The tale of Maharaja Duleep Singh will evoke pity in even the coldest antimonarchist hearts. Life started off promisingly for Singh when, at the tender age of five, he took the throne of the Sikh Empire as its fifth maharaja. Little did Duleep know, he would soon become its last...and his life would only turn more tragic and devastating from there.
Duleep Singh Facts
1. His Childhood Was A Nightmare
Maharaja Duleep Singh was the only son of two giants of the Sikh Empire: Maharaja Ranjit Singh, "The Lion of the Punjab," and his formidable wife Jind Kaur. But this lineage didn't save him from horror. Although he had eight older half-brothers, seven of them died by the time Duleep himself was just a child. And unfortunately for the young boy, that was just the first blow in a series of tragedies.
2. He Barely Knew His Father
Despite his royal titles, Duleep seemed born under a bad sign. After all, his father Ranjit was already terminally ill by the time he came into the world, and had died of a stroke before Duleep turned one. Duleep never really got to know his father, and only had the legends of his great feats to sustain him. As we'll see, these were definitely not enough.
3. He Took The Throne As A Kindergartener
Like so much else in his life, Duleep came to the throne through unthinkable violence. When he was just five years old, his elder half-brother Sher Singh, who was the current Maharaja, was assassinated after only three years in power. With the throne unstable—not to mention dangerous—the toddling boy was shoved into the role under the guidance of his cunning mother Jind Kaur. And then his troubles really started.
4. He Lost His First War At Eight
In 1846, Duleep suffered his first crushing defeat—and it was at the hands of his soon-to-be greatest enemy: Britain. The Anglo-Sikh war was an utter disaster for the baby ruler and his mother, and they lost immense power and territory. Their defeat was so bad, it turned Duleep into a mere figurehead ruler. Times were desperate...and they called for desperate measures.
5. He Was A Child Bridegroom
Duleep's mother Jind was no fool, and she soon came up with a cunning plot. To consolidate her son's power, she engaged him to Tej Kaur, the daughter of a powerful governor and noble from another province. With this new alliance, Duleep thought he was finally going to be on the winning side of things. But fate had another twist in store.
6. He Was A Rebel
The British were watching Duleep and his mother very closely, and they immediately shut down the marriage prospect to keep him dependent on them. Did this deter Duleep? No. Though he couldn't have his bride, he and his mother continued to chafe under British manipulation, often refusing to bend to their demands. That's when it all came crashing down for good.
7. The British Imprisoned His Mother
The British were starting to realize that they had two tough customers on their hands in Duleep Singh and Jind Kaur. Their vengeance was unforgettably heartless. Getting at Duleep through his mother, they imprisoned Jind, violently separating her from her son, all while slashing her pension by more than two-thirds. Yet that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
8. His Enemies Were Merciless
Duleep already suffered long months without his mother, but he was about to experience what true separation meant. Cruelly deciding that imprisonment wasn't enough, the British then completely exiled Duleep’s mother from Punjab, taking her to a faraway fort and even stealing her valuable jewelry. You know, to render her all the more helpless. But that was the least of the family's worries.
9. He Didn’t See His Mother For Over A Decade
Tragically, Jind Kaur’s exile was long and brutal. Although the wily Maharani managed to escape the fortress and hotfoot it to Nepal, she was stuck there for 11 long years, making for 13 whole years away from her beloved son. Throughout this time, the British didn't permit Duleep to see her even once. And well, without his mother, Duleep got into big trouble.
10. He Lost His Crown
Unfortunately for the young Maharajah, the Second Anglo-Sikh War fell hot on the heels of the first. In 1849, it brought true disaster. That year, destabilized beyond all hope, the Sikh Empire fell. Duleep fell with it, losing his throne at just 10 years old. With an out-of-work Maharajah on their (bloody) hands, the British put Duleep under the guardianship of Scottish surgeon Dr. John Login. Though really, “guardianship” is too nice a word for it…
11. He Was A Captive King
Without a mother and without a kingdom, Duleep traveled far away from Lahore to Fatehgarh. While there, his captors subjected him to extreme restrictions on who he could see; apart from British yes-men servants, his wardens prevented him from socializing with any of his fellow Indians in private. And their reasons behind this were chilling.
12. He Underwent A Transformation
In sending Duleep to live with Dr. John Login, the British were shamelessly and bare-facedly trying to purge all the Sikh customs Duleep had ever learned and sought to replace them with British "culture." Everything they did from this point on, whether outwardly cruel or seemingly benign, was part of their broader policy to culturally anglicize him as deeply as possible. This had grave consequences.
