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Royal Racism: Will Meghan Meet Indian Princess Gouramma’s Fate?

Princess Victoria Gouramma’s tragic experiences in 19th century Britain foreshadowed Meghan Markle’s current fate.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Images of Meghan Markle, Indian Princess Victoria Gouramma, and the Buckingham Palace — used for representation.
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A fear of ‘history repeating itself’ was the anguished message expressed by Harry, Duke of Sussex, during the sensational interview that he and his wife, Meghan Markle, gave to Oprah Winfrey this week.

It was recent history that Harry was referring to: the suffering of his late mother, Princess Diana, at the hands of unrelenting tabloid intrusion into her life.
Princess Diana, mother of Harry, Duke of Sussex
Princess Diana, mother of Harry, Duke of Sussex
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

His fears were evidently not without reason. Oprah and global viewers alike have been widely shocked by Meghan’s candid revelations about the racist abuse she faced from the British media, the total lack of empathy she received from the royal establishment, and the suicidal thoughts that these experiences left her with.

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Meghan isn’t the First Brown Princess in the Queen’s Albums: Meet Victoria Gouramma

But what about the longer arc of British royal history? In one of the interview’s lighter moments, Meghan jokingly confessed that she’d done little homework about her husband’s family history before she met them. We can only wonder how her thoughts about marrying into the royal family might have differed, had she gone digging into the Windsor archives earlier on.

There Meghan would certainly have found that she was not the first brown-skinned princess to feature in the family’s photo albums. The earliest such albums were put together by Queen Victoria from the 1840s.

Within them, one can immediately discover pictures of Victoria’s Indian goddaughter, Princess Gouramma of Coorg — whose tragic experiences in nineteenth-century Britain partially foreshadowed Meghan’s current fate.

Princess Gouramma of Coorg, whose godmother was Queen Victoria.
Princess Gouramma of Coorg, whose godmother was Queen Victoria.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The ten-year-old Gouramma arrived in England in early 1852 with her father, Chikka Virarajendra, the deposed rajah of Coorg. Virarajendra made the journey with two controversial goals in mind: to recover some of his lost wealth from the East India Company (which he failed to manage) and to have Queen Victoria adopt his beloved daughter.

The rajah’s petition to the British monarch set an entirely new precedent. Past Indian rulers had taken the sons of vassal royals or chieftains as ‘hostages’ to secure their loyalty, but Virarajendra readily offered his daughter up in order, he felt, to secure her future.

He even expressed his willingness to allow Gouramma to be baptised — making her the first Indian royal to convert to Christianity. Delighted by the ‘pretty’ Indian princess, Victoria readily agreed to take her under her wing.

There was widespread media coverage of the Indian princess’ baptism at Windsor Castle in June 1852, where the Queen publicly gave her name to her new goddaughter.

Queen Victoria & Princess Gouramma: Of Surveillance & Censure

Becoming Victoria’s namesake placed a heavy burden on Gouramma’s shoulders. Similarly to Meghan’s early experiences in Britain, Gouramma increasingly struggled with the culture shock and emotional challenges that came with being a foreign newcomer and an individual held in tight association with the royal family.

Victoria was overtly fond of Gouramma, but she was kept under strict surveillance and her caretakers harshly censured any childish mistakes with the admonishment that her ‘misbehaviour’ reflected badly on her godmother.

Further pressure was added when Victoria increasingly saw her maternal relationship with Gouramma — and the newly-arrived Maharajah Duleep Singh — as a valuable means to project a positive image of the Crown and her family in India. It didn’t take long for the Queen to hatch a plan about match-making Gouramma with the sixteen year-old former ruler of Punjab.

Photograph of Queen Victoria, 1882
Photograph of Queen Victoria, 1882
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The maharajah and the princess were only a few years apart in age, and conveniently both Anglicised, Christian converts. On the surface, they seemed the perfect pair to promote as idealised role models for other Indians: especially via the new medium of photography and the growing reach of printed newspapers. It’s also not much of a stretch to see the parallels between this plan and the enthusiasm in 2019 over Harry and Meghan’s suitedness to re-energising royal links with the Commonwealth.

However, Victoria’s hopes for a Duleep-Gouramma love story were dashed.

The maharajah rejected Gouramma, calling her an ‘unsafe’ option as a wife: all because she kept trying to run away.

Maharajah Duleep Bassi dressed for a State function, c. 1875, oil painting by Capt. Goldingham of London.
Maharajah Duleep Bassi dressed for a State function, c. 1875, oil painting by Capt. Goldingham of London.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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Like Meghan, Princess Victoria Gouramma’s Unhappiness Was Ignored

We can only guess at why Gouramma wanted to escape, since Victoria ordered for her papers to be burned. The few remaining records of Gouramma’s conversations do however show that she desperately craved anonymity and freedom — echoing Meghan Markle’s harrowing comments about how trapped she felt within the gilded cage of the royal household. Gouramma confessed to Victoria’s private secretary that she ‘wished to go somewhere where nobody would take notice of her’ and to adopt the life of a servant.

Duke & Duchess of Sussex with Oprah Winfrey at the interview on 7 March 2021.
Duke & Duchess of Sussex with Oprah Winfrey at the interview on 7 March 2021.
(Photo: Twitter / @toolzbeib)

But Gouramma, just like Meghan, was ignored when she voiced her unhappiness. Her British carers failed to understand her struggles, insensitively attributing her attempts at flight to her ‘innate Oriental nature’ and inability to adjust to English ‘civilised’ society. She had already been separated from her father after Victoria moved to block their meetings, claiming that his ‘native, heathen influence’ would ‘corrupt’ her.

Eventually, Duleep Singh came to Gouramma’s ‘rescue’.

He noticed a growing attachment between her and Colonel John Campbell, brother of her new minder, Lady Login. Campbell was 30 years older than Gouramma, but when Duleep informed the Queen of the potential match, Victoria quickly got the couple married. The Logins were aghast, they did not want Gouramma as a sister-in-law. But they could do nothing to stop their sovereign — the interests of the Crown came before everything else.

Will the Royals Learn From History?

Gouramma soon gave birth to a baby girl, Edith Victoria Campbell, in 1861. Tragically though, she enjoyed little time as a mother; dying in 1864, aged just 23. In her story, we can perceive the seeds of the difficult situation currently faced by Meghan and her children.

It remains to be seen whether today’s senior royals will learn from history and begin to undo the damage of imperial racism that they themselves have benefitted from for so long.

(Dr Priya Atwal is a historian based at the University of Oxford. Her first book, Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire is releasing with HarperCollins India this month. She tweets @priyaatwal. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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