In the early days of cutting my ‘esoteric teeth’ on obscure and fascinating subjects, at least speaking for myself, one of the first ‘royals’ to spark my interest was Queen Victoria.
Initially I found her intriguing in and of herself, but as time has progressed my tastes in ‘royal fodder’ at least in an esoteric sense, has became more refined, or shall I say esoterically focused on the more obscure or less well known aspects thereof, in this instance, the life of Queen Victoria.
My favorite sources are the memoirs and biographies of the court retainers who ‘buzzed’ around her like so many worker bees in a hive, serving their glorious queen. 'I've always been fascinated by these little-known facts & characters in history who played a significant role but have been forgotten over time.’
From Sir James Reid, royal court physician, to Sir Henry Ponsonby, private secretary, to Frieda Arnold, Her Majesty’s dresser, to John Brown, royal factotum, and purported second husband, not to mention the recounting of various ladies-in-waiting; all give such wonderfully precise and unedited insight from the inside! All of them, rare treats indeed, because of the ‘fly on the wall’ aspect of such reminiscences.
Aside from John Brown, one servant in particular has been the focus of much misunderstanding, if not down right hatred. His name was Hafiz Abdul Karim! Until recently, he has been a bit of a Victorian man of mystery, who has received more than his allotted fair share of bad press over the years.
Better known as "The Munshi," variously translated as "teacher" or "clerk" in Urdu, Hafiz Abdul Karim was an Indian servant of Queen Victoria who gained her trust and affection, much to the chagrin of family and retainers, in the final fifteen years of her reign.
The Munshi was one of two Indian servants brought over from India, the ‘Jewel of the British Empire,’ to mark Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887. Initially, the Munshi, was a dining room waiter, who waited at the royal table. It is rumored that the Queen took a great liking to him, and, after he supposedly alleged that he had been a clerk at home and thus menial work as a waiter was beneath him, he was soon promoted to the unique position of the 'Queen's Munshi,' one of his new duties was to give her Hindustani and Urdu language lessons, and taught her Indian customs. In later years, he became first Personal Indian Clerk to the Queen, and later her Indian Secretary, not to be confused with the Cabinet office of Secretary of State for India.
From inside the royal court, and the royal family, the Munshi was perceived to take advantage of his position as the Queen's favorite, causing resentment from the court. He brought his wife and other family members from India to Britain, where they were settled at Royal expense. He exaggerated his origins, saying that his father was a doctor in the Indian Army, when he was in fact a native healer from the jail at Agra. When confronted with this information, the Queen defended her favorite.
Victoria's advisors also feared his association with Rafiuddin Ahmed, an Indian politician resident in London and candidate for Parliament, fearing that Ahmed would extract confidential information from the Munshi. Historically, there is no indication that their fears were realized, or that the Munshi was ever indiscreet, even after Victoria's death, for he burned or surrendered their correspondence.
The Queen appointed him Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire in 1895 and Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1899. She also awarded him land in Agra and lodged him and his family in cottages at Balmoral, Windsor and Osborne House.
After the Queen's death, her son, King Edward VII dismissed the Munshi and his relations from court and had his official’s send them back to India.
King Edward did, however, allow the Munshi to be the last to view his mother's body before the casket was closed, and to be part of her funeral procession.
After returning to India, the Munshi lived in his home in Agra, Karim Lodge, until his death in 1909.
Almost a decade and a-half ago, the late accomplished historical biographer, Sushila Anand penned a biography on the Munshi titled; Indian Sahib: Queen Victoria’s Dear Abdul. Although a slim volume, it did much to clear some of the cobwebs that had contributed to the obscuring of many of the facts that had shrouded the relationship of Queen Victoria and the Munshi.
Recently, a new biography, based on this special relationship, was published. That India-born Hafiz Abdul Karim progressed from serving Queen Victoria dinner to teaching her Urdu and gradually had a special place in her heart was reason enough for generations to try and decipher this relationship.
A liaison, perhaps? Several labored for some salacious evidence to give credence to their suspicions of a secret affair. Given this backdrop, Shrabani Basu’s Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant is bound to garner attention, voyeuristic and otherwise.
However, Basu’s book rises beyond the 'was it just doting motherly love or something romantic' agenda, thus, in a way, leaving you unsatiated to some degree, depending on the origins of the readers interest.
