Images of British India

Map of Hindostan, or British India

An 1862 map showed British possessions in Hindoostan, or India.
An 1862 map showed British possessions in Hindoostan, or India. Getty Images

Vintage Images of The Raj

The British Empire's jewel was India, and images of The Raj, as British India was known, fascinated the public at home.

This gallery provides a sample of 19th century prints showing how British India was depicted.

An 1862 map depicted British India at its peak.

The British first arrived in India in the early 1600s as traders, in the form of the East India Company. For more than 200 years the company engaged in diplomacy, intrigue, and warfare. In exchange for British goods, the riches of India flowed back to England.

Over time, the British conquered most of India. The British military presence was never overwhelming, but the British employed native armies.

In 1857-58 an astonishingly violent revolt against British rule took months to subdue. And by the early 1860s, when this map was published, the British government had dissolved the East India Company and had taken direct control of India.

In the upper right corner of this map is an illustration of the elaborate Government House and Treasury complex in Calcutta, a symbol of the British administration of India.

Native Soldiers

Sepoys of the Madras Army
Sepoys of the Madras Army. Getty Images

When the East India Company ruled India, they did so largely with native soldiers.

Native soldiers, known as Sepoys, provided much of the manpower that allowed the East India Company to rule India.

This illustration depicts members of the Madras Army, which was composed of native Indian troops. A highly professional military force, it was used to subdue rebel uprisings in the early 1800s.

The uniforms used by native troops working for the British were a colorful blend of traditional European military uniforms and Indian items, such as elaborate turbans.

The Nabob of Cambay

Mohman Khaun, Nabob of Cambay
Mohman Khaun, Nabob of Cambay. Getty Images

A local ruler was depicted by a British artist.

This lithograph depicts an Indian leader: "nabob" was the English pronunciation of the word "nawab," a Muslim ruler of an area in India. Cambay was a city in northwest India now known as Kambhat.

This illustration appeared in 1813 in the book Oriental Memoirs: A Narrative of Seventeen Years Residence in India by James Forbes, a British artist who had served in India as an employee of the East India Company.

The plate with this portrait was captioned:

Mohman Khaun, Nabob of Cambay
The drawing from which this is engraved was made at a public interview between the Nabob and the Mahratta sovereign, near the walls of Cambay; it was thought to be a strong likeness, and an exact representation of the Mogul costume. On that particular occasion the Nabob wore no jewels, nor any kind of ornament, except a fresh-gathered rose on one side of his turban.

The word nabob made its way into the English language. Men who had made fortunes in the East India Company were known to return to England and flaunt their wealth. They were laughingly referred to as nabobs.

Musicians With Dancing Snake

Exotic musicians and a performing snake
Exotic musicians and a performing snake. Getty Images

The British public was fascinated by images of exotic India.

In a time before photographs or films, prints such as this depiction of Indian musicians with a dancing snake would have been fascinating to an audience back in Britain.

This print appeared in a book titled Oriental Memoirs by James Forbes, a British artist and writer who traveled extensively in India while working for the East India Company.

In the book, which was published in several volumes beginning in 1813, this illustration was described:

Snakes and Musicians:
Engraved from a drawing taken on the spot by Baron de Montalembert, when aid-de-camp to General Sir John Craddock in India. It is in all respects an exact representation of the Cobra de Capello, or Hooded Snake, with the musicians who accompany them throughout Hindostan; and exhibits a faithful picture of the costume of the natives, usually assembled in the bazaars on such occasions.

Smoking a Hookah

English employee of East India Company smoking a hookah
English employee of East India Company smoking a hookah. Getty Images

The English in India adopted some Indian customs, such as smoking a hookah.

A culture developed in India of employees of the East India Company adopting some local customs while remaining distinctly British.

An Englishman smoking a hookah in the presence of his Indian servant seems to present a microcosm of British India.

The illustration was originally published in a book, The European In India by Charles Doyley, which was published in 1813.

Doyley captioned the print thusly: "A Gentleman With His Hookah-Burdar, or Pipe-Bearer."

