The fascinating tale of Maharaja Daleep Singh who relinquished the Koh-i-Noor to become the most prominent fixture in Queen Victoria’s court. But his Indian past came back to haunt him, writes Ammar Ali Qureshi
Maharaja Ranjit Singh is arguably the most remarkable figure in Punjab’s history. His son and last ruler of the Sikh Empire, Daleep Singh, is perhaps the most tragic. Ranjit succeeded his father as head of a small confederacy at the age of ten and, owing to his military genius, became the ruler of Punjab when he was twenty-one. He turned the tide of history by taking the battle to the land of the invaders on the western front, and conquered them; His empire, which lasted for fifty years from 1799 to 1849, stretched from the southern districts of Punjab to Afghanistan in the west Kashmir (which also included Ladakh and Gilgit and Baltistan) in the north-east, and up to Sutlej (which flows through Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pardesh) in the east. Ranjit’s greatest achievement, however, was not military but political conquest, as he was able to unite Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs under one banner.
Ranjit Singh died in 1839 and in just ten years a combination of treacherous and intriguing courtiers, incompetent rulers, and an assertive and aggressive but leaderless army brought the empire of an exceptional man to a humiliating end. Within four years of Ranjit’s death, his three successors were murdered; Daleep Singh, born in Lahore in 1838 to Ranjit’s youngest wife Maharani Jind Kaur, became the boy-king at the age of five in 1843 with his ambitious mother as the regent.
Following Ranjit’s death and during the rule of his weak successors, the Punjab Khalsa army emerged as the kingmaker, the most powerful player in the state which dictated its demands through its delegates known as Panchayats or Committees of Five. Maharani Jind Kaur and her scheming courtiers were wary of the army’s power and devised a plan to tame it by provoking it to invade British territory across the Sutlej, in the hope that it would be cut down to size by the British or its energies would be exhausted in the campaigns of conquest.
It turned out to be a major miscalculation as the British coveted Punjab and considered Lahore Durbar an obstacle in their expansion plans. The invasion gave them the impetus to move eastward, defeating the Khalsa army, after fiercely fought battles, in the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1846. The Maharani was removed from the guardianship of her son, imprisoned initially in Punjab and later banished to Benares in present-day Uttar Pradesh, from where she escaped to Nepal and lived there virtually as a prisoner till 1861. Daleep Singh was placed under the guardianship of the Council of Regency, controlled by a British Resident, till his eventual dethronement when Punjab was annexed in 1849.
The Anglo-Sikh wars of 1846 and 1849 were the fiercest and deadliest that the British encountered in India. So grave was the situation that the British Governor General, Sir Henry Hardinge, had to come to the aid of the British Commander in Chief, Sir Hugh Gough, and served under him. On the Punjab Khalsa army side, it was a lack of efficient leadership which resulted in defeat, although they were able to inflict colossal losses on the British. The rank and file of the Khalsa army put up the bravest and steadiest of fights against the British. However, their military generals were political figures, appointed by the ruling family, who lacked military expertise, indulged in double-dealing, and were traitors within the gates.
In 1845, the Sikh Generals crossed the Sutlej but deliberately did not attack Ferozepur, the forward British base. The battles were fought at Mudki, Ferozeshah, Aliwal, and Sabraon – all of them fiercely contested by both sides. Each of these battles might have been a defeat for the British if the traitorous Punjabi military commanders had not left the field. The same story was repeated in 1849 in the battles of Ramnagar, Chilianwala and Gujrat – as the Sikh soldiers fought fearlessly but were let down by their commanders. “No troops could have fought better,” observed military historian G.B Malleson, “than the Sikhs fought, no army could have been worse led. Had a guiding mind directed the movements of the Sikh army, nothing could have saved the exhausted British.”
The conditions of surrender in 1849 required Daleep to renounce his title to the sovereignty of Punjab, ordered confiscation of state property, and demanded the surrender of the spectacular and sparkling Koh-i-Noor diamond to Queen Victoria. Daleep, in return, was granted a pension, provided he remained “obedient to the British Government”.
