A socialite revolution: Sophia Duleep Singh

Words: Kim Singh Sall

At one point or another, most history students find themselves thinking about which historical figure they’d most like to have dinner with. Would it be a revolutionary? A royal? An activist? Someone at the centre of a scandal? All three?

As I’ve grown up, I’ve wondered whether the person I’d choose to dine with could relate to me: whether, despite our different contexts and circumstances, we could find things in common. I refused to accept that I was being too greedy in my quest for a dinner companion, bold enough to want to sit opposite someone who looked like me. 

Straying from my school textbooks and curriculum, I eventually found my dinner guest. It shouldn’t have taken that much searching: this woman, who lived on the cusp of the rise of women and the fall of empire, should have been right there in the pages of history that shape our modern perceptions of Britain and the rest of the world.

Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, was a radical Suffragette and anti-colonial activist. She was raised in English high society, but found herself disillusioned with the ideals of a nation whose hunger had consumed a fifth of the world, and died a radical. 

The Sikh Empire of Punjab fell to the British under Sophia’s father, Maharaja Duleep Singh. In 1849, when he was just 10, he was forced to sign over his kingdom – which included the infamous Koh-I-Noor diamond. 

Duleep Singh was exiled to England. There, he converted to Christianity, quickly becoming a favourite of Queen Victoria. He settled and brought up his family in a country estate financed by the English Crown that had taken his land. 

Sophia was Duleep Singh’s youngest daughter, and a godchild of Queen Victoria. After their parents’ deaths, Victoria made provisions for Sophia and her sisters to stay in Hampton Court Palace; her brothers acquired estates of their own once they’d finished their studies. 

Sophia was thrust into the upper echelons of English society, shining as a woman of colour in a world of white elites. In 1902, the Church Weekly wrote that ‘notwithstanding her great Oriental name,’ Sophia was, ‘to all intents and purposes, a thoroughly English girl.’

A forbidden visit to India the following year brought her Indian heritage back into focus. The British government had effectively prohibited the Duleep Singh family from returning, fearing that their presence would rouse anticolonial sentiment. Nevertheless, Sophia and her sisters Catherine and Bamba (pictured) attended the celebration of Edward VII’s accession in Delhi and journeyed to Punjab after. 

Staying in Punjab nine months, Sophia engrossed herself in the culture, history and language. She was illuminated, finding a part of her identity that the British establishment preferred to quash, and returned home disenchanted with her previous life.

Her activism didn’t take long to ignite. As her ship sailed into London’s docks, she came face-to-face with the Indian sailors – known as lascars – who were employed there to transport cargo. She galvanised support for the lascars in her social circles, which were taken aback at the altruism of the socialite once only concerned with dog breeding and designer clothes. Her endeavours helped to establish a safe house in London’s Victoria Docks which tended to nearly five thousand lascars in five years. 

In 1906, Sophia received an urgent letter from Bamba which summoned her back to Punjab. She sailed for two months on the SS Barbarossa, where she dined with the Captain, nursed her seasick puppy, and shared a romance with someone she described only as a ‘madman’. 

Despite being renowned for her beauty, Sophia had little in the way of romantic intrigue. Too English for Indian men, and too Indian for Englishmen, she learned to accept that she was unlikely to ever be considered a viable partner because she simply wasn’t the right colour. After the Barbarossa voyage she never saw her madman again.

But the flirtation was forgotten when she found herself in a Punjab buzzing with the anticipation of revolution. Sophia spent six months in India, speaking with and learning from Indian nationalists Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajput Rai, and her anticolonial beliefs became more and more radical. ‘Oh you wicked English, how I long for your downfall,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘I am your enemy from hereafter. India, awake and free yourself!’ 

Back home, she found herself without purpose. She sent money to Punjabi schools and bought dolls for Bamba to give out in orphanages, but wanted to do more. 

A chance meeting with Una Dungdale, another political debutante, in 1908, introduced her to the Suffragette cause. She signed up as a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) the same day, and Emmeline Pankhurst became her lifelong friend.

Sophia wasn’t afraid to defy the law. She was an active member of the Women’s Tax Resistance, participated in 1910’s Black Friday march on Parliament, threw herself in front of Herbert Asquith’s car and boycotted the 1911 census along with other Suffragettes.  Her dedication to the WSPU was scandalous, embarrassing the English aristocracy and causing headaches for the government’s India Office. 

Sophia sold the WSPU newspaper, The Suffragette, outside Hampton Court Palace, publicly disrespecting the English Crown and the establishment in which she had grown up. Her noble status meant she avoided prison, though, no matter how many times she dared the police to arrest her. 

During the wars, Sophia continued her work. She trained as a nurse in 1915 and practiced in the Lady Hardinge hospital in Brighton, which treated wounded Indian soldiers; in World War II, she took in a family of evacuee children, the Sarbutts, to whom she always remained devoted. Sophia spent the remaining years of her life helping to care for her housekeeper’s daughter, Drovna, her godchild. 

Sophia died in August 1948, aged 72, following the discovery of a tumour. The Duleep Singh lineage ended with Sophia and her siblings, none of whom had children. Raised a Christian, she was cremated a Sikh.

Sophia’s place in history has been precarious. She wasn’t recognised as the prominent Suffragette she was because she evaded arrest; the hostile relationship she had with the English establishment meant that traces of her activism were buried. She never sought glory herself. In the women’s Who’s Who, her contribution was one of the shortest – under ‘interests’, she simply wrote, ‘The Advancement of Women’. 

But we shouldn’t forget Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. She operated at the centre of early campaigns for female and Indian emancipation, and straddled English and Indian culture and heritage. Her disappearance from our textbooks is part of a narrative of British history which dilutes the role played by people of colour within Britain’s shores: her life is evidence of a rich British-Indian identity that existed long before the large waves of South-Asian immigration in the 1950s and 1960s.

The campaign to decolonise British curriculums has garnered a new and powerful momentum. Change is brewing. May Sophia find her rightful place in this new history, outliving those who sought to erase her. 

learn more

  • ON SOPHIA: Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary – Anita Anand
  • ON THE BRITISH EMPIRE IN INDIA: Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India – Shashi Tharoor
  • ON INDIAN INDEPENDENCE: The Great Partition – Yasmin Khan

Kim Singh Sall is an undergraduate history student at the University of Bristol and Senior Editor of That’s What She Said Magazine. Follow her on Twitter.