What was the Raj? - British Empire 1815-1914

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What was the Raj?
What was the Raj?
According to the Dictionary of the British Empire and Commonwealth, the term 'Raj' is s Hindu word meaning sovereignty and refers to the period of British rule in India from 1858 when the British government took over the running of India from the Honourable East India Company (HEIC) until the British withdrawal of the British in 1947 after which the term came into general use.

The Indian Rebellion
The Indian Rebellion or Mutiny was the result of the HEIC trying to bring about a social revolution in India , imposed from above without the consent of the Indian people. The Rebellion was eventually repressed with brutality. In Britain there was much debate as to the origins of the troubles. For some like Gladstone the Mutiny was God's judgement on England for not spreading Christianity more quickly but for others (including Disraeli) the rebellion was the result of the  poor administration of India and the attempt to radically reform the country by trying to westernise it far too quickly. Whether the Indians were at all capable of advancement was hotly discussed and continued to be so.

The Empire and its Moral Dimension
In the last quarter of the century the British Empire acquired a moral dimension, that of seeing itself as trying to improve those territories under its charge and the question as to whether the nation was capable of advancement was one that would continue to be discussed.
The End of the Rule of the East India Company
One lesson that was learned was that thousands of princes upon whom Britain relied to govern without the use of violence, had been alienated by the British reforms, particularly the Doctrine of Lapse, introduced by Viceroy Dalhousie in the years before the outbreak of the Rebellion. If the British were to remain in India they had to learn to keep themselves at a distance from Indian culture and religion and policies after 1858 reflected this new trend.

In 1858 the government of India was taken out of the hands of the HEIC with that organisation dissolved and put directly under the authority of the British government. Henceforth there would be a Secretary of State for India responsible to Parliament in London with a Viceroy in charge in Calcutta assisted by provincial governors, and assisted by councils. Following this takeover by central government, Queen Victoria  issued a proclamation in November 1858 in which she committed herself and the country ''to stimulate the peaceful industry of India, to promote works of public utility and improvement, and to administer its government for the benefit of all our subjects...''. This meant an end to the policies of trying to eradicate India's religions and customs and a reintroduction of an attitude of being more sensitive to the local customs of the Indian people. Grants to Christian mission schools were cut despite the opposition of evangelicals like Herbert Edwards who bemoaned that fact that heather customs were being respected.

Henceforth,  India's traditional leaders  were to become Britain's allies in the task of governing India. Those Princes who still had control of their traditional territories were strengthened in their privileges  and supported by the British with whom they now had common vested interests. Some  Princes found themselves being restored to their former lands and local landowners also found themselves  recipients of British patronage as the British sought to create a class of leaders who would remain loyal in return for having their ancient privileges confirmed.
Although the British policy of advancing westernisation came to a halt other reforms continued. Bridge building, telegraph laying and the extension of the railways became the focus of British efforts to develop India in a material sense.

Developing India became a priority
In 1857 railways in India were insignificant with just 288 miles of track. In 1859 a network was planned to cover the whole country (built and run by private companies but with profits guaranteed by the state). By 1900 almost 28,000 miles were open to traffic but progress in other areas was not as quick but did proceed steadily (in telegraph lines, irrigation ditches, sanitation and lighting, postal services and other public works). By 1900, 30 million acres out of 197 million were irrigated with 37,000 miles of metalled roads. The chronic famine situation though was eased but not resolved as the famines of 1876 and 1877 showed when inadequate rainfall led to 58 million people facing food shortages.
India was essential to Britain's Prosperity
Although Britain's mission in India was to develop it, it was not to be at the expense of the British economy. Had there been subsidies, tariffs or state enterprise there would have been greater development but in an age of greater economic competition from European competitors, Britain relied on India as a source for her exports. At a time when Britain was losing exports to Europe as France and Germany industrialised, India's import tariffs were lowered to enable British textiles to be exported to India which by the end of the century was receiving 60% of her imports from Britain. India was to become essential to Britain's economy and Britain to India's as Britain became the main buyer of Indian tea, raw cotton, rice and wheat.

