By Mahlia Lone

As our story opens, Queen Victoria is 68, has been a widow for 26 years and has even buried her attendant/companion Mr. Brown four years earlier; she’s getting ready to celebrate her Golden Jubilee on the throne of great britain. to help entertain the Princes from the colony that was, in the phrase coined by PM Benjamin Disraeli, “the Jewel in the Crown” of the british empire–India, The Queen has asked for Indian servants be brought to her court for a year to wait at the royal table  and help entertain her princely guests

Queen Victoria at her desk, assisted by her servant Abdul Karim, the ‘Munshi’. Date: c. 1885

Queen Victoria’s unusual relationship with her Munshi who started out as a server, Abdul Karim, has been chronicled in Stephen Frear’s upcoming film Victoria and Abdul, to be released in September, starring the redoubtable Dame Judi Dench and Indian actor Ali Fazal. The movie is based on London-based journalist and author Shrabani Basu’s 2010 book by the same name in which she painstakingly researched over four years the friendship between the most unlikely of companions, the aged Queen and Empress with her young, Indian Muslim clerk. Though much of the correspondence between the Queen and Abdul Karim was destroyed after her death by her son and heir King Edward VII who resented and mistrusted their friendship, Basu said she traced back the story meticulously through several sources including the diary kept by the Queen’s physician Sir James Reid, letters between the Queen and the Viceroys of India, letters between the Royal Household and the Viceroys, newspaper reports and other sources. After the hard copy was published, Abdul Karim’s descendants who had migrated to Karachi during Partition, came forward with the 13 volumes of the Hindustani Journals, a daily account through which the Queen practiced her Urdu, as well as their ancestor’s personal diary of his time in England. These had been carefully hidden by his family, as the diaries corroborated the story and provided intimate details into Karim’s life at the royal court consorting with the Queen in a private sphere.

At her wedding to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha
Young Victoria

“At a time when the British Empire was at its height, a young Muslim occupied a central position of influence over its sovereign,” Basu said in an interview. The Queen used Abdul Karim’s briefings on political developments in India to order her Viceroys, much to their chagrin, on measures to reduce communal tensions and to favour Muslims in a Hindu majority country. Abdul taught the Queen Urdu, Hindi and even cooked curry for her, which she found so flavousome that it became a part of the Sunday luncheon menu. Quickly Karim became so close to the matronly Queen and gained such a high position that she gave him and his wife three residences on royal palace estates in Britain and 141 acres in Agra where he built his house Karim Lodge; he was allowed to carry a sword and wear his medals in court, and was permitted to bring family members from India to England. “The queen’s Munshi was named in court circulars, given the best positions at operas and banquets, allowed to play billiards in all the royal palaces and had a private horse carriage and footman….Mr. Karim’s father even got away with being the first person to smoke a hookah in Windsor Castle, despite the queen’s aversion to smoking.”

The royal couple & brood of nine children

Albert was moral, prudent, practical and hard woking, whereas Victoria who had been “the best catch in Europe” was emotionally needy, obsessive in her love and prone to tantrums. The Prince Consort knew how to calmly and masterfully handle his wilful, strong headed bride who he taught to follow his lead rather than the other way round. Victoria had a very high libido

How did a young man with limited education and from an ordinary Indian background gain the royal ear of the Empress?

The year was 1887. Courtiers and government officials were getting ready to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Celebration. It had been exactly 30 years since India had been officially handed over from the East India Company to the Crown after the 1857 war. At the time, Great Britain was the most powerful country on earth. More than a quarter of the world’s population, a portion of every continent, was under its dominion. India was considered to be the Jewel in the Crown among all of Great Britain’s colonies. Queen Victoria was also the longest serving monarch in British history. The nation was ready to celebrate its imperial, bureaucratic (since it took considerable organisational skill to keep the Empire together) and technological achievements. A large number of Indian Princes were expected to grace the occasion to pay homage to their Empress in person. Therefore, it was decided that two servants be brought from India to serve the Indian Princes.