13. He Was Deathly Ill
This regime of extreme, individual colonization very likely contributed to young Duleep's frequently poor health. He often had to convalesce for weeks at a time at a hill station in the Lower Himalaya. It was a grueling four-day journey to his ultimate destination, dubbed The Castle, and it probably didn't help his dangerously frail state, either. But the weaker he got, the more power the British took.
14. He Converted To Christianity
In 1853, something in Duleep snapped. After his intense crash course in "Britishness," he converted to Christianity as a 14-year-old teenager, much to the delight of Dr. Login and the other British ministers circling around him. The nominal Maharajah of the Sikh Empire was a Sikh no more. Only, the British weren’t done with him yet.
15. The British Kidnapped Him
In 1854, like his mother before him, the British government sent Duleep into exile. Unlike his mother, they didn't send him to an Indian fortress; they sent him to England. Call it Phase Two of their "turn him into a Brit" plan...and it worked a little too well. He lived in England for nearly the rest of his short life, and he made quite a splash.
16. He Was Queen Victoria's Plaything
The British were playing "good cop" during this time, and they began lavishing Duleep with honors, parties, and feasts. And then came one of the defining moments of his life. He went to the court of Queen Victoria, and she and her husband Prince Albert took an immediate liking to him, showering him with royal affection. The Queen even invited him to stay at her rural, summer home, Osborne House. And that’s where it all got very strange…
17. Queen Victoria Had A Crush On Him
Ol’ Vicky took quite the liking to the teenaged Duleep. She even waxed poetic about his dark good looks, writing, "Those eyes and those teeth are too beautiful." All this despite the fact that Victoria was nearly 20 years Duleep's senior, and very much in a position of power over him. And she certainly didn't mind flexing that position when it suited her.
18. He Was A Royal Muse
While staying at Osborne House, Duleep became something of a royal muse. No less than Queen Victoria herself sketched him, while Prince Albert photographed him. The court artist also made his portrait, cementing Duleep's position in the Victorian court. It seemed like the British had won another assimilation victory over Duleep...but inside, Duleep was raging to get out.
19. He Got Sick Of England Quickly
Within a year of his arrival in England, Duleep itched to return home to India and asked if he could travel back. He was doomed to heartbreak. Still fearing his power, the British rebuffed his request, then suggested he tour the European continent instead. Not quite a gap year with a Eurorail pass, but it was the closest Duleep would ever get. When he got back to England, though, he got one indecent proposal.
20. The British Bribed Him
Upon his return to England in 1855, the British gave 17-year-old Duleep a yearly pension of £25,000—a massive sum for the times. Only, it very much came with strings attached: The Queen only granted him this pension on the condition that Duleep “remain obedient to the British government.” It was a steep price to pay for a man who should have been ruling his own empire, and yet he kept that promise…for a while.
21. He Was A Mama’s Boy
When Duleep turned 18, his thoughts turned sharply toward his mother Jind, who was still holed up in Khatmandu, Nepal, fearing for her life and cursing the British. Determined to see her again, Duleep wrote to her, asking her to join him in England. Instead, what he got was a harsh betrayal. The British intercepted this letter, making sure it never got to her. So Duleep simply had to try again.
22. He Was A Fighter
Ever the dedicated—if distant—son, Duleep tried to reach his mother again. This time, he sent a human rather than a letter to let his mother know he wanted to see her. Unfortunately for the royal mother and son, evil stepmother England was as good at tracking couriers as she was mail. Victoria's minions also intercepted Duleep’s courier and prevented them from reaching Maharani Jind. Then Duleep had to get creative.
23. He Had A Few Tricks Up His Sleeve
Jind Kaur had raised no fool, and Duleep soon realized that the only man for the job was his own damn self. First, he used the pretext of a tiger shoot in Bengal to slip free of British eyes and get geographically closer to his mother. Then, using every ounce of cunning she'd given him, he wrote to the British Resident in Kathmandu, craftily hiding his letter within one from his guardian, Dr. Login.
This subterfuge worked, and the resident wrote back with an update about Jind. The letter's contents were harrowing.
24. He Got Heartbreaking News
The years had not been kind to Duleep Singh, but they had treated his mother much worse. Although the British had once nicknamed Jind the "Messalina of the Punjab" because of her own steadfast opposition to their rule, the letter Duleep received revealed her grim current condition. She was now blind and had lost much of her characteristic fire. However, there was a bittersweet silver lining.
