Transnational royal migration in the age of empire and nation-states

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This seminar series explores key issues in the migration history studies, presented by established scholars and early-career researchers.

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Migration History Seminar Series:

Hostages, exiles or dignitaries? Transnational royal migration in the age of empire and nation-states

Migration is one of the great facts of human society. Its contribution to the making of the modern world cannot be overstated. While historical writing in settler societies such as the USA and Canada has emerged over a long time period, European nations with rich migration histories, such as the UK, France and Germany, have more latterly recognised the centrality of population movements. There is great scholarly interest in the field and that will grow now as legacies of imperialism become much more directly entangled with the lives of immigrants in the countries they have settled.

Hostages, exiles or dignitaries? Transnational royal migration in the age of empire and nation-states

This paper will explore the nature and impact of the relationships forged between Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and a group of their imperial 'protégés': Maharajah Duleep Singh, Princess Gouramma (both from India), Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Nigeria), Albert Victor Pomare (New Zealand) and Prince Alamayu (Ethiopia). Between 1848 and 1879, these young royal/chiefly figures came or were brought to the metropole as colonial wards or exiles, following the impact of British imperialism in disrupting their dynastic sovereignty and local political stability. The paper will outline the terms on which they were co-opted into adopted or symbolic kinship with Queen Victoria’s family: since this period witnessed uniquely willing and active endeavours by British royalty to intimately assimilate non-white individuals from foreign countries within their courtly and household circles – engaging much further beyond their ties with European royal dynasties than any previous British monarchs.

A key objective of this paper will be to ask who benefitted from these relationships, as well as how and why. While there is growing academic and popular interest in the stories and community memory surrounding individual wards – especially Duleep Singh, Alamayu and Sarah Forbes Bonetta – there have yet been very few studies exploring their overlapping experiences, or the parallels/differences in the ways in which they represented themselves or were portrayed/perceived by others.

In this paper, Dr Priya Atwal will attempt to provide a fresh analysis of these novel royal relationships within a group framework. Dr Atwal is currently researching and reflecting on whether a shared royal ‘understanding’ could be seen as emerging from such cross-cultural relationships, as well as how their assimilation into Queen Victoria’s court impacted the definition of the category of ‘royalty’. The research perspectives intended to share are partly a contribution towards a growing field of historical enquiry that is re-evaluating how nineteenth-century monarchical dynasties actively involved themselves in more transnational mobility and modes of self-representation, as means to sustain their power and status both domestically and globally. Their migratory activities and experiences could thus, at times, equally be grand displays of influence and privilege, as well as attempts at securing survival and finding sources of loyal support – taking older forms of royal ‘legitimacy’ politics onto an expanded, global stage.

The diverse case studies at the heart of this research will further allow for an in-depth examination of how societal boundaries (‘bloodlines’ as well as gender, race, class and religion) were being newly re-conceptualised within royal circles and before wider society during this period. In this paper, Dr Atwal will particularly focus on the British context and highlight how this debate was influenced by the arrival and activities of these young wards – who later moved around as privileged travellers, dignitaries, hostages and exiles; sometimes claiming all of these labels all in one go. The overall aim is to raise new questions about the standing and internal politics of royalty in the midst of a world being shaped anew by the forces of democratisation, nationalism, imperialism and globalisation: above all, arguing that we should not see Queen Victoria’s imperial wards as mere pawns in a British political game; but as key interlocutors and agents in their own right, and icons of the major transitions undergone by global monarchies of the nineteenth century.


Dr Priya Atwal

Dr Priya Atwal currently holds the posts of Community History Fellow and TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellow at Oxford’s History Faculty.

She also works as a freelance public historian and her research specialises in the history of monarchy, empire and cultural politics. She is the author of Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire (2020).

She tweets at @priyaatwal.


Professor Don MacRaild

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