“When Prince Albert died, Victoria famously said that he was her husband, close friend, father and mother. I think it’s likely that Abdul Karim fulfilled a similar role”
—Shrabani Basu

One of them was a 24 year old clerk at the Agra Jail named Abdul Karim. The young man originally hailed from Jhansi where his father, Haji Mohammed Waziruddin, was a  hakim stationed with the Central India Horse, a British cavalry regiment. The boy had been taught Persian and Urdu privately, and as a teenager travelled across North India into Afghanistan with his father as part of the march to Kandahar, which ended the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1880. After the war, Abdul’s father transferred to a civilian position as an apothecary or assistant at the Central Jail  Hospital in Agra and Abdul also started working there in a junior clerical position. Waziruddin arranged a marriage between Abdul and the sister of a clolleague.

Queen Victoria with her equerry/companion John Brown

Agra Central Jail Superintendent John Tyler  organized a trip of prisoners that had been trained to weave carpets to demonstrate their skill at an exhibition in England where he also presented the Queen with two gold bangles. Pleased, she asked Tyler to recruit two Indian attendants who would be employed for a year during the Golden Jubilee celebrations. Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buksh were given rudimentary English lessons, quickly trained to wait tables, given a course in etiquette and sent to Britain by mail steamer.

Glas Allt Shiel on the banks of Loch Muick at Balmoral estate, built on the orders of Queen Victoria as a remote getaway for her & Mr. Brown

The first time Abdul served the Queen was at breakfast in Fromore House, Windsor Castle in the summer of 1887. The young man displayed the right mix of deference and confidence by kneeling and kissing her feet but gazing steadily back at her. He wrote in his diary that night, “I was somewhat nervous at the approach of the Great Empress… I presented nazars (gifts) by exposing, in the palms of my hands, a gold mohar (coin) which Her Majesty touched and remitted as is the Indian custom.” This gold sovereign had been expressly given him by the Viceroy to present to her Majesty as a tribute from India.

Queen Victoria being served by Abdul Karim & Mohammed Buksh

The Queen in her turn described Karim in her diary that night, “The other, much younger, is much lighter (than Buksh), tall, and with a fine, serious countenance. His father is a native doctor at Agra. They both kissed my feet.”  She was much more taken by the tall, fair and grave young man than the older, darker and plain looking Buksh who never progressed from waiting tables and remained a khidmatgar or servant, until his death at Windsor in 1899.

The Queen’s official portrait for the Golden Jubilee
Visiting European Heads of State at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, 1887

Five days later, the Queen noted their progress, “The Indians always wait now and do so, so well and quietly.” In another entry she wrote, “I am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants. It is a great interest to me for both the language and the people, I have naturally never come into real contact with before.” Next she wrote that she had some “excellent curry” made by one of the servants. In no time, Abdul became relaxed and comfortable in the Queen’s presence. She was interested in India but could not visit due to her age. He told her stories about life in his home country, the customs and cuisine and even started to teach her Urdu and Hindi, which she used to great effect during an audience in December to greet the Maharani Chimnabai of Baroda.

Hafiz Mohammed Abdul Karim
A painting of the Thanksgiving Service at the Golden Jubilee

Having taken a great liking to Abdul, Queen Vic ordered that he was to be given English lessons and even instructed him herself. In less than a year after his arrival, he had “learnt English wonderfully” according to Victoria. He complained to her that though he had been a clerk in India, he was now being treated like a servant in England, which was beneath him. Worried that he may return, she promoted him to the position of Munshi, as the Queen’s teacher and personal clerk. In her journal, the Queen admitted that she elevated his status so that he would stay on in England. “I particularly wish to retain his services as he helps me in studying Hindustani, which interests me very much, & he is very intelligent & useful.”

Golden Jubilee Service at Westminster Abbey, 21st June 1887

According to Abdul Karim’s biographer Sushila Anand, the Queen’s letters testify that “her discussions with the Munshi were wide-ranging—philosophical, political and practical. Both head and heart were engaged. There is no doubt that the Queen found in Abdul Karim a connection with a world that was fascinatingly alien, and a confidant who would not feed her the official line.”

Abdul was in charge of the other Indian servants. “I am so very fond of him” wrote the Queen in her journal. “He is so good & gentle & understanding all I want & is a real comfort to me.” She wrote of her admiration for him, “her personal Indian clerk & Munshi, who is an excellent, clever, truly pious & very refined gentle man, who says, ‘God ordered it’ … God’s Orders is what they implicitly obey! Such faith as theirs & such conscientiousness set us a great example.”