25. He Finally Reunited With His Mother
The Maharani’s decline meant that the Brits were finally not so terrified of her. Upon receiving news of her themselves, they finally allowed Duleep to see her for the first time since he was a young boy. The heartfelt reunion took place in January 1861 at Spence's Hotel in Calcutta, when Duleep was 22 and his mother was approaching her mid-40s. Yet, once more, the British had underestimated the former Indian rulers.
26. He Nearly Started A Riot
Duleep’s long-awaited reunion with his mother happened to coincide with the return to Calcutta of several Sikh regiments who had been off fighting. Their response nearly caused a catastrophe. When they heard their Maharaja and his mother were in town, they demonstrated outside of Spence’s Hotel, striking fear of rebellion into the hearts of the British. Only, this didn't have the end Duleep's mother might have wished for.
27. His Brainwashing Ran Deep
The British were quaking in their boots when they saw the soldiers gathering in the name of Duleep, so much so that the Governor General of India himself, Lord Canning, personally asked Duleep to take the next boat back to England to quell the rumbles. Luckily for Canning, Duleep obeyed, perhaps foiling his last real chance to renew the fight for his rightful kingdom. Nonetheless, Duleep struck back in other ways.
28. He Got The Maharani Her Bling Back
Not satisfied with his mother-son reunion, Duleep also fought to reunite his mother with her long-lost jewels. For all these years, the British had kept these gems in a treasury, and Duleep successfully negotiated for their return. It wasn’t their kingdom, but at least it was something, and he could put his mother back in the glamor she deserved. Yet, it all came too little too late.
29. He Had A Tragic Goodbye
In 1863, the biggest tragedy of Duleep's life hit. After barely a year of living in Britain, his mother Jind Kaur finally succumbed to her lifetime of torment, passing at the still-young age of 46. Although Duleep was at least beside her when it happened, it was small comfort for all the years the British had taken from him. But just as one chapter of his life ended, another began. And it was juicy.
30. The British Wouldn't Let Him Bury His Mother Properly
The next year, Duleep traveled to Bombay to put his mother's ashes to rest, since the British wouldn't allow him to do it in her hometown of Lahore (classic). Still, this ended up being a fateful decree: While returning from Bombay, Duleep stopped off in Cairo and took a tour around a local girl's school. While there, he literally met his destiny.
31. He Fell In Love With A Scandalous Woman
One of the instructors at the school was the beautiful part-Ethiopian, part-German Bamba Muller, the illegitimate child of a prominent banker. Crucially, Muller was also a devout Christian—one of the only ones at the institution. Duleep must have liked what he saw, because after he met her, he began gifting the "school" with incredibly lavish gifts. Still, he may have kept his crush on the down low for a reason...
32. Queen Victoria Was His Matchmaker
When Duleep got back to England and his old frenemy Queen Victoria, a strange kind of pressure began mounting. Victoria had decided that, now that his mother was well and truly out of the way, it was time for Duleep to marry. In particular, Victoria wanted him to make a match with a British-assimilated Indian princess because, you know, who else would be worthy? But Duleep had other ideas.
33. He Had A Type
Forever wiggling underneath Victorian meddling, Duleep decided he didn't want a perfect British subject. Instead, he wanted someone "less sophisticated," AKA less touched by colonialism. And he had just the idea: He wrote to the old girl's school in Cairo and asked the missionaries there if they could recommend anyone who was both Christian and of Eastern descent.
Considering Bamba was the only one there who fit that description, methinks Duleep already knew who he wanted. But that didn't mean he had a smooth time of it.
34. His Love Nearly Rejected Him
You might think that a proposal from a prince would make any girl say yes. But Duleep's reality was much different. Bamba was reluctant to uproot her life and stop teaching children, which she considered her main ambition in life. Eventually, though, she grew to believe this was God's way of saying "go get 'em, girl," and she consented to him. Which is where things got truly awkward.
35. He Made A Bizarre Proposal
When it came time for Duleep's official proposal to Bamba, it was mighty hard to get much romance in. Duleep spoke zero Arabic, while Muller spoke only Arabic, and he had to use an intermediary just to pop the question. In fact, when the pair married in a small ceremony in Alexandria in 1864, they spoke their vows in different languages. Quirky, right? Unfortunately, their future was less quirky, more devastating.
36. He Watched His Baby Die
In 1865, Duleep was expecting his very first child with Bamba, who was due any day now. It all ended in blood and tears. Although Bamba gave birth to a son that year, the boy died just a day later, without the couple ever even giving him a name. For Duleep and Bamba, who had both seen so much hardship, it must have been a crushing blow. Duleep reacted the only way he knew how.
