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Christy Campbell's mesmerizing tale of The Maharaja's Box begins with a list of names of "dormant account holders" published by the Swiss Bankers Association in 1997, during investigations of "Nazi gold." Many of the accounts belonged to Jewish victims of the Holocaust; one was the property of an Indian princess, the deceased daughter of Maharajah Duleep Singh, last Emperor of the Sikhs. Duleep Singh took the throne at the age of five and was King of the Punjab for four years (1845-1849). When the area was ...
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Christy Campbell's mesmerizing tale of The Maharaja's Box begins with a list of names of "dormant account holders" published by the Swiss Bankers Association in 1997, during investigations of "Nazi gold." Many of the accounts belonged to Jewish victims of the Holocaust; one was the property of an Indian princess, the deceased daughter of Maharajah Duleep Singh, last Emperor of the Sikhs. Duleep Singh took the throne at the age of five and was King of the Punjab for four years (1845-1849). When the area was annexed by the British, Singh was forced to resign his wealth-including the world famous Koh-i-nor diamond-and all claims to sovereignty. What long-lost fortune might have been locked away in the princess's safety deposit box?
Author Christy Campbell sets out on an investigation that takes him across several continents and into the archives of many strange and dubious characters. He uses a wealth of documents-including nineteenth-century newspaper articles, personal letters written by such notable figures as Queen Victoria, the memoirs of British diplomats, ministers, and foreign secretaries, and the reports of British and Russian spies-to re-create in stunning detail the life of Duleep Singh and his attempt, in middle age, to reclaim his throne and overthrow British rule in India. The result is a fascinating and true tale of espionage, intrigue, and illicit love.
Copyright © 2000 Christy Campbell.
All rights reserved.
The Maharani of Tunbridge Wells
Golders Green Crematorium, London, 9 August 1930
For the funeral of an empress it was a modest affair. Just two sombre Armstrong-Siddeley limousines followed the gondola-black hearse bearing Ada, Maharani Duleep Singh, last Queen of the Punjab, up through the suburbs of north London on an August day in 1930. The cortége swung into the red-brick court-yard of Golders Green Crematorium, established in the first year of King Edward VII's reign, when burning the dead had at last been made legal. Queen Victoria had abominated the practice, so un-English, so un-Christian. Even now, in polite society, cremation seemed faintly scandalous.
The little party of mourners — the Maharani's daughter and stepdaughter, Nurse Spain (the deceased's companion), Mr Harrold Farrer (the loyal family solicitor), a certain Miss Maude and a few neighbours from respectable Madeira Park, Tunbridge Wells — gathered in the funerary chapel built in the style of a Lombardic palace by the architect of Claridge's Hotel. The top-hatted staff of Messrs H. Pink ('complete house-furnisher and undertaker, cremations arranged') bore in the coffin as the Reverend Herbert Trundle said the Anglican obsequies and the boys of the London College of Choristers sang 'Abide With Me'. A little before luncheon, Queen Ada sailed on rollers into the gas-fired flames.
The two princesses, half-sisters Sophia and Pauline, were the chief mourners — elegant under black veils, olive-skinned, still beautiful in mid-life. Sophia Alexdrovna, older by ten years, had been born into grandeur; her nursery was in the great house of one of the finest shooting estates in England, Elveden in Suffolk. The Prince of Wales had patted her long, dark childhood tresses and news of her scholastic progress was regularly sent to Queen Victoria. Pauline had been delivered in a boarding-house in a Moscow midwinter, where their father slept with two dogs growling at the door and a revolver under his pillow for fear of assassination.
The two elder sisters, the princesses Catherine and Bamba, declined to attend their step-mother's funeral. They preferred to forget everything to do with 'Queen' Ada. Princess Bamba loathed her and would go to her own grave believing that Ada Douglas Wetherill was the cause of her beloved father's destruction. Old and frail, she would tell the curious who sought her out in Lahore before her own death just over a quarter of a century later that Ada was all along a British spy.
The Times's obituarist thought it all rather quaint. 'The death of Ada, Maharani Duleep Singh, which took place last Wednesday, severs one of the last personal links with events of early Victorian days,' he wrote. 'She was the widow of the Maharajah Duleep Singh, who as a child of five was placed on the throne of Lahore by the Sikh Khalsa on the doubtful grounds that he was the son of the famous Maharajah Ranjit Singh.'
