If I am not a fit person for the purpose of representation, why am I a fit person for the purpose of taxation?
COULD ANYTHING BE DONE TO STOP HER?
Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh was born in 1876 in Belgravia. Although in her early life she was regarded as fragile and shy she became a vocal proponent of the Indian independence movement and a prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (“WSPU”), the most radical arm of the movement for women’s suffrage.
Sophia’s title stemmed from her grandfather, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder and leader of the Sikh Empire that ruled much of northwest India in the early half of the 1800s. Although the Sikh Empire was assimilated through conquest and and annexation, Ranjit Singh’s respect for religious diversity and the respect he ordered his soldiers to show civilians engendered goodwill and reverence amongst the Sikh Empire’s citizens.
Ranjit Singh died in 1839. His following three successors were assassinated, and his youngest child, and Sophia’s father, Duleep Singh, became Maharaja at the age of five in 1843, with his mother, Maharani Jind Kaur, acting as regent.
In 1849, after the close of the Second Anglo-Sikh War between the Sikh Empire and the British East India Company, the young Maharaja was deposed. In 1854 Duleep Singh was sent into exile in Britain, becoming a favourite of Queen Victoria’s, who granted him an income from which he purchased Elveden estate in Suffolk.
In 1864, the Maharaja married Bamba Müller, the daughter of a German merchant banker and a slave of Abyssinian descent named Sofia. The couple set up home in the Elveden estate, surrounded by a menagerie of exotic animals. By the time Sophia was born in 1876, the couple had two boys, Victor and Frederick, and two girls, Bamba and Catherine. Queen Victoria was made Sophia’s godmother, as well as her brother Victor’s. Due to the age gap between them and their elder siblings, she and her younger brother Albert, known as Eddie, were doted upon by the rest of the family.
Duleep Singh became increasingly disillusioned with the British Empire that had taken his throne and, in 1886, he decided to take the family back to India where they would re-convert to Sikhism. However, the British government would not allow their entry to India over concerns that their presence would rile up anti-colonial sentiment. Sophia, her mother and her siblings returned to England where they were maintained by Queen Victoria.
In 1887, Sophia’s mother died after a short period of illness. She was followed by Sophia’s younger and adored brother Eddie in 1893. Sophia’s father died just months later alone in a hotel room in Paris, at which time the British government sold on the Elveden estate. In just a matter of years, Sophia had lost her parents, her brother, her home and most of her wealth. While her surviving brothers had the means and freedom to support themselves, the three sisters were completely dependent upon the Queen.
In 1893, Sophia was granted a grace and favour apartment in London by Queen Victoria. She was viewed by those around her as fragile and shy, and uncomfortable with the attention concomitant with being a princess.
The three sisters were formally debuted by the Queen in 1895. However, the sisters had not forgotten their father’s legacy of disillusionment with the British Empire. In 1903, the three women travelled to India covertly, using pseudonyms and travelling separately so as not to draw attention to themselves, wary of the British government’s attempts to prevent their passage. Although they travelled together initially, Sophia later struck out without her two sisters on a horseback tour.
On her journey back to England Sophia witnessed the plight of the Lascars, Indian labourers and sailors, who were often hired out of poverty, forced to work in dangerous and degrading conditions, and abandoned in foreign ports with no money or even an understanding of the local language. When Sophia returned home she began using her money and social connections to advocate for improved conditions for the Lascars.
In 1906, Sophia returned to India to visit her sister Bamba. Bamba had made connections within the Indian independence movement, and introduced Sophia to them. Sophia expressed sympathy for the cause of the freedom fighters she met, who included Mahatma Gandhi. The imprisonment by the British of another freedom fighter, Lala Lajpat Rai, on charges of sedition coloured Sophia’s view of the British Empire for the rest of her life.
In 1909 Sophia joined the WSPU, known as the Suffragettes, a term coined by the Daily Mail but embraced by the movement. Sophia began her work by raising funds, but then began to attend meetings and was soon a visible figure within the WSPU. While Sophia was far from the only woman of colour within the Suffragette movement, her title and her social standing meant she was propelled into the movement’s limelight. As with many political movements, the suffrage movement had a complicated relationship with race – although it seems that women of colour were not actively discouraged from joining the movement, nor does there seem to have been an emphasis on including a diverse range of voices.
This is mirrored to some extent in the movement’s relationship with class. While the movement’s largely white, educated and middle class leaders received belated recognition, the contribution of thousands of working class women has often been forgotten. Unlike some of her Suffragette contemporaries, notably Christabel Pankhurst, Sophia was a passionate supporter of universal women’s suffrage, rather than a more limited suffrage for women with property.
