The Sikh suffragette
From princess to protester, Queen Victoria's goddaughter used her loyal status to fight for women's rights
Discover how Queen Victoria’s goddaughter used her royal status to fight for women’s rights
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was an unlikely suffragette, but she was one of Britain’s most influential campaigners for women’s right to vote. However, the contribution of this Punjabi princess has been overshadowed by her more famous comrades, such as Emmeline Pankhurst and
Emily Wilding Davison. Sophia’s story had been forgotten for a century, but her recent rediscovery is a triumph for those searching for the voices of women of colour, previously lost to history.
Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh came from the powerful royal family of the Sikh Empire, which was based in northern India and modernday Pakistan. Her grandfather was Ranjit Singh, the majestic ‘Lion of the Punjab’, who ruled for almost half a century. He was the last maharaja to successfully hold out against the British, and his people revered him as a hero. But when his son Duleep Singh came to the throne as a five-yearold boy, the British saw an opportunity to take the riches of this Indian kingdom for themselves. Duleep Singh was quickly deposed and sent to Britain so he could no longer pose a threat.
The former maharaja grew up resplendently amongst the British aristocracy, and as a favourite of Queen Victoria, he wanted for absolutely nothing. After embracing Christianity, he married Bamba Müller in 1864. Bamba was the daughter of a German banker and his Ethiopian mistress, and lived in Cairo when she met Duleep Singh. They married and had six children, including three daughters – Bamba (1869), Catherine (1871) and Sophia (1876).
The children grew up in the lap of luxury, as members of British high society, at Elveden House in Suffolk. Queen Victoria had given the maharaja many gifts, and Elveden was one of them. Duleep Singh tore out the interior of the house and converted it into a Mughal wonderland, adorning the stairs and hallways with designs based on the palatial opulence of Lahore. In the garden, parrots and peacocks roamed the grounds while the sisters played in their expensive dresses. It was a countryside idyll for the young Sophia.
However, in 1886, when Sophia was ten, her father uprooted the family and tried to illegally return to India. He had grown bitter over his lost kingdom, and wanted to instigate an uprising against the British and once again be the ruler of the Sikh Empire. The young family got all the way to Aden, in Yemen, before they were detained and placed under house arrest. After his failure, Sophia’s father deserted his wife and children, leaving them to fend for themselves while he kept trying, in vain, to reclaim his throne. Sophia’s mother despaired, and turned to drink, contributing to her early death just one year later, age 49. The former maharaja died impoverished in a Paris hotel room in 1893.
Sophia and her siblings were orphaned, but thankfully Queen Victoria – their godmother – had always looked kindly upon them, and set them up in a grace-and-favour apartment in Hampton Court Palace in 1894. Sophia was also granted a generous annuity of £25,000 to live on, and her education was managed by the queen herself.
Their entry into the highest echelons of British society was complete on 8 May 1895, the day the three sisters debuted. The evening of the ball, they dressed in their finest silks, adorned with huge pearls and ostrich feathers. These were symbols of great wealth and power, but it was all an illusion – their father had run up massive debts, and the girls were reliant on the Queen’s good grace for their survival. They made their way to Buckingham Palace to be presented to Victoria.
The nation loved these daughters of oncemighty Punjabi royalty. The celebrity magazines of the day reported their every move, and suddenly Sophia found herself thrust into the public spotlight. Initially, she relished it – she was invited to many photo shoots, glitzy events and interviews. It seemed the young princess was destined for a life of social frivolity.
One party the young women couldn’t resist was an invite to the Delhi Durbar, the 1903 celebration of Edward VII’S coronation held in British India. After travelling thousands of miles away from home, their trip to India had opened Sophia’s eyes to the true nature of the British Empire. While the British lived in palaces and dined on the finest foods, millions of Indians outside their walls were living in slums and dying of starvation. Despite their Indian heritage, the sisters couldn’t have felt more out of place.
Sophia tried to return to her luxurious, celebrity life after she came back to England, but she just couldn’t erase what she had seen in Delhi from her memory. So, in 1906, she made the bold decision to return to the subcontinent. This time, she journeyed to the Punjab – the rich, vast land that her family had been cheated out of decades before.
Her first stop was Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, now the jewel in Pakistan’s crown. The response she got there was overwhelming – the people recognised her as the granddaughter of Ranjit Singh, whose resilient reign was well remembered. In her diary, Sophia wrote that as she was walking close to a river in Lahore, “a crowd gathered around us… I heard lots of people saying who we were. I heard a murmur of ‘Ranjit Singh, Ranjit Singh’ echo around them”. Her experiences deeply moved her. Soon, the incendiary princess met up with Lajput Rai, a Punjabi leader deeply feared by the British. Sophia was impressed by his charisma, and when he introduced her as a granddaughter of the Lion of the Punjab, she realised how important her family had been to the region.
The princess returned to England with a new awareness of the unjust world, and a desire to do something about it. Sophia realised that despite her wealth and privilege, she was not immune to racism. At the same time, she also realised that her womanhood made her a second-class citizen. This hit home when her sister Bamba (who was studying to be a doctor in America) was turned out of university halfway through her course, as they declared that women were “unfit for the intricacies of surgery”. Bamba was heartbroken.
Sophia equated the fight for Indian independence to women’s struggle for liberation, and desperately wanted marginalised groups to have a voice in politics. After befriending many prolific suffragettes, she was radicalised at the home of Una Dugdale, and joined Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1909. She soon became a leading member, and one of its key donors. A key catalyst for action came in 1910, when Prime Minister Asquith had refused to even entertain a bill that would have given women – albeit only a select few – the vote.
