The noted UK-born Sikh and Punjabi author, historian and archivist Peter Bance came to Mussoorie recently to give a fascinating and illustrative talk on the life of the last Maharaja of Punjab, Duleep Singh. Born in Lahore in 1838, the youngest son of the legendary Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab, Duleep Singh ascended to the Gaddi of Lahore in 1843. This period also saw the once impenetrable Punjab annexed by the British East India Company. Promptly de-throning the young Maharaja, the Company was determined to cut him off from his now erstwhile subjects to curb any chance of a rally of support to re-instate him. He was removed from Punjab by British authorities, sequestered to the Hill Station of Mussoorie, followed by his de facto exile to England.
Peter Bance’s work centers around Anglo-Punjabi History and in particular, the life and history of Maharaja Duleep Singh of whom he is an authority on the subject having written the definitive biography“Sovereign, Squire & Rebel: Maharajah Duleep Singh the Heirs of a Lost Kingdom.” In addition, his collection of photographs and memorabilia of the Duleep Singh family is amongst the largest in the world.
Bance also authored “Sikhs in Britain” chronicling the history of the Sikh diaspora in the United Kingdom. Notably, he accounts that in 1854 Duleep Singh arrived in Southhampton and was the first Sikh on record to enter the country. Bance also served as a consultant to the feature film based on the life of Duleep Singh “The Black Prince” ( 2017). The story of Maharaja Duleep Singh as the last ruler of Punjab is a tragic one, and merits the full attention Bance affords in his book, but to be concise: He was heir to the vast Sikh Empire; the wealth and power of this domain seems unimaginable today but at its zenith this kingdom encompassed the whole of undivided Punjab, stretching right up to Peshawar, the modern states of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir and a good part of Haryana. Ruled by a sagacious leader who was aided by the military might and technological advances brought to him from his European Generals, Maharaja Ranjit Singh stood undefeated by British forces who continuously sought in vain to conquer his expansive territories.
Upon Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 and after a series of succession struggles, ( his two elder heirs were murdered ) finally Maharaja Duleep Singh — at the time a boy of 5 years — was placed upon the Gaddi of Lahore. But with a vacuum of effective leadership, the Anglo - Sikh wars saw the British East India Company’s army swiftly defeat the Sikhs and Punjab was annexed by the British in 1848. The young Maharaja was deposed and placed under the guardianship of the pious Dr John Login and his wife who “encouraged" his conversion to Christianity. That the heir to the greatest Sikh Kingdom renounced the legacy of his faith was one of the many acts of controversy in Duleep Singh’s life.
In 1852 and 1853 the young Maharaja spent time in Mussoorie with the Logins where his identity was kept hidden. The location of exactly where he stayed in Mussoorie remains a mystery. Bance believes he lived at the Castle Hill Estate near Landour Bazaar while others claim this was adjacent to St Georges College. Bance is hoping to discover concrete evidence of where in fact he was kept in residence.
Subsequently, the Logins left to England in 1854 with Duleep Singh in tow. Already sent off to England was the boy’s inheritance plundered from the legendary toshekhana (treasury) of Lahore, including two valuable objects of renown: the prized and fabled Koh-i-Noor diamond along with the fabled “Golden Throne” of Ranjit Singh.
Queen Victoria, known for her affinity for India, had taken a great personal interest in the welfare of Duleep Singh. He was treated as a member of her family, stayed at her royal residences such as Osbourne House and Balmoral. He then formally presented the Koh - I - Noor as a “gift” to to the Sovereign although it had been in her possession since it was surrendered as part of the terms of the Treaty of Annexation.
By this time Maharaja Duleep Singh’s Indian and Sikh identity had completely evaporated. In turn, he was molded into a country squire replete with a grand country seat, Eleven in Norfolk, which became the scene of lavish parities and splendid shoots. Funded by a maintenance stipend allotted by the British, he lead an indulgent but desultory life, and it did not take long for him to realize that this allowance was paltry compared to his great inheritance in India that he was forced to give up. This prompted him to try to return to Punjab to reclaim his kingdom and a series of disastrous events and conspiracies ensued - he even tried to ally the Russians in his cause. The British Government was determined to thwart his plans declaring him an outlaw and forbade his traveling to India. He spent the remainder of his life in Paris with his dreams of returning to his homeland and recouping his throne shattered. In October 1893, the heir to the once legendary Sikh Kingdom died a broken man, alone and in penury.
1. Your own family’s history is unique in that they emigrated from Western Punjab to the United Kingdom in the 1930s prior to the Partition. What first sparked your intense interest in the Court of Lahore and Maharaja Duleep Singh as a character from Punjab history?
