SINGH, Maharajah Duleep (1838-1893)
Plaque erected in 2005 by English Heritage at 53 Holland Park, Holland Park, London, W11 3RS, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Politics and Administration
MAHARAJAH DULEEP SINGH 1835-1893 Last Ruler of Lahore lived here 1881-1886
Maharajah Duleep Singh was the last ruler of the Sikh Empire in Punjab, a region in modern-day Pakistan and northern India. He was forced to surrender to the British in 1849 while still a child, and subsequently lived much of his life in Britain. A blue plaque now commemorates his five-year stay at 53 Holland Park in London.
PRINCE OF PUNJAB
The extraordinary political career of Duleep Singh – a prince who became a pawn of the British government – began in 1843. At the age of five, amidst chaos and disorder following the death of his father and the suspected assassinations of two of his brothers and a nephew, he was declared Maharajah (meaning ‘great ruler’) of Punjab. His mother, Maharani Jind Kaur, ruled on his behalf as regent. In the years that followed, their reign was marred by the Anglo-Sikh Wars, which broke out when diplomatic relations with the British East India Company deteriorated. The East India Company then ruled much of the Indian subcontinent, and the Sikh army was one of the few remaining threats to British rule.
The Sikh Empire fell to the British in 1849, and the young Duleep Singh was dethroned. Under the terms of the peace treaty he was allowed to retain his title and granted a pension on the condition that he remain obedient to the British government. He was also forced to hand over all state property and the famous Koh-i-noor diamond, which now forms part of the Crown Jewels.
LIFE IN BRITAIN
With his mother forced into political exile, the ten-year-old Duleep Singh was placed into the care of a British doctor, John Login, and removed from the Punjab to a British camp in north west India. Five years later, the young prince – newly converted to Christianity – travelled to Britain, and stayed there for over 30 years. He soon became a favourite of Queen Victoria, who received him at Osborne House, commissioned a portrait of him, and became godmother to one of his sons.
Duleep Singh initially lived in Perthshire, Scotland, but in 1861 he acquired Elveden Hall in Suffolk, where for 20 years he lived the life of an English country squire. He and his wife Bamba became great socialites, and their guests at Elveden included the Prince of Wales and Lord Kimberley. However, in April 1881 Duleep Singh was forced to shut up his country estate due to financial difficulties. He took up a lease at 53 Holland Park, where he planned to reside ‘with my family as economically as possible’. He was granted £4,000 by the government to furnish the house, which was regarded as his official London residence. The Maharajah, however, also kept a ‘den’ at 34 King Street, Covent Garden, where he met his mistress, composed opera, and frequented the bohemian Cox’s Hotel in Jermyn Street.
Although Duleep Singh was able to live a privileged life in London, he became increasingly agitated by the refusal of the British to allow him to settle in India. His mother, who in 1861 had eventually been allowed to live with him in England, had encouraged his interest in Sikhism before her death in 1863, and at number 53 Duleep Singh continued to learn about his family’s past. He studied the ‘Punjab Papers’ in the British Library, and penned regular letters to the India Office. Guests included like-minded colleagues and fellow Indians, and there was talk of the lost riches of the Punjab and how the ‘true guru’ (Duleep Singh) could be reinstated. The house, as it was in 1884, has been described as ‘the command headquarters for incipient rebellion against the British Empire’.
In 1886 Duleep Singh left 53 Holland Park and attempted to return to his homeland. However, the British – fearing that his return would stir discontent in the Punjab – arrested him en route in Aden, in modern-day Yemen. Although he was prevented from reaching India, Duleep Singh was still able to be re-baptised into the Sikh faith. He subsequently gave up his British citizenship and travelled to Paris, where he campaigned in vain to regain his lost kingdom, signing his letters ‘the lawful sovereign of the Sikh nation’ and the ‘implacable foe of the British government’. He did, however, reconcile with Queen Victoria before his death in 1893. He was given a Christian burial at Elveden Hall, and was laid to rest there next to his wife and youngest son.