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The Viceroys, Episode 53 - 01/03/06


Court of Proprietors  at the East India Company (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Court of Proprietors at the East India Company
(Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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In 1858, while the Mutiny was still at large in Bengal, the Crown took the last powers from the East India Company. The immediate consequence was that the Governor-General assumed also the title, Viceroy. He was, effectively the monarch in India.

Not since the Moghuls had there been one man with such authority. This was the most powerful position in the whole empire. As one of them remarked: "It is certainly so that the emperor of China and I govern half the human race but we still find time for breakfast." His autocracy was rarely questioned and he ruled an India whose map was blotched in yellow and red. The red meant absolute rule. The yellow signified states where, nominally at least, the minor and major princes, the chiefs, ruled.

The footings of this power had been laid eighty years earlier when Warren Hastings became the first Governor-General. It was he who began the restructuring necessary for proper rule and developed education, the judiciary, social systems and most of all, the way the states were administered.

In spite of all the colonies scattered about the globe, by the 1870s India had become The Empire. Between 1774 when Hastings was appointed, and 1947 when Mountbatten left India, there were some 57 Governors-General and Viceroys. (Counting varies depending on numbers of stand-in Viceroys included and there were 58 if we cite the interim Viceroy in India between Mountbatten and the declaration of independence; 62 if we include Pakistan, which became a dominion and did not choose independence until 1955).

Some viceroys turned out to be ordinary when compared with grandees like Wellesley, Canning and Curzon. John Shore was, for example, thought immensely forgettable and "as cold as a greyhound's nose".

So important was this throne of power after the Sepoy Rebellion that there was talk that a prince might go to India as Viceroy. When, the imperial capital was moved to Delhi and a magnificent residence built for the viceroy, some considered this sign enough that a son or nephew of the Crown would suit India and Victoria. There was one part of the Establishment who would advise against that: the Cannings, Elgins, Curzons and the others were not going to let some prince stop them having the chance to go to India, to be treated as royalty for four or five years. No wonder Curzon never wanted to retire.

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Historical Figure

Lord Elgin (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Lord Elgin
(Getty Images)
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James Bruce, Earl of Elgin 1811-1863

James, the 8th Earl who became Governor of Jamaica at the age of 31 and Governor-General of Canada at 36. He was considered an accomplished colonial administrator. Famously, in 1857, while on his way to China, he altered course for India when he heard of the mutiny. He did go to China after the mutiny and set up treaty arrangements with neighbouring Japan. After an interlude as postmaster general in London, Elgin returned to China and then to India where he was appointed Governor-General and Viceroy in 1861. He died there in the Punjab.

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Did You Know...

Mountbatten was the viceroy closest to the throne because he was the great-grandson of Queen Victoria.

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Events of this episode took place in the Indian subcontinent region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

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Contemporary Sources

An observer compares Viceroys Canning and Elgin

Excerpt from the journal of Sir Richard Temple, 12 March 1862

"Twelfth of March, 1862. Canning looked pale, wan, toil-worn, and grief-stricken; the brow and forehead had indeed their inseparable dignity but complexion had become sallow, losing those hues which had so often lightened up his aspect on occasions of state ceremony. Elgin, on the other hand, came up gaily, ruddy in face, massive and square in forehead, buoyant in manner, and stalwart in frame, though short in stature."

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