Victoria & Abdul convincingly conveys that it was a benefactor’s love for a loyal retainer who understood his mistresses’ loneliness and became her passage to India. And that if there ever were an affair at all, it could have been between the Queen and her former confidant, John Brown. Maybe that’s what makes Basu’s book original too, staying clear from the expectation of being sensational.
In comparison, Anand’s book, is more pictorial. Visually, it’s beautiful to look at. Basu’s efforts are totally different. It has court politics, and the aftermath. For the first time, we see Queen Victoria’s Hindustani journals as Basu had them translated and for the first time the reader can hear her voice in the story.
As you move from one chapter to the next you feel something lacking in Basu’s book and that is Abdul’s side of the story, his thoughts, his emotions.
Though Victoria & Abdul relies heavily on research, and is foot-noted to the last detail, most of it is from the Queen’s letters, conversations and commands.
Given unrestricted access, Basu pored over the records in Windsor Castle, the private papers of Henry Ponsonby, Queen Victoria’s private secretary, the correspondence between the viceroys and the secretary of state for India, and spent several days on journals, diaries and letters. Almost all of were about the Queen.
Victoria & Abdul has a systematic, chronological sequence of events and often reads like a journal which makes it a little low on the emotional quotient.
Some might consider it a challenge to make history readable and although it can be, sometimes; however, to make a story out of letters, diaries and journals, if you dig deep enough and have enough sourced material, you can construct a narrative that is made to order for an esoteric.
Both ‘reads’ are stimulating, one visually, the other cerebrally. What is interesting is that since the publication of Basu’s more practiced Victoria & Abdul, new sources have come to light that now gives the Munshi, the chance to tell his side of the story.
The Lost Diary Of Queen Victoria's Final Companion
Abdul Karim’s writings, hidden by his family until now, throw new light on a close and controversial relationship.
Her Most Trusted Confidante:
A Portrait Of Abdul Karim
By Ben Leach
February 26, 2011
'I am so very fond of him. He is so good and gentle and understanding… and is a real comfort to me.'
These were the words of Queen Victoria speaking to her daughter-in-law, Louise, Duchess of Connaught, on November 3, 1888, at Balmoral. Perhaps surprising, though, is who she was talking about – not her beloved husband, Albert, who had died in 1861. Nor John Brown, her loyal Scottish ghillie, who in many ways filled the void left by Albert, since Brown had died in 1883.
Instead, Queen Victoria was referring to Abdul Karim, her 24-year-old Indian servant.
Her relationship with Karim was one that sent shockwaves through the royal court – and ended up being one of the most scandalous periods of her 64-year reign.
Indeed, such was the ill-feeling that when Victoria died, her son King Edward ordered all records of their relationship, including correspondence and photographs, to be destroyed.
But a new archive of letters, pictures and Karim’s 'lost diary', held secretly by his family for more than a century, sheds new light on their relationship.
The documents tell the story of how Karim arrived in England in 1887 and quickly gained the affection of a monarch 42 years his senior. They chart the remarkable rise of the clerk from Agra in northern India to one of Victoria’s closest and most influential friends.
The author Shrabani Basu discovered the documents after writing Victoria & Abdul, her book on the remarkable relationship between the Queen and her Indian servant. In 2010 Basu was in Bangalore, India, for the book’s launch when she received a call from the British Council. Begum Qamar Jehan, then 85, frail and blind, was one of Abdul Karim’s few remaining relatives (Karim had had no children himself); yet, despite her age and condition, she still had vivid memories of her days in Karim Lodge, Agra (more of which later). Moreover, she had in her possession Karim’s diary documenting the period in which he served Queen Victoria.
Two months later Basu flew from London to Karachi in Pakistan. She was handed the diary – a neat brown journal with gold edges, recognisable as the stationery used in Windsor. It contained a record of Karim’s 10 years in London between the Golden and Diamond jubilees. The pages were also filled with photographs and magazine cuttings. It had been smuggled out of India by the family when they had fled in 1947 following the Partition riots, then kept a closely guarded secret until Basu’s visit. Basu has now updated her remarkable story of the Queen and her Indian manservant with extracts from his diary – plus from Queen Victoria’s Hindustani Journals, which Basu has had translated for the first time.
