Trailblazers

Princess Sophia, India's Hell-Raising Feminist

Goddaughter of Queen Victoria, scion of the Lion of the Punjab, feminist revolutionary, Princess Sophia finally gets a worthy biography.

01.25.15 11:45 AM ET

Goddaughter of Queen Victoria, offspring of a deposed Maharajah, and fashion icon—Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was as unlikely an activist as one could find, let alone one who would garner headlines for her support and funding of the sometimes extreme tactics of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Society for Social and Political Union.

The tale of how this physically diminutive princess transformed from delicate society debutante to passionate activist is detailed in an engrossing new biography by the journalist Anita Anand, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary. Sophia’s life was extraordinary—one of those stories that begs for a gifted storyteller like Anand. There is never a dull moment as the book races from the sordid history of her family’s demise to her increased advocacy on the topics of suffrage and India. The book is a reminder that many interesting historical figures are still waiting to have their stories told.

The journey begins in India with the story of the Singh family. Sophia’s grandfather, Ranjit Singh, known as the “Lion of the Punjab,” was a Sikh legend who had conquered and forged the Punjab region into an empire. He managed to keep warlords to the north at bay, as well as the ever-encroaching British Empire to the south and east. His power and wealth were best exemplified by the jewel he wore tied to his bicep—the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

His death, however, gave way to a vertiginous frenzy of intrigue and betrayal. After the first four claimants to the throne were assassinated, the title went to Singh’s five-year-old son, Duleep, whose imposing mother, the Maharani Jindan, ruled in his name. Ever the astute opportunists, the British seized the initiative, and through a series of moves—bribes, battles, coerced treaties—oversaw the dismantling of the kingdom, the exile of the Maharani to Nepal, and Duleep Singh’s defenestration and expatriation to England. He was demoted to a life of dependence on the goodwill of the Foreign Office for funds. The legendary riches of the Sikh kingdom went to those who betrayed it or to the crown—including the prized Koh-i-Noor.

While this sorry tale is anything but astonishing in the annals of British colonial history, what is surprising is how the family’s life in England defies convention.

Duleep would become a sort of flamboyant pet for Queen Victoria—the good little Indian prince who had converted to Christianity and was a model of courtly behavior. He attained legendary status for his shooting skills, maintained a close friendship with Prince Edward and other notable members of the aristocracy, became a tabloid fixture for his nighttime exploits, and built the East-meets-West palace at Elveden Hall. Two of his children, Victor and Sophia, were named the Queen’s godchildren. After asking Presbyterian missionaries in Cairo to find him somebody who, according to Anand, “was pretty, virginal, knew her Bible, and would be an outsider,” he married the 16-year-old bastard child of a German merchant and Abyssinian slave, Bamba Muller. Despite her origins, she, too, would be welcomed into Victoria’s court.

Sophia was a demure, even sickly child. Her siblings were the big personalities, and most of her life was filled with trauma. Her father’s wandering eye and extravagant lifestyle led him to abandon his family, shacking up in Paris with a chambermaid from Cox’s Hotel and spending the rest of his life as a target of the British press. Her mother became a nonfunctioning alcoholic. Her closest sibling, Edward, would die an early death. However, as two of the children were the queen’s godchildren, and the family retained importance in international affairs, their upbringing became an object of governmental importance, and the children were placed into the care of guardians. Sophia eventually flourished, making a big impact on the society circuit, both for her fashion and for her dog breeding. Her life was one glamorous party after another.

In short, she was not a rebel, nor did she have a cause.

It was this world, which was simultaneously changing rapidly and also clinging to tradition, that would shake Sophia. Throughout her life, her irascible and generally unbearable sister Bamba would be the one who lit a fire under Sophia. Due in large part to her uncontrollable tongue and prickly personality, as well as a justifiable bitterness about her family’s status, Bamba looked to America to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. She was accepted at Northwestern University, but part of the way through her studies, the university decided women would no longer be allowed to be doctors. This was followed by a dramatic trip the sisters (there was a third, Catherine, who by all accounts was a lesbian) undertook to India for “The Delhi Durbar” to mark the coronation of King Edward VII in 1903. In India, Sophia “had seen poverty and depravation on a scale that overwhelmed her” and also saw firsthand what had been taken from her family. “Never,” writes Anand, “would she find life as a socialite fulfilling again.”

Sophia’s activism took off on two fronts. She took up the cause of the lascars, Indian seaman used in cargo transportation who were treated with unimaginable cruelty. In the first five years, a facility she built for the cause helped nearly 5,000 lascars.

A second trip to India in 1906 brought her to Lahore, where she was captivated by activists like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Sarla Devi, and Lajpat Rai. Although the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, she was mistreated consistently by British authorities. In her diary on her return journey, in a remarkable turn in her sentiments, she recorded her reaction to the arrest of Lajpat Rai: “Oh you wicked English how I long for your downfall. How I loathe you all … I am your deadly enemy from hereafter.” 

However, the longer she was back in England, the more distant the Indian cause felt and the more listless she became. In 1909 a chance discussion at a social gathering about the WSPU caused her to join that very day. Over the subsequent years, Sophia would show herself to be more than a mere token signatory. She would sell suffragette pamphlets outside Hampton Court, where she resided. She marched on Parliament and was held against St. Stephen’s Gate as officers and thugs beat and molested female marchers—that is, until she “elbowed her way through the seething mass” and tried to save a protester. She was arrested numerous times. On one occasion, she threw herself at the car of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith brandishing a protest banner. She became notorious for her refusal to pay taxes so long as she could not vote, but her notoriety and position meant that the government was terrified of putting her in jail (where she might go on hunger strike). Her home would be raided for jewels to pay the fines instead, all of which only created more publicity for the movement. Her speech against paying up was reprinted in full in The Times and covered by all the major papers. In 1914, she gave £51 to the WSPU, which represented nearly 10 percent of her yearly income. It also came at a time when the WSPU was becoming increasingly controversial, particularly over the use of arson as a tactic.

She managed, of course, to maintain her fashion status throughout, as coverage of her in the paper not only detailed her exploits but often her lavish furs and outfits.

In World War I, she became a much-need thorn in the side of the War Office over the treatment of Indian sepoys. She raised a prodigious amount of funds to aid them during the war, and became a volunteer at a hospital in Brighton serving wounded Indian soldiers.

Anand’s absorbing biography is also a subtle examination of the peculiar case of Anglo-Indian identity crises. Sophia and her sisters embraced their Indian roots and took up their family’s native causes, but many Indian elites did not feel similarly. Sophia’s own brother Frederick was “unquestioningly loyal to the throne and to the idea that Britain reigned supreme. There were few royalists as ardent” as he was, and he even had an upside down portrait of Oliver Cromwell hanging in the toilet of his home. His sentiments were far from unique, as the effects of Anglophilia and a desire to be part of British aristocracy are perplexingly powerful. Equally perplexing is how a young woman like Sophia, who was anything but a pot-stirrer her entire life and had found success in British society, would challenge the British government to the degree she did.