Tag Archives: Sophia Duleep Singh

Suffering (and Suffragetting) in Silence: British Colonial Rebels and Children’s Literature

Last week, I talked about the American midterm elections and the connection (or lack thereof) between white women, suffragettes, and a lack of concern for people of color and their issues.  This week I want to start with the same issue, but in Britain instead of America.

British women (at least the over-30s) got the vote in 1918, two years before American women.  The campaign for women’s suffrage was a brutal one in Britain; one account called the suffragettes “a large network of free-lance militants engaged in repeated acts of criminality” (“Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIknRGKCKZo).  If this phrase were applied to people of colour, rather than to white women, today, they would be labeled terrorists—and indeed, in their own time, many of the British suffragettes were called terrorists, and some supporters of women’s right to the vote distanced themselves from the movement because of the violence.  However, the suffragettes are now seen, 100 years on, as heroes and are celebrated in children’s books.


MacDonald and Antrim’s suffragette book depicts the Edwardian movement as being made up of white women.

In many popular books and media for children, the image of the celebrated British suffragette is middle- or upper-class and white; examples of this include the popular Danger Zone series by Fiona MacDonald and David Antrim, Avoid Being a Suffragette! (Salariya 2008); and the BBC programme “Horrible Histories,” whose “Suffragettes Song” video includes only white women, and middle/upper class women as leaders (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmUA6_6UJJU).  The song discusses the violence (“burned down churches, smashed up shops, attacked MPs”) but concludes with celebration (“Suffragettes, sing! We’ve done it, ding, ding! At last those men see you should treat us the same”).  Imagine if—even 100 years ago—women of colour were involved in burning down churches, smashing up shops and attacking MPs.  Imagine if—even 100 years ago—people of colour were not just looking for the right to vote, but for their independence from the British Empire.  Would they be celebrated in children’s books today like Emmeline Pankhurst or Emily Davison?


Sophia Duleep Singh, pictured on the right, was an Indian princess, a suffragette–and a colonial rebel.

But of course there is no need to imagine, because there were people of colour at that time who were suffragettes.  There are many whose names we do not know, but one that we do know is Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian princess brought up in England who became a suffragette—significantly—after traveling to India and seeing the effect of colonialism on her people.  Singh, one of the many royal godchildren that Queen Victoria adopted after more or less stealing the thrones/countries of the children’s parents or grandparents, was brought up to a life of luxury.  But her parents, exiled from India to quell any hope that the Singh family would return to rule, were unhappy in their gilded cage; her father ran off with a mistress and her mother drank herself to death.  Sophia and her sisters, knowing nothing else, became society princesses in the Edwardian era.  Her trip to India, where she was recognized as the daughter of Ranjit Singh, the last Maharajah of the Punjab, showed her how much her people had lost in being colonized and ultimately dominated by the British.  After she returned to England, she became a militant suffragette, storming Parliament and attacking the Prime Minister’s car.  But until recently, she has been absent from most children’s books about suffragettes.


David Roberts’ book puts “The Rebel Princess” front and centre–but as a suffragette concerned about her family, rather than her country.

Two recent books that include Singh are David Roberts’ Suffragette: The Battle for Equality (Two Hoots 2018), which pictures Singh (presumably) on the front cover as well as giving her a two-page spread inside, and Kira Cochrane’s Modern Women: 52 Pioneers (Frances Lincoln 2017).  Roberts keeps the focus of Singh’s transformation to radicalism on being “troubled” (36) by the way the British had treated her family, but Cochrane’s book specifically mentions Singh’s “loathing” for the British Empire after her visit to India.  For women of colour, suffrage was not just about the right to vote; it was about the right to represent themselves and be heard as people of subjugated nations.  For years, Singh’s story was lost to child readers, and those that do depict her often shy away from her anti-colonial attitudes.


Rabindranath Tagore was once supported by British and Irish poets, including Yeats.