All of the Kingdom’s property, including the Koh-i-noor and other jewels, now belonged to the British
Rajmohan Gandhi writes about the end of Lahore Durbar in his recently published history of Punjab: “On 29 March 1849, a ten-year-old Dalip Singh was told to sign a document. Writing his name in Roman letters, the boy-king renounced, on his behalf and on behalf of all heirs and successors, every ‘right, title or claim’ to Punjab. All of the Kingdom’s property, including the Koh-i-noor and other jewels, now belonged to the British. The Sikh kingdom gone, all of Punjab was annexed to British India. The proclamation of annexation read out that day was received by those present with silence”.
The real plan was to convert Daleep to Christianity
In 1950, Daleep was moved to Fatehgarh, a center of Christian missionaries located on the bank of the Ganges in present-day Uttar Pradesh, and placed under the guardianship of a Scottish army doctor, Dr. John Login. Previously tutored in Persian and Gurmukhi, Daleep was taught English in addition to Persian and made to read the Bible. Ostensibly, he had been removed from Punjab due to fear of further rebellion, but the real plan was to convert Daleep to Christianity and exile him to England. In 1953 Daleep converted to Christianity, which as the British Governor General wrote rendered Daleep politically irrelevant to the Sikhs, and sailed to England a year later, receiving a twenty-one gun salute at Malta and Gibraltar after a brief stopover in Egypt.
He arrived in London in the summer of 1854 and very soon was invited by Buckingham Palace. The first meeting between the fifteen-year old Indian prince and thirty five-year old Queen Victoria, who would continue to have profound influence on his subsequent life, went very well and Daleep became an instant favourite of the British monarch. She described him as ‘extremely handsome’ and possessing ‘a graceful and dignified manner’. She was so impressed that she commissioned her favourite artist to paint his portrait. Prince Albert, her husband, had a special coat of arms designed for him.
He partied with the crème de la crème of Victorian Britain and seduced a string of society beauties
Although Victoria never visited India, she was drawn to all things Indian and enjoyed the company of the English-speaking young Maharajah. She remained a friend and a supporter to his last day as their relationship weathered many storms in the next four decades. Daleep was regularly invited to all social events at Buckingham Palace and was addressed as “Your Serene Highness”. He partied with the crème de la crème of Victorian Britain and seduced a string of society beauties.
Her Majesty even tried her hand at match-making and suggested the exiled Raja of Coorg’s daughter, who was also her god-daughter, as a suitable match to Daleep, who politely declined saying that he wanted to wait till the age of twenty-one or twenty-two before he got married. Interestingly, Daleep, a few years later, introduced the exiled princess to an English widower, whom she married.
As an infant in Punjab, Daleep loved falconry and learned to hunt and shoot. In England, he took to the countryside and indulged in his passion of game-shooting. He travelled through Europe in 1857 and it was in Geneva when he first came to know about the Indian revolt and mutiny in Meerut. Daleep was unwilling to condemn it and when the British foreign secretary complained about his attitude to the queen, she answered that a young Indian prince, barred from his ancestral throne and forced to live in Britain, should not be expected to denounce Indians.
Back in 1849 Daleep had been coerced to hand over the Koh-i-Noor to the British Governor General in India. One day when he was having his usual conversations with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace she showed him the famous diamond. Daleep took it towards the window and examined it intensely for more than half an hour without uttering a word. Her Majesty’s staff displayed anxiety as they thought he might throw it out of the window but Daleep came back to the queen and handed it back to her with the words: ‘It is to me, Madam, the greatest pleasure thus to have the opportunity, as a loyal subject, of myself tendering to my sovereign the Koh-i-Noor!”
Daleep enjoyed the life of an English country gentleman and acquired, through a British government loan, a sprawling 17,000 acre estate at Elveden, Suffolk, located in the north-east of London. He loved his Elveden estate and converted it into an Indian-style palace, the interiors done up in Mughal and Indian décor and equipped with expensive carpets, ceramics and glassware. Elveden had a huge aviary which housed his rare collection of birds and a number of cheetahs, leopards and monkeys were kept in a menagerie. Turning Elveden into one of the best sporting venues in the country, Daleep reveled in hosting parties for Victorian aristocracy where the Prince of Wales was a regular guest for shooting games.
In 1861, Daleep travelled to India and brought his mother to Britain. He was not permitted to visit Punjab and had an emotional reunion with his mother, meeting her after nearly 14 years, in Calcutta, which was then the capital of British India. Maharani Jind was perceived by the British as a bad influence and an intriguer by disposition. Back in London, she was not allowed to live with Daleep and was lodged up in Kensington in west London. Her residence was a source of wonder for her London neighbours who would often stop to have a look at the basement, where her Indian cooks would be busy preparing her food, and sniff the pungent smells of Indian curry!
