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The Forgotten Princess: Sophia Duleep Singh

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

The release of Lioness, a biopic about Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, was announced at the Cannes Film Festival this May. The movie, directed and written by Kajri Babbar, follows the Princess’ journey as a pioneer of the British suffragette movement.

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh played many roles, including the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the princess of Punjab, and the goddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her family’s legacy begins with her grandfather, Ranjit Singh, who ruled North India. After his passing, Punjab saw bouts of violence within the royal family, eventually leading to Sophia’s father, Duleep, taking the throne at age five. Taking advantage of the empire’s weakness, the British pounced on the young monarch, making him sign a treaty that would lead to the eventual downfall of his kingdom. During the Second Anglo-Sikh War, Duleep was forced to sign over his kingdom, and a few years later, he moved to England to settle down, where Sophia’s story begins.

As the goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Sophia lived a life of luxury. However, when Sophia was only nine, her father began questioning the treaty he had been forced to sign as a child. When Sophia was nine, he uprooted the family and tried taking them to Punjab, where he believed their presence would lead to an uprising. Sophia and her family were detained at the Port of Aden, where Sophia experienced her first arrest at the age of nine. After her family’s arrest, Sophia’s father left the family to reclaim his throne, and Sophia’s upbringing became the responsibility of Queen Victoria.

Sophia became the perfect socialite, attending every party, dressing at the height of Victorian fashion, and drawing high society’s attention with a few scandalous antics. In 1903, she took a forbidden trip to India to attend Delhi Durbar, a celebration of Edward VII’s coronation, which transformed her view of the world. She was a celebrity in England, but in India, she was one of many brown women. She saw firsthand the famine and suffering caused by colonial rule and heard Indian citizens crying, “ Awaz doh!” (‘Give us a voice’). The cry awakened a fighting spirit in Sophia.

When she returned to England, she heard the same pleading voice from the British suffragettes demanding the right to vote. The suffragettes were fighting for their right to have a say in their future, just as the Indian nationalists were fighting for their voices to be heard. Sophia had found a cause to which she, too, could dedicate her life.

As a suffragette, Sophia worked her way into Emmeline Pankhurst’s inner circle, drove press carts through London for the Women’s Social and Political Union, donated and fundraised large sums of money, and defied those who went against her. During the Black Friday March of 1910, Sophia personally fought off a police officer who had hurt a sister suffragette. Her fight was taxing both mentally and physically. However, Sophia wasn’t one to give up. She continued to raise awareness for the movement through various forms of activism, including throwing herself at Prime Minister Asquit’s car to slam a “Votes for Women” flyer at his window.

Her influence spread far and wide, even to India, where she played a pivotal role in influencing the activism of Herabai Tata and Mithan Jamshed Lam, prominent women in India’s suffragette movement.

Although the Princess’s story was written out of history books and forgotten until recently, her influence impacted our lives today. The suffragette movement spearheaded by Sophia propelled similar movements across the globe and contributed to the struggle to give women a say in their futures.

Cover citation:

Anand, Anita. Sophia Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary. Bloomsbury, 2015.


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