The fascinating tale of Maharaja Daleep Singh who relinquished the Koh-i-Noor to become the most prominent fixture in Queen
’s court. But his Indian past came back to haunt him, writes Ammar Ali Qureshi Victoria
Maharaja Ranjit Singh is arguably the most remarkable figure in
Punjab’s history. His son and last ruler of the Sikh Empire, Daleep Singh, is perhaps the most tragic. Ranjit succeeded his father as head of a small confederacy at the age of ten and, owing to his military genius, became the ruler of Punjab when he was twenty-one. He turned the tide of history by taking the battle to the land of the invaders on the western front, and conquered them; His empire, which lasted for fifty years from 1799 to 1849, stretched from the southern districts of Punjab to Afghanistan in the west Kashmir (which also included Ladakh and Gilgit and Baltistan) in the north-east, and up to Sutlej (which flows through Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pardesh) in the east. Ranjit’s greatest achievement, however, was not military but political conquest, as he was able to unite Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs under one banner.
Ranjit Singh died in 1839 and in just ten years a combination of treacherous and intriguing courtiers, incompetent rulers, and an assertive and aggressive but leaderless army brought the empire of an exceptional man to a humiliating end. Within four years of Ranjit’s death, his three successors were murdered; Daleep Singh, born in
in 1838 to Ranjit’s youngest wife Maharani Jind Kaur, became the boy-king at the age of five in 1843 with his ambitious mother as the regent. Lahore
Following Ranjit’s death and during the rule of his weak successors, the Punjab Khalsa army emerged as the kingmaker, the most powerful player in the state which dictated its demands through its delegates known as Panchayats or Committees of Five. Maharani Jind Kaur and her scheming courtiers were wary of the army’s power and devised a plan to tame it by provoking it to invade British territory across the Sutlej, in the hope that it would be cut down to size by the British or its energies would be exhausted in the campaigns of conquest.
It turned out to be a major miscalculation as the British coveted
The Anglo-Sikh wars of 1846 and 1849 were the fiercest and deadliest that the British encountered in
. So grave was the situation that the British Governor General, Sir Henry Hardinge, had to come to the aid of the British Commander in Chief, Sir Hugh Gough, and served under him. On the India Punjab Khalsa army side, it was a lack of efficient leadership which resulted in defeat, although they were able to inflict colossal losses on the British. The rank and file of the Khalsa army put up the bravest and steadiest of fights against the British. However, their military generals were political figures, appointed by the ruling family, who lacked military expertise, indulged in double-dealing, and were traitors within the gates.
In 1845, the Sikh Generals crossed the
The conditions of surrender in 1849 required Daleep to renounce his title to the sovereignty of
Rajmohan Gandhi writes about the end of
Durbar in his recently published history of Lahore Punjab: “On 29 March 1849, a ten-year-old Dalip Singh was told to sign a document. Writing his name in Roman letters, the boy-king renounced, on his behalf and on behalf of all heirs and successors, every ‘right, title or claim’ to Punjab. All of the Kingdom’s property, including the Koh-i-noor and other jewels, now belonged to the British. The Sikh kingdom gone, all of Punjab was annexed to British India. The proclamation of annexation read out that day was received by those present with silence”.
In 1850, Daleep was moved to Fatehgarh, a center of Christian missionaries located on the bank of the
He arrived in
in the summer of 1854 and very soon was invited by London . The first meeting between the fifteen-year old Indian prince and thirty five-year old Queen Victoria, who would continue to have profound influence on his subsequent life, went very well and Daleep became an instant favourite of the British monarch. She described him as ‘extremely handsome’ and possessing ‘a graceful and dignified manner’. She was so impressed that she commissioned her favourite artist to paint his portrait. Prince Albert, her husband, had a special coat of arms designed for him. Buckingham Palace
Her Majesty even tried her hand at match-making and suggested the exiled Raja of Coorg’s daughter, who was also her god-daughter, as a suitable match to Daleep, who politely declined saying that he wanted to wait till the age of twenty-one or twenty-two before he got married. Interestingly, Daleep, a few years later, introduced the exiled princess to an English widower, whom she married.
As an infant in
Back in 1849 Daleep had been coerced to hand over the Koh-i-Noor to the British Governor General in
Daleep enjoyed the life of an English country gentleman and acquired, through a British government loan, a sprawling 17,000 acre estate at Elveden, Suffolk, located in the north-east of
In 1861, Daleep travelled to
British suspicions about Maharani Jind were not unfounded; she informed Daleep about the supposed prophecy of the tenth Sikh guru regarding an exiled prince who would come back to rule
On his way back, he stopped at
Daleep Singh’s life can be divided into four distinct phases: boy-king, dethronement and banishment outside
He lived in
His wife expired in England while he was in Russia but in Paris he had acquired an English mistress, Ada Wetherhill, whom he married on his return to Paris and had two daughters with – Alexandra and Ada Irene Helene. By then his health had started deteriorating as his financial position became weaker by the day. His son tried to bring about reconciliation between him and Queen Victoria, who met him in
Daleep was born in a royal palace in
Princess Bamba Sofia, his eldest daughter, went to India in 1924 and took her grandmother’s ashes from Bombay to Lahore to be interred there as per her wish. Bamba settled in Lahore, married the Principal of King Edward Medical College, Mr Sutherland, and died in
The author’s ancestors served as chief Qazis of