Sunday, 24 February 2013

THE MAHARAJAH DULEEP SINGH

BY ESSIE FOX


Sadly, I'm going to have to leave The History Girls, for a while at least. The reason for this is that I need to write a new novel by June of this year - and as that novel is now consuming my every waking (and sleeping) hour it seems appropriate to use this final blogpost to talk about one of that book's inspirations.



Here he is - and how beautiful! This is the Maharajah Duleep Singh who became the Sikh ruler of the Punjab when he was no more than a child. But with family intrigues and treachery never being far behind (not to mention the fact that the Punjab was such a valuable territory, dividing India from Afghanistan - the passage through which the Russians might threaten to enter India and therefore endanger the British rule) in due course the Punjab was annexed at the end of the second Anglo Sikh war. 




In 1849, when that short war ended, the boy maharajah gave up this throne to be raised by a British army officer, in whose care he eventually converted to Christianity - after which he was sent to England and raised as a gentleman aristocrat, well away from those who might have sought to use him as a political pawn. 



He became a very great favourite of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The portrait of Duleep above was painted by Victoria who called the prince her 'beautiful boy' and who often had him accompany her own family on holidays spent in the Isle of Wight.


This glorious painting by Winterhalter, one of Victoria's favourite artists, shows Duleep in all his princely robes with a backdrop of a palace in Lahore. 



But, something else was brought from Lahore when Duleep was to lose his throne - and that is shown above in the illustration by Tavernier - the precious diamond, the Koh-i-nor, which was taken from Duleep as ransom, with all too little consideration that the stone was not only the Punjab's sovereign symbol but also that it was  revered as being a sacred Indian stone.

The diamond was exhibited in 1851 at The Great Exhibition in London after which it was cut down from what had been its original size to be made into a brooch - commissioned by Prince Albert and then presented to his wife. 

However, at the time when Duleep was posing for Winterhalter in the White Room at Buckingham Palace, the Queen - perhaps in a moment of guilt, or perhaps as a test of his loyalty - presented the seventeen year old boy with the diamond that he had once owned. It has been documented by those who were present at the time that Duleep appeared to be confused, but then perhaps he realised that this was a test that he must pass, after which he offered it back to the Queen and said, 'It is to me, Ma'am, the greatest pleasure thus to have the opportunity, as a loyal subject, of myself tendering to my sovereign, the Koh-i-nor.'


Duleep went on to grow up in England and lived in great splendour at Elvedon Hall. When he married  ( a girl met in Egypt) the couple had several children and Prince Victor, the second, but first to live, was christened at Windsor Castle, with the Queen standing as god-mother, after which she wrote in her diaries,  'I never beheld a lovelier child, a plump little darling with the most splendid dark eyes, but not very dark skin.'

But, his father's skin remained dark and beneath it his soul remained Indian. In later years Duleep was to be influenced by Russian and Irish dissidents. Reminded of all that he had lost, the prince was increasingly dissatisfied, often writing to Victoria and requesting the return of the Koh-i-nor, complaining that the East India Company failed to make sufficient recompense for the loss of his wealth and sovereignty. In time he renounced his Christian faith, re-embracing his native Sikh beliefs. He plotted a 'holy rebellion', intending to lead an army into India by route of Russia and Afghanistan.

However, all such efforts were doomed to nothing but failure. Duleep's intentions were exposed resulting in his exile from the shores of England, and India. With his wife and their children remaining in England, the prince and his London mistress lived upon the continent - where they suffered levels of poverty that Duleep had never known before.


But, before his premature death from a stroke at the age of fifty-six, he met with Victoria again when she visited the French town of Grasse. There, and quite against the wishes of her advisers, she privately pardoned the bloated bald prince who had once been her cherished beautiful boy. And soon after that, when she heard of his death, she had his remains brought back 'home' where she gave him a Christian burial. In death, she reclaimed her prodigal son.




And, as to the Koh-i-nor, to this day the diamond remains among the crown jewels in the Tower of London. But there are many stories told about its mystical properties - and some even say that it is cursed.


Queen Alexandra wearing the Koh-i-nor in her coronation crown


One myth surrounding the stone was that if it was ever returned to its homeland all foreign invaders would be cast out - which was why Duleep wanted to have it back when plotting to reclaim his throne. Another says that only a queen may ever safely hold the stone. And that is somewhat ironic, for, having placed the diamond directly into Duleep's hands, it is almost as if Victoria ensured the fate of the prophecy, that any man who touches it will be doomed to see his family line 'disappear from the light'. Despite Duleep fathering several children, every one of them died without progeny.

And as to the legend that any queen who possessed diamond would rule the world, it was certainly true for Victoria - the queen who commanded an Empire and was later crowned Empress of India.



Essie Fox writes Victorian gothic novels. There are extracts, images and information on her website: essiefox.com.

9 comments:

Denise said...

How strange. I became fascinated by this man when we drove past the memorial near Elveden at Christmas this year. I looked up the history of the hall and was amazed to read about the Maharajah and to read that his grave is still a place where Sikhs visit. In East Anglia! So I look forward to the finished novel.

Joan Lennon said...

He was indeed beautiful - good luck with your novel!

Leslie Wilson said...

What a sad story - and it epitomises the tragic abuses of colonialism.

The Virtual Victorian said...

Absolutely, Leslie. I think it is very sad - and there's so much more to Duleep's story that, due to lack of time and space, has been cut right down to the bare essentials here.

Thank you Joan and Denise.

Theresa Breslin said...

Thanks for this lovely farewell poignant post. It has resonances with Elizabeth Laird's book The Prince who Walked with Lions. Queen Victoria features in this fact based story in a similar role.

The Virtual Victorian said...

Thank you, Theresa. I shall look out for that.

adele said...

So sorry to say goodbye to you as a History Girl, Essie. Good luck with your novel which sounds so interesting. And yes, he's gorgeous.

Sue Purkiss said...

What a sad story! Looking forward to the book...

Arjan Singh said...

This write up is completely false. Maharaja Daleep Singh was forcibly kidnapped by the the British East India Company & converted to Christianity. Having been forcibly separated from his mother,grandmother & family, Daleep Singh was forcibly coerced as a child & held hostage in UK throughout his life.Maharani Jind Kaur was imprisoned while the British sadists abducted the 5yr old Daleep Singh. Thrice he tried to return to the Punjab & thrice he tried to go back to his Sikh roots, but the British had kept him & his family as prisoners in UK. He died alone in a bed sit in Paris in 1893. Against his wishes and the basic tenets of his faith, his body was buried in Eleven estate in England.

A man of great wealth & power was uprooted from his soil, Culture & Religion by the fascist British colonialists.