So struck was she by him that at Balmoral Castle, the Queen’s Scottish estate, Victoria allocated Abdul the room previously occupied by John Brown, her personal attendant and probably her lover who had died in 1883. She wrote how happy he was with his elevation in status, “he (Abdul) is very friendly and cheerful with the Queen’s maids and laughs and even jokes now—and invited them to come and see all his fine things offering them fruit cake to eat.”

In 1888, Karim was given four months’ leave to return to India and visit his father. From there, Abdul wrote to his sovereign that his father who was due to retire wanted a pension and that his former employer, John Tyler, also wanted a promotion. As a result, Victoria wrote to the Viceroy of India, Lord Lansdowne, that both of Abdul’s demands be met. But the Viceroy felt the two applicants were not worthy and was reluctant to do so.

Unusually for her time, Queen Victoria was neither racially prejudiced nor concerned with the class divide

The members of the Royal Household also were not pleased at the privileged position that the upstart Indian now occupied. The Royal Household is responsible for taking care of the needs of the sovereign and his relations, and the position holders are carefully vetted from aristocratic families. Many of the posts are hereditary. Hence, the members of the Queen’s Household felt they only needed to accord respect to Indian Princes and Nawabs, and considered ordinary Indian citizens beneath their dignity to associate with. Partially this was due to racism, partly it was due to a class divide that even existed between Indians themselves at the time. Abdul demanded to be treated as an equal and not as a servant. He gave the Queen the impression that his father was a surgeon general in the British Indian Army and not merely an assistant/hakim at the Agra Central Jail Hospital.

Windsor Castle
Osborne House, the Queen’s holiday home Isle Of Wight where she spent most of her time
Darbar room at Osborne House, which was built by Indian craftsmen to receive Indian Princes

When Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), hosted an entertainment for the Queen at his home in Sandringham in 1889, Abdul was given a seat with the servants, but feeling insulted, he retired to his room. To placate him, the Queen insisted that he be seated among the Household. Similarly, when the Queen attended the Braemar Games in 1890, her son Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, admonished the Queen’s private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby after he saw the Munshi among the gentry. Ponsonby suggested that it was “by the Queen’s order” and that the Duke should approach the Queen about it. “This entirely shut him up,” noted Ponsonby.

English society was based on hereditary rights, snobbery and rigid class divide at the time so their attitude was hardly surprising. What was refreshing was the Queen’s attitude. Just as years before she had taken Mr. Brown, a Scottish commoner, as her companion, she had also taken Abdul under her wing despite the colour of his skin, his social standing or his religion; she was quite progressive in that regard.

Sandringham Castle

Victoria’s biographer Carolly Erickson wrote: ”The rapid advancement and personal arrogance of the Munshi would inevitably have led to his unpopularity, but the fact of his race made all emotions run hotter against him. Racism was a scourge of the age; it went hand in hand with belief in the appropriateness of Britain’s global dominion. For a dark-skinned Indian to be put very nearly on a level with the queen’s white servants was all but intolerable, for him to eat at the same table as them, to share in their daily lives was viewed as an outrage. Yet the queen was determined to impose harmony on her household. Race hatred was intolerable to her, and the ‘dear good Munshi’ deserving of nothing but respect.

When complaints were brought to her, Victoria refused to believe any negative comments about Karim. She dismissed concerns about his behaviour, deemed high-handed by Household and staff, as ‘very wrong.’ In 1889, Karim’s brother-in-law, Hourmet Ali, sold one of Victoria’s brooches to a jeweller in Windsor. She accepted Karim’s explanation that Ali had found the brooch and that it was customary in India to keep anything that one found, whereas the rest of the Household thought Ali had stolen it. Next month, Karim was assigned the room previously occupied by Dr (later Sir) James Reid, Victoria’s physician, and given the use of a private sitting room.”

The Queen, influenced by her Munshi, continued to write to Lord Lansdowne with directions on how to govern. She expressed reservations on the introduction of elected councils in India on the basis that Muslims would not win many seats because they were in the minority, and urged that Hindu feasts be rescheduled so as not to conflict with Muslim ones. Though he didn’t reschedule any religious feasts for fear of it being “potentially divisive,” the Viceroy finally relinquished and appointed the irascible Tyler as Acting Inspector General of Prisons in 1889.

