Early one cold, February morning in 1901, the inhabitants of a cottage on the Windsor Castle estate were startled by a loud banging at the door. Tired and dazed, the head of the household, Abdul Karim, opened the front door to find a party of guards standing outside, menacingly. They were accompanied by Queen Alexandra, wife of the new king, Edward VII, and by Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of the late Queen Victoria.
It was on King Edward’s orders that the house was raided. Only days before, Abdul Karim had been given a prominent place in Queen Victoria’s funeral procession – which aroused the disgust of her family.
‘Dearest Munshi’: Queen Victoria’s head of household and close friend Abdul Karim was ordered to return to India after the monarch died in 1901
Now, much to his astonishment, the guards were ordering him to hand over every letter, note and memo that the late Queen had sent him over the 13 years he had served her.
She was a prolific letter writer, sometimes penning several a day to Karim – and often signing them ‘Your affectionate Mother’. As anyone would have done, Karim had treasured them.
But the new King wanted them destroyed. A bonfire was started outside the cottage and Karim watched in abject horror as desks, drawers and cupboards were turned out.
Abdul Karim, the man whom the Queen had called her ‘dearest Munshi’ (teacher), could only watch in silence, while his wife stood beside him, tears coursing down her veiled face, as every scrap of paper bearing Victoria’s distinctive handwriting was hurled on to the fire.
The Munshi and his family were then ordered to pack their bags and leave for India immediately. But what on earth had he done to elicit such vengeful behaviour from the usually genial Edward?
The answer lay in the letters that now crackled on the fire – for they told the story of how a young Indian man, who had arrived in Britain 13 years earlier as a mere waiter, had risen to become the Queen’s closest companion – and was treated more like a favoured son than a servant. The fascinating relationship between them is told in a new book, Victoria And Abdul: The True Story Of The Queen’s Closest Confidant.
Victoria had developed a fascination for all things Indian after she was made Empress of the country in 1876
Queen Victoria had developed a fascination for all things Indian after she was made Empress of the country in 1876. For her Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1887, she declared that she wanted someone at hand who could help her address the Indian princes who were due to attend the jubilee.
And so she wrote to her officials in India, asking for two Indian servants to be sent to her for a year’s duration. One of those who was picked was a 24-year-old clerk from Agra – Abdul Karim – who was given a crash course in the English language, social customs and court etiquette – and fitted out with smart tunics and trousers.
Together with a jolly, portly man selected as the other servant, he arrived in England in June 1887, just three days before the start of the Jubilee celebrations.
The Queen, then aged 68, had been a widow for 26 years. For a while, the void in her life left by the death of her beloved Albert in 1861, had been filled by John Brown, the highland ghillie who became her trusted companion.
Their relationship was so close that there were rumours that they were lovers – or had even secretly married – and the Queen was dubbed ‘Mrs Brown’. Even her children referred to the Scot as ‘Mama’s lover’, fiercely resenting the hold that he appeared to have over her.
But Brown died in 1883, leaving the Queen devastated and lonely once more. ‘I sat alone! Oh! Without my beloved husband,’ she wrote mournfully of the Jubilee thanksgiving service.
On the third day of the Jubilee celebrations, the weary Queen was introduced to her ‘present’ from India – the two impeccably dressed young servants, one stout and smiley, the other tall, handsome and grave. She perked up noticeably. The two began waiting at the Queen’s table. Karim quickly became the favourite, impressing her with his dignified bearing, assisting her with her boxes of official correspondence.
Emboldened, he decided to make a curry for her, which she pronounced ‘excellent’, decreeing that curry should be served regularly.
Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim
Balmoral outrage: Victoria stayed the night alone with Karim (right) on the Scottish estate, which infuriated courtiers
Such was her enthusiasm for all things Indian that Victoria decided to learn the language of the country she reigned over from 4,000 miles distant. And who better to teach her than the helpful young man who stood beside her?
Karim was delighted. To be appointed Munshi – teacher – to the Queen Empress was a huge honour.
Lessons commenced immediately, with the Queen and her Munshi sitting together every evening, as he taught her new phrases.
When the court moved to Balmoral for the summer, the Queen declared: ‘Pray take care that my good Indian people get one of the Upper Servants places. Also that they have every comfort so that they are warm at night.’
Already some members of her household were irritated by the way she fussed over the Indians, Karim especially. Soon they were grumbling that he was beginning to resemble an Indian John Brown. They walked and talked together, with him telling a fascinated Queen stories of India, and her confiding in him more and more as his English improved.
In February 1888 she wrote to her daughter Vicky, the Empress of Germany: ‘Young Abdul (who is in fact no servant) teaches me and is a very strict Master, and a perfect Gentleman.’
Aware of the Queen’s growing reliance on him, Karim threatened to return to India unless his job elevation was made official.
Horrified at the idea that she might lose him, Victoria at once assented. He was now no longer a servant, but a full member of the Royal Household. Even Brown had never been so elevated, remaining a servant till his death.
There was no question of Karim’s returning to India when his year was up – instead, more Indian servants were imported.
Karim saw every letter that Victoria sent, and she soon took to discussing their contents with him. The Viceroy of India started receiving frequent missives from the Queen, advising him how to deal with sectarian problems between Muslims and Hindus. Her solutions always seemed to favour the Muslims: Karim was, of course, a Muslim.