Sophia also joined the Women’s Tax Resistance League (“WTRL”), refusing to pay the licence fees required for her dogs, carriage and staff. In order to raise funds for the WTRL, Sophia authorised an auction of her belongings.
In 1911, Sophia was fined for failure to pay licence fees. She protested that she should not have to pay the licence fees, nor the associated court fees, without the right to vote. The fine was upheld. That July a bailiff was sent to Sophia’s house, and a diamond ring was seized for auction. On the day of the auction a group of Suffragettes commandeered the seats of the auction house, refusing to bid on the ring until the opening bid was reduced to £10, when artist Louise Jopling Rowe bought it, immediately handing it to Sophia who was also in attendance.
After a Bill granting partial suffrage to women was thwarted by the Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, a group of the most prominent members of the Suffragette movement marched to Parliament, with Sophia amongst them. A larger contingent of 300 Suffragettes followed, but was met by lines of police and crowds of men outside the Houses of Parliament. The women were bombarded with assaults for the next six hours. The violence led to the death of two Suffragettes. Police arrested 4 men and 115 women, Sophia amongst them, although all charges were later dropped. This protest became known as Black Friday.
At the protest, Sophia watched in horror as she saw another woman thrown to the ground repeatedly by the same police officer, and shoved her way through the crowd to stand between them. After making sure the woman was not seriously injured, Sophia followed the officer, berating him for his behaviour and noting his badge number. She later wrote to the Home Secretary, a young Winston Churchill, to complain of the police brutality shown at the protest. Her note was passed on to the Police Commissioner who ultimately ruled that the officer had done nothing wrong. Sophia disputed the finding, and continued to write letters long after Churchill placed a note on her file ordering that she not be answered further.
In 1911, King George V was scheduled to speak in Parliament. As part of a planned protest, Sophia threw herself onto the Prime Minister’s car as it came out of Downing Street, brandishing a banner emblazoned with the words “Give women the vote!”, pulled from her fur muff.
The WSPU’s tactics became increasingly radical, escalating to the breaking of windows and the planting of small, homemade bombs in postboxes. Other suffrage groups distanced themselves from the WSPU, but the once timid Sophia was in full throated support, speaking at events and meetings to encourage women to join the fight. Her status in society left the authorities reluctant to arrest her, while they became increasingly impatient with her behaviour. Upon seeing her picture in the Suffragette, the former MP Sir William Coddington was reported to have asked the Secretary of State for India, Lord Crewe, if “anything could be done to stop her”.
In 1915, after the WSPU suspended their militant activities at the outbreak of World War I, Sophia began working as a Red Cross nurse, tending to wounded Indian soldiers who had been evacuated from the Western Front. At the same time, she raised funds to support the Indian soldiers and Lascars working in the British fleets. This culminated in a fundraiser in 1918, which raised enough money for 50,000 homes for Indian soldiers.
The Representation of the People Act 1918 extended the right to vote to men aged 21 and over, whether or not they owned property, and to women aged 30 who met a property qualification. After this limited victory for women’s suffrage, Sophia joined the Suffragette Fellowship and remained a member until her death.
In 1924 Sophia visited India again, where she and her sister Bamba were mobbed by crowds still enthralled to her grandfather’s legacy. Throughout the trip Sophia wore a badge with the words “Votes for Women!”, boosting the cause for women’s suffrage in India.
It was not until the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 that women gained electoral equality in Britain. The 1928 Act gave the vote to women and men at age 21 regardless of any property qualification, which added another five million people to the electorate.
Sophia died in her sleep in 1948, aged 71. Her final wish was to be cremated according to Sikh rites, with her ashes scattered in India. However, the India that became her final resting place was marred by religious violence, with the religious unity her grandfather sought to foster a distant memory. In new will, Sophia left money to three girls’ schools – one Sikh, one Muslim and one Hindu – striving for equality in death as in life.
THE INDESTRUCTIBLE SOPHIA
In the 1934 edition of Who’s Who, Sophia described her life’s purpose as “the advancement of women”. Part of Sophia’s legacy lies in the inclusivity of this statement, as her concern was for all women, regardless of race, religion or class.
However, Sophia’s continuing relevance is perhaps best reflected in the breadth of her activism. Her fundraising for Indian Lascars and soldiers, her support for the Indian independence movement and her desire to promote religious diversity should be remembered alongside her contribution to the campaign for women’s suffrage as a reminder of the connections between different struggles and the necessity of striving for equality on all fronts.