'A Remarkable Woman with a Remarkable Story' (Peter Bance qtd. in Bond)
Sophie-Constanze Bantle (she/her)
Princess Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh lived a complex, contradictory and exceptional life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. An Indian princess among British aristocracy, a scholar, a mixed-race person, a woman in a life-long relationship with another woman, a suffragist, aiding Jewish families during World War II – Catherine’s life was extraordinary on many fronts.
Born in 1871, Catherine was the fourth (living) child of Duleep Singh, the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire in the Punjab region, and Bamba Müller, the daughter of a German businessman and his Ethiopian mistress. At the age of eleven, Duleep Singh was forced to sign away his kingdom to the East India Company and was “expelled . . . from the Punjab forever” (Anand 24). Raised to be an English gentleman by his British guardians and converting to Christianity, he was exiled to the United Kingdom and became one of Queen Victoria’s favorites, now moving in the upper echelons of British society. He was awarded a large yearly stipend by the India Office and for the rest of his and his children’s lives, the India Office would keep watch over the Duleep Singh family, surveilling and monitoring them.
There was cruel irony in the position of Duleep Singh, and later that of his children: he was living in the country which colonized his kingdom, being dependent on the Queen of this country who now possessed much of his former wealth, in particular the Koh-I-Noor diamond. His contradictory position was illustrated by the fact that, despite the British upper class being enchanted by the “exotic young king” (Anand 24), no white aristocratic family would allow their daughter to marry a man who was considered to be racially inferior. In 1864, Duleep Singh instead chose the teenage orphan Bamba Müller to be his wife. Despite having six children who survived infancy, the marriage of Catherine’s parents was not a happy one. The Maharajah was openly unfaithful, spending much of his time away from his family, and the Maharani suffered from depression and alcoholism.
When Catherine was a teenager, her father became unhappy with his position in Britain – he had accumulated a large amount of debt building the lavish estate of Elvesden and the British government was uncompromising in reply to his requests for help. He began to harbor the idea of reclaiming his kingdom and even attempted to move his family to India in 1886, despite a travel ban still being in place. They were stopped from entering India, however, and while Bamba and the children returned to Britain, Duleep Singh moved to France with his mistress, where he would remain for most of the rest of his life. He became estranged from his family, even publicly “relinquishing any support” for them in a column in The Times (Anand 76).
Catherine and her once upper-class family were now destitute and only able to live in a house in London because it was provided to them by the Queen. They were shunned by their former aristocratic friends and ridiculed by the British press because of Duleep Singh’s scandals. Catherine’s mother became unable to care for her children and Catherine and her older sister “were becoming increasingly feral” (Anand 80). Queen Victoria intervened and the three daughters, Bamba (Jr.), Catherine and Sophia as well as the youngest son Edward were given a guardian, Arthur Oliphant. Arthur, the son of the former chairman of the East India Company James Oliphant, was fond of the children, but he was also employed to report on the family and inform the British government about any revolutionary ideas the children might harbor.
At this time, Oliphant hired a young German governess named Lina Schäfer. Though twelve years Catherine’s senior, the two women would quickly develop a very close relationship and Lina “would change [Catherine’s] life forever” (“Princess Catherine”). Despite the fact that the age difference between Lina and the teenage Catherine, as well as their power dynamic, might not seem to imply a healthy relationship from a contemporary perspective, the two women were “devoted” to each other for the rest of their lives (Anand 108). Catherine’s sister Sophia called their bond “intimate” and there is no indication that anyone in the family harbored any adverse feelings or animosity towards Catherine and Lina’s relationship (Karkada).
After the death of their mother in 1887, Catherine and her older sister Bamba, accompanied by Lina, were sent to Oxford, where Catherine studied French and German. While they were privileged in receiving a higher education, as women of Indian descent they stood out and had difficulty fitting in with the other students. One of the reasons why they were sent away was also so they would not influence their younger sister Sophia (the Queen’s goddaughter) in an adverse way. Catherine and, particularly, Bamba were critical of the British government, with Oliphant reporting “that they certainly hold some of their father’s views with respect to his grievances and wrongs he believes to have been inflicted on him by the British government” (Anand 86). However, during their time at Oxford, they were praised for becoming more conforming; Oliphant noted that they were “much improved in every way and are nice presentable ladies” (qtd. in Anand 89). It is unclear if, had the government officials known of her relationship with Schäfer, they would have found Catherine quite so conforming.
The year 1893 proved to be an eventful and tragic one for Catherine, as her father died after suffering a number of heart attacks. He was allowed to return to England for brief periods of time before his death, after Edward fell ill and passed away only weeks before the Maharajah, though there was concern about a possible corrupting influence on his eldest daughters. Duleep Singh’s death raised questions about the fate of the children but it was finally decided that the girls would be given 600 pounds a year by the India Office (Anand 105). During this time, Queen Victoria also decided that Sophia should be introduced into society and the three girls all had their ‘coming out’ at the same time, even though Bamba and Catherine were much older than the rest of the debutants and Catherine “had no desire . . . in finding a husband” (113-114).
During this time, Catherine remained singularly focused on escaping England to live with Lina in Germany. Catherine successfully finished university, though, while women had recently been allowed to study at Oxford, they were “not awarded a degree for [their] studies” (Bond). Sophia was given a grace-and-favor estate by Queen Victoria, where Catherine joined her for some time. However, while Catherine had reluctantly returned to England after having travelled to the Mediterranean, Germany and even India (where Bamba settled) with her sisters, she longed to return to Germany to live with Lina, which she did in 1904.