Karim initially moved to England for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee – the Queen wanted two Indian waiters there to attend to the Indian princes who would be present. Victoria was instantly charmed by the tall, elegant Karim, and within a year he had transcended from waiting tables to becoming a powerful figure within the royal court.
Yet in the opening paragraphs of his diary, Karim remarks on the humble nature of his status in the Royal household: 'Under the shadow of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, I a humble subject venture in the following pages to lay before the reader a brief summary from the journal of my life at the court of Queen Victoria from the Golden Jubilee of 1887 to the Diamond Jubilee of 1897. As I have been but a sojourner in a strange land and among a strange people I humbly trust all mistakes will be kindly overlooked by the reader who would extend indulgence to the writer of these pages.'
He then goes on to describe his initial thoughts on coming to England: 'In 1887 with the recommendation of Dr Tyler who was my superior officer at the Central Jail [where he was working as a clerk] I came to England as orderly to the Queen. I must mention that the word 'orderly’ as understood by us in India means one who has to accompany a sovereign or Prince or other high person of rank on horseback. It is a much higher position than the orderly of the British Army who is simply a private soldier selected to attend an officer as a personal servant carrying his orders etc. It was in the former sense of the word that I accepted the proposal to go to England.'
On arriving in London, he notes, he visits the zoo as well as Madame Tussauds. Yet sightseeing was not Karim’s prime purpose; he is there to meet the Queen. He recounts their first audience:
'Dr Tyler and I were instructed to take our station near the dining room and wait her Majesty’s coming. I was somewhat nervous at the approach of the Great Empress who soon entered accompanied by HRH the Duke of Connaught and Princess Beatrice. Dr Tyler at once did homage by kneeling, whilst I did the same in Oriental style. I presented nazars, or gifts by exposing, in the palms of my hands, a gold mohar [a coin] which Her Majesty touched and remitted as is the Indian custom. The Queen was thereafter pleased to speak to Dr Tyler a few words, and so ended my first interview with the Empress of India.'
Two days later, Dr Tyler received a telegram asking him to return to Buckingham Palace with Karim. The queen wrote in her diaries about her two new Indian servants: 'The one Mohammed Buksh, very dark with a very smiling expression… and the other, much younger, called Abdul Karim, is much lighter, tall and with a fine, serious countenance. His father is a native doctor at Agra. They both kissed my feet.'
Karim introduced curry to the royal menu and started teaching her to speak Urdu, offering lessons every evening. As Empress of India – and a committed Indophile – nothing pleased her more.
Yet Karim was dispirited – he was unhappy doing such a menial task as waiting tables and professed his wish to return to his homeland. This is mentioned in his diaries.
The following letter from Queen Victoria that Karim kept in his journal asking him to stay is significant: that letter was one of many destroyed by her son, King Edward, following his mother’s death. Karim, however, had kept a certified copy:
'General Dennehy has read me your petition… I shall be very sorry to part with you for I like and respect you, but I hope you will remain till the end of this year or the beginning of the next that I may be able to learn enough Hindustani from you to speak a little. I shall gladly recommend you for a post in India which could be suitable for you and hope that you may be able to come and see me from time to time in England.'
And recommend him for a post she did: Queen Victoria made Abdul Karim her official munshi (teacher) as well as Indian Clerk to the Queen. This too he notes in his diary: 'It was a day I shall never forget and for the same I shall ever thank my God and pray for the long life and happiness of Her Majesty.'
Henceforth Karim travelled everywhere with the Queen, even on her tours of Europe, meeting numerous monarchs and prime ministers along the way. The Queen allowed him to move his wife over to England, and the couple were given their own cottage on each of her estates. In Balmoral, a special cottage was built just for him, and the Queen called it 'Karim Cottage' in his honour. The munshi spared no expense decorating and, on the completion of Karim Cottage, threw a house-warming party for the ladies and gentleman of the household.
According to his diaries, Karim seems particularly enamoured by Balmoral: 'I admired the scenery for it reminded me so forcibly of the Highland scenery of India which is much resorted to by Europeans during the hot season… I was told that Her Majesty is particularly partial to this residence in the Highlands. During the summer the neighbouring hills are covered with the rich bloom of the white and purple heather and with many kinds of wild flowers. To add to the charms of the scenery the silver Dee flows directly past the back of the castle.'
