The Death of Queen Victoria: the Politics of Mourning for the British in the Gulf

Author

Gulf History and Arabic Language Specialist, British Library
Upon the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, instructions sent to the Native Agent at Sharjah on how to visibly mourn her death reveal aspects of the construction of empire via ritual mourning practices.

Although Queen Victoria never set foot on the soil of the empire over which she was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877, her presence was felt in many ways. Her face could be found on currency and postage stamps, while portraits and statues of the monarch were present in administrative buildings throughout the empire.

 

Hafiz Abdul Karim; Queen Victoria by Hills & Saunders carbon print, July 1893. Courtesy of: National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG P51
Hafiz Abdul Karim; Queen Victoria by Hills & Saunders carbon print, July 1893. Courtesy of: National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG P51

Indeed, her birthday on 24 May was recognised and considered a ‘momentous event’, an occasion worthy of celebration. At Residencies and Agencies, such as the headquarters of Britain’s colonial administration, the Political Residency A diplomatic office of the British Government established in the provinces and regions considered part of, or under the influence of, British India. in the Persian Gulf Historically used by the British to refer to the sea area between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Often referred to as The Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. at Bushire, the flag-staffs were ceremonially ‘dressed’, gun salutes were fired, and complimentary messages expressing ‘unity’ and ‘friendship’ were sent to local officials, such as Ahmad Khan, the Governor of Bushire.

When Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901, a sense of loss was not just felt in Britain but throughout the Empire. As John Wolffe notes in his book Great Deaths, reactions were ‘immediate and tangible’ with a ‘sombre mood and suspension of normal activity’. This atmosphere was reflected in the customs of mourning and commemoration – many of which the late queen had been associated with when mourning her own husband, Prince Albert – that were undertaken throughout the empire to mark her death.

Mourning: Instructions to a Native Agent

Once news of the monarch’s death had reached the British Residency A diplomatic office of the British Government established in the provinces and regions considered part of, or under the influence of, British India. at Bushire, details were transmitted to its network of native agents on both the Arab and Persian littorals, including Khan Bahadur ‘Abd al-Latif, Britain’s Residency A diplomatic office of the British Government established in the provinces and regions considered part of, or under the influence of, British India. Agent on the Trucial Coast The historic term used by the British to refer to the Gulf coast of Trucial Oman, now called United Arab Emirates. at Sharjah, in modern-day United Arab Emirates. W. S. Davis, First Assistant to the Political Resident A senior ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul General) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Residency. , wrote:

It is with profound regret that the Political Resident A senior ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul General) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Residency. and Consul General has directed me to announce to you the death on the 22 of January 1901 of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India.

Extract of letter No. 24 from W. S. Davis, First Assistant to the Political Resident at Bushire, to Khan Bahadur 'Abd al-Latif, Residency Agent at Sharjah, dated 26 January 1901 / 5 Shawwal 1318. IOR/R/15/1/753, f. 116
Extract of letter No. 24 from W. S. Davis, First Assistant to the Political Resident at Bushire, to Khan Bahadur 'Abd al-Latif, Residency Agent at Sharjah, dated 26 January 1901 / 5 Shawwal 1318. IOR/R/15/1/753, f. 116

While this solemn news was to be communicated to the Trucial Coast The historic term used by the British to refer to the Gulf coast of Trucial Oman, now called United Arab Emirates. Shaikhs and other notables, instructions for mourning, which were to be observed by the Native Agent Non-British agents affiliated with the British Government. himself, also appeared in the same letter. For example, the flag at the Agency An office of the British Government and, earlier, of the East India Company. should be ‘hoisted half-mast high until further notice’.

Subsequently, facsimiles of a Gazette Extraordinary were forwarded to ‘Abd al-Latif with further instructions: ‘All persons will remain in deep mourning up to March 6 inclusive and in half mourning up to April 17 inclusive’. In addition, ‘Officers of His Majesty’s Civil, Military and Marine services will when in uniform wear a band of crape on the left arm up to July 24th inclusive’.

Telegram sent from the Government of India to the Political Residency, dated 1 February 1901. IOR/R/15/1/753, f. 118
Telegram sent from the Government of India to the Political Residency, dated 1 February 1901. IOR/R/15/1/753, f. 118

On 1 March, the Residency A diplomatic office of the British Government established in the provinces and regions considered part of, or under the influence of, British India. forwarded to ‘Abd al-Latif ‘[two] quires of black-edged foolscap paper’, informing him that ‘it should be used in all your official correspondence up to the 24 July 1901’.

Succession and Coronation

Upon the death of Queen Victoria, it was immediately announced that her son, Albert Edward, had been proclaimed King Edward VII of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Emperor of India.

In May the following year, Captain Hunt wrote again to ‘Abd al-Latif informing him that the date for the coronation of ‘His Imperial Majesty Edward VII’ was scheduled for 26 June 1902 which shall be ‘observed as a general holiday’. However, at short-notice, the date of the coronation was postponed until 9 August 1902 as the King was taken ill with an abdominal abscess that required immediate surgery.

Extract of letter No. 99 on black-edged mourning paper from W. S. Davis, First Assistant to the Political Resident at Bushire, to Khan Bahadur 'Abd al-Latif, Residency Agent at Sharjah, dated 1 April 1901 / 11 Dhu al-Hijjah 1318. IOR/R/15/1/753, f. 46
Extract of letter No. 99 on black-edged mourning paper from W. S. Davis, First Assistant to the Political Resident at Bushire, to Khan Bahadur 'Abd al-Latif, Residency Agent at Sharjah, dated 1 April 1901 / 11 Dhu al-Hijjah 1318. IOR/R/15/1/753, f. 46

Lost in Translation?

Many of these customs were peculiarly British or European in nature and may have been lost in their ambiguous translation into Arabic or appeared culturally obscure on the Trucial Coast The historic term used by the British to refer to the Gulf coast of Trucial Oman, now called United Arab Emirates. at the turn of the century.

Yet, adherence to such practices, as Bernard S. Cohn notes, constituted a ‘ritual idiom’, performed to express and make manifest and compelling Britain’s construction of colonial authority. Such rituals helped to locate both colonial administrators in the Bushire Residency A diplomatic office of the British Government established in the provinces and regions considered part of, or under the influence of, British India. and native agents like ‘Abd al-Latif in an imperial hierarchy that was presided over by the monarch-empress.

Corner of a letter from 'Abd al-Latif to the Political Resident, dated 27 April 1901 (5 Muharram 1319). IOR/R/15/1/242, f. 89r
Corner of a letter from 'Abd al-Latif to the Political Resident, dated 27 April 1901 (5 Muharram 1319). IOR/R/15/1/242, f. 89r

It is almost impossible to know exactly how and to what extent ‘Abd al-Latif interpreted and performed these mourning practices, but a letter from him to the Resident, dated 27 April 1901 / 5 Muharram 1319, written on the black-edged mourning paper provided by the Residency A diplomatic office of the British Government established in the provinces and regions considered part of, or under the influence of, British India. , shows that at the very least, he carried out his instructions dutifully.

Secondary Sources

  • David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire (London: Penguin, 2001)
  • Bernard S. Cohn, ‘Representing Authority in Victorian India’, in The Invention of Tradition, ed. by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983)
  • John Wolffe, Great Deaths: Grieving, Religion, and Nationhood in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)