Another colonial rebel who has been—and still is—lost to child readers in Britain is a Nobel Prize winner and contemporary of Sophia Duleep Singh, Rabindranath Tagore.  In fact, in the year that Tagore won the Nobel Prize, 1913, he translated his children’s book The Crescent Moon, into English and dedicated to the man who nominated him, Thomas Sturge Moore.  The book, which is about the common everyday experiences of the child, is comparable to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.  Indeed, both collections address rainy days, the seashore, fairyland, and paper boats.  Tagore’s “Paper Boats” speaks of how “Day by day I float my paper boats one by one down the running stream. /In big black letters I write my name on them and the name of the village where I live. /I hope that someone in some strange land will find them and know who I am” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6520/6520-h/6520-h.htm) while Stevenson’s “Where go the boats?” expresses a similar sentiment: “Away down the river,/ A hundred miles or more,/ Other little children/ Shall bring my boats ashore.”

Original illustrations from Tagore’s Crescent Moon–in this case by Surendranath Ganguli–recall similar illustrations of childhood in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (this one is by Maria Kirk from 1919):

How beneficial would it be to introduce children to these collections side-by-side and talk about the similarities and differences in both childhood and poetry in different parts of the world?  But Tagore is unknown to modern British children (and indeed, many British adults).  His Crescent Moon is not available in English editions for children, while A Child’s Garden of Verses has never been out of print.  Is this because the ideas are incomprehensible to readers? Hardly.  But after winning the Nobel Prize, Tagore became increasingly anti-imperial, and his one-time champions in the English-speaking world (who included the poet William Butler Yeats) soon decided “he no longer appeared to be the docile colonized Orientalist of their projection” (Mukherjee, “Thomas Sturge Moore and his Indian Friendships in London” 67).  In his 1918 Nationalism, Tagore complains that “at the beginning of the British rule in India our industries were suppressed, and since then we have not met with any real help or encouragement to enable us to make a stand against the monster commercial organizations of the world. The nations have decreed that we must remain purely an agricultural people, even forgetting the use of arms for all time to come. Thus India is being turned into so many predigested morsels of food ready to be swallowed at any moment by any nation which has even the most rudimentary set of teeth in its head” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40766/40766-h/40766-h.htm page 126).  Like Singh, it was Tagore’s nationalism and anti-imperialism that silenced him for British child readers.  Singh is creeping back into the history of the suffragette (though not necessarily anti-colonial) movement, but so far, Tagore has not been returned to his place in the history of children’s poetry.  The long arm of the British Empire continues to affect the way that British child readers experience their nation’s past, silencing those who dared to speak out against the Empire.

But I’ll Never Be Royal? Shakespeare, the Monarchy, and Black Britain

This week marks Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I thought I might mark the occasions on this blog, and then I thought, huh. What does Shakespeare or the monarchy have to do with Black British children’s literature?


Edmund Kean as Othello in Skelt’s Toy Theatre version of the Shakespeare play


Shakespeare is (at least at first) slightly more obvious. There is, after all, the Noble Moor. Othello, written in circa 1603, is perhaps the most famous early literary depiction of interracial marriage. And kids have learned the stories of Shakespeare from a very early age for quite a long time. The introduction of Shakespeare through Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 Tales from Shakespeare was a more “serious” introduction, and the toy theatres of Pollock’s and Skelt’s were more popular introductions, but both included Othello in their repertoire. The Lambs’ version, obviously shortened from the original, is clear from the outset that Othello’s skin color is an issue. The third sentence of the Lamb version points out that Desdemona is dissatisfied with her marital options: “among the suitors of her own clime and complexion, she saw none whom she could affect: for this noble lady, who regarded the mind more than the features of men, with a singularity rather to be admired than imitated, had chosen for the object of her affections, a Moor, a black”. Note that children are to admire Desdemona for wanting a clever husband, but not imitate her. And this is not Shakespeare as written; in the play, Desdemona is not ignoring Othello’s appearance; she is clear that “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/ And to his honour and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (Act I, Scene III). But the Lambs had to make Desdemona “childlike” in order to “excuse” her for marrying a Black man; their account of Othello serves as a warning that only children fail to judge books by their covers.


