It’s England, rainy, misty England. We are at Hampton Court Palace outside of London, one of Henry VIII’s favorite palaces–but it is clear that we are well past the Tudor Era. In fact, everyone looks like they’re in Edwardian garb.
There’s a brown-skinned woman standing outside Hampton Court Palace, wearing a large hat, next to a placard that exclaims, “Votes For Women!” She is also wearing the telltale sash of the suffragettes.
Her name is Sophia Duleep Singh and I’m going to need an entire BBC miniseries made of her life at some point.
Sophia–more properly Princess Sophia–was the daughter of the deposed Sikh Emperor Duleep Singh, who had been forced to give up his title, crown, and land to the British as they colonized the Indian subcontinent and surrounding areas. Sophia’s mother was Bamba Muller, who was of mixed German and Abyssinian background. Sophia was the fifth of the couple’s six children.
Princess Sophia was born in her father’s country house at Elveden, Suffolk in 1876. She was a goddaughter of Queen Victoria. When Sophia was 10, her father tried to take the entire family back to India, but they weren’t allowed to return, by order of the British government. Duleep Singh wasn’t even allowed to return to India to deposit his late mother’s ashes.
Soon after, Sophia got sick with typhus. Her mother caught typhus as well and died. Her father remarried a few years later, moved to Paris to get away from Britain (he’d come to realize and understand that he’d been deposed unfairly and chafed at living in Britain), dying there in 1893.
After Duleep Singh’s death, Queen Victoria granted Sophia grace-and-favor apartments in Hampton Court. Sophia inherited quite a lot of money from her father. She made her debut into Society, raised a lot of dogs, went to horseraces, and generally became a socialite. She went to India for the first time in 1903 for the Delhi Durbar.
In 1907, she went to India again, but this time, she went to Lahore, where her family had once ruled the Punjab Empire from. This trip changed her life. Seeing the land, the people, the poverty–and the real effects of imperialism–meeting relatives, meeting people who wanted Indian independence changed Sophia. She was carefully tailed by British agents during this visit.
In 1909, Sophia joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, at first keeping a low profile, but gradually becoming more radical in her women’s rights beliefs. She worked closely with Emmeline Pankhurst’s organization.
She started not paying taxes in protest and participated in the Women’s Tax Resistance League. Why should women pay taxes if they weren’t allowed to vote and therefore, weren’t represented? This extended to the 1911 census:
She also got fined a bunch of times and refused to pay the fines. Once, she tried to block the Prime Minister’s car while protesting. Sophia was arrested a few times, but never held for long, likely because she was the late Victoria’s granddaughter and of course, because she was a Princess of a land the British were trying to hold on to.
During World War One, Sophia organized convalescent homes for the thousands of Indian troops who fought for the British forces. She nursed men herself, surprising soldiers who knew she was the daughter of a deposed Emperor.
Sophia Duleep Singh continued to support women’s rights and Indian activists. She moved away from Hampton Court in later years, dying in 1948 in Buckinghamshire.
Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand
Sophia: Suffragette Princess