103: Maharajah Duleep Singh 1838-1893, a tragedy

Drawn by Queen Victoria in 1854

Many years before Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877 the commercial and political activities of the British in India had been managed by the East India Company. Over 600 semi-independent states, feudal kingdoms for the most part were finally abolished after the Republic of India was proclaimed in 1947. Those rulers who did not appear to agree to the system had been removed, and Duleep Singh of the Punjab was one. Banished in 1850, Duleep Singh left Lahore and in 1852 was baptised a Christian, and he went to England in 1854. His exile is well documented, as is his friendship with Queen Victoria, whose painting of her somewhat exotic friend was made that year.
With several Indian servants and colleagues, Duleep Singh set out to be a typical English gentleman: hunting, shooting, and fishing on vast estates and living in substantial but rented grand houses. An exile in Britain was not the automatic result of British political manoeuvres: Rampal Singh argued over Hinduism with his father and so came to London with his wife around 1870, living near Norwood where she died in Elder Road in 1877. Her husband considered standing as a Liberal candidate for Lincoln in the 1880s. He returned to India where he died in 1909.
Duleep Singh when living in North Yorkshire planned to stand as the Conservative candidate for Whitby in 1873. Singh had married a Coptic Christian of German and Abyssian descent (Bamba Mueller) in Egypt in 1864. Their several children had the best educations for the era – Eton, Cambridge (the daughters went to Oxford and two were active in the women’s suffrage movement) – and moved within high society. Indeed the ambassador of Prussia complained that Singh usually was placed next to the Queen (she scolded the German!). In 1863 he was a guest at the wedding of the Queen’s heir Edward. That same year he purchased an estate at Elvedon, Suffolk, a mile or so south of Thetford in Norfolk.
In 1886 he left for India, angered by British attitudes, and was arrested in Aden (Yemen) and so went into a new exile in France where he contacted Irish and Russian revolutionaries. Bamba died in Elvedon in 1887. Her husband, who found some comfort in the arms of an English woman in Paris, died in Paris in 1893. Given the British concern about Russians invading India through Afghanistan and the Punjab, Singh’s final years were seen by the British as at odds with his personality and attitudes in those three earlier decades.
Elvedon was developed into fine agricultural lands by the Guinness/Iveagh family despite wartime use by the military, and their graves are just to the north of those of the Maharajah, Bamba, and a baby, close to the tower of Elvedon church.
Thetford, where Bahamas-born, Guy’s Hospital (London) trained Dr Allan Minns was mayor in 1904-1906, a pioneer African-descent achiever in Britain, has a present-day population that is nearly 30% Portuguese. A statue of Singh, on a horse, is next to the river in the town’s centre, a recent tribute from Britons of Sikh descent who regard Duleep Singh as a pioneer settler in Britain. The Elvedon church tower has a large memorial plaque from Sikhs, too.
That none of his children had children might be regretted, but some have entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and there are biographies, including Alexander and Anand’s Queen Victoria’s Maharajah of 1980. His life in Britain strongly suggests that class was more important than race in the nineteenth century.


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