The Lambs’ version of Othello claims Desdemona was childlike and not interested in Othello’s looks.


But the Lambs did not include pictorial representations of Othello and Desdemona’s love; this was left to the theatre. And in the theatre, Othello was generally played by a white man (in the 19th century and far beyond as well). Even though the famous African-American actor, Ira Aldridge, took over from Edmund Kean after Kean’s death in the 1830s, the toy theatre sold by Skelt’s continued to use Kean’s image as Othello.


Out, damned spot–the sticker book includes Macbeth and the Tempest, but not Othello or Black Shakespearean actors.


And in the 20th and 21st century, this discomfort with Othello as a suitable subject for children continues. Usborne’s Shakespeare Sticker Book has engaging sticker pictures of both comedies and tragedies by Shakespeare, but not Othello—nor are any of the sticker figures Black. Thank heavens for Malorie Blackman, whose Chasing the Stars, a YA science fiction-y retelling of Othello, comes out this weekend. If only someone were still doing toy theatres, they might do a version of Talawa theatre’s all-black cast in King Lear.


Prince William said in a recent interview that his grandmother stays “above” politics, and this generally includes racial politics as well; while her husband is famous for his impolitic pronouncements on non-white people, Elizabeth confines herself to the occasional celebratory remark about the many cultures that make up Britain. Children’s literature about or including the queen generally reflects this; the queen is guarded by white soldiers in most children’s books, and even her appearance in Roald Dahl’s The BFG suggests an all-white Britain over which she reigns. There is some suggestion that the queen (or at least her staff) want to encourage this to change; the children’s book that commemorates the queen’s birthday (official and approved), The Birthday Crown, does show a little (very little) diversity in the background.


Brief appearance for diversity in Royal Collection’s The Birthday Crown by Davide Cali and Kate Slater.


But the royal family has, in the past, had more deliberate and purposeful connection with a diverse world. Children’s literature (by both Black and white authors) have written about Victoria’s interaction with various people of her empire, from Mary Seacole to Sarah Forbes Bonetta to Sophia Duleep Singh (two of these three women were themselves royal in their own countries). Victoria did not have to worry about her relationship to these women; she was their queen-empress, and they were her subjects. That means she could afford to employ Mary Seacole as a masseuse in her household, adopt Sarah Forbes Bonetta (not of course in the way that normal people adopt a child), and give Sophia Duleep Singh a grace-and-favour apartment. The mighty can afford to be generous (though it does not always follow that they are).


Myers’ book about Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

There is evidence that other queens of Britain may have had more direct connection to the non-white world. The Guardian reported in 2009 on Queen Charlotte, known to be abolitionist in her politics, and her possible African ancestry (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/12/race-monarchy). This link, if true, would of course mean that the current royals would also have this ancestry—although much further back in time. The evidence is sketchy, but there are clearer indications about the 14th century Queen Philippa, who one of the English bishops described as having clearly African features. But neither of these queens feature very frequently in children’s literature (and when they are, as wives or mothers of kings, their race is usually unremarked). A rare example of a children’s book that acknowledges the suggestion of African ancestry in the monarchy is Joysetta Marsh Pearse’s Black Royals: Queen Charlotte (2014), which appears to be part of a series—but I can’t find any other books in the series.


The first Queen Elizabeth famously complained about too many “blackamoors” in England, and Shakespeare’s play reflects some of these fears. The Jamaican prime minister has just wished the current Queen Elizabeth happy birthday at the same time politely suggesting that Jamaica would soon end the tradition of considering the queen Jamaica’s titular Head of State. Yet some of the best Shakespearean actors in the UK today are Black (Adrian Lester, Don Warrington) and the queen’s Britain today can no longer be seen as an all-white world. Perhaps it’s time that more children’s books reflected these realities.