Besotted by the handsome young Indian 40 years her junior, the Queen’s affection was maternal rather than romantic
Her readiness to involve the Munshi in official business must have been galling for Bertie, the Prince of Wales, as Victoria refused to let him see any state papers.
The following summer at Balmoral, Karim’s replacement of John Brown in the Queen’s affections was confirmed when Victoria left for the ‘Widow’s Cottage,’ the small house she had built for herself after Albert’s death, in a secluded spot three hours’ ride from Balmoral. She had stayed there alone with John Brown on several occasions, giving rise to gossip and jibes of ‘Mrs Brown.’
After Brown’s death she had sworn she would never sleep there again, but now she spent the night there – accompanied only by Karim. Once again, her conduct shocked the Royal Household – but Victoria was unperturbed.
Although besotted by the handsome young Indian 40 years her junior, the Queen’s affection was maternal rather than romantic, signing herself ‘your dearest mother’.
When Karim fell ill she would attend him herself, smoothing his pillows. When he returned to India for his annual leave she wrote to him daily. And Karim, though fond of the Queen, was quick to exploit her devotion. He demanded a special pension for his father and for himself a grant of land in India from which he could receive an income. Victoria overrode the objections of the Viceroy to grant his wishes.
Karim was now a wealthy man – but an increasingly unpopular one. The other Indian servants complained that he tyrannised them and Victoria’s children were infuriated that their mother seemed to be in thrall to him.
At Balmoral, she had a house built especially for him. At Osborne and Windsor, he had his own cottages and redecorated them with no expense spared, while her own children were severely upbraided for extravagance.
She commissioned portraits and photographs of him just as she had of John Brown, hanging his photograph in her bedroom alongside those of Brown and Albert.
Worried that he might be missing his family, the Queen allowed him to bring his wife and mother-in-law, and later his nephew, over from India. She enjoyed taking guests to take tea with the veiled Indian ladies, her living emblems of the exotic east. The Munshi’s visitor’s book soon read like a Who’s Who of European royalty.
She showered the Munshi with honours till his chest glistened with medals including the CIE, Companion of the Indian Empire. Unsatisfied, he asked for more, even demanding a knighthood, although Victoria for once took her courtiers’ counsel and refused to grant this.
The rest of the royal household did not share Victoria’s disregard for barriers of class or race and grumbled about the ‘black guard,’ as they referred to the Munshi and his family. Furious, Victoria ordered that the word ‘black’ about was not to be used in connection with them.
Although racism and snobbery undoubtedly played a part in the hostility towards the Munshi, his grasping, arrogant behaviour exacerbated tensions – but the Queen always defended him from attack.
Karim did not live long to enjoy his riches, dying eight years after returning to India aged 46. If she ever reproached him he would fly into a temper and threaten to return to India, whereupon a weeping Victoria would desperately placate him. She once complained to Sir James Reid, her personal physician and hitherto most trusted confidant, that the Munshi bullied her, but would not let Reid intervene.
No one could understand why the Munshi exerted such a hold over her, although some had their theories. Her Private Secretary, Henry Ponsonby, thought that the Munshi was, for her, ‘a sort of pet, like a dog or cat which [she] will not willingly give up.’
One of her prime ministers, Lord Salisbury, believed that she enjoyed the spats over the Munshi with her household because ‘it was the only excitement she had’.
The reality was that the Queen was lonely. Her relationship with her children, particularly the Prince of Wales, was distant and often strained. She needed someone who was loyal to her above all others, someone to gossip with and confide in.
On one occasion, during her Diamond Jubilee year of 1897, the entire Royal Household threatened to resign if Victoria insisted on taking Abdul on her annual European holiday as usual. They had just found out that this supposedly devout, married man was being treated for recurrent venereal disease – and were appalled that they would be forced to socialise with him as an equal.
It grated that he was given the best rooms in the hotels and villas where the royal party stayed, his own royal carriage and footman.
As always, Victoria took the Munshi’s side, turning furiously on her mutinous staff. The household backed down, realising that there was little they could do to dislodge the Munshi while the Queen was alive. But they began sharpening their knives for later…
In 1900, an increasingly frail Queen was dealt a bitter blow when her son, the Duke of Coburg, died of cancer, the third of her children to die, and one of her grandsons died in the Boer War.
By the end of the year it was clear that her health was failing and she became more exhausted. On January 22, 1901, at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, the 81-year-old Queen died peacefully in her bed.
Having suffered the agony of having his personal correspondences and keepsakes destroyed by fire, Karim returned to India with his family, as ordered – albeit it a far stouter, far wealthier man than he had left 13 years earlier. But he did not live long to enjoy his riches, dying eight years later aged 46.
Even then the hounding of his family did not cease. Edward VII, paranoid that some papers might have survived the burning, ordered the Viceroy to send agents to demand any remaining correspondence from the Munshi’s grieving widow, forcing her to give up the personal notes and photographs the Queen had given to her.
Just as he had tried to expunge the evidence of his mother’s relationship with John Brown, destroying the busts and statues of him that Victoria had commissioned, so Edward wanted to obliterate all traces of her relationship with the Munshi.
It was a sad, bitter postscript to a most unusual friendship, one that, however divisive it had been, had brought comfort to a lonely Queen in the twilight years of her reign.