He isn’t as impressed with Glasgow, though: 'Glasgow is a very dirty town but it could not be otherwise as it is purely a business centre. There are numerous manufactories, ship building yards and great iron works. The country round about produces abundance of coal. It is situated on the River Clyde, the water of which is so black and dirty… that no fish can live in the river.'
On one of his many foreign trips with the Queen, this time to Nice, he remarks upon his good fortune: 'Events which we never thought or even dreamt of happening to us cause us to wonder at the wonderful ways God makes use of in working out his purposes. This thought came to my mind as I considered the wonderful good fortune that happened to some Indian jugglers who chanced to be in Nice while Her Majesty was there. When Her Majesty came to hear of them she sent a request to have them brought before her to exhibit their tricks. The Queen was highly amused and delighted and the honour which was given to these poor jugglers must have made them happy for life.'
Still, many in the royal court were unhappy with Karim’s constant presence. He was forever by her side and the Queen, a prolific letter-writer, often sent him several letters a day. He became her most trusted companion. Although mother to nine children, her relationship with them was distant – and often strained. She missed her late husband dearly, and was desperate for company. As the years went on, Karim’s influence grew, and in time, the one-time servant had servants himself.
The courtiers’ fears had some substance. Since Karim saw every letter that the Queen sent, he was soon advising her on how to deal with sectarian problems between Muslims and Hindus – advice she passed on to the bemused Viceroy. Unsurprisingly, her solutions always seemed to favour the Muslims – Karim, of course, was a Muslim. He even asked to be given a knighthood – one of the few requests the Queen turned down.
The courtiers’ resentment came to a head in 1889 when the Queen spent the night with her munshi at Glassalt Shiel, the isolated Scottish cottage she had once shared with John Brown but vowed never again to visit after he died. Although it appears to have been platonic, he was 26 and she 70, so eyebrows would have been raised. Several courtiers – and indeed members of the Queen’s own family – attempted to distance the Queen from Karim but to no avail; indeed, she thought their actions were motivated by race – and jealousy.
Karim only notes the hostility towards him in his diaries once, and in passing: 'The memorable year [Diamond Jubilee year] did not open well… The unpleasantness I remarked on last year still existed.'
Queen Victoria died in 1901, and Abdul Karim was given a prominent place in the funeral possession. Yet days later, guards ordered him to hand over every letter she had written to him. He must somehow have managed to keep his diary concealed.
The few other documents that survived fire are held at Windsor. These include a journal kept by the Queen that was written entirely in Hindustani, and Shrabani Basu has painstakingly translated all 13 volumes.
The translations also reveal fascinating insights into the nature of the Queen’s relationship with Karim.
Abdul had created a phrase book of everyday Urdu words for the Queen to use when speaking to her Indian servants, as well as visiting royalty, and has written them out in Roman script.
The phrases include the standard ones such as: 'You may go home if you like' (Tum ghar jao agar chhate ho); and: 'The egg is not boiled enough'.
But some of the phrases are significantly more intriguing. For instance: 'You will miss the munshi very much' (Tum munshi ko bahut yad karoge). And: 'Hold me tight' (Ham ko mazbut thamo).
The Windsor documents also contain letters from Queen Victoria to Karim, frequently concerning his wife (towards whom, it would appear, she was equally fond), signed: 'dearest mother'; or 'Your loving mother, Victoria R.I.'
She nearly always signed these in Urdu. Moreover, the intimate details that the Queen included showed how close she had come to Karim. For instance, the Queen learnt that Karim and his wife had been unsuccessfully trying to have children, and decided to get medical advice:
'I spoke to Dr Reid about your dear wife and I think he will understand easily what you have to tell him. It may be that in hurting her foot and leg she may have twisted (moved or hurt) something in her inside, which would account for things not being regular and as they ought.'
Following the letter-burning, Karim and his wife were ordered to return to India. Years of fine living in the Queen’s palaces meant Karim had grown portly. He had also grown rich, and, returning to Agra, built himself a house, Karim Lodge. He died eight years after his return, at the age of 46.
Yet King Edward’s paranoia was not quelled, and he sent more agents to India to demand that all memorabilia relating to the Queen be burned, much to the alarm of Karim’s grieving widow. King Edward had done the same with all mementos of his mother’s relationship with John Brown.
