In 1799, Ranjit Singh founded the Sikh Empire in Punjab. Ranjit Singh\’s title of maharaja passed on to his son Duleep Singh when he was only five years old and his brother had died. However, in 1859, when he was merely ten years old, the British annexed Punjab leading to Duleep Singh’s title and power being devolved. He signed the Treaty of Lahore when he was eleven which included, amongst other conditions, that the Kohinoor would be given to the Queen of England. Moreover, he was removed from Punjab and separated from his mother. During this time a very warm correspondence developed between Queen Victoria and the Maharaja. In one of his letters, Duleep Singh also expressed his desire to meet the Queen. Eventually, he arrived in England in 1854 when he was only fifteen years old. Queen Victoria immediately took a liking to him; he was an Indian prince with sharp features, thick eyelashes and deep big brown eyes. After meeting him for the first time Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that he was, \”16 & extremely handsome… [he] has a pretty, graceful & dignified manner. He was beautifully dressed & covered with diamonds.\”
The Queen was particularly struck by the kindness that Duleep Singh displayed, especially towards children. There is a watercolour painting in the Royal Collection that shows Duleep Singh dressing Prince Arthur in Indian clothes.
There was such a liking that developed between Queen Victoria and Duleep Singh that they even sketched each other for hours and spent a lot of time together.
In July 1854, for Duleep\’s birthday the Queen decided to get a portrait painted of Duleep Singh by Winterhalter, who was Queen Victoria\’s favourite court artist. On 10th July 1854, Queen Victoria wrote in her journal, “Winterhalter was in ecstasies at the beauty and nobility of bearing of the young Maharaja. He was very amiable and patient, standing so still and giving a sitting of upwards of 2 hours”. In the portrait, the Maharaja is shown wearing a turban with a star on it and a diamond aigrette. There is another peculiar feature of the portrait, it depicts a jewelled framed miniature of Queen Victoria by Emily Eden. Singh is shown dressed up in pearls and is made to look like a Maharaja. It is another matter that the pearls were stolen from him in the first place and that the British themselves took away his title of Maharaja while taking over his land.
It was only after a long 13 years had passed that Singh was able to meet his mother who joined him in England. She tried to tell him about his Sikh identity and all that he had left behind. By 1864, he got married to Bamba Muller and settled at Elveden Hall in Suffolk. Queen Victoria was the godmother of their eldest son.
Duleep Singh had quite an extravagant lifestyle but he soon ran into financial debt. After this, he tried to reclaim his lost land in Punjab and demanded compensation for them. He returned to India in 1886 and converted back to Sikhism. After failed attempts, he eventually ended up in Paris where he married again after the death of his first wife. On 22nd October 1893, Ranjit Singh died in Paris but he was buried in Elveden.