The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

The British were fascinated by the Hindu caste system because it appeared to codify social divisions in just the nuanced way that appealed to their own rigid ideas of class. Not content with the general division of their people into royalty and nobility and gentry and the large unwashed masses, they felt the necessity to make finer distinctions. Once they established the sundry orders and awards in their own land, they recognised that their subjects and allies hankered for similar decorations. And so began the institution of orders for the colonies.

Whereas the Order of St Michael and St George was set up for the white dominions, India was honoured with three decorations during the later Imperium. Shortly after the events of 1857, the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India began with subsequent extensions over the decades. In 1878, to coincide with Queen Victoria’s coronation as Empress of India, the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire was inaugurated, as well as the Imperial Order of the Crown of India. The first two were the senior orders, and had three levels (paralleling the St Michael / St George order), whilst the last was for women. These were designed to rank not just the British government elite but also the Indian princes, and their civil services. The point of these orders was that they should be open to all, Brits and natives. After all, they were all united in the service of the Empire.

Sir John Lindsay had pointed out years earlier that ‘marks of distinction are exceedingly pleasing in this country; and could any means be fallen on to add to the apparent dignity of Indian princes from Europe, it would be exceedingly flattering to them’. The ruling princes were so desperate for these awards that they competed keenly amongst each other; they seemed to have completely missed the fact that being awarded something like Commander of the Order of the Star of India (CSI) or even Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India would merely equate them to a high-court judge or a British resident; even so rich and grand a prince as the Maharaja of Mysore expected to be awarded the Knight Grand Commander of the Star of India in every generation, an award that put him at the same rank as, say, the governor-general of Bombay or Madras. And yet, the ruler of Mysore was offered a 21-gun salute, surely a far superior honour? Clearly, the grandees of India were as keen on weighting their chests with medals as any general in the Russian army.

The general trajectory of awards would be a zigzagging path through the Order of the Star of India or the Order of the Indian Empire. A journeyman in the Indian Civil Service would ascend somewhat like one Sir Percy Cox, who started small and ended up big: CIE, CSI, KCIE between 1902-1911 for his services in the Persian Gulf; KCSI and GCIE during the First World War as political officer in the Indian Expeditionary Force on the Western Front; KCMG in 1920 whilst acting British High Commissioner to Persia, and GCMG in 1922 when he became High Commissioner to Iraq. ‘No wonder he was an impressive sight when calling upon King Faisal, his official uniform covered with these accumulated baubles’ as David Cannadine writes in his book, Ornamentalism, from where I got all these tidbits.

The Indian princes wouldn’t necessarily obtain the entire panoply of awards – they would receive them entirely based on their relative ranking, and their prestige at the Viceroy’s office. Naturally, this meant they would jump through hoops to obtain the medals they craved. Rudyard Kipling satirised this obsession:

Rustrum Beg of Kolazai – slightly backward Native State -
Lusted for a CSI - so began to sanitate
Built a Gaol and Hospital - nearby built a City Drain
Till his faithful subjects all thought their ruler was insane.

Strange departures made he then - yea, Departments stranger still,
Half a dozen Englishmen helped the Rajah with a will,
Talked of noble aims and high, hinted of a future fine
For the state of Kolazai, on a strictly Western line.

Rajah Rustum held his peace; lowered octroi dues a half;
Organized a State Police; purified the Civil Staff;
Settled cess and tax afresh in a very liberal way;
Cut temptations of the flesh - also cut the Bukhshi's pay;

Roused his Secretariat to a fine Mahratta fury,
By a Hookum hinting at supervision of dasturi;
Turned the State of Kolazai very nearly upside-down;
When the end of May was nigh, waited his achievement crown.

When the Birthday Honours came,
Sad to state and sad to see,
Stood against the Rajah's name nothing more than C. I. E.!


David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How The British Saw Their Empire, Penguin, 2001.


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