After all these years, Abdul Karim’s family decided to come forward with the diary as they were determined to show him in a more positive light; not the social climber he had been painted as by many. In truth, Karim was one of the Queen’s closest companions, and offered the widowed monarch a great deal of support – and pleasure - during her lonely later years.
The Empress and I
By: Amit Chaudhuri
September 21, 1996
by Sushila Anand
In 1887, 24-year-old Abdul Karim, son of a humble hakim (a Muslim doctor) and scion of a family in no particular way distinguished, arrived in England to wait upon the Queen. It was the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. As Sushila Anand says towards the beginning of her book, which is primarily an account of Abdul Karim's relationship with Victoria:
In celebration of her Jubilee the Queen had been sent a unique present, nothing less than a pair of Indian servants . . . It was planned that the Indians should act as khitmatgars [sic], or table servants, in the first instance, and gradually be put to other useful tasks.
Anand informs us that more Indians arrived, forming a distinctive group within the Queen's menage. One of the first was Abdul Karim.
Abdul Karim rose from the position of khidmatgar to Munshi, or teacher, a title he would be known by even when he had attained, through the Queen's good offices and efforts, the exalted position of the Queen's Indian Secretary; later, he would even be made a Companion of the Indian Empire. But it was in his capacity as Munshi that Abdul Karim impressed the Queen and even endeared himself to her, and she was to become `his willing pupil in Hindustani and Urdu,' noting in her journal, `It is a great interest to me, for both the language and the people I have naturally never come into real contact with before.'
This is the single most delightful revelation in this book. For one thing, it shows how misleadingly the epithet 'Victorian' is made synonymous with the closed and insular; for another, it tells us that the gap between the Queen and her subjects was not as great as the one between her and her administrators, who had little time for Indian culture, and who would have presumably regarded the Queen's interest as an eccentricity.
Abdul Karim emerges from this book as a nebulous character, about whom it is difficult to arrive at any conclusion. Almost all we seem to have on record about him are the glowing, if defensive, tributes paid to him by the Queen in her letters, as she grew to realise her Household's intolerance of him; and the somewhat frenzied correspondence between Viceroys and Secretaries about what they saw as the harmful, or at least tiresome, influence exerted upon the Queen by an Indian of no particular background or attainment.
The Munshi appears to have been a man with an instinct for self-preservation and selfpromotion; there seems to be no evidence as to why he, rather than another khidmatgar, should have been singled out by the Queen for her affections and favours, or why he should have risen as high as he did. While it is possible to derive some amusement from the way the Munshi infuriated the members of the Household and threw their presumptions about class and upbringing into disarray, it is also unsettling to read an account of a man who owes his advancement to a sort of favouritism, rather than to a code of equality and meritocracy, especially because it foreshadows the way politics would work in present-day India. Meanwhile, as Abdul Karim, the man, becomes more and more mysterious and hard to gauge, his corporeal presence, in photographs, progresses from an early slimness to a prosperous rotundity.
There seem to have been two reasons for the Household's aggressive dislike of the Munshi. The first had to do with his association with a man called Raifuddin Ahmed, an aspirant to the British Parliament, deemed to be a potentially seditious character by British Indian Intelligence, cleverer than the Munshi and therefore capable of extracting valuable information from him - information the Munshi might arguably have had access to, since the Queen (to the Household's outrage) was said to read out even the Viceroy's letters to him. (Later, it was found that there was no evidence on which to base these suspicions.)
The second reason was the absurd lengths the Queen was seen to go to to appease the Munshi, obliging members of the Household to mix with him as if he were an equal and conferring on him honours that had so far been given to far more deserving candidates. In the 1890s, there were already threats in India to the continuance of British Rule; the inception of the Indian National Congress and the consolidation of a newly-articulate, nationalist intelligentsia, for instance. From the correspondence and fevered journal entries reproduced in this book, however, it would appear that the main threat to the wellbeing of the British Empire was posed by the Munshi, his large presence throwing the Indian nationalist movement into the shade. It would have made an interesting Victorian cartoon - the aggrieved members of the Household, faces attenuated with anger, on one side; a turbaned Munshi sitting on Victoria's lap on the other; and the map of India a speck in the distance.
After the Queen's death, the Munshi was dispatched back to his homeland with a greater vigour than is possessed by the British Home Office today, where, with his characteristic resilience, he would live happily to the end of his days, on the plot of land Victoria had given him, in warmer weather than he had known for many years.