“Have we no hold on her?”George V, talking about Sophia Duleep Singh
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Bamba Müller was born in Cairo in 1848, under circumstances that should have destined her to obscurity. Her father was a German merchant banker, and her mother was his mistress, Sofia. Sofia was an Abyssinian Coptic Christian slave. It was not an equal relationship and Bamba’s parents did not marry. When Bamba was young, her father placed her in the care of missionaries in Cairo and had Sofia engaged there as a teacher so she could be close to their daughter. Bamba took to the life, becoming a dedicated member of the Christian community, and developed a deep life-long commitment to her religion.
In 1863, Duleep Singh was traveling through Cairo, with an eye out for a bride. As the last Sikh sovereign of the Punjab, he had been counseled by his friends that he should marry an Indian princess, but he wanted a less worldly and more devout bride. He, too, had been raised a Christian, although in very different circumstances. Duleep had been dethroned by the second Anglo-Sikh war and had been living in Britain from a young age. Although he was a Maharaja, a friend of Queen Victoria, and a member of upper-class English social circles, he was essentially an employee of the East India Tea Company. He did as they required, and was kept out of active political activity in his home country.
Duleep wrote to the missionaries and asked if there was among their students a suitable bride. The missionaries recommended Bamba. It was said that after only one meeting, Duleep was besotted and felt he had found his wife. Bamba, however, was less sure. She entered a period of prayer, consulted her father, and spent some time considering if this was the correct course. There was also the small matter of language. Bamba spoke Arabic, Duleep English. Nevertheless, after Bamba agreed, the wedding proceeded at the British consulate in Alexandria, with an interpreter and each participant saying vows in their own language. It was reported that Bamba wore simple jewelry and a short-sleeved antique dress, orange blossoms in her hair, and a veil. Bamba was sixteen years old and now Maharani Bamba, Lady Duleep Singh.
The couple moved to England and settled in Duleep’s Elveden estate. The estate was far from India, but the Maharaja kept caged cheetahs and leopards on the property to make it feel more like his home county. Whether Bamba felt homesick is not recorded, but she was busy during their first ten years of marriage, both bearing and raising children. Sadly the couple’s first child, a son, died son after his birth. However, six healthy children soon followed: Victor (born July 1866), Frederick (born January 1868), Bamba (born September 1869), Catherine (born October 1871), Sophia (born August 1876), and Edward (born August 1879).
One of these days I am going to write a Pocket Profile that ends RIGHT HERE with “and they lived happily ever after,” but today is not that day. Duleep was not the first person to marry what he wanted, only to realize it wasn’t really what he wanted. Bored with marriage, Duleep began running wild and his spending quickly depleted the family’s funds. He was also unfaithful, and this humiliated the devout Bamba. She was isolated on the estate, which was becoming hard to run with so little funds. She became dependent on alcohol, and was often so depressed she was unable to leave her room. Her husband disappeared for months at a time, reappearing only to collect valuables to sell.
Unable to raise money to support himself in England, in 1886, Duleep announced the family would return to India. Bamba was agreeable publicly but privately was in despair. Duleep was not welcome in India, and the voyage was destined for disaster. The family was detained in the Suez Canal, where the British would not allow them to proceed. They existed in stateless limbo until Duleep relented and allowed Bamba and the six children to return to England. He decided to continue on his travels with his new mistress Ada.
Bamba and the six children landed in England in dire straits. They turned to Queen Victoria, who put them up at Claridge’s until they could move back into one of the Maharaja’s empty properties. Bamba and several of the children wrote to Duleep for help, but he replied, “I could see you starve and even would take your life to put an end to your misery, but I will never return to England.”
Eventually, a small sum of 6,000 pounds was settled on the family by the Indian office in London, and the older sons returned to school. The fragile stability was not to last, for in September 1887, young Sophia was diagnosed with typhoid fever. Bamba nursed her daughter through her illness, sleeping on the floor in Sophia’s room. During the early morning hours of September 18, Sophia’s fever abated. Sadly, Baba, weakened by years of alcoholism and severe diabetes, died during the same night while sleeping next to her.
Bamba Duleep Singh
After her mother’s death, the oldest daughter Bamba, like the rest of her brothers and sisters, became a ward of their father’s equerry. Although not wildly studious, Bamba attended Somerville College at Oxford. She did not achieve a degree because, at the time, Oxford did not grant them to women. Of all the children, she had the strongest interest in her father’s homeland and would devote much of her life to maintaining her family’s legacy.