To make matter worse, to the Household’s consternation, during Victoria’s stay at Balmoral in September 1889, she and Abdul stayed alone for one night in seclusion at the remote cottage Glassalt Shiel at Loch Muick. She had had this cottage built as a private retreat for her and Mr. Brown. After his death, she had sworn never to stay there again, but she made an exception for Abdul. Whether the septuagenarian monarch and her young Munshi actually consummated their relationship is anyone’s guess. But Basu conjectures that “When Prince Albert died, Victoria famously said that he was her husband, close friend, father and mother. I think it’s likely that Abdul Karim fulfilled a similar role.”

When in 1890 Abdul fell ill with an inflamed boil on his neck, the Queen got her personal physician Reid to treat him. Reid performed an operation to open and drain the swelling; he wrote on 1st March 1890 that the Queen was “visiting Abdul twice daily, in his room taking Hindustani lessons, signing her boxes, examining his neck, smoothing his pillows, etc.”

Basu said that in the Hindustani Journal volumes, “Initially his (Karim’s) English was weak and she would correct him, and her Urdu was faulty. By the end of the 13th journal, his English had improved and she was writing half a page in fluent Urdu.

The little details…provided the insights into their life. The Queen would often go to the Munshi’s house for tea and take the royalty of Europe to visit. When the Munshi’s cat had kittens, she noted that she was going to see them. It was the ordinary things they shared….The Queen never missed a lesson, whether she was in her palaces or travelling. She would take her lessons on the ship or in the summerhouse in Balmoral. If Karim was ill, she would go to his house, prop him up on pillows, and take her lesson.

Their relationship worked at various levels — he was her closest friend, her confidant. He was also like a son to her. At the same time, the physical aspect was important. Queen Victoria liked a strong young man standing by her side and taking care of her. She had liked John Brown and Abdul Karim later filled that space. She wrote to him every day, sometimes several times a day. She ended her letters with crosses (kisses).”

Basu added that although Abdul “asked for a pension for his father. The rest — land, titles — was freely bestowed on him by the Queen. He was allowed to spend a large sum in renovating his house, was given his own carriage and servants, land in Agra and titles.”

  1. Banerjee in his review of Basu’s book wrote, “Karim acquired the accessories and privileges, which went with his position. He had his own carriage and his own separate houses in the Royal Palaces of Windsor in England, Balmoral in Scotland and Osborne House in the Isle of Wight. Karim now moved among the higher circles as the Queen’s ‘Secretary.’ He was awarded various honours, including the CVO which could be given by the Queen at her personal discretion. She could not promote Karim to what he really aspired to — the knighthood — because that was in the hands of the Prime Minister and his advisors.

Karim’s rapid rise to favour led to jealousy among the other Indian servants and, more seriously, among the members of the Queen’s Household, who described him as repulsive and disagreeable. Racial feelings crept in, and members of the Household started to talk about the prevalence of the ‘black brigade’ in the Palace. The Queen was outraged and forbade all such talk and propaganda. Much to the displeasure of the Household, the Queen did not recognize any class or racial barriers between herself and her Indian servants. As she got to know them, especially Karim, the Queen developed a great affection for India and the Indian people. It is the special merit of Basu’s book that it illustrates and documents this fact in the Queen’s life very convincingly. Victoria deeply regretted the fact that, because of old age, she could not visit India. She had become familiar with the Indian princes and several of them paid visits to her regularly, and she decided to build an Indian extension to Osborne House, called the Durbar Room, where she could receive them with appropriate ceremony. She appointed an Indian architect Bhai Ram Singh who drew out the plans for it. When completed, it became a magnificent addition to the Palace, with its glittering Banquet Room, a Billiards Room and the Queen’s own India Room. It was decorated with arts and crafts from India and its walls and corridors displayed rich and colourful portraits of Indian princes. Several Indian princes visited her there.

The Munshi Abdul Karim painted for Queen Victoria by Laurits Regner Tuxen, 1887

On a personal level, Karim brought his retired father from India. He had worked as an ‘assistant’ in Indian hospitals and desired to visit hospitals in Edinburgh. He was duly taken round. Karim grew bold, and after his next visit to India he brought back with him his wife and her mother. (He had another wife but probably the Queen never knew about her; neither of his wives gave him any offspring.) The Queen welcomed Karim’s relatives and ordered that they all be comfortably housed within the Palace premises. She also made sure that money would be paid for their extra expenses. She visited Karim’s wife in his quarters frequently and ensured that she and her mother were well looked after. She gradually developed an affectionate bond with Karim and his family. Sometimes she signed her letters to Karim as ‘Your loving Mother VRI.’”

