Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary
In 1876 Sophia Duleep Singh was born into Indian royalty. Her father, Maharajah Duleep Singh, was heir to the Kingdom of the Sikhs, one of the greatest empires of the Indian subcontinent, a realm that stretched from the lush Kashmir Valley to the craggy foothills of the Khyber Pass and included the mighty cities of Lahore and Peshawar. It was a territory irresistible to the British, who plundered everything, including the fabled Koh-I-Noor diamond.
Exiled to England, the dispossessed Maharajah transformed his estate at Elveden in Suffolk into a Moghul palace, its grounds stocked with leopards, monkeys and exotic birds. Sophia, god-daughter of Queen Victoria, was raised a genteel aristocratic Englishwoman: presented at court, afforded grace and favor lodgings at Hampton Court Palace and photographed wearing the latest fashions for the society pages. But when, in secret defiance of the British government, she travelled to India, she returned a revolutionary.
Sophia transcended her heritage to devote herself to battling injustice and inequality, a far cry from the life to which she was born. Her causes were the struggle for Indian Independence, the fate of the lascars, the welfare of Indian soldiers in the First World War--and, above all, the fight for female suffrage. She was bold and fearless, attacking politicians, putting herself in the front line and swapping her silks for a nurse’s uniform to tend wounded soldiers evacuated from the battlefields. Meticulously researched and passionately written, this enthralling story of the rise of women and the fall of empire introduces an extraordinary individual and her part in the defining moments of recent British and Indian history.
to touch brown patients. Nevertheless, the soldiers were grateful for the care they received, as Isher Singh, a solder from the Sikh 59th Rifles, and a survivor of the battle of Neuve Chapelle, wrote from his bed: ‘Do not be anxious about me. We are very well looked after. White soldiers are always besides our bed – day and night. We get very good food four times a day. We also get milk. Our hospital is in the place where the King used to have his throne. Every man is washed once in hot water.
11 Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928, Routledge, London, 2003, p. 177. 12 Ibid. 13 Ibid. 14 Ibid. 15 Una Duval (née Dugdale) speaking to the BBC in 1955, www.bbc.co.uk/archive/ suffragettes 16 Letter from Gurdit Singh Sandhawalia to SDS, undated, Collected Papers of SDS, IOR Mss Eur E377/7. 17 Letter from SDS to Gurdit Singh Sandhawalia, 3 Jul 1907, Sandhawalia family papers, quoted in Bance, Rebel, p. 147. 18 Letter from Gurdit
became one of many makeshift hospitals which sprang up overnight. Sophia (third from left) with a group of her fellow volunteer nurses. All were British and some, who had served the Raj in India, spoke the language of the soldiers better than she did. As well as nursing the troops, Sophia ( fourth from left) threw herself into raising funds for warm clothes and huts for Indian soldiers. Her efforts won the praise of Field Marshal Lord French, and scuppered the government’s plan to suppress her
believing them when they called her beautiful. Yet, much as it had for her mother, Sophia’s charm and fragility endeared her to all who came into contact with her, whereas the other Duleep Singh princesses rarely failed to provoke irritation. Even before the Maharajah’s death, Sophia’s eldest sister Bamba had been causing much annoyance with her constant questions about the type of treatment she might expect when she reached the age of majority. At twenty-one, unmarried women in England could
of the armed police outside and scuffles broke out between them and students who had not been able to fit in the hall. The organisers had to beg the British commanding officers to let the women out safely before things got too violent. Sophia and Bamba were rushed to a waiting tonga, and the horses sped them away. As Sophia looked back on the crowds closing in behind her she thought: ‘Which are friends and which are foes in this country?’14 A couple of days later Lala Lajpat Rai and Gokhale put