The Sikh suf­fragette

From princess to pro­tester, Queen Vic­to­ria's god­daugh­ter used her loyal sta­tus to fight for women's rights

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Alice Barnes-brown

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

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