I always loved all history in general from day one in school and I learned about Sikh history from my father. What really sparked the Duleep Singh aspect was when out on a student union trip to Norfolk, I heard that the Maharaja was buried in the Elveden cemetery and I asked the party if I could go stop there to pay my respects. Whilst there I met an elderly lady who told me there was a museum dedicated to the Maharaja in Thetford which was founded by his son Prince Frederick. 10 minutes later I was standing there in this shrine to Duleep Singh housing much of the family's collection. I asked the curator for some literature but this was very limited at that time and there was nothing on the Maharaja’s wife and children. Curious, I then placed a series of advertisements in the local paper to see if anyone living in the area could recall any of them. I received over 300 responses from people who were, or their parents or grandparents were in the royal family’s service or otherwise knew them. These accounts and artifacts shared from these sources were so helpful in my research. This subject became a great fascination bordering on obsession. It was the mid-1990s and I had never been to India but since I was able to do so much research on the Maharaja with the wealth of material on him in England, there was such a connection as Punjab came to England for me with so much Punjabi history in England.
2. Why is it that Maharaja Duleep Singh remains a subject of great fascination and a figure of identity?
I think for the UK Sikh community it is (his story) something we can relate to. Although he was a Christian by then, he was the first Sikh or Punjabi to arrive in the UK. He was photographed attending events with Queen Victoria or at other royal engagements wearing a turban and dressed as a Sikh and he was a son of the legendary “Lion of the Punjab” so that legacy adds to the history and for those reasons we have taken him as our Maharaja and regard him as such.
3. There is a movement rallying to have the Maharaja’s remains exhumed and returned to India for cremation with Sikh rites. Can you explain why you, along with many other prominent members of the international Sikh community, oppose this proposal?
This movement keeps popping up every few years when someone has a political or another motive. I and many other eminent historians internationally including Sikhs and otherwise are of the option that he should stay put and remain undisturbed. He spent more time in England than in India - in fact, he didn't spend much time in India at all and Lahore is now in Pakistan. He may have come back into Sikhism towards the end of his life but I think that he had motives for this. Six months before the Maharaja died, he was at the deathbed of his son Prince Edward and while he sat beside his son he very tellingly placed in the boy’s hand the passage “The Lord is my Shepherd” (The Lords’s Prayer) . He chose nothing from the Sikh holy scriptures. That indicates that in his heart he remained a Christian and this prayer citation had closer meaning to him. This is one of the many reasons why he should be left buried. Also, his own family decided that he be brought back to Paris and it was his family who decided to have him buried. Who are we to challenge this? His own will even states he wished to be buried, so who are we to argue otherwise? We can’t take him away from his wife his family (also buried by him) so are we to take them (back to India) too? Also, there has been the suggestion that his ashes should be split between Pakistan ( Lahore ) and India ( Amritsar) which is ludicrous. He should remain buried where he has been for over 125 years and be left alone in peace.
4. There have been numerous books, in addition to yours, and a film which centers on the life of Maharaja Duleep Singh. Do you feel that as a subject he has been exhausted or do you think there are more archives, diaries and photographs out there waiting to be discovered that will reveal other aspects of his life?
Every time I think there is nothing more to discover additional things like documents and artifacts, keeping surfacing from private sources beyond the British Library and the India Office Library. It’s just amazing that there is so much information on this royal family and that things keep coming available. There is still so much left to be chronicled. I have done two books on the family already and not even a fraction of the history of the family and children is fully covered. We could effectively write a book on each one of the children as so full and interesting were their lives.
There is also so much more to be written about Duleep Singh to give us a better understanding of his character. People talk about him as a puppet or that he abandoned his Sikh and Indian identity but really he was someone who was controlled from day one as a young child. His mother, his uncle, Dr Login, the India Office, Russian agents etc, everyone wanted to use him for their own gain. He was someone whose destiny was not in his own hand.
5. As a fellow biographer of a prominent Punjabi, I can relate that one becomes protective of the reputation of a subject one has researched and written about. On what occasions do you find yourself defending the Maharaja or personally affronted at criticism leveled at him?
I wouldn't say I defend him, but I always tell history how it is. For example, people have said to me “ you wrote that Duleep Singh smoked and you say he was a Sikh. Sikhs don’t smoke.” First of all, he wasn't a Sikh; he had become a Christian and anyhow we have photographs of him smoking. I’m not going to deny he smoked and I’m not going to re-write history to please everyone. I’m also asked, “why are you writing about a selfish chap who abandoned his Sikh faith and left his people (subjects) in India to go have a great life in England?” Such people do not know the story as Duleep Singh did not have a great life. And he was only a child when he converted to Christianity. Take a Christian boy from an English village in Norfolk and put him in Punjab at a young age of 11. I’m sure that by the time he was 18 he would probably become a Sikh owing to the surrounding environment and influences. The Maharaja was moulded and in this case, I do defend him because of the facts around the person which contributed to him becoming the person he was.