37. He Was Very Virile
Duleep knew that if at first you don't succeed, ignore the trauma and try again: Eventually, he and Bamba had a whopping six healthy children together, most of whom made it into adulthood and had glittering lives among both the British and the Indian elite. All in all, the pair were married for over two decades...but behind bedroom doors, it was no fairy tale.
38. He Was Unfaithful
If you believe the rumors, Duleep was far from faithful to Bamba. In fact, he was obsessed with one "other woman" in particular: The French princess Ada Douglas Wetherill. As the years wore on, Duleep got restless in his marriage and domestic duties to Muller and began spending more and more time with Wetherill. And that wasn't all he was restless about.
39. He Got Arrested
In 1886, Duleep got another irresistible pull to return home to India, and this time he didn't take no for an answer. Amid objections from the India Office, he set sail with Bamba and his children. Until it all unraveled. After catching up to him in the middle-eastern city of Aden, the British arrested him and demanded that he turn back in Queen Victoria's name. Duleep did not do this. No, his response was ten times more jaw-dropping.
40. He Abandoned His Family
Upon receiving this ultimatum from the British, Duleep fled to Paris...without his family. Yes, he seriously abandoned Bamba and the children to their own fates, instead preferring to go solo to France. And that wasn't all. When he got to the City of Love, his long-term mistress Ada Wetherill reportedly shacked up with him, too. OUCH, Duleep. Ugh, and he wasn't done yet.
41. He Married His Mistress
A mere year after her husband chucked her at the border to abscond with another woman (!) Bamba Muller died at just 39 years old. Duleep repaid her with stunning cruelty. Two years later, he made things official with Wetherill and married her, going on to have two more children with the royal-mistress-turned-wife. Oh, but they got a comeuppance.
42. Queen Victoria Rejected His Wife
You don't get through that kind of explosive mid-life crisis quietly, and one person in particular noticed that Duleep was coming apart at the seams: Queen Victoria. Well, she was not amused. Forever after, Victoria refused to meet Ada Wetherill in any kind of polite company, citing her respect for Bamba Muller's memory. Hey, the broad can do some things right.
43. He Converted Back To Sikhism
Even though his "return to India plan" was foiled, Duleep managed to stick it to the British in another way: He got reinitiated into Sikhism. He had wanted his reconversion ceremony to take place in the homeland of both himself and his faith, but managed to pull off a more casual, impromptu one in Aden while he was being detained.
The Maharaja’s cousin, Sardar Thakar Singh Sandhawalia, was instrumental in both his reintroduction to Sikhism and this successful re-initiation, as he sent emissaries to Aden to accomplish the latter. The Queen could keep the Maharaja from India, but she couldn’t keep Indians from the Maharaja! With this accomplished, Duleep set his sights on a violent aim.
44. He Tried To Get Russia To Invade India
At this point, Duleep was very much in an "off" phase of his on/off, toxic friendship with Queen Victoria, and he let her know it under no uncertain terms. While living in Paris, Duleep and his then-mistress Ada traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia. His mission: Convince the Czar to invade India through the north and re-install him as ruler. Unfortunately, the Czar did not take the bait.
45. He Fathered A Famous Suffragette
Duleep Singh’s third daughter, Princess Sophia Singh, became a famous suffragette in the United Kingdom. She was a leader in the Women’s Tax Resistance League, which advocated for refusing to pay taxes in protest of women’s ongoing disenfranchisement. And she did this all while living in a palace apartment given to her by Queen Victoria. Turns out biting the hand that feeds you isn’t always a bad idea—especially when it’s the hand that stole your family’s plate.
46. He Was The Last True Owner Of A Legendary Diamond
Once the young Duleep took the throne all those years ago, he automatically became the owner of the renowned Koh-i-Noor, one of the largest cut diamonds on Earth. As a child, Duleep wore it in court at Lahore, fastened to his arm. But it suffered a dark fate. The British seized it as a spoil of war, giving it to Queen Victoria for her own crown jewels collection.
47. He Went Under The Radar
While compliant by most standards, Duleep Singh rebelled when it came to his heraldry. The Maharaja and his family used an illicit coat of arms that was not registered at the College of Arms, even though it had been drawn up by Prince Albert. To be fair, the family motto was “to do good rather than be conspicuous,” and there is nothing more conspicuous than registering your coat of arms.
48. He Was Both An Indian King And A British Knight
In 1861, Queen Victoria continued her strategic adulation of Maharaja Duleep Singh, naming him one of the first handful of knights in the brand spanking new Order of the Star of India. This appointment netted him the appellation “Sir” in addition to his longstanding—and long limited in terms of real power—title of Maharaja.