Maharani Jind Kaur had wanted her ashes to be interred at the Maharaja Ranjit Singh memorial in Lahore
British suspicions about Maharani Jind were not unfounded; she informed Daleep about the supposed prophecy of the tenth Sikh guru regarding an exiled prince who would come back to rule Punjab. This prophecy would bother Daleep’s mind a lot in years to come. Maharani was in poor health, nearly blind, and suddenly died in 1863. Daleep again travelled to India to cremate her in Bombay as he was not allowed to visit Punjab, although his mother had wanted her ashes to be interred at Maharaja Ranjit Singh memorial in Lahore.
On his way back, he stopped at Cairo and married, in June 1864, a missionary school teacher, Bamba Muller, an illegitimate daughter of an Ethiopian Coptic slave and Ludwig Muller who was a German businessman. Bamba lived with him in Elveden and gave birth to seven children – two of whom died in infancy. His five children – two sons and three daughters-lived like royalty in the sprawling mansion. Both sons – Victor and Fredrick – went to Eton and Cambridge and gained commission in the British army. His three daughters – Bamba, Sophia and Catherine studied at Oxford.
Daleep Singh’s life can be divided into four distinct phases: boy-king, dethronement and banishment outside Punjab, exile to England and life as an English country gentleman, and a rebel who plotted but did not succeed in reclaiming his throne. The last phase of his life started around 1880 when he read for the first time about the circumstances leading to his dethronement and conditions attached with annexation. Swayed by feelings of resentment and revenge and spurred on by the prophecy of the tenth guru, Daleep entered into a long battle with the British government, arguing about the illegality of the annexation of Punjab and demanded that he be reinstated as the Maharaja.
Victoria offered him peerage in the House of Lords but he declined although he was facing financial problems and his health had begun to deteriorate. He read; he schemed; he failed. British spies kept a close eye on him and intercepted his mail to foil his plans. Having resigned the stipend given to him by the British government, Daleep, along with his family, boarded the ship, in 1886, and informed the government that he was going to India to reclaim his throne. He was detained at Aden in Yemen where he re-embraced the Sikh faith. Daleep sent his family back to England but himself went to Paris.
He lived in Paris for six years, dreaming and planning to return to India
He lived in Paris for six years, dreaming and planning to return to India. Conspiring with Russian and Irish revolutionaries in Paris, he escaped to Russia but could not get an audience with the Czar although he wrote on his file that he could be used at some later stage. Fate had not yet finished her sport with Daleep. His Russian patron suddenly passed away and with him died any chances of winning over any Russian support for his plan to enter Punjab through the Khyber Pass.
His wife expired in England while he was in Russia but in Paris he had acquired an English mistress, Ada Wetherhill, whom he married on his return to Paris and had two daughters with – Alexandra and Ada Irene Helene. By then his health had started deteriorating as his financial position became weaker by the day. His son tried to bring about reconciliation between him and Queen Victoria, who met him in France, in 1891, and pardoned him as he wept through the meeting.
Daleep was born in a royal palace in Lahore and brought up by a legion of servants and courtiers. He inherited the most powerful and rich of the Indian states, which was many times larger than Britain. But in October 1893, Daleep passed away in a small hotel room in Paris, alone and penniless. His dead body was taken back to Elveden where he was buried, next to his first wife and youngest son, in the church’s graveyard.
His daughter settled in Lahore and married the Principal of the King Edward Medical College
Princess Bamba Sofia, his eldest daughter, went to India in 1924 and took her grandmother’s ashes from Bombay to Lahore to be interred there as per her wish. Bamba settled in Lahore, married the Principal of King Edward Medical College, Mr Sutherland, and died in Lahore in 1957 – ten years after partition. Daleep’s one son and three daughters married but surprisingly none of them had any children – bringing Ranjit’s lineage to an end after two generations although his name continues to inspire many.
The author’s ancestors served as chief Qazis of Punjab during the reigns of Ranjit Singh and his successors till the fall of the Lahore Durbar in 1849. He tweets @AmmarAliQureshi and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org