6. There are ongoing cries to return the Koh -i -Noor diamond to India (regardless that Lahore is now in Pakistan). What are your thoughts on this and how do you feel when you see the Koh-i-Noor and the Golden Throne on display?
First of all both items should remain where they are respectively at the Tower of London and the Victoria & Albert Museum). As for the Koh- i -Noor, where should it go? The British took it from Lahore but in the stone’s history, it has been stolen so many times over so it could be claimed by Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and so on and there would be a domino effect of claims.
When I look at the Golden Throne today, I can actually imagine being right there in the Court of Lahore. It is in the same pristine condition as it was 150 years ago. Can you tell me it would be left in that condition in India or Pakistan? I am sure it would have been melted down long ago. Its a piece of our history that may be in England but look at the millions of people all over the world coming to look at it and it is far more accessible there. I’ve worked with the V&A Museum and I know how much time, effort, and funding goes into the Golden Throne’s preservation. Every year the item is examined and treated with a detailed condition report made. I cannot imagine any other country making such an effort to preserve another country’s artifacts and heritage.
7. Your research led to the discovery of the burial place of Prince Victor Duleep Singh at Monte Carlo in 2003 you were one of the key figures in unearthing the gravestone of Maharani Jinda Kaur at a London cemetery in 2007. What else are you hoping to discover relating to Maharaja Duleep Singh and his family?
Rani Jinda was a huge discovery and finding her grave was a major milestone. I had her gravestone restored because it was broken in about six or seven pieces and it is now displayed at the Thetford Museum. When I started researching, we only knew the locations of the resting places of 3 of his 8 children. Now we have identified 7 who were buried or cremated. Princess Bamba never knew what happened to her youngest sister Pauline who was presumed to have died in an internment camp during war-torn France. Actually, we discovered she had contracted tuberculous and died in a sanitarium and was buried in an unmarked grave in France. We have now identified her resting place and I am going to have a proper headstone installed.
Princess Catherine and Princess Sophia were cremated and thus there were no graves. That just leaves Princess Irene to find now. She committed suicide in Monte Carlo by jumping off a cliff and I am hoping to locate her burial place and close the chapter on knowing where all the children were.
8. The British Sikh community commissioned a life-size statue of the Maharaja aloft a horse, which was unveiled by Prince Charles in Thetford in 1999. You have been instrumental so that Maharaja Duleep Singh and his family remain in the public eye and are remembered. What are your goals to ensure this?
Right now one of my projects is to install a bronze statue as a tribute to 3 of the Maharaja’s children, Prince Frederick, Princess Sophia and Princess Catherine, in the town square of Thetford. Prince Frederick established the Maharaja Duleep Singh museum there and was well recognized by the community for his work to prevent the closure of many churches. It is also not well known that Prince Frederick served many years in Halifax, Canada in his Military Service.
Princess Bamba emerged as a well -known figure in the suffragette movement. Earlier she went to Chicago to go to a medical college but she came back as she found a negative attitude towards women studying in the field and she also encountered a such a sheer amount of racism. This all discouraged her but in the end, she did marry a doctor - Dr. Sutherland.
Princess Catherine, the hidden sister, is not as well -known, lived in Germany and helped save so many Jewish families in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Many of these family members still live in London and remain so grateful to Princess Catherine as if it wasn't for her interaction they would not be alive today - they would not have existed. Catherine is like our very own Schindler.
9. Since you write so intimately about Maharaja Duleep Singh surely you can surmise that all of his actions and events in his life, what would he would have regretted most in his story?
For the Maharaja, if you were looking at what he would have done or not done, we should look at that fact that when he first came to England it was promised that this would be temporary as an educational sabbatical or holiday. Of course, when he got there he learned he could not return to India and was effectively exiled. Even his sons were never allowed to go to India. I think had he known this was going to be the case he would not have made that visit to England in the first place. I’m not saying ( had he stayed) he would have remained the Maharaja, but he would have been living a contented life in a nice estate like the other deposed rulers of India. His lineage, (which did not descend beyond any of his 8 children) probably would have continued on.
10. You have such as deep affection for history, strongly believing in the restoration, preservation and recording of historical events and data. Do you see the younger generation interested in Sikh History?
Definitely in the Western world: the UK, Canada and the USA. I've lectured in those countries and I’ve received emails and letters from those who are at my age when I started getting interested in the Duleep Singh story. When youngsters come up to me and say “you've inspired me to write and research on Sikh and Punjabi history” that makes me feel so proud and that I've done my little bit. These are steppingstones to pave way for more books to follow on the subject by these younger writers. It is so satisfying that I've done a small little bit just to guide them and encourage their interest further.
Cynthia Meera Frederick is the biographer of Maharaja Jagatjt Singh of Kapurthala. She lectures frequently on Punjab’s royal heritage.