The British Raj

Following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Government of India Act, 1858 led to the British Crown assuming direct control of India from the East India Company (EIC) in the form of the new British Raj. This extended almost all-over present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  There was opposition to the British in India. There are many facets and events that are important to this narrative, but we will only touch on a few aspects through the records here at the Record Office. Further reading on the subject is recommended below.

Within our collections are the records of the Dundas family of Aske Hall [ZNK]. This includes the papers of Sir Lawrence Dundas, 2nd Marquess of Zetland, who held significant positions within the British Raj. He was Governor of Bengal (1917–1922) and later secretary of state for India (1935–1940).

Lawrence Dundas in his office [ZNK X 10]

Sir Lawrence Dundas spent his career searching for a means of blending Indian culture and aspirations with the continuance of what he believed to be the benefits of British rule. He admired India’s ancient culture, which can be seen in his travel diaries and photographs. He travelled extensively in Asia and published several travel studies. The archive includes his travel diaries, political papers including letters to the King, reports on India and photographs he took of India, from the Taj Mahal to small village markets. Several of his photographs can be matched to the descriptions in his diary of his travels through India.

Peshawar [ZNK 28]

On January 8th, 1912, Dundas wrote of the city of Peshawar writing it was ‘an extremely picturesque setting for an extremely picturesque people. Some of the streets in the Hindu quarter so narrow that the tops of the houses which are somewhat out of the perpendicular almost meet across the thoroughfare’

Tom-Tom Player [ZNK 37]

On 30 December 1911, Dundas wrote about hunting a tiger “A couple of miles further on we found villagers assembled in force, and by 3pm the arrangements for the beat were made. I was excellently placed for a shot and for an hour and half I waited with nerves taught while the shouting of the beaters & the drumming of their tom-toms slowly grew louder as they advanced. Alas! The tiger had not stopped.’”

L: The Pearl Mosque, Delhi [ZNK 77], R: Muslims at prayer at the Pearl Mosque [ZNK 76]

The ‘Pearl mosque’ or the Moti Masjid is a white marble 17th century mosque inside the Red Fort Complex in Delhi, India. Dundas visited it in January 1912 and wrote in his diary that he “visited the fort with its many beautiful buildings, the two most beautiful being, in our opinion, the lovely inhabited at one time by the chief Sultana“, further describing “the former is of white marble purposely inlaid with precious stones and octagonal itself is surrounded on the side jutting out beyond  the line of the fort wall with a  balcony the roof of which is supported on delicate white marble pillars“, finally declaring: the Moti Masjidis a dream of white marble”.

Photographs as labelled by Lawrence Dundas, clockwise from top left:

  • Temple at Bhubaneswar [ZNK 52] 
  • A Hindu Man [ZNK 17] 
  • The Taj Mahal [ZNK 79] 
  • A High Priest of Lamaism [ZNK 24] 
  • A Village Shop [ZNK 31] 
  • Tropical River Scene [ZNK 3]  
  • Temple at Lake Pushkar [ZNK 56] (top centre)
  • Gateway into Delhi Fort [ZNK 68] (botton centre)

Within this collection of photographs, there is an image of the Devil Dancers at Darjeeling India, who guarantee to drive away evil. The photographer, M. Sain, had a studio in Darjeeling and was a resident there for forty years. 

Devil Dancers [ZNK X 10]

Nationalism emerged in the 19th century in British India partly as a reaction against the consolidation of British rule. The Indian Independence Movement refers to a series of historic events and resistance which had the aim of ending British rule in India. The final stages of the independence struggle, in the 1920s, was characterised by Mahatma Gandhi’s policy of non-violence and civil disobedience. His non-violent resistance helped end British rule in India and has influenced modern civil disobedience movements across the world. One of his most famous acts of civil disobedience occurred in 1930 when he led thousands of people on a 240-mile march to the sea where he picked up a pinch of salt. He did this in defiance of British colonial law which made it a crime for any individual in India to possess salt not purchased from the government monopoly.

Lawrence Dundas wrote many letters to the King of England describing the political and social situation in India during his time as Secretary of State. This letter to the King, from Lawrence Dundas in October 1921, references the resistance to British Rule from Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. The letter states how he previously informed the king of the ‘unsatisfactory manner in which the political situation was developing as a result of the continuous activities of Mr. Gandhi and those associated with him in the non-cooperation movement’. It suggested many Indian people had ‘child-like faith in him’ which had now been shaken and Gandhi’s tour of Eastern Bengal tested the effect of the British Empire’s ‘counter-propaganda’. The letter is an insight into what government officials thought of the movement, as Dundas states non-cooperators have over-reached themselves with by organising strikes and hartels and the violence of their methods has proved a two-edged weapon. He controversially accuses them of stirring up a great deal of passion and sowing the seeds of bitter racial feeling through violence of speech. Gandhi believed one of the evils affecting India was the Hindu-
Muslim disunity.

Letters to the King, October 1921 [ZNK X 10]

The British Raj lasted till 1947 when the Indian Independence Act was passed, this partitioned the British Raj into two countries. British, Muslim, and Hindu political leaders reached an agreement to create a Hindu-dominated India and a Muslim Pakistan. In 1971, East Pakistan declared its independence as Bangladesh.


Additional resources

The Record Office recognises that this is only a glimpse into Indian history and the British in India through the records we hold in our collections. It is by no means a full representation of the whole history of India and the British Raj. Whilst we have attempted to show the facts and reflect the information within our records, we recognise that we have not covered all sides of the story. We only hold a snapshot of history, which does not cover all perspectives. 

These are a few additional resources, which cover Indian history and may help to further your understanding of British rule in India from all perspectives: 

  • ‘Empire’ A podcast by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand
  • East India Company at Home, 1757–1857’ project website
  • ‘The Argumentative Indian, Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity’ by Amartya Sen (2005)
  • ‘India’s Struggle for Independence’ by Bipan Chandra (1989)
  • ‘The Last Mughal’ by William Dalrymple (2006)
  • ‘From Plassey to Partition and After’ by Sekhar Bandhopadhyay (2004)
  • ‘The Great Partition’ by Yasmin Khan (2007)
  • ‘History of Modern India’ by Bipan Chandra (2001)
  • ‘An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India’ by Shashi Tharoor (2016)