She traveled extensively in the Punjab province and at age 46 married Dr. David Waters Sutherland, the Principal of King Edward Medical College in Lahore. In 1947, India gained independence, and Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan. The end of the land of her forefathers devastated Bamba. Having some of her father’s willfulness, in her mind the new Pakistan and India did not exist, there was just the Punjab and its capital Lahore, and she was its last princess.
She died at age 89 and left what was the remainder of the family’s historic artifacts: eighteen paintings, fourteen watercolors, 22 paintings on ivory, and a number of photos and other articles, to her secretary. The collection, known as the Princess Bamba Collection, was sold to the Pakistan government and it is kept in Lahore Fort.
Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh
Like her older sister, Catherine Hilda attended Somerville College, Oxford. Unlike Bamba, she was a serious – some say brilliant – student. Like her younger sister, Sophia, she was a suffragette. She was a member of the Fawcett Women’s Suffrage Group and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She was also considered a great beauty and was presented at court in 1895. That was about the last conventional thing she ever did.
Catherine took a prolonged tour of India after her presentation. After her return to Europe in 1904, she entered a long-term relationship with her former governess, Lina Schäfer, with whom she eventually moved to Germany. Remarkably for the times, none of her family outwardly condemned this relationship, and the couple lived in relative peace. During WWI, Catherine remained with Lina despite concerns that she would be labeled a traitor by her English relatives.
During the lead-up to World War II, she assisted several of their Jewish friends in leaving Germany. In 1938, after Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, one of Catherine’s close friends, Dr. Hornstein, was arrested and interned at Oranienburg concentration camp near Berlin. Catherine acted as the family’s guarantor and helped him secure his release. She also assisted violinist Alexander Polnarioff and the Meyerstein family in their exit from Germany, bringing them to her home in Penn, Buckinghamshire, near London.
Lina Schafer died in 1938, and Catherine left Germany about the same time. The Nazis were consolidating their power and life was becoming more difficult for her. She moved to Penn, in Buckinghamshire, where she lived with her sister Sophia. She died of a heart attack in 1942, after spending a quiet evening in the village with her sister.
Catherine had one more surprise for the world. In 1997, a Swiss Bank account with 137,323 Swiss Francs was discovered in her name. It had not been mentioned in her will or in any paperwork at the time of her death, which only distributed only small tokens to her two sisters. Since both sisters died without having children, the account proceeds were distributed to her sister’s Bamba’s secretary’s family.
Sophia Duleep Singh
The youngest of Bamba’s daughters was also the most famous, or most notorious, depending on your point of view. Sophia was a goddaughter of Queen Victoria, and as such was favored with much royal advice and direction. She was presented at court and for a time lived a fashionable and conventional life as a young society woman. The British government was still keeping an eye on the Maharaja’s children, but since Sophia was considered quiet, she was allowed to go her own way. She was even granted a grace and favor apartment at Hampton Palace.
Like her older sister Bamba, Sophia retained a deep love for India. She also spent a prolonged amount of time touring the country. When she returned to England in 1909, she had decided her life’s goal was “the advancement of women”, and the practical, immediate application of that goal was attaining suffrage for women in England and elsewhere.
It’s hard now to realize what a fight the suffragettes had on their hands. Sophia was initially reluctant to take on a high-profile role, but eventually, she became a leader in the Women’s Social and Political Union. She actively supported the Women’s Tax Resistance League, refusing to pay certain taxes until the vote was granted equally. This caused her landlord, George V, to announce, “Have we no hold on her?”
She visited India again, attracting a crowd that wanted to see the last Maharaja’s daughters. She took that opportunity to champion women’s suffrage in her father’s country. During World War I, she tended wounded Indian soldiers as a British Red Cross Voluntary aide and was vocal in her support for them after the war as well. Despite her high profile and activism, not to mention the exasperation of the royal family, Sophia was never jailed or censured. It is speculated that the government did not want to make a martyr out of the last Raj’s daughter.
Sophia lived to see suffrage for British women, which was finally granted to all women over 21 by royal consent in 1928. The movement considered her as important to the cause as Emmeline Pankhurst.
Sophia died in her sleep in 1948.