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The Duleep Singhs by Peter Bance : Times(London)Book Review


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The Times (London) March 02, 2004

Imperial Lather

By Michael Binyon

The sad tale of the last of the Sikh emperors illuminates the strange contradictions of the British Raj

THREE overgrown graves in a Suffolk churchyard are all that remain of one of the proudest dynasties to rule India. The only visitors today are the growing number of British Sikhs eager to visit the resting place of the last exiled claimant to the Sikh empire in Punjab. What they will find is evidence of a family born into fabulous wealth, kidnapped by British imperialists 150 years ago, adopted as an exotic talisman by Queen Victoria, stripped of their empire and religion and cast adrift in the land of their conquerors.

Maharajah Duleep Singh was charming, handsome, reckless and scandalous. He was an intimate of dukes and earls. The Queen showered affection on him, as did the Prince Consort. The Government paid his gaming debts while spying on his family. Courtesans vied for his attention and diplomats thwarted his attempts to regain his throne.

When he died, a pauper, in 1893, he was forgotten even by his countrymen. None of his eight children ever returned to rule the ancestral homeland. None produced any children. All that remains of his wealth is the Koh-i-noor, the fabulous diamond that he once placed in Victoria’s hand and which now adorns the late Queen Mother’s state crown.

A new book tracing the tragic story of “Queen Victoria’s maharajah†has now revealed in scores of family photographs the extraordinary attempt to transform a conquered Indian ruler into a Christian English gentleman. It shows in startling imagery the contradictions of Empire — the relationship of love and loyalty between the deposed Sikh ruler and the newly created Empress of India, the godmother to his eldest son. It also depicts the dilemma that has haunted many other migrants: was Duleep Singh the anglicised gentleman his guardians earnestly wished to make him or the warrior whose destiny was to regain his stolen kingdom?

When Duleep Singh was born in 1838, Britain was engaged in a fierce struggle for Punjab. His regent mother led a revolt, which was crushed. The British imprisoned her, annexed Punjab, deposed the 11-year-old maharajah in 1849 and entrusted him as a ward of the Government to a Scottish army surgeon, Dr John Login. He was granted an annual allowance of £40,000.

Stripped of his Punjabi servants and baptised a Christian in 1853, he sailed for England a year later. He played cricket, was used to European dress (although he always wore three rows of enormous pearls) and was eager to adopt the ways of an Englishman.

The Queen received him at Buckingham Palace and was immediately enchanted. Prince Albert designed a coat of arms for him. He was awarded the Grand Cross Star of India. He made friends with the Prince of Wales, was portrayed in oils, given a bible by Lord Dalhousie (the conqueror of Punjab and jailer of his mother), tutored in German and Italian and given a residence, first in Wimbledon and then at Roehampton. He began a social whirl.

But life began to pall. He yearned to go back to India. The Government was wary, but he set sail and in 1861 had an emotional reunion with his embittered mother. Both were persuaded to return to England, and, stopping off in Cairo, he met the 16-year-old Bamba, daughter of an Abyssinian and a German banker, whom he determined to marry — although they had to talk through an interpreter.

They set up residence at Elveden Hall, in Suffolk, to live the life of a country squire. But his life became dissolute. He took mistresses, fathered illegitimate children, ran through his allowance and begged for more. Fired by his late mother’s stories of British injustice, he wrote a book on Britain’s plunder of India that infuriated the Government.

Disillusioned and determined to regain his throne, he left for India in 1885 and a year later was re-initiated into Sikhism. But a spy was planted in his entourage and learnt, to Government horror, that he had approached the Russians to help reconquer Punjab. Nothing came of it, although he spent a miserable two years in Moscow. Eventually he had to return and in an emotional meeting with the Queen wept and begged official pardon.

By now he was a broken man. Bamba had died and he had married his mistress Ada, a chambermaid he met at Cox’s hotel in Jermyn Street. In 1893 he suffered an epileptic fit and died. His funeral at Elveden had a wreath from the ever-indulgent Queen and another from the Prince of Wales “for auld lang syneâ€.

His children forged indifferent careers. The Eton-educated Victor gambled away his money, his sober second son Frederick became a respected historian and Suffolk squire and one daughter, Princess Sophie, became a suffragette. The daughters raised funds for Indian soldiers in both world wars, and the eldest, Princess Bamba, died, a recluse, only in 1957. By then their homeland had been partitioned between India and Pakistan. And with her died the dynasty of the warrior Sikhs.

The Duleep Singhs by Peter Bance is published by Sutton Publishing,

Pre Order through Amazon.co.uk on http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0...aharajahduleeps

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