49. He Was In A Cult
Duleep Singh was a member of the Freemasons, AKA the actual fraternal organization upon which The Simpsons’ famous Stonecutters organization was based, if that's more your bag. Indeed, he was involved in all sorts of shady spiritualism; one account has him entering a room arm-in-arm with the notorious occultist Madame Blavatsky.
50. He Was A Man Of Many Names
Duleep's name comes in many forms: Duleep, Dhulip, Dulip, Dhalip, Dhuleep, and Dalip. Despite the fact that he used "Duleep" when writing it himself—and surely he was the foremost authority on the matter—even some official British documents refer to him as Dalip. They do follow it up with “the Ultimate,” but does that really make up for their sins against him?
51. He Lives On
In digital spirit, at least. Maharaja Duleep Singh has been immortalized in a video game, of all places. Duleep is a character in Ubisoft’s well-known action-adventure video game series, Assassin’s Creed. A young Duleep Singh figures in its 2015 installment, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. The Maharaja and his battle for his kingdom live on!
52. He Made Queen Victoria A Godmother
Adding further intrigue to their odd dynamic of crush and controller, Queen Victoria ended up being the godmother to many of Duleep Singh’s children. Though there could have been a disturbing motive behind this. Quite likely, this was yet another power move. Victoria used it to limit Duleep and his children's opportunities to reclaim their rightful throne in India.
53. His Relationship With Queen Victoria Inspired A Movie
Not only was Duleep Singh a muse to Queen Victoria, but their relationship was also a muse for filmmaker Kavi Raz. His 2017 historical drama, The Black Prince, centers on the Stockholm Syndrome-like relationship between the two royals. Unfortunately, critics didn't love the movie, despite its salacious subject matter.
54. He Was "The Black Prince Of Perthshire"
While in the United Kingdom, Duleep took a liking to Scotland and, at age 20, managed to rent a castle there from a Scottish Earl. He quickly set about making a name for himself...though not always for the best reasons. The surrounding commoners knew him for his luxurious lifestyle and his shooting parties, as well as his penchant for dressing in Highland costume; these habits quickly had him dubbed “the Black Prince of Perthshire.”
Of course, Duleep was actually brown and not Black, but it seems that was none the difference for the pale Scots of the 1850s.
55. He Was A Narcissist
It may be a bit of reach, but Duleep might have indeed been a narcissist, considering that he gave his own name to all eight of his children. His three sons and five daughters alike had two to three given names, all followed by “Duleep Singh.” Okay, his first son with Bamba Muller died without a name, but it’s a safe bet how it would have ended.
Despite having so many children with his name, the Maharaja’s family lineage ended with this generation. All eight of his children died without legitimate issue.
56. He Had Something In Common With Another Famous King
In what must have been a scene reminiscent of Hamlet, Maharaja Duleep Singh’s eldest son, Prince Victor Albert Jay Duleep Singh, claimed he saw a vision of his father looking at him through a picture frame one day. But the creepiest part came later. As Prince Victor soon found out, he had this vision just a day before his father's death. Might I suggest you pursue haunting Queen Victoria instead, dear Maharaja?
57. He Died Too Young
Though it was largely unwillingly and at the behest of the British Empire, Duleep was a bit of a globetrotter throughout his troubled life and, true to style, died outside of his putative homes of India and England. Instead, at only 55, Duleep took his last breath in Paris, after suffering a stroke. One might hope he was finally freed from his life under British tyranny...but one further indignity loomed.
58. He Died Alone
Adding insult to the many injuries of his short life, Duleep Singh died in circumstances unbecoming of a royal: He passed away alone in a Paris hotel room, broke and indebted to many. After all, Duleep Singh’s lavish life of large estates, recreational hunting, and fancy parties were largely behind him by the time he passed. Still, the British had one final betrayal for him.
59. He Didn't Get His Last Wish
Duleep explicitly wanted his family to return his body to India upon his death but, like his many wishes to return home while he was still alive, the British denied this one too, fearing the insurrection his homecoming might foment. Instead, they buried his body next to that of his wife, Maharani Bamba, following Christian rites. Even in death, the Crown couldn't risk Maharaja Duleep Singh’s power over his people.
60. The British Betrayed Him After Death
Despite being the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire, Duleep Singh was born in what is now Pakistan, an Islamic Republic. At the time, his birthplace of Lahore in the province of Punjab was actually the capital of the Sikh Empire. However, after the British partitioned India in 1947, they gave this part of Punjab to Pakistan. Thus, the Maharajah continued to lose his kingdom even after death.