The Times, ungracious even in death, could not resist implying that the Maharajah was a bastard. The reporter had looked up the cuttings to breathe some fleeting life into the events of long ago. Maharajah Duleep Singh, born Lahore, 6 September 1838, died Paris, 23 October 1893. The files were bulging: furious letters to the editor from the Maharajah demanding 'magnanimity' from 'the great Christian British Empire', toweringly scornful leaders studded with pompous Latin in reply. All this plus a campaign of salacious tales stoked by its long-departed Paris and St Peterburg correspondents to make him look as ridiculous as possible. The Times and the Maharajah had never got on. But as a summation of the dolours of the last King of the Lahore, The Times's account was efficient enough.
On the death in 1839 of Ranjit Singh, the 'Lion of the Punjab', six years of storm and anarchy ensued in the kingdom. Duleep Singh the son of Jindan Kaur, an ambitious dancing girl, was proclaimed Maharajah. The Khalsa compelled Jindan Kaur and her counsellors to authorize the invasion of British territory by crossing the Sutlej river. The first Sikh war resulted and by the Treaty of Lahore large cessions of territory were made to the British.
The government of the Punjab was to continue in the hands of the youthful Maharajah under the supervision of Sir Henry Lawrence who was appointed Resident. The arrangement did not work satisfactorily, the semi-independent governor of Mooltan revolted and the second Sikh war in 1849 was followed by annexation.
The boy Maharajah was required to resign for himself, his heirs and his successors all rights, title and claim to the sovereignty of the Punjab or to any sovereign power whatsoever.
The deposed Maharajah was placed under the guardianship of Sir John Login of the Bengal Army and brought to this country. All his personal effects and jewels were made over to his guardians and the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond was presented by the East India Company to Queen Victoria.
Duleep Singh was liberally treated, having a pension of five lakhs of Rupees (then the equal of £50,000) settled on him. He embraced Christianity and purchased a large estate at Elveden in Suffolk and settled down as a country gentleman. On public occasions he appeared in Oriental costume and decorated with magnificent jewels. He married at the British consulate at Alexandria an Egyptian Christian lady by whom he had a large family.
The Maharajah's extravagance necessitated an inquiry into his debts. Seeking permission in the late 'eighties to visit India, he re-entered the Sikh pale and had wild visions of the restoration of his kingdom which were promptly dispelled.
As they went back to their depository in Printing House Square, the yellowing cuttings spoke no more of Ada — no date of birth, no details of parentage, no early life. She had a walk-on part in a minor drama long ago.
But the report still breathes a sense of high imperial indignation over 'wild visions' of a kingdom's restoration and 'ambitious dancing girls' — as if the Indian subjects of the Crown were naughty children prone to excess. Even after ninety years The Times had felt it necessary to point out again that the annexation of the boy Maharajah's kingdom had been somehow to rescue the natives from their own wickedness. The reason for making such an implication was on the imperial doorstep in that summer of 1930; India was getting uppity again.
For a month the papers had been full of the imprisonment in Poona of the troublesome Mr Gandhi after his 'salt march' to the sea. On 5 April, at Dandi beach, the Mahatma and several thousand followers had picked up crystals of salt left by the waves, symbolically breaking the government's hated tax-raising monopoly. Within a month the whole of India was in revolt, newspapers were censored, thousands of political offenders were gaoled. As Ramsay MacDonald's government wrung their hands in London, the Maharani's death was a perfect excuse to reprise years of British self-righteousness about India.
The Times's report concluded: 'The Maharajah's turbulent mother Jindan Kaur had died in a London suburb in 1863 and his wife, much troubled by his vagaries, died in 1887. He married two years later, in Paris, Miss Ada Douglas Wetherill, the lady whose death is now announced. Her husband died of a paralytic seizure in Paris in 1893 — and in the intervening 37 years his widow has lived a quiet life in the country ...'
In the India Office in London, the great department of state from where the sub-continental empire was effectively run, another file was being closed and returned to the vaults: Ada Douglas Wetherill, The Maharani Duleep Singh, born 15 January 1869, at No. 10 Oval Road, Kennington, Surrey. She seemed to have done little more exciting in the last twenty years than ask for a loan to buy a hat shop, but longer-memoried inhabitants of the Italianate building overlooking St James's Park might choose to dig deeper — back into the late 1880s and the leatherbound volumes of the Political and Secret Department, the London-based intelligence agency which kept an eye on those who might slip India from the empire's thrall. It was then run with exemplary gusto by Sir Owen Tudor Burne and his successor Sir Edward Bradford who had once been a dashing Indian Army cavalryman until his left arm was bitten off by a tiger. Aging civil servants might look too into the forty-year-old secret dispatches of the Department for the Suppression of Thugee and Dacoity, responsible for sniffing out political crime in India itself, run from Simla, the summer capital set in agreeably cool hills, by another ex-cavalryman, Colonel Philip Durham Henderson. He too became a dedicated Ada-watcher.
