What it shows
A durbar was the term used in Mughal India for a meeting of the ruler’s court or council and was adopted by the British to refer to a ceremonial gathering to demonstrate loyalty to the crown. The Delhi Durbar of 1903 was arranged by the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, seated on the elephant leading the procession in the painting. It was the second such occasion; a previous Durbar in 1877 had proclaimed Queen Victoria as Empress of India. The artist of this painting, Roderick MacKenzie, was commissioned by a former Viceroy of India, Lord Roberts, who had organised the 1877 Durbar. Following Victoria’s death in 1901, this second Durbar in 1903 marked the declaration of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as Emperor and Empress of India. The king and queen did not attend but were represented by Edward’s brother, the Duke of Connaught who is riding on the second elephant in the scene.
The procession winds past the north side of the magnificent Jama Masjid, a Mughal-era mosque in Delhi with a large dome and towering minarets. On the parapets and within the arches of the mosque are British and European observers, many of whom are shaded under parasols. The steps of the mosque and the grounds alongside the procession teem with Indian onlookers. The most important figures - the Viceroy, the Duke of Connaught and the Indian princes – ride in the procession on richly decorated elephants. Soldiers from British and Indian regiments march within the procession and line the route. The timeless image in the painting, with the British presented as heirs to the Mughal emperors and the rightful rulers of India, disregards underlying currents of anxiety about Britain’s empire at this time.
The British Raj in the late 19th and early 20th century
In the 19th century, India became critical to Britain’s global economic and political dominance. After the Indian uprising of 1857, the British Government took direct control of India from the East India Company, which dissolved soon after. Large regions were governed directly, while others remained as ‘princely states’ where indigenous princes, such as Maharajahs, Nizams and Nawabs, continued to be nominally heads of government, but the British exerted significant political control. Administration was dominated by British officers, with large numbers of Indians employed as clerks and in the lower rungs of government. While access to education was increasing for the Indian population, racial and social barriers prevented Indians from taking a greater political role. In 1885, the Indian National Congress was founded with the aim of securing representation in government for educated Indians. Within a few years, their objective had shifted to achieving independence from Britain. In 1905, Lord Curzon announced the partition of Bengal, separating the administration of the Muslim-dominated eastern areas of the province from the western regions, where Hinduism was the dominant religion. This move was interpreted by Indians as a British policy of divide and rule by setting different indigenous groups against each other. Bengal was reunited in 1911 but partition inspired mass political protest which would become a key feature of the Indian fight for independence.
Britain and the Empire 1885 – 1910
The late 19th century is known as the era of high imperialism when Britain’s empire continued to grow and large regions of territory came under British control as other European nations established their own overseas empires. The so-called Scramble for Africa culminated in the Berlin Conference in 1885 when representatives of European nations agreed upon the boundaries of territories they controlled in central and eastern Africa. Simultaneously, control from London was being contested in other parts of the empire. The second Anglo-Boer war in South Africa from 1899 to 1902 was fought between the British and Afrikaners. Although Britain ultimately won the war, it stimulated critiques of British imperialism and many people in Britain and abroad were shocked by the harsh tactics adopted by the British forces, including the use of concentration camps. Canada, New Zealand and Newfoundland all become self-governing territories known as dominions in 1907. The Union of South Africa, with an Afrikaner first prime minister, became a dominion in 1910. Elsewhere, concepts of race were being challenged. In 1892, Dadabhai Naoriji became the first Asian to be elected as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons in London. In Britain, questions of empire, race, class and self-representation were widely debated, inspired by groups such as the Suffragettes and the movement for Irish Home Rule. The almost timeless image of British supremacy exhibited in the Delhi Durbar must therefore be understood in the wider context of an emerging anxiety over British imperialism.
Information about the artist from a forthcoming exhibition in Mobile, Alabama, USA.
Academic article by Julie Codell: On the Delhi Coronation Durbars, 1877, 1903, 1911.
About the Delhi Durbar
Photographs and basic information of the Delhi Durbar.
Short video: The Delhi Durbar
Film of the Delhi Durbar (silent, 2 mins).
Longer video: The Delhi Durbar
Longer film of the Delhi Durbar with Indian music in the background – 5 minutes approx.
East India Company
Short film on the origins of the East India Company.
The British in India
Short essay on the British in India 1858 – 1947.
Radio programme (1913)
Radio programme on the Empire in 1913 examining the great spectacles and the tensions simmering.
Radio: The 1857 Rebellion
In Our Time from BBC Radio: three historians of imperialism discuss the Rebellion.
Radio: Legacy of the British Empire
Another relevant Our Time episode covering the legacy of the British Empire.