In May 1875, an illiterate 12-year-old boy was chosen by the British to become the Maharaja of Baroda, the most important princely state in western India. He left his village and travelled some 300 miles to the state’s capital, where he was given a new name and a new family. For the next six years, he underwent rigorous academic and physical training in a school set up for the express purpose of making him into a prince.

A photograph in the archives of the British Library shows the diminutive Maharaja Sayaji Rao III shortly after arriving in Baroda. He wears a heavily brocaded outfit and holds a full-length sword. Only a few months earlier, he had been running barefoot in the fields. Brought up speaking Marathi, he was now learning to read, write and speak in English as well as in the principal languages of his subjects – Gujarati and Urdu.

The extraordinary efforts undertaken by British colonialists to shape young Indian princes into rulers who would be unswervingly loyal to the British crown (while remaining visibly loyal to Indian traditions) are revealed in research undertaken by University of Cambridge PhD candidate Teresa Segura-Garcia.

The Macaulay project

The education of Indian princes in the colonial period is an under-explored topic. Segura-Garcia’s pioneering research into archival material shows that the late 19th century heralded the beginning of an era when the British realised that future rulers needed to be rooted in their own culture as well as equipped to operate on a global stage.

By the 1870s the majority of India was a British colony. But 500 princely states, home to two-fifths of the Indian population, enjoyed political autonomy. Their independence was, however, nominal and they were subject to varying degrees of British control. Interference in their affairs included playing an active part in the education of Indian princes.

In many of these states, the British took a leading role in developing and overseeing educational programmes for future leaders – such as the intensive routine designed to bring young Sayaji Rao up to speed – that aimed to produce an Indian elite politically aligned with imperial rule and prepared to suppress anti-colonial resistance.

“The British knew that the future ruler of a state as powerful and wealthy as Baroda needed to follow Indian traditions of kingship and to be highly visible in the environment he was destined to rule over. This is why Sayaji Rao, an outsider to the court, was not sent to the Indian boarding schools that catered to Indian princes from lesser states. Rather, he was educated within the confines of the court at Baroda,” says Segura-Garcia.

“His education was devised to prepare him to hold his own in a variety of settings. The growing tensions between India and Britain meant that he was under close scrutiny on both sides – in terms, for example, of his friendships and activities – which put him under considerable pressure as young man.”

Segura-Garcia’s close examination of primary sources shows just how deep the British transformative endeavour went. Not only were young Indian aristocrats tutored in gentlemanly pursuits but they were encouraged to embrace virtues such as punctuality, diligence and discipline – qualities that British administrators thought to be alien to what they saw as the backward Indian character.

A fluent grasp of English was vital for a prince destined to be a modern ruler – a ruler who was to travel widely and showcase the civilising influence of Britain’s empire. Sayaji Rao also learnt arithmetic (he performed poorly). Academic study was accompanied by tutoring in horse riding and Indian physical exercise, including pehlwani (a form of wrestling) and gymnastics. Essential too was an appreciation of European culture.

A blank slate

The way in which Sayaji Rao was plucked from obscurity to become one of India’s most powerful rulers was nothing short of a social experiment. The British selected him from a number of possible candidates related to the deposed Maharaja of Baroda, who in 1875 had been ousted by the British for alleged misrule. Sayaji Rao was judged to be the right age and, with no formal schooling, he represented an attractively blank slate.

“Education was central to Britain’s civilising mission in India,” says Segura-Garcia. “And the notion of education as a means of transformation was nothing new. By the early 19th century, the East India Company had begun subtly to alter the education of Indian princes. Motivated by the need to forge alliances with local allies, the Company singled out Indian aristocrats to prove that education had the power to civilise.”

The most notable proponent of this view was Thomas Macaulay, an influential member of the East India Company. Macaulay argued for the creation, through the education of elites, of a class of interpreters who would act as bridge between the Company and the millions it governed. He described such people as “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”.

It was against this backdrop that Sayaji Rao arrived in the walled city Baroda and entered the privileged milieu of the court. He wasn’t entirely removed from his family circle, as he was accompanied by one of his brothers and by a cousin. He was adopted by the deposed Maharaja’s sister-in-law, with whom he had breakfast every day.

For the first few months of his schooling, the young Maharaja was given intensive tuition by two Indian teachers. When this failed to bring the desired results sufficiently quickly, the Resident – the British representative in Baroda – set up a small school that became known as the Prince’s School.

Crucially, the Resident hired a “British gentleman” to take charge of the prince’s education. The new tutor, Frederick Elliot, a graduate of Oxford, reported that his first impression of Sayaji Rao was not promising: the 12-year-old was, in his opinion, “apparently and actually dull”. Interestingly, tutor and pupil (and their respective wives) went on to form a genuine and lasting bond of friendship – a development that British administrators viewed with the utmost suspicion, and which hindered Elliot’s career in the Indian Civil Service.

A relentless routine

In the households of Indian royal courts, children were traditionally brought up within the zenana, the women’s secluded inner quarters. The British took a dim view of an environment to which, as men, they had little access. They believed that Indian noblewomen were unintelligent and superstitious, which made them unfit to bring up young rulers.

Sayaji Rao’s days were structured by a relentless routine imposed by his tutor, who had to squeeze 12 years’ learning into half that time. The prince rose at 6 am and exercised for two hours before breakfast. Six hours of lessons followed (sadly no detailed records of his curriculum have survived). Once the school day was over, there was more exercise and preparations for the next day’s studies.

The choice to educate Sayaji Rao within court circles rather than send him to boarding school (where he might be exposed to undesirable influences, notably homosexuality) allowed his mentors to put him on display in Baroda as a young ruler undergoing an education that incorporated elements of both Indian and British traditions.

Each morning the teenage Maharaja was taken, accompanied by a military escort, from the royal palace to the Prince’s School, on the edge of the city – a daily and highly public reminder of his presence and the power invested in him. Sayaji Rao was fond of riding and took part in the traditional aristocratic pursuit of hunting – an opportunity to show off his physical prowess from the back of a horse and exhibit his mastery over nature.

Elliot noted that his protégé learnt slowly but fortunately he “refused to forget much of anything which he has once learnt”. When, as an adult, Sayaji Rao was asked about his education, he remembered the “good and useful books” in the palace library (which housed more than 20,000 volumes) which he read “devoutly and zealously” to acquire as much knowledge as possible.

In 1881, Sayaji Rao reached the age of 18; his formal education ended and he assumed full ruling powers of the state of Baroda. Six years later, he took an initial European tour – and later travelled widely in North America, East Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In all, from 1887 until his death in 1939 he undertook 28 overseas trips that ranged in duration from eight to 14 months – an astonishing achievement even at a time when major Indian rulers were becoming very well-travelled.

Becoming increasingly independent of his British minders, Sayaji Rao made use of the intellectual capital afforded by his education to develop far-ranging links that sometimes bolstered and sometimes worked against the interests of the British empire. “The British hoped that Sayaji Rao would be a poster boy for colonial India,” says Segura-Garcia. “But, thanks to his education, he was more than that: during his travels he met with, and supported, the Indian exiles who were actively resisting British colonialism.”

This article first appeared on the University of Cambridge website.