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From Gouramma to Duleep Singh, the tragic lives of Queen Victoria’s many colonial godchildren

Queen Victoria adopted several children from across the British Empire. Despite being celebrated, each of these wards of the Queen had troubled lives as they struggled to deal with the pressures of how they were expected to behave as part of the royal family.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi |
Updated: March 12, 2021 8:51:16 pm
Queen Victoria, Queen Victoria colonial grandchildrean, Meghan Markle, Prince Harry, Princess Gouramma, Duleep Singh, British Royal family, Express Research, Indian expressQueen Victoria was keen on getting Singh and Gouramma married, but it did not happen eventually.

Princess Gouramma was just eleven when she landed on the shores of England, accompanied by her father Chikka Veerarajendra, the last ruler of Coorg. Veerarajendra had lost his kingdom to the British in 1834 and was living in exile in Benaras for the last 14 years. In the summer of 1852, he hatched a plan to travel to England, ostensibly to demand that his daughter be given a Christian education, and also to ensure a pension for himself from the court.

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Veerarajendra offered up his daughter to Queen Victorian for adoption. “If the Queen would take charge of my daughter and treating her with honour and kindness grant her an education complete in every respect and suitable to her rank and bring her up according to English customs in the Christian faith,” he is known to have suggested as recorded in historian Sarah Carter and Maria Nugent’s edited book, ‘Mistress of everything: Queen Victoria in indigenous worlds’.

The Queen, always sheepish in front of Indian Maharajas who had lost their wealth to the EIC, agreed to stand godmother to the child, who was supposedly the most beautiful among Veerarajendra’s children. Gouramma was baptised with a regal ceremony on July 5, 1852. The Queen presented her with a leather-bound autographed copy of the Holy Bible with gold plated trimmings. She also gave Gouramma her own name. Henceforth she became Victoria Gouramma.

Gouramma was just the first among several other children from across the vast British empire to be adopted by Queen Victoria. The Queen never visited any part of the empire. But from the 1850s onwards, the Queen took a very keen interest in the nature of the empire, and adoption of children, particularly from royal families was one way of understanding the far and wide territories better. Carter and Nugent in their book suggest that Victoria was less of a racist than her contemporaries, even though there was an element of orientalism in her fascination with some young Indians, Africans, Maoris and Zulus.

“In the beginning it was more out of curiosity and also sympathy. But over time she realised that it’s an interesting way to learn more about the colonised territories. It was also an effective way to solidify the image of the royal family as quite authoritative but also very tolerant,” says historian Priya Atwal who recently authored the book, ‘Royals and rebels: The rise and fall of the Sikh empire’.

However, despite being made part of the royal family, each of these colonial godchildren or wards of the Queen had troubled lives. “On the one hand they are incredibly privileged and they are given comfortable pensions and they are encouraged to see themselves as royal within British society, but at the same time because of the colour of their skin they are exoticised and othered,” says Atwal.

The colonised god children of Victoria

“This concern for particular individuals, and often also a personal attachment to them, was one of the most notable features of Queen Victoria’s approach not only to India but also to some other colonies,” writes historian Barbara Caine in her article, ‘‘My vast Empire & all its many peoples’: Queen Victoria’s imperial family’.

She explains that Queen Victoria’s relationship with her godchildren varied. “Some were like the fictional depiction: she provided money for a child’s education, or occasionally had him or her to visit, but had little other contact. Others were welcomed as visitors to Windsor and Osborne where she made plans for their adult lives – often ones that did not come to fruition,” they write. But in each of these cases, her relationship with her godchildren was occasional in nature rather than being in regular touch with any one particular child.

A couple of years after Princess Gouramma became part of the royal family, she was joined by Maharaja Duleep Singh of Punjab who had been deposed when the EIC annexed his state in 1849. He converted to Christianity and was sent off to England in 1854 for further studies. There he too was present to the Queen who immediately took a fondness for the child. “the Queen did come to feel strongly that he and others in a similar situation were entitled to some recompense for their land and titles and some security both for themselves and for their dependants,” writes Caine.

Atwal in her book writes how Duleep Singh wholeheartedly embraced life as an Anglicised country gentleman. “In his new life in England he was accorded a warm welcome in the family circle of Queen Victoria- enjoying a lot more grandeur and respect than he could expect in India under Dalhousie’s regime,” she notes.

Queen Victoria was keen on getting Singh and Gouramma married, but it did not happen eventually. Neither of them followed court protocols or expectations. While Gouramma got entangled in a scandalous relationship with a stable boy, Singh was not willing to accept her behaviour. The latter, in fact became increasingly difficult over time, living way beyond the means that the British royalty was willing to provide him.

