By James Parry, Daily Express
MAHARAJAH Duleep Singh lived as an English aristocrat but never got over losing the kingdom of the Punjab. Now a fascinating new exhibition tells the story of Queen Victoria's confidant who finally died a broken man.
CALCUTTA, 1861: an elegant young man meets an older woman at Spence’s Hotel, a famous landmark in what was then the capital of British India.
It is an emotional encounter and marks the reunion of Maharajah Duleep Singh, exiled King of the Punjab and ruler of the Sikhs, with his ailing mother, Maharani Jind Kaur.
The two had not seen each other for almost 14 years following the seizure of Duleep Singh’s kingdom by the British and his deportation from India.
In the intervening period he had converted to Christianity and become an English aristocrat, the toast of smart society and on the closest of terms with Queen Victoria and her family. Yet he never regained his throne.
Almost a century-and-a-half later Duleep Singh remains a fascinating and complex personality. An exhibition later this year at the Ancient House Museum in Thetford, Norfolk, will bring new attention to his extraordinary life.
Born in Lahore in 1838, Duleep Singh was the heir to Maharajah Ranjit Singh of the Punjab, one of the most powerful and wealthy of all India’s princely states. He acceded to the throne at the age of five but his kingdom posed a real obstacle to the expansion of the British Raj and after two bitter wars the British forced the Sikhs to capitulate. Fear of a further rebellion remained so great that the decision was taken to remove Duleep Singh from India altogether and send him into exile in England.
In May 1854 he arrived at Southampton before moving into a luxurious suite in a top London hotel. An early audience with Queen Victoria marked the beginning of what was to become a deep friendship with both the queen and her consort, Prince Albert.
Despite never setting foot on the Indian sub-continent, Victoria was fascinated by all things Indian and revelled in the company of the Maharajah, describing him as being “extremely handsome, [with] a graceful and dignified manner”. He rapidly became a court favourite, with Victoria commissioning a marble bust of him and Albert designing a special coat of arms.
I n receipt of a generous pension from the British government, Duleep Singh established himself as the quintessential English country gentleman. He bought Elveden Hall, a Georgian house on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, and converted it into an Indian-style palace.
Expensive carpets, embroideries, ceramics and glassware filled the Mughal-decorated rooms, and the exotic flavour of the interior was reflected in the grounds, where a huge aviary was built to accommodate the Maharajah’s collection of rare birds of prey. Cheetahs, leopards and monkeys were kept in a menagerie, with parrots in the trees and peacocks and golden pheasants adorning the immaculate lawns.
At Elveden, Duleep Singh hosted extravagant house parties and proved to be a top sportsman. He seemed just at home in a kilt on the grouse moors of Scotland as in his Indian robes. Charming and flirtatious, he indulged in a series of indiscreet romps with some of the great society beauties of the day, apparently also forcing his attentions on a long list of domestic servants. With the Prince of Wales a close friend and frequent guest, Elveden became a symbol of the glittering yet hypocritical excesses of the Victorian aristocracy.
Yet by the 1880s Duleep Singh was tiring of his life as an English country squire. Overweight and depressed, he became less sociable and increasingly bitter about his treatment at the hands of the British. He was also running out of money.
His mind turned towards a permanent return to his homeland, to regain his throne. He became particularly resentful over what he saw as the theft from his kingdom of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, taken by the British in 1849 and presented to Queen Victoria.
He closed Elveden down, selling its contents to fund his final journey home. Wary of the political implications, the British initially refused permission for the return, but then relented and he finally set sail for India in March 1886. But at Aden he was told that the British Viceroy had changed his mind and that he must turn back.
Heartbroken and by now in ill-health, he made his way to Paris. There he plotted and schemed, desperately trying to find an alternative route home and even travelling to Russia with his latest amour, a Cockney chambermaid called Ada Wetherill (whom he later married), to try to enlist the support of the Tsar.
Meanwhile the British were watching his every move. The ultimate betrayal for Duleep Singh came via his trusted but duplicitous personal secretary Charles Tevis, an ex-US cavalryman and ruthless double agent. Tevis kept his British masters fully informed on the Maharajah’s thoughts and movements. Copies of virtually every piece of correspondence written by the Maharajah in Paris were later found in British government archives – all had been supplied by Tevis.
Meanwhile, Duleep Singh had re-embraced the Sikh faith and refused his British stipend. As a result he found himself in greatly reduced circumstances and was forced to sell almost all his remaining possessions. In 1891 he was granted a final audience with Queen Victoria at whose side he wept uncontrollably, and two years later he died, impoverished and broken.
However the British had resolved that only the extinction of the Duleep Singh family line could secure their long-term control over the Punjab. Queen Victoria even instructed the wife of the Maharajah’s eldest son not to have children. Family members were convinced that the cooks at Elveden were British spies and adding poisons to their food to make them infertile. Curiously, none of Duleep Singh’s eight children had any offspring.
The Elveden estate was bought by the Iveagh family, who still own it today. Duleep Singh is buried in the grounds of the adjacent Saxon church alongside members of his family.
The occasional golden pheasant is seen stalking around the grounds, a reminder of the exotic Indian king who once lived there. The Koh-i-Noor remains firmly part of the British crown jewels.
Article published in The Daily Express, By James Parry, 22 Februrary 2010
i have learnt so much and me being a sikh this has touched me a lot
The story of Maharaja Duleep Singh would make an epic film.
Dear sir, This is very useful Article for me.Please provide more rare photographs of the family of " Maharaja Duleep Sings" and also original documents to enable us to know more about the Maharaja Thanking you SATPAL SINGH