“The nation loved these daughters of once-mighty Punjabi royalty”
“Sophia broke free from the crowd, passed the guards, and flung herself onto the car’s windscreen”
The WSPU could not let such a sexist attitude go unchallenged. So, on 18 November 1910, the women marched on Parliament. Sophia was one of 12 who led the protest of roughly 400. However, the suffragettes found 150 policemen waiting for them. Later dubbed ‘Black Friday’, the peaceful protest quickly turned ugly, with policemen brutalising and beating women to within an inch of their lives. Horrifically, there were also 30 cases of reported sexual assault – but many more may have gone unreported.
In the chaos, Sophia saw a policeman repeatedly smash a woman against the ground. She bravely threw herself into the fray, getting between the woman and the policeman. Once he recognised who had accosted him, he fled. Her actions had helped the woman, but Sophia’s celebrity status saved her from receiving similar brutalisation.
This was not enough for Sophia, who was determined to get justice. She chased after the constable, demanding his badge number. Though he kept running, she got close enough to see it – V700 – and never forgot it. She began a letterwriting campaign to get him taken off duty, and her letters of complaint were so persistent that they made their way to the very top – Winston Churchill, then the home secretary, was forced to order “no further reply to her”. The policeman may never have been convicted, but Sophia had successfully humiliated the government.
Prime Minister Asquith often found himself in the crosshairs of the women’s rights campaigners, as he disdained female suffrage, and actively blocked its progression at every turn. Sophia knew who her next target had to be. As Asquith was making his way to the House of Commons from Downing Street on 6 February 1911, Sophia broke free from the crowd, passed the guards, and flung herself onto the car’s windscreen with a ‘Votes for Women’ poster. Nobody was hurt, but this was a bold action that nearly got her thrown into prison However, her high profile meant that police were reluctant to send her to jail, where she could go on a hunger strike and attract even more attention to the women’s movement.
In 1913 she wound up in court again – this time for refusing to pay her taxes. As a member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League (and the only South Asian member at that), she was fundamentally opposed to paying taxes to an oppressive state, until women could have a voice in politics. When she was tried, Sophia rose to the jury, eloquently asking them, “If I am not a fit person for the purposes of representation, why am I a fit person for the purposes of taxation?”, echoing the sentiments of America’s Founding Fathers.
Though the judge ruled she should not go to prison, he allowed bailiffs to take some of her most precious jewellery and auction it off to pay her debts. One diamond ring was auctioned for £10, and other jewels were sold at values higher than Sophia’s unpaid tax, allowing the state to profit from her possessions. Luckily for Sophia, her suffragette comrades came to her aid. They rocked up to the auction, and placed winning bids for all her pearls and jewels, which they returned to their rightful owner.
Sophia was such a thorn in the side of the government that one Sir William Coddington, a Conservative MP, tried to have her evicted from
her Hampton Court apartment. As Sophia regularly sold the WSPU’S newspaper The Suffragette outside the walls of the palace, the MP argued she brought disrepute to the British establishment and made a laughing stock of the monarchy who housed her.
Coddington asked “if anything could be done to stop her”, but he was rebuffed – only King George V (Victoria had died in 1901) himself could decide whether Sophia should be evicted.
Although World War I stalled suffragette activities, Sophia remained a strong devotee of the cause. In 1915, she joined Emmeline Pankhurst and 10,000 other women in a procession supporting women’s war work – labour that eventually helped them win the vote. Sophia’s commitment to the cause never wavered, even after women had been granted equal voting rights in 1928. In a 1934 magazine similar to Who’s Who, Sophia listed only one interest – “the advancement of women”.
In her advancing age, Sophia moved to the Buckinghamshire countryside during World War
II, leading a relatively quiet life for a firebrand feminist. She lived with her beloved pets, and enjoyed a warm relationship with her housekeeper – so much so that she was named godmother to her housekeeper’s daughter, Drovna.
Drovna remembers her well – “she [Sophia] swung round and said ‘on your knees, you’ve got to promise me that you will always vote’.”
After a long and fulfilling life, Sophia passed away on 22 August 1948, aged 71. Having renounced Christianity, Sophia had found her way back to Sikhism, the religion of her ancestors. She was cremated – a traditional Sikh funerary rite, which was controversial in Britain at the time – and her ashes were transported to India, where they were scattered in the winds of Punjab. In her will, Sophia embodied the spirit that had guided her life. She left generous endowments to three girls’ schools in India. Despite the bloody Partition and its legacy of ethno-religious conflict, Sophia made sure to leave equal amounts each to Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim schools for girls.
This August marks the 70th anniversary of her death, but her story lives on. Her courage has inspired women to keep fighting for their rights, even in the most arduous of times. Sophia might also be pleased that she remains something of a celebrity – Sophia has been commemorated on postage stamps, and journalist Anita Anand has published a comprehensive book on her – Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary – after discovering her photograph in a magazine.
As one of Britain’s most daring suffragettes, this Indian princess who would be queen (or ‘maharani’ in Punjabi) needs to be remembered for the activist she was, and how her deeds helped to advance all women in British society – including those living under the yoke of the British empire.
A 13-year-old Sophia (far right) with her sisters and brother, Prince Edward Albert Alexander
Sophia, third from the left (front row), raises money for Indian soldiers during WWI
Sophia became a nurse during World War I
Sophia was nicknamed the ‘Hampton Court Harridan’ for selling The Suffragette outside her royal apartment
The gilded tomb of Ranjit Singh in Lahore (foreground) was one of the stops on Sophia’s travels through Punjab
Sophia earned her suffragette stripes at the Black Friday protest in 1910