Julia Baird in Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire argued the flip side, writing that the opportunistic Munshi “inveigled his way into Victoria’s affections as her servant and then as a clerk. Her family disliked and distrusted him.”

At Balmoral, 1897

In 1890, the Queen had Abdul’s portrait painted by the Austrian artist Heinrich von Angeli. According to the Queen, it was von Angeli who was keen to paint Karim as he had never painted an Indian before and “was so struck with his handsome face and colouring.” In her turn, she gave Abdul a photo of herself signed in Urdu. The same year, she wrote to Lansdowne, and the Secretary of State for India Lord Cross for “a grant of land for her really exemplary and excellent young Munshi, Hafiz Abdul Karim.” The ageing Queen did not trust her son, the Prince of Wales to look after him after her death, so wanted to secure his future in her lifetime. Lansdowne replied that grants of land were given only to soldiers with long and meritorious service to the Crown. However, to please his recalcitrant sovereign, the Viceroy agreed to find a Rs. 600 annual grant for the Munshi, the same amount that an old soldier could expect after performing exceptionally.  Lord Lansdowne telegraphed the Queen: “quite recently one of the men who at the peril of his life, and under a withering fire helped to blow up the Kashmiri Gate of Delhi in the Mutiny, received, on his retirement from the service, a grant of land yielding only Rs 250 for life. Abdul Karim, at the age of 26, had received a perpetual grant of land representing an income of more than double that amount in recognition of his services as a member of your Majesty’s Household.”

Due to Abdul Karim’s influence, Queen Victoria favoured Musims over Hindus

When Lansdowne visited Agra, he arranged for Karim to be seated with the viceregal staff during a durbar; he also met both the Munshi and Waziruddin privately, and Lady Lansdowne met his wife and mother-in-law.

The next year, Waziruddin visited Britain and stayed at both Balmoral and Windsor Castles. He retired in 1893 and in the New Year Honours 1894 he was rewarded, on express command of the Queen, with the title of Khan Bahadur, which Lansdowne drily noted was “one which under ordinary circumstances the Doctor (could) not have ventured to expect.”

Hotel Excelsior, Regina Palace at Cimiez near Nice, South of
France where the Queen took an annual holiday in March

In the summer of 1892, Abdul returned to India on six months leave and, on his return, brought back his wife and mother-in-law with him. Both women travelled while observing strict purdah. Queen Victoria wrote upon meeting them, “the two Indian ladies … who are, I believe, the first Mohammedan purdah ladies who ever came over … keep their custom of complete seclusion and of being entirely covered when they go out, except for the holes for their eyes.” She regularly visited the women, bringing with her such high profile female guests as the Empress of Russia and the Princess of Wales.

Queen Victoria proceeds down Pall Mall during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations
Abdul looking rather grand at his desk in Windsor Castle

Marie Mallet, the Queen’s maid-in-waiting and wife of senior civil servant Bernard Mallet, wrote, ”I have just been to see the Munshi’s wife (by Royal Command). She is fat and not uncomely, a delicate shade of chocolate and gorgeously attired, rings on her fingers, rings on her nose, a pocket mirror set in turquoises on her thumb and every feasible part of her person hung with chains and bracelets and ear-rings, a rose-pink veil on her head bordered with heavy gold and splendid silk and satin swathings round her person. She speaks English in a limited manner.”

Abdul and his wife had no children. The Queen had kindly asked a lady doctor to examine her and see if she could be helped, but there was nothing to be done.

Christmas of 1892 was spent as was her wont at Osborne House. Every year, the Munshi participated in the tableaux arranged as a private entertainment for the royal family, and every year the character he played became increasingly more important in reflection to his standing much to the envy of those around him. So indispensable did the monarch find her Munshi and so ingrained had he become that his name appeared in the Court Circular among those of officials accompanying the Queen on her annual March holiday to the French Riviera.

When Victoria insisted that Abdul would accompany her to the Riviera in 1893, “she had a revolt on her hands. The Queen’s Household informed her that they would refuse to take meals with him. When the Queen made clear her disapproval of their attitude, they relented,” wrote Baird.

Courtier Henry Posonby, her private secretary, wrote, “Things have come to such a pass that the police have been consulted…But it is of no use, for the Queen says that it is ‘race prejudice’ and that we are all jealous of the poor Munshi.”

