In 1614, the British lawyer and MP Thomas Roe (later Sir Thomas), was sent to India by King James 1 to obtain security assurances from Mughal Emperor Jahangir for the East India Company, which was struggling to develop trade in the sub-continent in the face of Portuguese aggression.
By a happy coincidence, 1614 was also the year that the first Indian set foot on British soil. He was brought over by the Chaplain of the East India Company, baptized in the City of London and given the name ‘Peter’, personally chosen by King James.
While many an Englishman had visited modern-day India prior to 1614 – the first is believed to be Thomas Stephens, a Jesuit missionary who travelled to Portuguese Goa in 1579 – Sir Thomas’ visit and the arrival of ‘Peter’ in England marks the beginning of formal relations between India and Great Britain.
2014 thus marks the 400th anniversary of a relationship that, whilst often fractious and weighed down by history, is remarkable for the immeasurable way it has enriched the peoples and cultures of the two nations.
But whilst the history of Britain in India – from the moment the first British trading boats set sail for the sub-continent in 1591 – is well documented, the reciprocal history is less well so.
That’s an anomaly that author and historian Dr Kusoom Vadgama was determined to set right.
The North London-based ophthalmic optician was born in Nairobi and educated at the city’s British-run Government Indian Girls’ High School.
At the height of the ‘Quit India’ movement of the 1940’s , she was an active and prominent member of the Indian Voluntary Force, inspired by Subhash Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army.
In 1953, Dr Vadgama travelled to the UK to study medicine. Her real interest however, was the study of the relationship between India and Great Britain, in particular the influence of Indians on Britain.
The result is ‘India in Britain’, published in 1984 and containing a priceless anthology of articles and news reports of Indians in Britain, from 1852 – six years before Queen Victoria was declared Supreme Empress of India – to 1947, the year celebrations erupted outside India House in London after Indian Independence.
To mark the 400th anniversary of Sir Thomas’ passage to Agra, Dr Vadgama is spearheading ‘Project 400’, an initiative that celebrates the innumerable contributions Indians have made to British culture and society.
In this, the first in a series of extracts from ‘India in Britain’, the UKAsian the life and times of the Princess Gowramma, the daughter of the ruler of an Indian princely state who arrived in Britain in 1852.
Queen Victoria’s reign witnessed the ‘Golden Age’ of the British Raj as it expanded across the Indian sub-continent and its power became more entrenched. As part of its expansion, a number of Princely states were annexed by the British and a slew of rulers deposed.
As part of the agreements between the British and the states, a number of rulers travelled to England where they were received warmly by the increasingly Indophile Victoria who indulged and entertained them no end.
Among those deposed was Chikka Veera Rajendra, the last king of the tiny Kingdom of Coorg, in present day Karnataka.
Veera Rajendra was forced into exile in Benares after the British annexed Coorg in 1834. Princess Gowramma was born in Benares in 1841 to one of Veera Rajendra’s consorts.
The princess was a favourite of her father’s who wished her daughter have a western education and in 1852 the duo became one of the first Indian royals to travel to England.
The Illustrated London News reported on 17 July 1852:
“The ex-Rajah of Coorg is one of the native princes whose kingdoms have fallen by their own internal dissensions and weakness into the power of this country. The ex-Rajah, subsequently to the conquest of his dominions has been residing in the city of Benares, a sort of state prisoner under the control of the East India Company, but possessing an establishment of Ranees and servants with an income of about £6000 per year.
“The Princess Gouramma (sic) is the offspring of one of his Highness’s favourite Ranees, a native of the Coorg country. The Princess was born at Benares on a Sunday in February 1841 and her mother died two days afterwards; a circumstance which seems to have led to an increased affection for the child on the part of the ex-Rajah, who, having forfeited his native caste, determined that his favourite daughter should be reared in the principles of the Christian religion and hence his Highness’s visit to England.
“This being one of the few instances on record of the abandonment of the Hindoo faith for the truths of the Christian religion is an event more than commonly satisfactory to a country whose relations with the great continent of India are so vast and intimate as our own and we cannot doubt that our readers will be pleased to possess the ‘vraisemblance’ of the interesting Princess and her father.
“The ex-Rajah has a family of eleven children, the eldest being a son nineteen years of age. In speaking of them, his Highness shows a marked preference for the Princess Gouramma, who he describes familiarly as a ‘pigeon among crows’, ‘the fairest of the clock’ &c.
“The interest which her Majesty has shown for the Princess and her Royal condenscension in consenting to stand sponsor for the child cannot fail to have proved highly gratifying to the ex-Rajah.”
The princess was just 11 when she was presented to Queen Victoria who grew very fond of the girl.
The Queen and her royal consort Prince Albert were both present at the young Princess’ baptism which was performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury inside the private chapel of Buckingham Palace.
Much to the astonishment of her household, the Queen became Gowramma’s godmother and even granted her the name of ‘Victoria Gowramma’.
The Queen also appointed a number of ‘sponsors’ for the Princess, including one of her ladies-in-waiting as well as a lawyer attached to the East India Company to groom and educate Victoria Gowramma in the ways of English life.
The Illustrated London News reported:
“When the ex-Rajah gave up his child into her Majesty’s charge, he addressed to her the following instruction and prayer: ‘My dearest daughter – endeavour to gain every day more and more the grace, and to merit the love and kindness of her most gracious Majesty the Queen; that thereby all Europe, India and the rest of the world, may hear and be pleased with your good conduct and fame. May heaven bless you, and keep you always under its divine protection and special care! This is my advice to you my dearest daughter and my most earnest prayer to the Almighty on your behalf.”
The Queen wasn’t the only person taken with the little Princess.
“The Princess is an interesting and intelligent child. Her complexion is but little darker than that of many Europeans, and her features are regular and pleasing. Her age is only eleven years but she is far in advance of that period in intelligence. In addition to the Hauree and Hindostanee tongues, she is acquiring English. The Princess is named after one of the Paga divinities”, the Illustrated London News story continued.
“A younger sister, the Princess Gungahmah, was married or rather betrothed to the Nepaulese Prince Jung Bahadoor a year ago. By an agreement between the ex-Rajah on the one hand and the board of directors of the East India Company and the Board of Control on the other, the Princess Gouramma has been placed under her Majesty’s protection to be educated in the princes of the Church of England in this country and her majesty having fully considered the matter has appointed Mrs Drummond (lady-in-waiting) to take charge of the child.”
The young girl was even invited to Osborne House, the Queen’s sprawling holiday home on the Isle of White, where she spent the holidays with Victoria and her brood. The Princess was taught house-keeping, cooking and gardening at Osborne House where she also became particularly close to Princess Alice, the Queen’s third child.
Osborne House is still home to a beautiful, life-like marble bust of Princess Victoria Gowramma, created in 1856 by the Queen’s favourite sculptor Baron Carlo Marochetti.
The Princess became such an important part of the Queen’s family that Victoria is said to have (unsuccessfully) played cupid between Gowramma and Maharajah Duleep Singh – the last Maharajah of Punjab – when he was forced into exile in London in 1854.
The Maharajah however was not too keen on the Indian beauty who eventually married Colonel John Campbell, a handsome but elderly gentlemen who had served with the East India Company. The couple had a daughter, Edith.
Princess Victoria Gowramma died in 1864 at the tender age of 23 from a severe bout of Tuberculosis.
She was buried at the Brompton Ceremony in Southwest London with an engraving on the head-stone chosen by her godmother underneath a cross, having lived a short but remarkable life: an Indian ‘Pocahontas’.