Despite their geographical separation, the three sisters were very close, Catherine visited Sophia in London and they wrote to each other often, with much of the correspondence now being archived in the British Library. In many ways, Catherine’s living in Germany allowed her more freedom than she would have had, had she stayed in London. However, this also results in “information on her life [being] very scant”, as Peter Bance, Duleep Singh biographer and archivist, notes (qtd. in Karkada). Catherine and Lina lived a quiet life together in Kassel, with Catherine describing their daily routine of going on long walks, gardening and cooking in a letter to her sister (Anand 171). Despite making an unusual couple in small-town Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, the locals seemed to accept them. Lina compared the couple to “two mice living in a little house”, while Catherine confirmed her happiness, reporting to Sophia that she was “having a very good time of it and enjoying [herself] thoroughly” (qtd. in Karkada).
Meanwhile, the Duleep Singhs had fallen out of favor with the monarchy after the death of Edward VII. Additionally, much to the British government’s chagrin, Sophia had become a well-known suffragist figure, being part of the WSPU around Emmeline Pankhurst. While Catherine was less radical than her sister, associating herself with the more moderate Millicent Fawcett instead, she was a staunch supporter of female suffrage. She regularly donated money, was “holding bazars” (Bond) and even established, “in aid of the ‘Constitutional Women’s Suffrage’ . . . a forest of Christmas trees in Birmingham” (Karkada). The British press was affronted by the sisters’ support of the suffragist movement and The Times “named and shamed” the two princesses openly, accusing them of being ungrateful (Anand 301).
Catherine’s idyllic life in Germany was disrupted by the advent of World War I, putting the Duleep Singhs in the difficult position of being on opposite sides of the conflict. After the war broke out, Sophia tried desperately to bring Catherine back to England, though her efforts were thwarted by a letter which was intercepted by the British War Office in which Catherine described an “unjust war against Germany” (qtd. in Anand 307). However, once Sophia realized Catherine’s untenable state, being weak and sick and with Lina also severely ill, Sophia managed to convince the India Office to issue Catherine a passport. Despite her desperate situation, Catherine was very reluctant to leave her “beloved Lina” behind in Germany (Anand, image caption), and after the war, Catherine returned to nurse Lina back to health. The two women continued to live in Germany together for the next twenty years.
The rise of the Nazis began to make life in Germany complicated for Catherine, “not only because of her brown color but because of her sexuality” (Bance qtd. in “LGBTQ+ History Month”). After having “spent their lives besotted with one another”, Lina died in 1938 at the age of seventy-nine, leaving Catherine heartbroken (Anand 360). Professor Chandrika Kaul posits that “[h]er insistence of staying in Germany until Lina’s death, despite how difficult it would have been, just shows Catherine’s deep love for Lina” (qtd. in Bond). Despite being “watched by the local Nazis” (Bance qtd. in Bond), it was only after repeated warnings of friends that she reluctantly agreed to return to England. Before doing so, however, Catherine helped and vouched for an imprisoned Jewish man, who was held in a labor camp by the Nazis, managing to negotiate his release. When she left Germany, she took her “medical advisor and his partner, a violin player and a few other Jewish families” with her to England, “where she looked after them” (Bond). Bance explains: “It’s not known exactly how many people she took . . . [t]here was no documentation. It was thought to be a dozen people, but it could be far more. She saved their lives” (qtd. in Bond).
She had lived frugally, had invested in property and was thus able to live, along with a number of Jewish refugees, in the grand Coalhatch House in Buckinghamshire after her return to England, even gifting a bungalow close by to her sister Sophia. Suffering a heart attack, Catherine died at her home in 1942 aged seventy-one. Her will requested that her ashes should be scattered at her childhood home of Elvesden, though she also wished for part of her remains to be “buried as near as possible to the coffin of my friend Fraulein Lina Schäfer” (qtd. in Karkada). In 1949, Bamba, the last remaining Singh sibling, confirmed the family’s acceptance of their sister’s relationship one last time, taking Catherine’s ashes to Germany, as she “wanted the two women to be together again” (Anand 373).
While the whole Duleep Singh family lived remarkable lives, those of the three sisters, Bamba, Catherine and Sophia, resonate especially with today’s struggles of intersectionally marginalized people. “As well as being women, they were of Asian background, which would have been extremely hard at that time”, Bance notes (Bond). Of course, despite their skin color, they lived privileged lives and occupied high social ranks. Importantly, however, they used their privilege to help others, speak out against injustices and live their lives in defiance of social norms. While Sophia has received the most attention among the siblings, with a wonderfully detailed biography and further projects in the works (Mohindra), not much has been written about Catherine. Nonetheless, for Bance, she “stands out” (qtd. in “LGBTQ+ History Month”): “Catherine was a remarkable woman with a remarkable story – it’s about time more people knew about her” (Bance qtd. in Bond).
Anand, Anita. Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary. Bloomsbury, 2015.
Bond, Kimberley. “The Forgotten Story of Princess Catherine Duleep Singh – Women’s Right's Campaigner and 'Indian Schindler' metro.co.uk, 3 Feb 2023. Accessed: 27th June 2023.
Karkada, Shaniya. “Princess Catherine Duleep Singh: Suffragette and the ‘Indian Schindler’ | #IndianWomenInHistory.” FeminisminIndia.com, 24 May 2021. Accessed: 27 June 2023.
“LGBTQ+ History Month: The Story of Princess Catherine Duleep Singh.” BBC, 17 Feb. 2023. Accessed: 27 June 27 2023.
Mohindra, Anjili. “Farewell, Racial Stereotypes. Now We Have the True Tale of an Indian
Princess Turned Suffragette.” Guardian, 21 May 2023. Accessed: 27 June 2023.
Campaigner and ‘Indian Schindler’.” Metro, 3 Feb. 2023. Accessed: 27 June 2023.
“Princess Catherine Duleep Singh.” Duleepsingh.com. Accessed: 27 June 2023.