Indian tea plantations
The British Mission
In this last quarter of the 19th century, as the British public took a greater interest in its empire, and Social Darwinism was in vogue, empire took on a moral dimension. Empire became the means by which the British people exported their civilisation to the rest of the world. The British felt it was their destiny to export their values which by virtue of their dominant position in the world were the values of a superior race, a super race. Ideas about racial superiority blended with ideas on imperial unity to produce a new ideology for the British in which they saw themselves as having a manifest destiny to improve their territories. There were those who believed that the Indians were incapable of improvement and even those who believed in the idea of British trusteeship could not bring themselves to consider a time when the British would have to withdraw from India. Even the most benevolent of colonial administrator would never admit to seeing a time of British withdrawal.

Government of India and the Role of the Indian Civil Service
The main purpose of the British in India therefore was to govern it and it was this aspect that marked the post Mutiny government as being different from the era of the HEIC. The men who administered India were the men of the India Civil Service. These men recruited in competitive examination since 1854 represented what came to be seen as essential British virtues - those of self sacrifice, duty, courage and dedication to their cause - the improvement of native people. They were dedicated to the task of governing India and to doing it from a distance. It came to be seen as essential to cultivate the mystique of the British as a superior race and to achieve this meant creating a segregated society that might be friendly to Indians but left them in doubt as to who was in charge. A gulf was created between the British and the Indians to  emphasise the difference in the races. The British had their own clubs with homes that had as many features from Britain as possible so that they did not have to adopt local customs and food. In many ways this mirrored the class system that existed back 'home' although it was possible to move into the higher classes in India. With there being no more than 150,000 British in India, their position was precarious. Fraternisation with locals was frowned upon as there was concern that should the gulf between the races narrow, locals would see the weaknesses in the British character and position. To help maintain this division between the races, the Indians were portrayed as inferior - as being untrustworthy, devious, corruptible - as being inferior justified the subjection of the Indian people. Whether this came from an ignorance about the Indian people or from a feeling that they must be belittled to prevent them feeling that equality was possible is difficult to say. There were relationships with Indian people but at all times it was important to make clear which was the superior race. Such relationships were usually between officer and sergeant or perhaps a district officer and a servant. With there being less than 2000 civil servants to administer an India of over 200 million people, most Indians did not see an English person, especially in the territories ruled over by the Princes which accounted for over a quarter of the total. It was essential that the Indian people believe that the British were in India to provide for their protection, often against their own Indian corrupt officials, and to aid their improvement. To develop the mystique of the British and to promote themselves as the superior race there were frequent displays of grandeur to dazzle and impress as when Victoria was formally declared Empress and 400 Indian princes were invited to Delhi for a display of imperial theatre involving 15,000 British soldiers.

No Fraternisation with Indians
One virtue valued above all others was loyalty to the group. Fraternisation with local people was regarded as likely to weaken the coherence of the white race in India and so was regarded as akin to treachery whist criticism was not taken at all well, particularly by those British people who came to India for a few months (likely the winter months when the weather was bearable) and return full of criticism of the lifestyle of the British. Kipling sums up the attitude well in his poem Pagett, MP which begins with the line
'Paget, MP, was a liar, and a fluent liar therewith'
Some of Kipling's most popular stories in his 'Plain Tales from the Hills' published in 1888 are about the Raj at this time. He writes of the qualities of the lonely district officer bringing civilisation to a remote spot by his character alone and also the difficulties of suddenly finding oneself in a strange land with all kinds of unforeseen dangers. He writes sensitively of the problems of 'crossing the boundary' when young lonely men took Indians as mistresses and the sometimes awful consequences. Kipling himself was known to wander the streets of Lahore late at night in the Summer heat and visit brothels. In his story of 'Without Benefit of Clergy' he hints at the possibility of himself having taken an Indian lover as a mistress.

