Global Trade and Empire

 

The early relationship between Britain and India was based on trade. As the East India Company expanded, its political control increased. The Company introduced to the UK raw materials such as tea, jute and rubber, essential to Britain’s development as an economic powerhouse. The importance of cross-empire trade grew during the time of the British Raj in India, and was vital to Britain’s rapid industrialisation. The coming of steam-powered liners, and the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean and Red Sea, reduced the journey times between both countries. In Britain, trade exhibitions, advertisements, educational pamphlets and magazine publications created a glamorous and exotic idea of an India of opulent palaces and maharajas. Below the surface lay the stark realities of workers’ lives.

Mirror of British Merchandise

Cover of the Mirror of British Merchandise magazine, 1893
Cover of the Mirror of British Merchandise magazine, 1893

The Mirror of British Merchandise and Hindustani Pictorial News was an Urdu language magazine published in the late 1800s. Its cover illustrates vividly the colonial relationship between India and Britain. The magazine advertised goods that were manufactured with Indian raw materials in Britain but sold back at higher prices to the Indian market. It also featured news, articles and pictures highlighting India’s close ties with Britain.

1924 Wembley Empire Exhibition

1924 newspaper advertisement for the Indian Pavilion, British Empire exhibition
1924 newspaper advertisement for the Indian Pavilion, British Empire exhibition

Numerous ‘empire exhibitions’ showcased in spectacular fashion the resources, arts and crafts from Britain’s dominions and colonies across the world. They typically displayed a glamorised public face of the British Raj in India. At the 1924 Wembley Empire exhibition, for example, the Indian Pavilion was modelled on Mughal architecture, with features from the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan’s tomb for his wife in Agra, and Delhi’s famous mosque, the Jama Masjid. The Indian pavilion featured an Indian restaurant and displays of Indian cotton, a panorama of a tea plantation, foodstuffs, minerals and ores, as well as silks and textiles. The British Empire Exhibition transformed the Wembley area of London for good – the exhibition’s purpose built ‘Empire Stadium’ would later become the well-known Wembley football stadium.

Tea

1892 newspaper advertisement for the tea company Lipton
1892 newspaper advertisement for the tea company Lipton

One of the major commodities exported from India to Britain was tea. The East India Company began commercial tea production in Assam in the 1820s. A growing industry, by 1900 there were around 4000 tea estates in north and south India and over 2000 in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). This popular drink generated a hugely profitable industry, and a tea culture emerged in Britain with its own quintessentially English customs and rituals. The advertisement shown above from the tea manufacturer Lipton, promises a cuppa direct from ‘the tea garden to the teapot’. The romanticised image depicts a beautiful Indian plantation worker consuming a comforting beverage. Clearly it does not reflect the harsh realities of life as a tealeaf picker.

P&O Steam Liners 

1924 Newspaper advertisement for P and O and British India Lines, connecting the empire
1924 Newspaper advertisement for P and O and British India Lines, connecting the empire

Steam-powered liners, the aeroplanes of their time, were the lifeline of the British Empire, ensuring the steady flow of people and goods to the remotest corners of the world. Travel on the liners was often seen as glamorous, but the harsh conditions for the lascar sailors working in the hold and firing the engines attest to a different reality.

Lascars

The hard labour and commitment of lascar sailors ensured the smooth flow of trade, vital to the growth of the empire. The common perception among ship-owners and the public was that lascars were essential as they could ‘stand the fiercest heat of the tropics better than any other race’. In reality, however, it was their low wages that made them an attractive labour force: while Indian lascars were officially British subjects, they were employed on ‘Asiatic’ contracts, which meant that they received much lower pay than their European counterparts.

Collage featuring lascars at work and in their lodgings on shore, Illustrated London News, 1906
Collage featuring lascars at work and in their lodgings on shore, Illustrated London News, 1906

Lascars’ working conditions were hard, leading some to jump ship and settle in British ports. They were the earliest Asian working class in Britain.

A lanternslide of the Head Lascar posing on the deck of a P and O Liner
A lanternslide of the Head Lascar posing on the deck of a P and O Liner

Ayahs

Asian nannies, known as ayahs, played an essential part in the lives of British families in India. Families returning to Britain often brought ayahs with them to take care of the children on the long sea voyage. Highly experienced and resilient women, some ayahs travelled between both countries several times; for example Ms Antony Pareira made the journey on 54 occasions.

Passport of an ayah, 18 June 1934
Passport of an ayah, 18 June 1934
The ayahs usually had no contract of employment, despite offering a crucial service to their employers. Some could even be dismissed with no pay during the journey, while others were discharged on arrival. Ayahs were often left stranded, the families failing to honour the promise of a return passage. While awaiting re-employment, they normally lived in squalid lodging-houses, and many had to resort to begging.
The Ayahs Home in Hackney East London, London City Mission Magazine, 1921
The Ayahs Home in Hackney East London, London City Mission Magazine, 1921
Christian charities were concerned for the welfare of the abandoned ayahs, leading to the founding of The Ayahs’ Home for Indian and Chinese Nannies, opened in Hackney in East London in 1900. The home provided refuge for the ayahs, finding many of them new placements with families travelling out to India. Run by the London City Mission, it had 30 rooms, and housed around 100 ayahs each year.
Ayahs inside the Ayah's Home in East London
Ayahs inside the Ayah's Home in East London

 Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria's Indian Secretary

Abdul Karim, who taught Queen Victoria Hindustani
Abdul Karim, who taught Queen Victoria Hindustani

In 1876 Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, further highlighting the grandeur and importance of India as an imperial possession. It was commonly known as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’. In 1887, within days of the Golden Jubilee celebrations, Abdul Karim and several other Indian servants arrived at the Royal Household. The 24-year-old was ‘tall with fine serious countenance’. Originally a clerk in Agra, Queen Victoria favoured him, promoting him first to the position of munshi, her teacher of Hindustani, and in 1894 to the post of ‘Indian secretary’, his role being to assist with her ‘boxes’ and correspondences.

Letter from Lord Ponsonby about Abdul Karim.
Letter from Lord Ponsonby about Abdul Karim.

He was rewarded with titles and cottages on the grounds of Royal palaces; Victoria even had his portrait painted. Karim's rise within the household caused controversy from government officials, but Queen Victoria supported him in all cases. The closer they became, the more the court tried to drive them apart, fearing that he had access to political papers and would pose a threat to the state.

The discomfort of the court led to several attempts to malign his character, as the above letter by Lord Ponsonby shows. Victoria defended him, accusing the court of ‘race prejudice.’ After Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, he was sent back to India and his papers were burnt. No further royal servants from India were appointed.