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After the Mutiny - From Queen to Queen-Empress

David Washbrook on how the trauma of mutiny was catalyst to a new imperial vision - courtesy of skilful Victorian public relations for the subcontinent.

The Great Mutiny and Civil Rebellion of 1857 had many effects on the relationship between Britain and India: but one of the most visible was a change in its forms of rulership and sovereignty. Until the Mutiny, the British had been content to leave the status of their government in India on a curious theoretical footing, which cloaked effective practice behind convenient fictions.

In formal terms, India was not directly ruled by the British Crown but by the English East India Company, which was a chartered monopoly corporation beholden, in the first instance, to its directors and shareholders. However, the Company gained its charter to trade from the Crown and (after 1773) from Parliament, which had progressively whittled away its commercial privileges and sought to direct its administration. But the Company's rights to exercise government in India did not derive from Britain in the first place, but from the Mughal emperor, whose nawab (deputy) it claimed to be. Yet as, since 1824, it had refused to present nazrana (gifts) to him and had kept him a virtual hostage in Delhi, it was arguable whether, by Indian custom, it continued to retain much of his izzat (honour). What status the Company's government possessed at law – and under whose law – was extremely unclear: its Governors- General issued legislation 'by authority’ without ever stating exactly whence this authority was supposed to come.

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