Cover of book: Sophia: Princess, Suffragette,  Revolutionary

Anita Anand
Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary

The Koh-i-Noor was a diamond the size and weight of a hen’s egg that once belonged to the Sikh Maharajah Ranjit Singh. If any image endures in Sophia, the tale of Singh’s British-raised suffragette granddaughter, it is this fabled stone.

The Lion of the Punjab, as the Maharajah was known, strapped the diamond to his bicep as a symbol of his power. Until his death in 1839 he ruled a realm that stretched from the Kashmir Valley to the Khyber Pass. When the British plundered India they forced Ranjit’s 11-year-old son, Duleep Singh, to sign away his kingdom and fortune. The conquering British seized the Koh-i-Noor and it soon became a prize among the crown jewels.

The handsome boy king was sent to exile in England where he was appointed an exotic pet for Queen Victoria to preen. She observed that he “was beautifully dressed and covered with diamonds. I always feel so much for these poor deposed Indian princes.”

Sophia documents first of all the strange and sad life of Duleep, Sophia’s father. In England he learnt the complex etiquette of the royal court, became a firm favourite of the Queen, took up the gentlemanly sport of shooting, and converted to Christianity. Duleep married the illegitimate teenage daughter of a German merchant and an Abyssinian slave. The beautiful Maharani Bamba (her name translated as “pink” in Arabic) was nicknamed for her beguiling tendency to blush when given attention.

Sophia Duleep Singh, their daughter, was born in 1876 into a family of banished Indian royals. Along with her siblings, she was brought up in the grand country estate of Elveden Hall, Suffolk, populated with leopards, rare birds and monkeys. Her godmother was Queen Victoria.

It should have been an enchanted existence. But Duleep was increasingly falling into debt, alcoholism and extramarital philandering. Although reliant on the India Office for his income, he quickly turned on the hand that fed him. Remembering a prophesy that his mother had once told him – that one day he would return to India to reclaim his throne – he plotted to depose the British and take his rightful place among the Sikh saints.

When an attempt to return to India was thwarted, Duleep, now considered a traitor, abandoned his family to run off with his chambermaid mistress to Paris. Sophia is the story of how an awkward bucktoothed teenager beset by grief and jettisoned by her father transformed herself into a revolutionary suffragette.

Weaved into her tale are strong women rendered in gripping novelistic detail by the British broadcast journalist Anita Anand. There is Queen Victoria, who forgave Duleep on his deathbed, proclaiming: “All was made up between us.” There is Bamba, Sophia’s spirited sister, who won a place at university in America to study medicine, only to have the offer withdrawn because of her gender. And then there is Duleep’s mother, Jindan, who was imprisoned for refusing to acknowledge British rule. When finally reunited with her son after years apart, Jindan, now blind, cried as she groped at his shorn hair. Anand writes: “She could live with loss of her husband and the empire, no matter how much pain it brought her, but that her son had abandoned his Sikh faith was too much for her to bear.”

Sophia, meanwhile, was raised a member of the British gentry, becoming a celebrity curiosity for her royal blood and Indian complexion. She took up dog breeding (feeding her pooches pricey meat and brandy), became an avid cyclist, and frequented parties where her movements were breathlessly reported in the press. For breakfast in bed each morning her maid delivered two boiled eggs, toast, and fruit on an Indian brass tray. The unusual addition of goat’s milk curd was a nod towards her heritage.

It was a gilded cage. Sophia received grace-and-favour lodgings at Hampton Court Palace and, like her father, a generous allowance from the India Office. 

But she was also spied upon by the government from birth. When a debutante, great care was taken over her coming out in society. Yet the occasion was soured for Sophia by the decision to rank her behind the English duchesses. She was, after all, a princess whose family “once held greater dominion and boasted more wealth than many of the monarchies of Europe put together”. 

Priorities changed in 1907 when Sophia visited her ancestor’s lost lands in the Punjab. She returned an advocate of Indian independence with a stirred conscience, writing: “Ah, India awake and free yourself!” In the years to come Sophia championed the fate of the Indian sailors, the Lascars, and put aside her silks to don a nurse’s outfit to care for Indian soldiers in World War I. But it was her fight for female equality in which she truly shone. 

Swathed in her opulent furs, Sophia became a stalwart at suffragette meetings and one of the movement’s biggest donors. She sold suffragette newspapers from the gates of Hampton Court, forcing the residence to close to visitors for the first time in 70 years. She refused to pay her taxes and threw herself at the prime minister’s car. 

Despite these efforts Sophia could not get arrested. Putting an Indian princess – the Queen’s goddaughter – behind bars would court too much publicity. This left her designated to the sidelines of history where her story remained, until now, largely unheard.

If Sophia explores the life of one extraordinary woman, it also provides a window into the dual identities of a colonised India and a colonising Great Britain. Sophia – princess, suffragette, revolutionary – was a churchgoing Christian her entire life. It is telling, then, that when she died in 1948 aged 72, she was cremated, following the Sikh tradition. She had asked that her ashes be scattered in India.  EA

Bloomsbury, 432pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 21, 2015 as "Anita Anand, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary".

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Reviewer: EA

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