim–take place in India.

As an adult, Kipling wrote:
“In the afternoon heats before we took our sleep, she (the Portuguese ayah, or nanny) or Meeta (the Hindu bearer, or male attendant) would tell us stories and Indian nursery songs all unforgotten, and we were sent into the dining-room after we had been dressed, with the caution ‘Speak English now to Papa and Mamma.’ So one spoke ‘English’, haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in.”

6 thoughts on “5 Things I Learned About Colonial India

  1. Gosh, all the research you have to do! Good thing you enjoy it. 🙂 YAY, Secret Garden! Lol! I'm half obsessed. This makes that part of the story make so much more sense! Same with A Little Princess. She was also born in India.


  2. Other than reading the pretty boring book–The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy–it hasn't been too bad. This is a pretty minor part of this story, to be honest, and it's more there as background as anything, but it gives me insight into Victoria's character.


  3. India is a huge subject and there's too much to delve into and since this story isn't set there, I don't want to get too deep into the research–so this is just skimming the surface, enough to inform my character.


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