On June 22, 1948 King George VI formally gives up the title “Emperor of India”, half a year after Britain actually gave up its rule of India.
In this two part series I will discuss the history of the title of “Emperor/Empress of India” from it’s origin (Part I) to the abolishing of the title (Part II).
In 1858 after the nominal Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was deposed at the conclusion of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the government of the United Kingdom decided to transfer control of British India and its princely states from the mercantile East India Company (EIC) to the Crown, thus marking the beginning of the British Raj.
The EIC was officially dissolved on June 1, 1874, and the British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, decided to offer Queen Victoria the title “Empress of India” shortly afterwards. Victoria accepted this style on May 1, 1876. The first Delhi Durbar (which served as an imperial coronation) was held in her honour eight months later on January 1, 1877.
Constitutionally speaking, the emperor or empress was the source of all legislative, executive, and judicial authority in the British Indian Empire as the sovereign. However, the emperor or empress took little direct part in the affairs of government. The exercise of sovereign powers was instead delegated from the emperor or empress, either by statute or by convention, to a “viceroy and governor-general”, who in turn was appointed by the emperor or empress on the advice of the secretary of state for India, a British minister of the Crown.
The idea of having Queen Victoria proclaimed Empress of India was not particularly new, as Lord Ellenborough had already suggested it in 1843 upon becoming the governor-general of India. By 1874, Major-General Sir Henry Ponsonby, the Queen’s private secretary, had ordered English charters to be scrutinised for imperial titles, with Edgar and Stephen mentioned as sound precedents.
The Queen, possibly irritated by the sallies of the republicans, the tendency to democracy, and the realisation that her influence was manifestly on the decline, was urging the move. Another factor may have been that the Queen’s first child, Victoria, the Princess Royal was married to Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia, the heir apparent to the German Empire. Upon becoming empress, she would outrank her mother.
By January 1876, the Queen’s insistence was so great that Benjamin Disraeli felt that he could procrastinate no longer. Initially, Victoria had considered the style “Empress of Great Britain, Ireland, and India”, but Disraeli had persuaded the Queen to limit the title to India in order to avoid controversy. Hence, the title Kaisar-i-Hind was coined in 1876 by the orientalist G.W. Leitner as the official imperial title for the British monarch in India.
The term Kaisar-i-Hind means emperor of India in the vernacular of the Hindi and Urdu languages. The word kaisar, meaning ’emperor’, is a derivative of the Roman imperial title caesar (via Persian, Turkish – see Kaiser-i-Rum), and is cognate with the German title Kaiser, which was borrowed from the Latin at an earlier date.
Many in the United Kingdom, however, regarded the assumption of the title as an obvious development from the Government of India Act 1858, which resulted in the founding of British India, ruled directly by the Crown. The public were of the opinion that the title of “queen” was no longer adequate for the ceremonial ruler of what was often referred to informally as the Indian Empire. The new styling underlined the fact that the native states were no longer a mere agglomeration but a collective entity.