This is a story about Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian princess who fought in the frontlines alongside Emmeline Pankhurst to bring voting rights to the women of England.1 (Although if you watched the movie Suffragette, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that.)
Sophia was the daughter of Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Punjab, a region known for its fierce warriors. At the tender age of eleven, Duleep was taken away from his mother and forced to sign over his vast kingdom and fortune (including the Kohinoor diamond) to the British. He was then packed off to London, where the India Office could keep a close eye on him.
Adrift in a foreign land, Duleep threw himself into a life of excess like so many other Indian princes of his generation.
Eventually he married another outsider like himself, a biracial ingenue from Cairo, Bamba Muller. In 1876, Sophia was born into this precarious union.
Denied his birthright, Duleep’s impotent rage drove his increasingly reckless behavior, setting him on the path to ruin (he died alone in a hotel room in Paris, where he had been living with a dancing girl). Meanwhile, Bamba drowned her mounting sorrows in alcohol. Neither parent paid much attention to the children. When Bamba passed away prematurely, friends of the family were shocked to find that Sophia was barely literate.
Upon their mother’s death, the children were settled at the home of a former civil servant, who although kindly, also spied on his wards to make sure they had no contact with the Punjab.
The new stability benefitted Sophia, who began to blossom. At twenty-one, she made her formal debut at St. James Court, but as a product of neither East nor West, she could never hope to find a suitable mate. Still, thanks to the efforts of her godmother Queen Victoria, Sophia was well-situated.
But she was bored. The life of a socialite was not for her, and she eventually fell into a depression. Sophia was soon to find purpose, however. A trip to the Punjab with her sisters –her first ever –opened her eyes to the injustices of the Empire, leading in turn to her political awakening.
At this time in London, one could often see destitute Indian seamen who, despite their indispensible services to the empire, found themselves in dire circumstances upon their discharge. Sophia’s father, in a rare display of empathy for anyone other than himself, had built a home for these unfortunate souls. Upon her return to England, Sophia continued her father’s legacy, raising money for their cause.
It was the beginning of a career of social activism. When Sophia met the suffragette Una Dugdale (the first woman in England to refuse the word “obey” in her wedding vows), she threw herself into their cause.
Sophia was a committed suffragette, often putting her own precarious position in jeopardy. She was the youngest suffragette to march on Parliament, and when violence broke out between the police and the protesters, Sophia stood her ground. She threw herself against the prime minister’s car, pressing suffragette slogans against his window. She refused to pay her taxes in protest at government policies, resolute even when the bailiffs came to seize her property. Even at the peak of the movement’s unpopularity, she would stand out in the cold, hawking suffragette literature to the masses.
Challenging the government’s authority did not endear Sophia to the India Office, on which she was dependent for her income. She suffered financially for her choices. Yet, despite her reduced circumstances, until the very end, Sophia was always a patron for those in need.
Why was Sophia remarkable? It would have been easy for her, after the trauma of her early years, to retreat into the comfortable cocoon of her wealth. Yet, she had enough empathy to want to fight for a cause that would often be accused of marginalizing women like her (to wit: her complete erasure from the history of the suffragette movement until recently).
Sophia understood instinctively that the same system that had brutalised her family also brutalised its own, particularly those who dared to flout its rigid social agenda.
In that way, she was a true radical.