Discover little-known story of the Muslim munshi whose rise through the ranks rattled the British Royal Household. By Arwa Aburawa.
On a cold and misty February morning in 1901, life was about to unravel for an Indian Muslim who had played a pivotal role during the long reign of Queen Victoria. Abdul Karim and his wife were woken by loud banging on their door. Standing in the doorway were guards under command of the Queen’s son, the newly crowned King Edward VII. Following the death of Queen Victoria only days earlier, they demanded the letters that she had sent to Karim during his 13 years of service. Pulled out of drawers and pried out of his hands, the letters were thrown into a bonfire and destroyed.
This was the beginning of the end for Abdul Karim. He and other Indians who had worked with the Queen were forced out of Britain. A heartbroken Karim died only eight years later, at the age of 46, at his home in Agra, India.
But this tragic story began under very different circumstances, and the journey of Abdul Karim, despite its bitter end, was nevertheless an amazing one. From a hand-servant he rose through the ranks to become the Queen’s Urdu teacher and a dear and valued confidant on all matters in the Queen’s life. The closeness of their relationship, however, would prove to be his undoing. After the death of Queen Victoria, those who had despised their relationship ensured that he was hounded out of Britain, never to return.
This intriguing chapter in history remained largely forgotten until writer Shrabani Basu stumbled across his pictures while researching the Queen’s love of curry. “When I went to Osborne House [Queen Victoria’s residence on the Isle of Wight] and saw Abdul Karim’s portrait and photographs, it was very obvious that he was not just someone waiting on the Queen,” Shrabani says. “He was obviously quite close to her and I guess I was intrigued by this Indian Muslim.”
Over the next four years, Shrabani embarked on a journey to find out more about this close friendship. She sifted through the archives at Windsor Castle, the Queen’s copious correspondence and records at the British Library. She also travelled to Agra to visit Karim’s grave and then to Karachi in Pakistan to retrieve Karim’s diaries, which family members had taken before fleeing the violence during the partition of India. She discovered that Karim Abdul had first arrived in Britain as a waiter to serve the Queen during her Golden Jubilee of 1887, which celebrated her 50 years of reign over the British Empire – including India, the jewel in the crown.
Karim quickly emerged as a favourite and was soon assigned the role of teaching the Queen Urdu and assisting her with her correspondence. “There was something in him which just appealed to the Queen,” explains Shrabani. “Although she was over 40 years his senior and they were from completely different worlds, they really connected. She liked his intelligence, he talked to her about the real India and he cooked her curries, which became a daily dish on the Royal Menu. He took her on this journey to India as she could never travel to India herself. In that sense Abdul Karim became the voice of India to her.” Indeed, the Queen was very attached to Abdul Karim and made no effort to conceal her affection for him.
In a letter to her daughter she writes of Karim:
I am so very fond of him. He is so good and gentle and understanding… and is a real comfort to me.
She would write Karim as many as three to four letters a day, often signing them “your loving mother” or “your closest friend”, sometimes followed by a flurry of “kisses”. Over the years, their friendship only grew in intensity. Whenever he left Britain to visit India, she would constantly lament his absence. She would personally see to him whenever he was ill. To keep him close, the Queen even had a residence, Karim Cottage, built for Karim and his wife.
On one occasion they sent rumours flying after spending a night alone at a cottage in Balmoral. But Shrabani maintains that their friendship was strictly platonic. Even so, many of those in the Royal Household were deeply envious of their relationship and felt it highly improper for a commoner like Karim to have gained such influence with the Queen. On matters regarding India, Karim’s authority did hold considerable weight. Indeed, the Queen wrote letter after letter to the Viceroy of India, asking him to ensure that Indian Muslims, who were a minority, were protected and treated well. The Queen also awarded Karim numerous medals and made sure his family in India were well cared for by granting land and titles to them, and a generous pension to his father.
In England, Karim was also granted certain privileges that many in the Queen’s circle felt inappropriate. “Suddenly there is this Indian commoner being told that he could use the billiard room, that his father could smoke a hookah in Windsor Castle and that he is on par with the household,” says Shrabani. Racism did rear its ugly head on several occasions, but the Queen’s conduct was exemplary in dealing with this matter. She was very broad-minded and allowed the Indian Muslims to practise their faith and traditions without any restrictions. The Queen also sent memos to her household telling them not to be racist and not to use the word “black” to refer to Indians. She stood up for not only Karim but also the rest of the Indian crew.
After her death, this close link that had blossomed between the Royal Household and India was shattered irrevocably. “Suddenly, the court was very quiet and all its colour drained away,” says Shrabani. “It became a very cold place.” Over a hundred years on, no Muslim has ever garnered the influence or position that Karim had in the Royal Household. Time has, however, changed one thing. Rather than being hidden away or perceived as scandalous, today a display at Windsor Castle celebrates the deep friendship that developed between a young Muslim man and Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Empress of India.
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 Family issue of Aquila Style magazine