02/10/2010

THE MAHARAJAH DULEEP SINGH...

The Maharajah Duleep Singh of Lahore

The Koh-i-nor is an enormous and  priceless Indian diamond that was gifted to Queen Victoria
as ransom at the end of the second Anglo Sikh war in 1849.  
The Koh-i-nor, illustrated from various angles


The victorious British army partitioned the Indian Punjab, taking the kingdom's holy sovereign symbol - and also its boy maharajah, a small child by the name of Duleep Singh. Duleep was dragged from his mother's arms, converted to Christianity and then brought to live in England where he was raised as a 'gentleman' aristocrat - well away from those in his homeland who might seek to use Dukeep as a political pawn when rebelling against the British troops.


Portrait of Duleep by Queen Victoria

In England, 'Prince' Duleep developed a complex relationship with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Queen doted on her 'beautiful boy' and though he was raised in the family of an army officer, Duleep became close to Victoria's children and spent time with the family at Osborne - their holiday home on the Isle of Wight.

Portrait of Duleep Singh by Winterhalter

But there must have been an element of guilt on the part of the queen who had stolen the Maharajah's throne. Perhaps that explains the incident that occurred at Buckingham Palace when the teenage Duleep was posing for a portrait by Victoria's favourite artist, Winterhalter.  

Victoria entered the room with her hands behind her back. She told Duleep to close his eyes and hold out his hands and then placed the Koh-i-nor diamond in one. When Duleep opened his eyes and looked down, he realised what he was holding at once and claims to have been deeply confused - even tempted to throw the stone out of the window. But he realised that this was a test of his loyalty - for if he were to keep the diamond that would be a declaration of war, symbolising his wish to reclaim the Punjab. So, 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."

Thus, Victoria's guilt was assuaged and Duleep retained his liberty and privileged lifestyle in England although, as time went on, he found himself more restricted. When hoping to study at Cambridge, Duleep was disappointed. The powers that be preferred to send him to various country estates, indulging his love of hunting and women - well away from those intellectuals who might corrupt his loyalty and lure him into rebellious ways. And, when Duleep fell in love and wished to wed an English girl - the daughter of his foster father - this was also frowned upon, such a mingling of races considered as quite unsuitable.

In his twenties, when his mother died, following a protracted campaign of letters in the Times, Duleep was finally allowed to visit India again, there to scatter her last remains. 
Bamba

While on his travels, he visited a Christian mission in Cairo, and there he chose a bride. Bamba - which means 'pink' was the bastard daughter of an African slave and a German banker, but Duleep was quite besotted, and returning to England with his new wife, the exotic couple became quite the toast of society London.
Elvedon Hall

For many years they lived in great splendour in Elvedon Hall in Norfolk. Their first child died very soon after birth, but the second was a healthy boy and Queen Victoria took on the role of godmother when Prince Victor was christened at Windsor Castle, 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, and as time went by Duleep was indeed influenced by the views of Russian and Irish dissidents who hoped to use him for their own political ends. Reminded of all that he had lost, Duleep was increasingly dissatisfied, even taking to writing to Victoria requesting the return of the Koh-i-nor, complaining that the East India Company had failed to make sufficient recompense for the loss of his wealth and sovereignty. 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.
Duleep as a mature man

However, all such efforts were doomed to failure. Duleep's intentions were exposed resulting in his exile from both England and India. With Bamba and their children remaining in England, Duleep took a mistress and lived out his last days on the continent where he was forced to endure levels of poverty that he had never known before. However, 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, 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.

As to the Koh-i-nor, the diamond which to this day remains with the crown jewels in the Tower of London, is thought to have mystical properties - and also to be cursed. 

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

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

6 comments:

  1. Amazing story.
    One might imagine fate decided to choose him to 'play with'. The guy didn't have a choice or a chance.
    Thank you for telling this story, you're quite right, it begged to be told.
    Helen

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  2. Thank you, Helen - the story has obsessed me for years. And yes, a real tragedy.

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  3. Such a great story and one you told so well! What a tragedy.

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  4. This is fabulous. A story well told, riveting and so telling of human nature and the everlasting cultural divide. This would make an epic mini series provided the powers that be kept in all the details you so deliciously shared with us readers. Thank you for enlightening us. Keep up your excellent work and I hope one day you will tell this incredible story in expanded form in one of your books.

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  5. Fascinating story! I'd love to read a fictionalised account of this.

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