In a paragraph describing the custom, Doyley said many Europeans in India are "absolutely slaves to their Hookahs; which, excepting while sleeping, or in the early parts of meals, are ever at hand."

An Indian Woman Dancing

A dancing woman entertaining Europeans
A dancing woman entertaining Europeans. Getty Images

The traditional dancing of India was a source of fascination for the British.

This print appeared in a book published in 1813, The European In India by the artist Charles Doyley. It was captioned: "A Dancing Woman of Lueknow, Exhibiting Before a European Family."

Doyley went on at considerable length about the dancing girls of India. He mentioned one who could, "by the grace of her motions... hold in complete subjection... many scores of fine young British officers."

Indian Tent at Great Exhibition

Interior of luxurious Indian tent
Interior of luxurious Indian tent at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Getty Images

The Great Exhibition of 1851 featured a hall of items from India, including an opulent tent.

In the summer of 1851 the British public was treated to an amazing spectacle, the Great Exhibition of 1851. Primarily a colossal technology show, the exhibition, held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, in London, featured exhibits from around the world.

Prominent in the Crystal Palace was an exhibit hall of items from India, including a stuffed elephant. This lithograph shows the interior of an Indian tent which was shown at the Great Exhibition.

Storming the Batteries

The British Army storms the batteries in India
The British Army storms the batteries at Battle of Badli-ki-Serai near Delhi. Getty Images

The 1857 uprising against British rule led to scenes of intense combat.

In the spring of 1857 a number of units of the Bengal Army, one of three native armies in the employ of the East India Company, rebelled against British rule.

The reasons were complex, but one event that set things off was the introduction of a new rifle cartridge rumored to contain grease derived from pigs and cows. Such animal products were forbidden to Muslims and Hindus.

While the rifle cartridges may have been the final straw, relations between the East India Company and the native population had been degenerating for some time. And when the rebellion broke out, it became extremely violent.

This illustration depicts a charge a British Army unit made against gun batteries manned by mutinous India troops.

An Outlying Picket Post

British pickets manning a lookout post
British pickets manning a lookout post during the Indian uprising of 1857. Getty Images

The British were greatly outnumbered during the 1857 uprising in India.

When the uprising began in India, the British military forces were badly outnumbered. They often found themselves besieged or surrounded, and pickets, such as those depicted here, were often watching for attacks by Indian forces.

British Troops Hasten to Umballa

British reacted quickly during the 1857 rebellion
British reacted quickly during the 1857 rebellion. Getty Images

The outnumbered British forces had to move quickly to react to the 1857 uprising.

When the Bengal Army rose up against the British in 1857 the British military was dangerously overstretched. Some British troops were surrounded and massacred. Other units raced from remote outposts to join the fight.

This print depicts a British relief column which traveled by elephant, ox cart, horse, or on foot.

British Troops in Delhi

British Troops in Delhi During the 1857 Rebellion
British Troops in Delhi During the 1857 Rebellion. Getty Images

British forces succeeded in retaking the city of Delhi.

The siege of the city of Delhi was a major turning point of the 1857 uprising against the British. Indian forces had taken the city in the summer of 1857 and set up strong defenses.

British troops besieged the city, and eventually in September they retook it. This scene depicts revelry in the streets following the heavy fighting.

Queen Victoria and Indian Servants

Queen Victoria with Indian servants
Queen Victoria, Empress of India, with Indian servants. Getty Images

Britain's monarch, Queen Victoria, was fascinated by India and retained Indian servants.

Following the uprising of 1857-58, Britain's monarch, Queen Victoria, dissolved the East India Company and the British government took over control of India.

The queen, who was keenly interested in India, eventually added the title "Empress of India" to her royal title.

Queen Victoria also became very attached to Indian servants, such as those pictured here at a reception with the queen and members of her family.

Throughout the last half of the 19th century the British Empire, and Queen Victoria, held a firm grip on India. In the 20th century, of course, resistance to British rule would increase, and India would eventually become an independent nation.

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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "Images of British India." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Images of British India. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Images of British India." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).