From the Punjab to Elveden: the poignant story of Duleep Singh
- Credit: Archant
Ian Collins tells the story of the last Sikh ruler of the Punjab, Duleep Singh, whose exile on the Norfolk-Suffolk border was just one part of an extraordinary life.
Improvements to the A11 has meant an end to the once-common snarl-ups at the Elveden staggered crossroads. But rather than hurry by, take the Elveden turning and tour the churchyard in this perfectly preserved English feudal village where all is not what it seems. The estate wedged against the Norfolk-Suffolk border near Thetford has long been owned by the Earls of Iveagh – proof that Guinness is Good for You (especially if you own the company).
The churchyard may contain carloads or even coachparties of Asian families, the men in turbans and beards denoting the Sikh religion. For this is a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the world with roots in the Punjab.
A portrait painted in London, in 1854, shows a handsome mahajarah in fine silks and carrying a ceremonial sword. Amid ropes of pearls around his neck hangs a miniature of Queen Victoria.
Born in 1838, Duleep Singh was the last Sikh ruler of the Punjab. The youngest son of Rani Jindan, 16th wife of Ranjit Singh, he had come to the throne aged five after a series of bloody coups left no other contenders.
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He was protected by his mother and maternal uncle – until the latter was killed while holding the horror-struck child king in his arms. After the ensuing First Anglo-Sikh War the Sikh state was officially
divided but stealthily dismantled. Rights promised to the young monarch never materialised. A pampered prisoner of the British, denied contact with his mother, Duleep Singh was pressed or persuaded to convert to Christianity. In 1854 he sailed for England.
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He was promptly welcomed into Victoria's family circle, to the dismay of certain British grandees. (Much later, this colour-blind monarch would condemn as racist diplomatic protests over high-placed Indian staff in her household.)
In a symbolic gesture, Duleep Singh then presented the Koh-i-noor to Victoria. The fist-sized diamond had actually been surrendered after effective British annexation of the Sikh kingdom. Maybe he was well shot of it, for the great gem – now in the crown of the late Queen Mother and displayed in the Tower of London – is said to cast a curse on male owners.
Anyway, with a handsome pension from the India Office, the ousted kind settled in style on the 17,000-acre Elveden Estate in 1863 (having viewed and rejected Sandringham). He married Bamba Muller, a part-German, part-Ethiopian who spoke only Arabic.
The Black Prince of Elveden spent wildly – creating a marble-clad, semi-oriental palace for his growing family, hosting splendid shooting parties for the Prince of Wales and rebuilding the village church, school and cottages. Then the money ran out. Victoria was forced to distance herself from her friend when the India Office refused her requests to bail him out. An aggrieved Duleep Singh then renounced Christianity and tried to reclaim his kingdom. He was stopped at Aden (today's Yemen), where the Indian administration's authority then began. He sent his family back to Elveden (his wife dying soon
afterwards) but chose exile for himself in Paris.
Here the royal refugee entered a world of labyrinthine intrigue. At one point he went to Russia, having had his pocket picked en route by a British agent. He envisaged a Russo-Afghan force invading India, sparking a Sikh revolt and a Fenian rebellion in Ireland.
Bengalis were to sabotage the railways and Egyptian nationalists to cut off the Suez Canal.
The conspiracy unravelled. Broke and broken, Duleep Singh returned to Paris, where he suffered a massive stroke.
He had planned to marry his companion Ada Weatherill, who had borne him two children but may have been a British spy.
Loyal friends in Britain, blaming all the plotting on a bout of madness, arranged a final meeting with Victoria, who was holidaying in Nice. According to the queen, a highly emotional encounter saw the dying Duleep Singh collapsing in tears and begging forgiveness.
His son, Prince Frederick, who lived successively at Breckles, Old Buckenham and Blo Norton halls,
brought his body back to Elveden, for burial in 1893. Victoria and the Prince of Wales sent funeral wreaths.
In 1921 Frederick bought Ancient House, a fine Tudor town house, to create a museum for Thetford
– also donating his collections of locally-linked art and artefacts. This Aladdin's cave is now revamped and relaunched.