‘Same shit, different century’ read the sign of three women dressed as suffragists, marching on London following the inauguration of Donald Trump. We marched for hope and equality, for the same reasons that over a century ago, Sophia Duleep Singh turned away from the conventions of her royal heritage and committed herself to the suffragist movement.
Sophia was born in 1876 in London’s Belgravia to an exiled Maharaja, Duleep Singh, and his first wife Bamba Müller. Duleep was the son of a successful and popular Maharaja known as the ‘Lion of the Punjab’, but on his death, the British seized his land and stripped him of his fortune. On his arrival in Britain, Duleep was favoured by Queen Victoria. She described him as ‘a bright example to all Indian Princes, for he is thoroughly good and amiable, and most anxious to improve himself’. The Queen later became Duleep’s godmother.
Sophia was just eleven when her father lost everything, and eloped to Paris with a mistress. After his children wrote him a letter pleading for help, Duleep responded: ‘I could see you starve and even would take your life to put an end to your misery, but will never return to England.’ Compounding the children’s despair, their mother Bamba had begun to drink heavily. It wasn’t long before she died. Queen Victoria lamented: ‘How terrible for the poor children, who are quite fatherless and motherless!’ She stated that the children would be ‘well cared for, have good guardians and allowance and kind people with them and I shall see them whenever I can.’
She did not disappoint. She gave Sophia and her siblings lodgings on the edge of Hampton Court – the location would remain the princess’s home for the rest of her life. When Sophia made her first appearance at Buckingham Palace in 1894, she quickly became a celebrity. High society engagements came thick and fast, and the society columns began to analyse her fashion and style.
Shortly after, Sophia visited India and the ruins of her family’s fortune. On her second visit in 1906, she travelled with her sister across the Punjab. Her encounters with people there, in particular the poor, made her realise the influence of her grandfather, the former Maharaja. On one occasion, she was riding along the Ravi River and described a crowd began collecting around the family as they walked: ‘I heard lots of people saying who we were.’
Sophia began to witness first-hand the malice of Empire, and the poverty of the Indian people under British rule. She was in Lahore when the editor of a publication critical of the British received prison sentences. She was angry, describing the scene thus: ‘My blood was up and I said quite loud “Yes Shame on the British.” I don’t know and don’t care if they [two Englishmen] heard. It is such a disgraceful case that no one can quite understand. It is an awful shame on the British.’
In 1909, Sophia returned to Britain ablaze with the passion for social justice that had ignited her grandfather and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union. She was part of the suffragist crowd on Black Friday in 1910, when the activists were violently dispersed outside the House of Commons. She was deemed scandalous for daring to march on Parliament, given her High Society standing. On witnessing one woman being beaten by a policeman, she put herself physically between them. Recognising her, the policeman fled, but not before Sophia had noted his badge number and began complaining to the authorities. Her grievance went all the way to the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill. He ignored her.
Sophia’s next stunt targeted the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. In 1911, on the State Opening of Parliament, Sophia positioned herself outside 10 Downing Street and waited for the Prime Minister to appear. Just as he was due to drive away she flung herself before his car and thrust a poster on the front window. It read ‘Votes for Women’.
This was not how the goddaughter of the longest-reigning monarch was supposed to behave. Though she escaped from the incident without charge, she quickly found herself at war with the State again. She had become part of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, a group that refused to pay taxes to a state that left them politically disempowered. She appeared in the Magistrate’s Court and used the opportunity to give her principles a platform:
I am unable conscientiously to pay money to the State as I am not allowed to exercise any control over its expenditure. Neither am I allowed any voice in the choosing of Members of Parliament whose salaries I have helped to pay. This is very unjustified. When the women of England are enfranchised and the State acknowledges me as a citizen I shall of course pay my share willingly towards its upkeep. If I am not a fit person for the purpose of representation why am I a fit person for taxation?
Sophia died at the age of 72, after a life committed to the fight for women’s equality in Britain, India and across the world. She never married but became godmother to her housekeeper’s daughter, Drovna. She told Drovna tales of the suffragists and on one walk, knelt before her goddaughter and said: ‘You are never, ever not to vote. You must promise me. When you are allowed to vote you are never, ever to fail to do so.’
Drovna kept her promise.