Abdul as Queen Victoria’s Indian
Secretary was privy to state affairs
Queen Victoria by Bassano

The Queen’s Household officers, her family members (especially her son the Prince of Wales), and politicians got dragged into the controversy over her favourable treatment of Abdul. His enemies claimed he inflated his family background and even stole from Victoria. She defended him furiously, often accusing those who criticized him of racism.

“I am so very fond of him,” she wrote. “He is so good and gentle and understanding….and is a real comfort to me.”

“Karim himself continued to get special favours from the Queen: he now travelled in style in his own carriage, accompanied by a footman; and when she travelled to Europe, he was given a spacious room all to himself on the same floor as the Queen. Despite the welcome that her foreign hosts gave to her and her entourage, they sometimes flinched at the latter. At home, all this aroused envy and anger not only among her own Household but also among the other Indian servants who all lived at a much lower level. That a servant belonging to the subject race, of low origin and with practically no education should have been elevated among the members of the Household was regarded as highly suspicious and unjust. But the Queen remained supremely untouched and continued to bestow generous favours to him, wrote Bannerjee.

When the Munshi was presented to King Umberto I of Italy, according to a contemporary newspaper account, “the King did not understand why this magnificent and imposing Hindoo should have been formally presented to him. The popular idea in Italy is that the Munshi is a captive Indian prince, who is taken about by the Queen as an outward and visible sign of Her Majesty’s supremacy in the East.”

Abdul’s opponents in the Household accused him of having published an advertisement in the Florence Gazette stating that “(h)e is belonging to a good and highly respectful family.” Abdul refused to travel with the other Indians and took over the maid’s bathroom for his exclusive use. On a visit to Coburg, he even refused to attend the marriage of Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, because her father, Victoria’s son Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, had assigned him a seat in the gallery with the servants.

The Queen vociferously defended Abdul. She wrote to her private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby: “to make out that the poor good Munshi is so low is really outrageous & in a country like England quite out of place … She has known 2 Archbishops who were sons respectively of a Butcher & a Grocer … Abdul’s father saw good & honourable service as a Dr & he (Karim) feels cut to the heart at being thus spoken of.” But this was not entirely true and she had been purposely deceived by Abdul about his family’s social standing back in India.

After Lord Lansdowne’s term of office ended in 1894, he was replaced by Lord Elgin as Viceroy. Ponsonby’s son Frederick was Elgin’s aide-de-camp in India before being appointed an equerry to Queen Victoria back in Britain. Victoria asked Frederick to visit Waziruddin, the “surgeon-general” at Agra. On his return to London, Frederick informed the Queen that Waziruddin “was not the surgeon-general but only the apothecary at the jail.” She “stoutly denied” this and insisted that Frederick “must have seen the wrong man.” When the honest young man did not agree with  her statement, to “mark her displeasure,” the Queen withheld her dinner invitation to him for a year. Frederick wrote to Elgin that Abdul was deeply unpopular in the Household, and that he occupied “very much the same position as John Brown used to.”

Her family and the senior members of government were very concerned about the state of affairs. Her children, Princesses Louise and Beatrice, Prince Henry of Battenberg, as well as Prime Minister Lord Rosebery, and Secretary of State for India Henry Fowler raised concerns about the Munshi with the Queen. She “refused to listen to what they had to say but was very angry, so as you see the Munshi is a sort of pet, like a dog or cat which the Queen will not willingly give up,” one wrote. Elgin was warned by both Ponsonby and the India Office that the Queen gave his letters to the Munshi to read and that he should not reveal any state secrets in them. Victoria’s advisors were mistrustful of Abdul’s association with Rafiuddin Ahmed, an Indian political activist in London who was connected to the Muslim League. They suspected that Ahmed got Abdul to reveal confidential information that he passed onto the Amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan. There was, however, no basis to their fears.

Again, during the Queen’s annual holiday in the French Riviera in 1895, the local newspapers ran articles on Le Munchy, secrétaire indien and le professor de la Reine, which according to Frederick Ponsonby were fed to them by Abdul. And in the Queen’s 1895 Birthday Honours, Abdul was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE), despite the opposition of PM Rosebery and Secretary for India Fowler. Even his ex-boss Tyler was astonished by Abdul’s rapid progress and elevation when he visited England soon after the honour.

