Bamba Müller was born on 6 July 1848 as the daughter of Ludwig Müller and his mistress Sofia in Cairo. She was educated in Cairo by missionaries.
In 1864, Duleep Singh, the last ruler of the Sikh empire before being dethroned by the British, was passing through Cairo and he visited the missionaries there. Later that month, he wrote to the school hoping that they would recommend a wife for him. Queen Victoria had tried to arrange his marriage for several years now, and he finally felt it was time to settle down. He wanted an unsophisticated, pretty and virginal young woman.
They recommended Bamba, but Bamba was unsure as she wanted to remain as a teacher. Her father was consulted as well, but he left the choice to Bamba. Bamba prayed for guidance and then decided that this marriage was God’s will. After just one meeting with Bamba, Duleep with besotted. However, they needed an interpreter as Bamba spoke only Arabic.
Duleep made a significant donation to the school and married Bamba on 7 June 1864 in the British Consulate in Egypt. Bamba spoke her vows in Arabic, while Duleep spoke his in English. She was still only 16 years old. They honeymooned in Cairo before sailing to England in July where Bamba was well-received at Queen Victoria’s court. Bamba had gone from illegitimate child to being a Maharani.
The couple settled on Duleep’s country estate of Elveden where he kept real leopards and cheetahs in pens. For the first ten years of their marriage, Bamba was almost constantly pregnant. Their first child, a son, died just a few days after he was born. Their other children – Victor (born July 1866), Frederick (born January 1868), Bamba (born September 1869), Catherine (born October 1871), Sophia (born August 1876) and Edward (born August 1879) – were born healthy. Bamba had numerous staff to look after the children, and after five pregnancy free years between Catherine and Sophia, she was delighted to be able to peacefully breastfeed Sophia herself. By then, Duleep’s finances had already begun to spiral out of control, and Bamba had become unhappy in their marriage. She was concerned for their children’s souls as Duleep had only converted to Christianity later in life. Duleep had been unfaithful to his wife several times during their marriage and often left her alone at Elveden. Bamba was humiliated by her husband’s very public affairs and he even employed some of his bastard children on the estate.
Bamba began to drink heavily and withdrew completely from public life. Meanwhile, Duleep was begging his way around London for more money. It took him nearly two years to return to Elveden, and he only did so to strip the house of its valuables. He even threated to abandon his Christian faith, to Bamba’s horror. She spent her time in her room weeping, and the situation was not helped when Duleep had a new infatuation in the form of Ada Weatherill. In 1886, Duleep resolved to return to India and the family went on the SS Verona. Bamba put on a brave face but locked herself away in her cabin. She wrote to a friend in Egypt, “Thank you so much for all your kind letters, and I know that you forgive my not having written to you for so long which is so kind of you, I cannot tell you how I appreciate your kindness. I am thankful to say that all the dear ones here are in good health. We were poorly only one day, since then we have enjoyed the voyage so far. The Lord has been merciful to us His loving Kindness has never failed us! I know he will not leave us at any time.”
Duleep probably anticipated that they would be arrested and when the moment finally came at the end of the Suez canal, they were all dressed in their finest robes. It was all less dramatic than expected. For two weeks the family was in limbo. The British would not let him go forward, and Duleep did not want to go back. Bamba was growing increasingly desperate and eventually, Duleep relented and put Bamba and the children back on a ship to England. Two weeks after that, he was told he could go where he wanted as long as it was not India. Accompanying him was Ada.
Meanwhile, Bamba and her children had nowhere to go. Queen Victoria stepped in, and a suite was prepared for them at Claridge’s. They were eventually allowed to move into Duleep’s former residence at 53 Holland Park. Except for a few beds, the house was empty. One of her sons wrote to their father asking for help, but he was adamant he would not return to England. “I could see you starve and even would take your life to put an end to your misery, but will never return to England.” Bamba took to her bed and drowned her sorrows in alcohol. The India Office eventually settled £6,000 on Bamba while Victor was enrolled at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy and Frederick returned to Eton College. Some normalcy returned, if only for a little while.
In September 1887, Sophia was diagnosed with typhoid fever, and a distraught Bamba stayed by her daughter’s bedside through her delirium. As the morning broke, Sophia was found to be sleeping and breathing peacefully, but on the floor beside her, her mother lay dead. Sometime during her vigil, Bamba had collapsed and slipped into a coma. It was later reported that Bamba had suffered comprehensive renal failure brought on by an acute case of diabetes, made worse by her drinking. Queen Victoria noted in her journal, “Heard this evening that his poor abandoned wife, the Maharani Bamba had died quite suddenly yesterday. How terrible for the poor children, who are quite fatherless and motherless!” She later wrote to her daughter, Princess Beatrice, “The poor Maharani died of all the worries she went through and his desertion of her. The children (of whom there are 6) – will be well cared for, have good guardians and allowance and kind people with them and I shall see them whenever I can. Would to God! I had done some more of late with the poor Maharajah! But really the family had become so large and so much to do about them that it was difficult to do and besides the extreme shyness of the Maharani made it more difficult to see much of them.”
Bamba was buried on 23 September 1887 in the churchyard in Thetford, across the road from Elveden.1