Then there was Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a young Yoruba girl from West Africa who had been orphaned at the age of five and taken to Dahomey in present day Benin, which was the centre of the Atlantic slave trade. She was taken to the court of the king of Dahomey, where she was effectively his slave. But she was rescued by a captain of the Royal Navy, Frederick E. Forbes, who convinced the king to give her as a gift to Queen Victoria. The Queen was entranced by her beautiful looks and talent in music and language. She paid for her education, hoping she would work as a missionary. When Bonetta died of consumption in 1880, leaving behind a young daughter, the Queen took the latter under her wing as well, and paid for her education.

In the 1860s, the Queen adopted a Maori boy who was born in London shortly after his parents visited her. Caine writes that when the Maori chiefs visited Queen Victoria, “she noticed that one of the women, Hariata Pomare, was pregnant and expressed a wish to be the child’s godmother.” She arranged lodging for the couple and paid for their return to New Zealand after the baby was born.

In 1868 when the British invaded Maqdala in Ethiopia, what followed is considered to be one of the greatest looting expeditions ever taken in the name of the Empire. Emperor Tewodros, the ruler of Ethiopia preferred to die by suicide rather than surrender. His orphaned son, Prince Alemeyahu was taken to England along with the largest haul of stolen artefacts. Once in England, the young prince became a ward of Queen Victoria, despite repeated pleas to be returned to his homeland. He died at a very young age of 18 and was buried inside Windsor Castle. In recent years, the Ethiopian government has been repeatedly asking the British to return Alemeyahu’s remains, but is yet to meet with success.

Their tragic lives

Atwal says that all these adopted children suffered from ill health or depression in Britain and a majority of them died quite young. Alemeyahu, for instance, had a strange guardian called Captain Speedy who used him for propaganda purposes. Though Victoria was extremely fond of him, the prince could never really integrate himself into English society and grew increasingly lonely over the years. He was suffering from Pneumonia when he passed away at the age of 18 in Leeds, a month after a request for his return to Ethiopia had been rejected.

Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Megiste, in an article in the Guardian, writes about the royal family’s perception of Alemyahu: “What the queen wanted to imagine in Alemayehu, what England still wants to possess, is a foreigner who earns refuge through politeness, quietness and grace.”

Duleep Singh however was Victoria’s poster boy. But as he grew older, he was increasingly traumatised by the thought of securing financial security for himself and his children. He was not welcomed back to India as it became clear to him that the British Governor-General Lord Dalhousie had stripped him and his family of all kinds of royal prestige. He was well aware of the fact that he was leading a life of prominence in Britain only because Victoria was fascinated by him.

“Arguably, the real tipping point into rebellion against the Raj was Duleep’s powerlessness to ensure that his newly built home in the Suffolk countryside would pass to his eldest son and heir, Victor- named after his godmother, Queen Victoria,” writes Atwal in her book. That is when he launches a rebellion against the British Empire to claim back his lost kingdom.

“In the media then, Duleep Singh is totally vilified. He goes from being the golden boy Maharaja to this deranged, petulant Indian upstart. All kinds of colonial tropes are flashing in the media against him,” says Atwal. Finally, the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire, and Queen Victoria’s favourite colonial ward, died a lonely death in a Paris hotel room in 1893.

The case of Gouramma perhaps is most striking in how the colonised godchildren were struggling to deal with royal pressures. “She is not allowed to see her father anymore. Victoria stops him. I was shocked to find this short note in which the Queen writes that she found the father to be a real irritant,” says Atwal.

Gouramma was passed on from one foster family to another and suddenly there were pressures mounted upon her on how she must behave as the goddaughter of the Queen. “She is forced to speak, dress and act like an aristocratic British girl. Consequently, the girl becomes incredibly depressed,” says Atwal.

The whole goal of bringing up Gouramma was to marry her off. The initial aim was to set her up with Singh, but that did not work out. Gouramma tried running away on multiple occasions. She wanted to live with one of the house maids, like a servant, away from all the pressures of leading a regal life.

“That’s where I draw a rough parallel with Megan Markle,” says Atwal. “There is the pressure of expectation and this desire of privacy. But also these colonial tropes that are put on these two women which are so similar. When Gouramma tries to run away, her guardians and Victoria and Albert talk about her oriental nature escaping, and that she can’t handle civilisation.”

Gouramma ended up marrying Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell who was 30 years senior to her. She gave birth to a daughter Edith Victoria Gouramma Campbell in 1861. In 1864, Gouramma passed away at the age of 23.

Interestingly, after Singh, Gouramma and Forbes passed away, Victoria kept aside a pension and did provide some degree of royal support to the children that they left behind.

Further reading:

Royals and rebels: The rise and fall of the Sikh empire by Priya Atwal

Mistress of everything: Queen Victoria in indigenous worlds’. by Sarah Carter and Maria Nugent

Victora: A Life by A.N. Wilson

 

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