It’s all in the timing. But, for Edward, Prince of Wales, the timing just wasn’t right.
When His Royal Highness stepped off the Royal Navy warship Renown at Bombay’s Apollo Bandar on 17th November 1921, he had arrived on a four-month public relations exercise. It was something England did from time to time to shore up support among the subjects in her colonies and familiarize future monarchs with the outposts of the Empire.
On this occasion, the Prince of Wales had come as the British Empire’s ambassador, to thank India for the significant role she had played during the First World War. The Indian subcontinent had provided the equivalent of 146 million pounds from its revenues for the war and over 1.5 million recruits, of which more than 70,000 lost their lives.
The royal visit was also meant to rekindle a sense of loyalty among Britain’s subjects, at a time when the call for freedom from colonial rule was gathering momentum. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which had taken place about two and a half years ago in April 1919 had shaken India and Britain as nothing had until then, even with a great many colonial cruelties from extreme taxation and killings, to the triggering of massive famines. The massacre had resulted in many moderate Indians to abandon their previous loyalty to the British and become nationalists. There was also resentment at being co-opted to fight a war that wasn’t India’s to fight.
When the Prince of Wales stepped off the Renown, he was welcomed with a grand ceremony at the Gateway of India in Bombay.
It was attended by British officials and many Indian princes. He was going to tour more than 35 cities, from Bombay to Calcutta, and Madras to Karachi.
His stay in these cities had been arranged by the rulers of the Princely States, who though independent, were eager to show their loyalty to the Crown. The gates of many of these states were decorated with the royal crest and motto ”Ich Dien” meaning ‘I serve’.
The royal party was invited to polo matches, horse races and dinner parties hosted in its honour. In return, the Prince awarded titles and medals to the rulers. On the tour, the Prince also met veterans and soldiers of the Indian army, congratulating and thanking them for their participation in the war.
He spent his Christmas in Calcutta, staying at Raj Bhavan, then known as Government House. It was here on 28th December 1921 that the Prince officially inaugurated the impressive marble building we know as the Victoria Memorial. Interestingly, its foundation stone was laid by his father George V, in 1906, during his royal tour as the then Prince of Wales.
While the British government in India made sure that Prince Edward received an enthusiastic welcome wherever he went, the festivities betrayed the real spirit of the Indian people. On July 28, just four months earlier, Mahatma Gandhi had called for a boycott of the royal visit as part of his Non-Cooperation Movement.
As a result, the common man’s India was marked with demonstrations, shut-downs and strikes, and political protest meetings.
When the Prince was scheduled to visit Madras, the Tamil newspaper Swadesamitran, in its issue dated 11th January 1922, screamed in its headlines: “When the Prince lands, it will be a trial for the Madras residents to show whether they possess a sense of self-respect or not. While many eminent people are suffering in jails, will you go and witness fireworks and accord cheers?”And thus, His Royal Highness was greeted with hartals and empty streets.
Across India, the message was clear – the Prince, as an ambassador of the British Crown, wasn’t welcome. The royal visit, aimed at improving relations between Britain and its Empire, was a major failure. It was a reminder that the era of the Raj was over.
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