Attitudes towards Indians
A group of Indians that seemed to engender universal hatred and were cause for mockery were the English educated ‘babus’. The pre-Mutiny regime had introduced schools for the Indians so that they could be educated in English and at some point in the future this would lead to them adopting English culture and be the examples for the rest of their nation to become westernised. Following the Mutiny when it was decided to abandon such attitudes and policies, the education of Indians in English continued. This resulted in a growing number of middle class Indians educated in English but still loyal to their own culture. This group of Indians provided the labour force for the government bureaucracy but also out of them came a growing number of Indians who were dissatisfied with the way the British were running the country. They were resented by the English who feared they might, with western ambitions, demand reforms which would weaken the system. Lord Lytton, Viceroy at the time of Victoria's acquisition of the title of Empress of India decided to limit the possibilities of power available to the 'babus' by creating a two tier system in the Civil Service with Indians excluded from the top levels. He also introduced a law to gag the Indian press. His successor, Lord Ripon, tried to make educated Indians the friends of the Raj by extending self government and removing censorship but when he tried to extend the powers of Indian judges (the Ilbert Bill)  by allowing them to try cases involving Europeans, he nearly had his own mutiny on his hands as the British community rebelled. He was denounced as a race traitor and the young Kipling who worked on a paper that supported the government found what it meant to be a member of the British community in India.
Indian Civil Service officers
ICS offices at work
The Rise of the Indian National Congress
The abolition of the HEIC meant the end of attempts to westernise India but the secondary schools continued to provide an English education so that by the 1880s half a million Indians had been taught in English and been exposed to British political ideas and there were 8,000 Indians with degrees, many of them trained in London. The growing Indian educated elite wanted to play a part in the government of India and believed that they could change India from within and do as good a job as the British. The rejection of the Ilbert Bill though caused huge offence amongst Indian seeing the rejection as a racial sleight and an assertion of racial superiority.

Out of the Ilbert Bill came the Indian National Congress. The bill was abandoned in 1883 and just two years later in 1885 the Congress was founded, by a Scottish radical Allan Hume. Hume had once been an administrator in the north west provinces but had left the service as he became frustrated with the lack of progress on Indians serving in the service. The Congress was founded with the aim of providing a forum for the discussion of issues relating to their country especially how to  improve the education of Indians and how to get more representation in the government. The Congress made little progress as it had little money, no popular appeal and no nationwide organisation but as numbers of educated Indians continued to increase more and more pressure was put on the Viceroy. The demands of Congress were seen by successive Viceroys as the beginning of self government

The mystique of British rule could only last for so long. Although the British continued to develop the country, famine and drought continued to produce starvation as in 1895 and 1896 when more died than from the famines of the 1870s. Despite the intentions of the Indian Civil Service it was handicapped by its own bureaucracy and full of red tape. Lord Curzon was able to accelerate the pace of its work during his viceroyalty but things returned to normal after he left. Educated Indians began to demand reform and with increasing numbers of radicals and socialists in the British parliament there was increased criticism from London.
Hume had formed the Indian National Congress in order to channel the energies of educated Indians towards ensuring the permanence of the British state by giving them a stake in the running of the country but very quickly Dufferin and subsequent Viceroys saw the Congress as a nuisance and increasingly as a threat to the stability of India. Government  did not want the loyalty of the collaborating classes - the clerks, telegraph operators, railway officers and the Princes - to be questioned. The more the government resisted the demands of the Congress the more vocal it became and the more support it gathered. English was spoken by the educated classes and this became the unifying  force which promoted a form of nationalism.
The British response was the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909 which granted Indian participation in the election of provincial and national councils but it was clear that parliamentary responsible government was not on the table. During the First World War the Indian people remained loyal to the British Empire but continued racist attitudes during the war made it certain that the impulse towards responsible government would only gather in momentum.
Updated May, 2019
  • The Making and  Unmaking of British India by Lawrence James, 1997
  • Dictionary of the  British Empire & Commonwealth by Alan Palmer, 1996
  • The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brendon, 2008
  • The British Empire, 1815-1914 by Frank McDonough, 1995

Peter Crowhurst

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