Fascinating story of princess Sophia, the granddaughter of the warrior-king Ranjit Singh
At the halfway point in Anita Anand’s sparkling, wonderful new biography, her subject, a socialite and celebrity named Sophia, is on a ship bearing her back to her home in England when she has a quiet moment of reflection: “Never would she find life as a socialite fulfilling again,” Anand tells us. “Looking into the deep waters over the side of her ship she thought about what her life was actually for. The answers would not be found at dog shows and in fashion magazines ... She needed to be useful again, but who exactly needed her?”
Common sentiments among young women in England at the turn of the 20th century, perhaps, but what gives Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary its extra zest is that Sophia was no common young woman; she was the daughter of the Indian Maharaja Duleep Singh and the granddaughter of the legendary one-eyed “Lion of the Punjab”, the warrior-king Ranjit Singh, who in 1799 deposed the rulers of Lahore and established himself as supreme king of a new Sikh Empire that eventually extended from the Khyber Pass in the west to Kashmir in the north and Tibet in the east. His enormous wealth included the fabulous Koh-i-noor diamond, to this day the centrepiece of the British Crown Jewels.
Ranjit Singh died in 1839 and was followed onto his massive funeral pyre by most of his official wives (as Anand drolly comments, not all of them went voluntarily). One wife who refused was the forceful Maharani Jindan, a humble-born daughter of Ranjit Singh’s kennel-keeper. Jindan caught the old maharaja’s eye and by him had a son, Duleep, whom she intended to see inherit the kingdom. The maharaja’s oldest son was soon found with his skull crushed, and shortly afterwards, the body of his heir was found riddled with bullets, and shortly afterward, the heir’s heir was found dead. There’s something daringly po-faced about how Anand reports all this.
The path cleared, Jindan placed young Duleep on the throne and proceeded to rule through him. But by this point the wealth and power of the Punjab had attracted the attention of the British East India Company. The British began massing troops on the Punjab borders and sending spies to woo the boy away from the influence of his mother.
In short order, that separation was effected: Jindan was physically removed to a far fort, and young Duleep was double-talked into signing away his kingdom to the British. He was sent to England and settled by the India Office with an enormous pension (although this was, as Anand rightly points out, only a small fraction of the revenues of his lost kingdom). His good looks and impeccable manner made him a great favourite of Queen Victoria, who encouraged him to find a wife. This he did, falling in love with a missionary ward in Cairo named Bamba and establishing her as his maharani in a Suffolk home called Elveden, which he filled with exotic Indian decorations and wildlife, including leopard and cheetahs as well as rare Indian hawks, which he had to replace every season as the previous batch froze to death in the English winter.
It was at Elveden that Duleep Singh’s family – his sons Victor and Frederick, and his daughters Bamba, Catherine and Sophia – grew, and at first, as Anand writes, “the estate had an air of surreal but pleasant madness”.
The idyll quickly ended. Duleep Singh grew into an extravagant spendthrift and, when reprimanded by the India Office for the size of his debts, gradually came to hate his British benefactors, including the queen who was godmother to both his oldest son and to Sophia herself. He began railing against the Empire for having stolen his kingdom, and he re-embraced the Sikh religion of his heritage. He also took to drinking heavily, moved to Paris, married a woman named Ada (with whom he had two children), and savagely disowned his family back in England.
Although Duleep Singh’s drunken rancour alienated his queen and family, it amounted to nothing; right to the end, the India Office successfully outmanoeuvred him, and he died a broken man in October 1893, when Sophia was 17. She and her sister Bamba were granted very modest state pensions and grace-and-favour apartments at Hampton Court (their sister Catherine was happily married and living in Germany), an arrangement the fiery-tempered Bamba – who had inherited her father’s nationalist bitterness – hated, but Sophia loved. She filled the place with “pairs of parakeets and brightly plumed lorikeets brought life and noise to the house, and an assortment of dogs brought mud and warmth”.
But although Sophia’s days were “an endless round of balls, parties and banquets” (she had, as Anand diplomatically puts it, “an appetite for attention”), she was increasingly unsatisfied by the aimlessness of her life. She embraced the bicycling craze of the 1890s, soon seen all over London on her Columbia Model 41 Ladies Safety Bicycle, and she became very successful at dog breeding and dog shows.
But Sophia was a princess in search of a cause and found one when she and her sister Bamba attended Lord Curzon’s Delhi “durbar” in 1903; when the sisters made their way north to their father’s old stronghold of Lahore, Anand writes, “those who stumbled upon their identity fell at their feet”.
But although Sophia briefly moved in circles where talk of outright treason could be heard, she never felt the loss of her heritage as keenly as Bamba did. She was impressed by such giant figures in the history of Indian independence as Gopal Gokhale and Mohandras Gandhi, but she turned instead to the growing suffragette movement back in England, under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which in the summer of 1909 had decided that “a campaign of stone-throwing and destruction of government property were legitimate strategies.”
Sophia saw her share of violent street clashes between suffragettes and police, but reading Anand’s gripping account, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the WSPU wasn’t quite sure what to do with a diminutive Sikh royal who was fond of taking her breakfast in bed around noon.
Sophia herself had no such doubts, embracing the cause with her customary passion. When the British government noted that she’d neglected to pay the small licensing fee for her groomsmen and dogs, she was brought to court, where she defiantly proclaimed that she would not pay taxes as long as the women of England had no say in how they were spent.
This was embarrassing enough for the government and the India Office, but Sophia made things much more awkward by doing her street canvassing directly in front of stately old Hampton Court. As Anand writes, “The sight of the Indian princess in her expensive furs with a satchel strapped around her body, sandwich board by her side, waving around a paper and shouting ‘Votes for Women’ caused a scandal at the very highest levels.”
King George V, Victoria’s grandson and largely indifferent to the fate of the Singh sisters, was furious.
Both sides were caught off guard when one of history’s greatest cataclysms soon intervened: the First World War broke out, creating new worries for Sophia, since her sister Catherine was still in Germany and rashly open in her pro-German sentiments.
With her customary compassion (one gets the strong feeling that this compassion is the reason Anand chose to be Sophia’s biographer rather than Bamba’s), Sophia allied herself with the Red Cross and tended to wounded Punjabi soldiers in Brighton. She watched the events of the First World War and then the Second; she lived long enough to see both her causes – suffragism and Indian independence – win through, and she died on August 22, 1948, at the age of 71.
It’s an extremely picturesque and fascinating story, one that Anand beautifully saves from the footnotes of history. Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary brings its strong-willed subject marvellously to life as she seeks out a purpose in the wake of the Empire.
Had history taken a different course, the reader can’t help but imagine that the impetuous and charismatic Sophia would have made a magnificent maharani.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly
Updated: January 1, 2015 04:00 AM