There are few who know about the iconic anti-Nazi, lesbian Punjabi princess, Catherine Duleep Singh. She was born on the 27th of October 1871 in London as the second daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh and his first wife, Bumba Müller. Even though she grew up in England, she was a daughter of India as her father was the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, until he was deposed by the British Crown after the last Anglo-Sikh War in 1849. Catherine Duleep Singh was not only an active suffragist but also secretly assisted and saved many Jewish families in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Today, Homegrown delves a little deeper into the exciting life and legacy of the eminent princess.
Catherine grew up at the luxurious and ornate Elveden Hall, near Thetford. Her father famously befriended Queen Victoria. The Queen’s love for Duleep Singh translated into the Queen being the godmother to his three children — Catherine, Sophia, and Bumba. During her stay in England, the young Princess Catherine was acquainted with her governess Miss Fraulein Lina Schäfer of Germany, who was twelve years older than her and would go on to have a deep impact on her life. The two quickly became confidants and their friendship blossomed when Schäfer took Princess Catherine to the Black Forest in Kassel and Dresden. Catherine and her sisters received royal treatment even during their parent’s absence and were trained in violin, singing, and swimming. They possessed all the charms and prerequisites of being royal Victorian ladies. In 1894 Catherine and her sisters were presented as the Queen’s debutantes at Buckingham Palace. Catherine completed her education between 1890 and 1894 at Somerville Hall, Oxford.
Even though her early life was infused with the British elite, she was knowledgeable about her Indian heritage. To delve deeper and know her own roots, she visited Lahore, Kashmir, Dalhousie, Simla, and the Sikh Holy City of Amritsar in Punjab. Over there, she met with men who had served with her grandfather over 60 years earlier, the venerated Maharajah Ranjit Singh also know as the 'Lion of Punjab'.
In the twentieth century, a young Catherine found herself in the thick of political upheaval. Catherine had always been a free thinker. She was an integral member of the women’s rights movement. She enrolled as a suffragist as a member of the Fawcett Women’s Suffrage Group and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The political praxis of her sister, Sophia, took a more radical turn, and as a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Sophia took direct and militant action for the Suffragette cause. In the month of November 1912, Catherine opened a ‘Forest of Christmas trees’ in Nottingham to support the ‘East Midland Federation of the National Women’s Suffrage Societies’.
"At this critical stage of our cause, no effort and no sacrifice can be too great. We want all your help, [if we] are going to win our cause during this present session."
Catherine, on the opening day of ‘Forest of Christmas trees’
In 1928, all British women aged 21 and above were granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections. It was a triumphant day for the two sisters and for the thousands of British women who were an integral part of the Suffragette movement. By 1928, however, Catherine was living together with her life partner and former governess Lina Schäfer in Germany. The two women together survived the horrendous times of the First World War but their lives in Germany were completely altered during the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s. The couple’s neighbors said, “The local Nazis disapproved of the old Indian lady.” And what could be a better compliment!
Catherine and Lina continued to stay in Germany despite the rising fascism and secretly helped many Jew families escape the Holocaust. The details of their contribution to the Jewish cause are still being unearthed but some accounts refer to Catherine as the 'Indian Schindler'— a title bestowed in reference to the German industrialist, Oskar Schindler who saved countless Jewish lives by employing them his enamelware and ammunitions factories. Catherine’s world fell apart when Lina passed away on August 26, 1938, at the age of 79. In her will, she requested that a quarter of her ashes be “buried as near as possible to the coffin of my friend Fraulein Lina Schäfer.” Catherine could no longer run the risk of staying in Nazi Germany, being a lesbian woman of Indian heritage and a Jew sympathizer, on top of that. In November 1937, she sold everything and fled back to England via Switzerland. However, before she left Germany she was able to do one last remarkable act by helping the Hornstein and Meyerstein families escape the Nazis.
Catherine spent her later years in England at Coalhatch House in Penn, Buckinghamshire. Even then she took in many Geman-Jewish refugees until her death. Catherine passed away on 8 November 1942. She was cremated in Golders Green crematorium, and as requested, her ashes were buried as near as possible at the coffin of Lina Schäfer at the Principal Cemetery at Kassel in Germany.
Princess Catherine Duleep Singh led an extremely private life. Her life has not been as well documented as her sister, Sophia. Even today, new facts about Catherine and how she led the crusade against the Nazis are coming to light. Her legacy has also often been eclipsed by her father’s complicated relationship with the British Empire. However, beyond a shadow of doubt, Catherine’s contribution to history is remarkable. She was a strong advocate of women’s liberation, an anti-Nazi heroine, and a woman way ahead of her times.
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