Indians lived and died in London much before the birth of the British Empire and the East India Company, disrupting the commonsense that Britain and India were only tied by relations of the oppressor and oppressed.
It all began in 1599, over the price of peppercorns. But it led to the subjugation of an entire subcontinent before the sun finally set on the British Empire in the mid-20th century.
Arup K Chatterjee’s Indians in London is a deep dive into the multiculturalism that arose from the yearnings of an Empire, which for 350 years saw trade and power flow in one direction but a cultural and human exchange that influenced England as much as it left an indelible impression on India.
At first, it was a trickle that swelled into a tide. So from simple folk like lascars, servants and merchants, to social reformers, munshis, poets, revolutionaries, politicians and even Indian princesses, they all walked the streets of London, taking a bit of India with them.
In April 1831, the socio-religious reformer, linguist, journalist, and founder of the Brahmo Samaj, Raja Rammohun Roy, arrived in Liverpool, along with his adopted son Rajaram, two servants and several cows for his daily milk consumption. Roy was the first known Hindu of an established social standing, often claimed as the first Brahmin, to visit England. He was sent as an envoy of the Mughal Emperor Shah Akbar II to petition before the Company’s directors to increase his annual pension. By the end of his stay in England, Roy was successful in swelling up the Emperor’s coffers by £30,000 annually. His name had of course already reached the English press, owing to his aggressive campaign against Sati, his continued advocacy of renewal of the abolition bill passed by the William Bentinck Government in 1829 and the memorandum he had submitted to the Parliamentary Committee on Indian Affairs in 1830. For most British people, ‘he was India incarnate’.
Upon his arrival in London, Roy was consensually lionised across the Whig and Tory ranks, women’s rights campaigners and London society in general. Besides his several other accomplishments, the Raja’s acquaintances in England often alluded to his consummate command over the English language. That went down as one of the first attributes that London would celebrate for the coming century, whenever it recognised an Indian worth his salt—or an Indian with guts worth hating.
The fame of Rammohun Roy had preceded him,’ wrote a reviewer, ‘but the official character in which he came, together with the state of public affairs, necessarily brought him forward to public notice even more than might otherwise have been expected.’
Roy was well known in London’s Unitarian circles, by 1818, when several of his essays on Vedanta appeared in issues of the Monthly Magazine, alongside works by Jeremy Bentham, P.B. Shelley, William Godwin and Thomas More.
One of these was even passed on to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and although the two never met in person, Roy’s writings continued to opiate the English poet. With the gradual proliferation of his works during the Bentinck administration, England and Europe were beginning to come to terms with Roy’s ‘Hindoo Reformation’ of Bengal. He was considered to be a fierce Vedantin, critical of the concept of the Trinity. In popular English imagination, he was seen as a convert to Protestantism. When he finally arrived in London, The Satirist broke its principle of avoiding religious matters by publishing a review of his essays that had previously appeared in England in 1824. London’s theological enthusiasm around Roy soon became a transatlantic phenomenon, as his Unitarian stardom trickled into the American press, whetting popular spiritual appetites in Boston and New York. The American Unitarian Joseph Tuckerman, who met Roy in London, was also a key broadcaster of his views in the United States. In addition, Roy had now put on the garb of a free-trade advocate. That too was in no way scandalous to Londoners. The Times described him as ‘decidedly in favour of the present system of government as administered through the East India Company, and is not backward in acknowledging the benefits which India has derived under it.’ Whether or not he was against British policies, he never gave an impression of being against British rule in India.
To keep up appearances, he even ‘seemed unwilling to avow the radical principles he had espoused in Bengal.’ On the day of his arrival, the Liverpool East India Association deputed John Crawfurd to book a hotel for Roy in London. Crawfurd, who was a well-known peasant rights and free-trade campaigner, was responsible for spreading Roy’s views on Indian economy in England, and introduced him to the editors of several radical periodicals. Crawfurd had booked rooms for Roy at Long’s Hotel in Bond Street, but the Raja turned up at the Adelphi Hotel in Charing Cross.
Meanwhile, David Hare, a friend of Roy in Calcutta, had recommended him to his brothers in London. They helped put him up at 48 Bedford Square— an address marked today by a blue plaque, characteristic of postcolonial London. At the hotel where he stayed, visitors left behind their cards. A public figure of the stature of Bentham personally called upon him. Roy was introduced to Bentham by one of the English philosopher’s close associates, Colonel J. Young, rather glowingly: ‘Not only has he no equal here among his countrymen, but he has none that at all approach to equality, even among the little “sacred Squadron” of all disciples whom he is slowly and gradually gathering around him.’ Bentham waited late into the night, finally leaving a note for the Bengali visitor. The father of Utilitarianism would later recommend to the Parliamentary Candidate Society to have in the House of Commons, ‘Rammohun Roy as a representative of British India, a half caste, and a negro, in order to subdue the prejudices of colour, and to hold out encouragement and hope to the rest of these races.’ Politicians of the day did not really take Bentham’s suggestion very seriously, largely owing to his unconventional anti-imperial beliefs. However, under his influence, Joseph Hume, a member of the Parliamentary Candidate Society, did much to persuade the Raja to join Parliament. The campaign never quite matured owing to Roy’s ambivalent religious and political ideology.
Roy came to London furnished with letters of introduction from Bentinck, who was, although untrusting of people in general, remarkably well-disposed towards the Raja, despite his disestablishmentarianism. In London, Unitarians, Anglicans, Quakers, singers, members of the Royal Asiatic Society, actresses, reverends and aristocrats compelled Roy to their company, even forcing him to dine on nine consecutive nights. Roy had a formidable grasp over the Upanishads, besides Arabic and Persian. He charmed London’s audiences with his expositions on how Sanskrit was, in fact, the mother of Greek, and the roots of the New Testament were contained in the Vedanta philosophy of ancient India. Roy’s earliest biographer, Sophia Dobson Collet, was only ten years old during his stay in London. She was to grow a keen interest in the workings of the Brahmo Samaj and 19th-century Hindu reform, while compiling The Life and Letters of Raja Rammohun Roy, which was published posthumously in 1900. In studying Roy’s life, Collet went on to write significant tracts on Brahmo philosophy and Brahmo reformers, thus, keeping the memory of the Bengal Renaissance well in currency in late-Victorian Britain.
Excerpted with permission from Indians In London (2021) by Arup K Chatterjee and published by Bloomsbury India. You can buy the book here.
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