The really knowing bureaucrats might have also amused themselves by reading the voluminous reports of a spy known simply as 'Our Correspondent'. This agent, based in Paris, was obsessive when it came to Ada Wetherill. For three years he wrote breathless dispatches detailing her latest condition to be sent that night in cipher code for the urgent attention of the India Office and Lord Salisbury, who was both Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary.
Ada of the quiet life had posed as the wife of an Irish republican revolutionary, 'Madame Patrick Casey', to outfox British diplomats and embark on a wild railway journey into imperial Russia. She was detained at the border where the Czar's frontier gendarmes thought she was a fortune-teller from a circus.
A Muslim spy in British pay was sent to Cairo to track down her movements: 'The Maharajah intends installing her as the cockney empress of India,' he reported. She was, so it was claimed, the subject of a guru's prophecy that such a thing would come to pass. Queen Victoria was distinctly concerned. To save Her Majesty's sensitivities, she was told that Ada was the 'daughter of an English general officer', but the Queen was shrewd enough to see a different truth.
At least Sir Robert Morier, Her Britannic Majesty's ambassador at St Petersburg, got his facts right when he cabled an urgent dispatch to the Prime Minister on 11 December 1887: 'I may mention that my last news from Moscow establishes that the lady who is living at Billo's Hotel with Duleep Singh ... is English, good looking, aged twenty and enceinte.'
Ada was not a walk-on, but the leading actress in 'the most serious danger the British perceived within India in the later 19th century.' Maharani Ada, late of Tunbridge Wells, as I was to discover, was not at all what she seemed. Like so much else in this story.
Canary Wharf, London, August 1997
It began, like all good treasure hunts, with a clue: one line, including the misspelled name of a dead princess. I found it, unromantically perhaps, not on an ancient parchment but twinkling on a computer screen in a newspaper office. It said simply: 'Dulecp Singh, Catherine (Princess), last heard of in 1942 living in Penn, Bucks.'
Sunday journalists know the terror of Thursdays: talked-up stories falling down, nothing to write, deadlines looming. In early August 1997, the London media were transfixed by the rumoured romance of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Mr Dodi Fayed. I had little to contribute. That Thursday morning came an electronic deliverance. The Swiss Bankers' Association published a list of names on the Internet. The mysterious Princess Catherine was on it. She was listed among more than 1,800 holders of so-called 'dormant accounts', deposits of cash, valuables and who knew what else, made long ago in the vaults of exquisitely secretive Swiss banks and untouched since the end of the Second World War. The list's publication, the unaccustomed openness, was part of a national Swiss shriving for complicity in bankrolling the Third Reich. The journalistic shorthand was 'Swiss Nazi Gold'. 'Sounds like a radio-station,' said a cynical photographer colleague.
It was an idea for a story. Perhaps I could reunite a family with their inheritance. Claimants had until January 1998 to come forward, their provenance would be assessed by an international committee and, supposedly, eight months later, they would be handed the keys. (In this case, the deadline was to slip substantially.)
Excerpted from THE MAHARAJAH'S BOX by Christy Campbell. Copyright © 2000 by Christy Campbell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Maharajah's Box List Of Illustrations
1. The Maharani of Tunbridge Wells
2. The Diamond
3. The Heirs
4. The Lion
5. The Governor-General
6. The Fall
7. The Shoot
8. Regina Imperatrix
9. The Green-room
10. The Guru
14. Steamer Point
15. 'A Sikh Martyr Will Be Born'
16. The Dancing Mouse
18. The Editor
20. Our Correspondent
21. The Magician and the Fortune-teller
22. A Beautiful Friendship
23. The Ambassador
24. King Over the Water
25. The Snare
26. Fenian Fire
27. Proud Rebel and Patriot
28. The Prisoner
30. The Confession
31. Wretched Peace
32. The Mohammedan Detective
33. The Cockney Empress
34. The Cossack
35. The Alliance
36. Pondicherry Beach
38. 'The Turks Shall Break Their Silence'
39. The General
40. The Prodigal's Return
41. The Hawk's Bell
42. The Gas-fitter's Child
I. The Prophecy
II. Elveden, Suffolk, Census of 1881
III. The Franco-Russian War Against Britain
Posted October 28, 2008
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