After the 1895 UK general election, Lord Salisbury and Lord George Hamilton replaced them as the new PM and Secretary of State for India. Lord Hamilton considered Abdul not out rightly duplicitous but “a stupid man, and on that account he may become a tool in the hands of other men.” When Abdul returned to India next year on six months’ leave, Hamilton and Elgin placed him under “unobtrusive” surveillance in fear of the wrath of the Queen, but they could not find any wrongdoing on the Munshi’s part. This time on his return to England, he brought his young nephew, Mohammed Abdul Rashid with him.

The next milestone in Queen Vic’s life occurred with her Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne when she became the country’s longest serving monarch. Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain proposed that the Diamond Jubilee should also be the Festival of the British Empire.

Union Jacks, festoons of flowers and rainbows of bunting were strung up in London streets. “The streets, the windows, the roofs of the houses, were one mass of beaming faces, and the cheers never ceased,” the Queen recorded in her journal that night.

Abdul Karim & his nephew Abdul Rashid whose descendants now live in Karachi

It is reported that “thousands of Britons slept in the parks outside the Palace walls in their eagerness to watch the grand royal procession to St. Paul’s Cathedral the next morning. Vendors hawked souvenir jubilee flags, mugs and programs. A human fence of soldiers, their bayonets protruding like pickets, walled off the route of the six-mile procession. Before the 17-carriage convoy carrying the royal family and leaders of Britain’s dominions departed Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria, with a touch of a button, sent an electronic message to her vast Empire. Her telegraph message would have been tailor-made for today’s Twitter sphere: ‘From my heart I thank my beloved people. May God bless them. V.R. & I.’ At 11:15 a.m., cannon fired in Hyde Park to announce the monarch’s departure from the palace. Eight cream horses pulled the queen in an open carriage….The procession, which included representatives of all Empire nations, swept by many of London’s world famous landmarks, such as Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, London Bridge and Big Ben. The queen’s subjects, many of whom had never known another monarch, cheered her along the entire route and broke into spontaneous verses of ‘God Save the Queen.’ Deeply touched by the outpouring of affection, Victoria occasionally wiped tears from her eyes before arriving at St. Paul’s Cathedral for a Thanksgiving service.

Funeral procession of Queen Victoria on 22nd January 1901

Since painful arthritis impeded the 78-year-old queen’s ability to climb the cathedral steps, the decision had been made in advance to hold the service outside at the foot of St. Paul’s west steps. Crowds packed specially erected bleachers on surrounding rooftops. The steps of St. Paul’s were so crowded that choir members were forced to stand on the massive pedestals flanking the cathedral’s entrance. The queen, shading herself with a parasol, remained in her coach for the 20-minute ceremony. Following the brisk service, the procession drove off as the Archbishop of Canterbury shouted out, ‘Three cheers for the Queen!’

When darkness fell, a series of bonfires were set simultaneously on hills throughout Victoria’s kingdom to light up the British night. The cheering and singing continued well into the night, no doubt aided by pubs remaining open until the special time of 2:30 a.m.”

Queen Victoria called it “a never to be forgotten day,” in her diary. “No one ever I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those six miles of streets. The crowds were quite indescribable and their enthusiasm truly marvelous and deeply touching. The cheering was quite deafening, and every face seemed to be filled with real joy. I was much moved and gratified.”

In preparation for her next trip to the South of France in 1897, members of the Household again insisted that the unpopular Abdul not be part of the royal party or they would collectively resign. Harriet Phipps, one of the Queen’s maids of honour, informed her of the decision. In a ferocious fit of fury, the Queen swept off all the objects of her desk and immediately the tremulous Household backed down. The Queen accused the members of the Household to be motivated by “race prejudice” and jealousy. The carefree holiday spirit was replaced with tension, simmering rage and resentment.  Ponsonby wrote contemptuously that “(the Munshi) happens to be a thoroughly stupid and uneducated man, and his one idea in life seems to be to do nothing and to eat as much as he can.”

Reid advised the Queen that her attachment to Karim was leading even her near and dear to question her sanity; the doctor was treating Abdul for gonorrhea at this time. Karim had a penchant for hosting mujra parties at his Agra estate where he liked to act nawabi.

Hamilton asked Elgin to investigate Abdul’s family and friends back in India in an effort to find dirt on him and discredit him. Elgin replied that they were “Respectable and trustworthy…but position of family humble.” Hamilton concluded that “the Munshi has done nothing to my knowledge which is reprehensible or deserving of official stricture … enquiries wd not is right, unless they were in connection with some definite statement or accusation.” Hosting drunken private parties was hardly a crime. Hamilton added that the Brits had wanted “to put him (the Munshi) more into his humble place, so his influence will not be the same in the future”.

Realising that her time was limited and the Munshi’s English enemies countless, the Queen wrote to Abdul, “I have in my Testamentary arrangements secured your comfort, and have constantly thought of you well. The long letter I enclose which was written nearly a month ago is entirely and solely my own idea, not a human being will ever know of it or what you answer me. If you can’t read it I will help you and then burn it at once.”

The Queen told Reid she worried that all this strife had damaged Abdul’s health but he replied skeptically he doubted it “judging from his robust appearance and undiminished stoutness.”

With the ascension of Edward VII, thus began the Edwardian Age
Queen Victoria dliligently at work with her beloved Munshi at her side in 1893

The Queen admonished the doctor, “I thought you stood between me and them, but now I feel that you chime in with the rest.”

Lord Salisbury told Reid that the Queen enjoyed all this drama because it was “the only form of excitement she can have.”

Yet again, in 1899, members of the Household asked that Abdul not be one of the royal party on the Queen’s annual holiday to Cimiez, near Nice. This time she left him behind at Windsor, but when the party had settled into the Excelsior Regina hotel, she wired him to join them.

The wily Abdul had amassed a substantial amount of personal wealth by now and purchased yet more land adjacent to his earlier grant in Agra. Reid wrote in his diary that he had remonstrated with Abdul over his dubious financial dealings: “You have told the Queen that in India no receipts are given for money, and therefore you ought not to give any to Sir F Edwards (Keeper of the Privy Purse). This is a lie and means that you wish to cheat the Queen.” However, Victoria dismissed the accusations and dismissed them as “shameful.”

Still not content, the Munshi requested the Queen for the title of Nawab, and to appoint him a Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire (KCIE). Elgin was horrified at the political ramifications of such a move in India. He suggested instead that she make him a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO), which was in her personal gift.

Abdul returned to India in late1899 for a year during which time his father Waziruddin, described by the new Viceroy Lord Curzon as “a courtly old gentleman” died. When the Munshi finally returned to Britain, he found the Queen remarkably aged and frail. Within three months she too was dead. After her death, her son, Edward VII, immediately dismissed the Munshi and his relations from court. As per the Queen’s instructions before her death, however, the Munshi was the last to view her  body before her casket was closed, and he was allowed to be part of her funeral procession.

All of the correspondence between Victoria and Abdul that could be found was burned by the new King’s orders and all the Indians at court were put on a ship back to India.”Suddenly, the colourful turbans and the smell of curry disappeared from the royal scene. And the special connection Victoria had developed with India was severed,” wrote Banerjee.

Lady Curzon wrote in 1901,” Charlotte Knollys told me that the Munshi bogie which had frightened all the Household at Windsor for many years had proved a ridiculous farce, as the poor man had not only given up all his letters but even the photos signed by Queen and had returned to India like a whipped hound. All the Indian servants have gone back so now there is no Oriental picture & queerness at Court.”

George, Prince of Wales, on his visit to India, wrote to the King from Agra in 1906, “In the evening we saw the Munshi. He has not grown more beautiful and is getting fat. I must say he was most civil and humble and really pleased to see us. He wore his C.V.O. which I had no idea he had got. I am told he lives quietly here and gives no trouble at all.”

Abdul died soon after at his home, Karim Lodge, Agra in 1909. As per the instructions of Edward VII, the Commissioner of Agra W. H. Cobb went to Karim Lodge expressly to check if any correspondence between the Munshi and the Queen or her Household was left in the house. Abdul’s two wives hid the journals and diaries, but the rest of the mementoes and letters were confiscated and sent to the King.

Historians agree with that “no political papers of any kind are ever in the Munshi’s hands, even in her presence. He only helps her to read words which she cannot read or merely ordinary submissions on warrants for signature. He does not read English fluently enough to be able to read anything of importance.” The general consensus after Abdul’s death was that it was unlikely that he influenced the British government’s Indian policy or provided secrets to Muslim activists.

Abdul Karim remained steadfast in his loyalty and devotion to his Queen till the very end.

Good Times


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