How Indian Servant Abdul Karim Became Queen Victoria's Closest Friend
Let's investigate the story of the controversial friendship between Queen Victoria and Indian servant Abdul Karim.History
When Indian-born journalist and historian Shrabani Basu was touring an exhibition at Queen Victoria’s summer home (the Isle of Wight’s Osborne House) back in 2003, something unusual caught her eye.
Among the many portraits hanging on the walls in the house’s ‘Indian wing’ were several paintings and busts of a fine young Indian man. Basu recalls stopping to look at a particularly intriguing painting that showed the man holding a book and glancing sideways with an air of gentleness about him.
The way he was depicted made him seem like more of a nobleman than a servant, as one might assume. Unable to shake the feeling and with no real leads to follow, Basu decided to do some digging of her own, and that’s when she uncovered a secret that had remained unspoken for over 100 years.
Queen Victoria And John Brown
Queen Victoria, Britain’s second longest-reigning monarch, has been decorated with something of a bad reputation throughout history. She’s often depicted as a dowdy, miserable woman (mostly because she wore a lot of black) who spent the majority of her life mourning the death of her late husband, Albert.
But there were many other sides to Victoria that have been hidden from the public, and they probably would have remained that way if it weren’t for Shrabani Basu’s inquisitive eye.
Although Victoria famously mourned her husband’s passing in 1861 for the next forty years, speculation over whether she shared an intimate relationship with one of her servants, a certain Mr. John Brown, has run rampant. John Brown was a Scottish personal attendant to the Queen for many years who had formerly been the personal shooting guide or ‘ghillie’ to Prince Albert.
Victoria admired him for his competence and companionship, and the pair formed such a strong bond that rumours of an affair spread through the royal court like wildfire, even earning poor Victoria a nickname that her staffers used behind her back: ‘Mrs. Brown’.
So, when John Brown died in 1883 aged 56, leaving the Queen with yet another great void in her life, her family expected her to fill it with someone else significant. But no one could’ve imagined quite who would step forward to fill his shoes.
Queen Victoria's Orientalism
Victoria had been given the title of ‘Empress of India’ in 1876 by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. She welcomed the title with pride and always longed to travel to India, but the sea journey was too far to take.
Nevertheless, she expressed an interest in the foreign land, and in 1888 she became particularly fascinated by Indian Culture after a jail superintendent named John Tyler escorted 34 Indian inmates to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 in London. Victoria was overjoyed as she watched the inmates showing off the carpets they had woven as part of their rehabilitation program.
In fact, the Queen was so impressed that she then asked Tyler about selecting two Indian attendants to assist her as she celebrated 50 years on the throne at her upcoming Golden Jubilee. Their job would be to facilitate communication with Indian dignitaries and to wait on the queen, but little did either party know that this was about to be the start of something much bigger.
The Two Indian Servants
As part of the Golden Jubilee festivities held on 20th June 1887, the Queen hosted dozens of foreign rulers at a lavish banquet. John Tyler followed through on his promise and had two attendants sent over to help Victoria address the Indian princes at the table. The men he selected were Mohamed Buxshe, an experienced servant who ran the household of a British general, and Mohammed Abdul Karim.
Unlike Buxshe, Karim knew nothing about what it takes to be a servant; in fact, he was merely a prison orderly known to John Tyler, but he had been called upon to serve the Queen of England, and he could hardly refuse.
Karim was born near the city of Jhansi and was the second-oldest child of six. His father, Haji Wuzeeruddin, was a hospital assistant, a skilled position that allowed him to have Karim privately educated by a tutor in both Persian and Urdu.
Karim had scored a job at the jail in Agra where the brothers of his soon-to-be wife worked, but before he knew it he was given a brand-new wardrobe, a crash course in English and general palace etiquette, and sent halfway across the world to Windsor Castle, expecting nothing more than to wait a few tables.
The Queen was instantly fascinated by Karim and would describe him in her private letters as tall, handsome, and gentle. She was particularly impressed with his poise and at how he never seemed at all petty or irritable, while she was also charmed by his unwavering dedication to his faith.
After their jubilee duties concluded, Karim and Buxshe traveled with the Queen to her summer home on the Isle of Wight that August. It was there that Karim really caught Victoria’s attention when he surprised her with a traditional chicken curry with dal and pilau, using spices he’d bought over from Agra. When she tasted the meal, the Queen announced that the dish was “excellent” and had it added to her regular menu rotation.
After Karim had praised the mango as the “queen of fruits”, further whetting Victoria’s appetite for Indian food, she also ordered that one be sent to London for a royal tasting. But, as the story goes, when the fruit was finally presented to her by a footman bearing an ornate box, it was rotten; which is hardly surprising considering it had traveled 6 weeks by boat to reach her.
Because she never actually visited India, poor Victoria probably never got to taste mango, so she probably had to settle for chutney instead. Almost as soon as Karim arrived in England, the Queen had also bought a Hindustani phrasebook and started trying to teach herself his language. Eager to immerse herself further in the Indian culture, Victoria then asked Karim to start giving her daily Urdu lessons, to which he accepted gladly.
She wrote in her diary “It is a great interest to me, for both the language and the people, I have naturally never come into real contact with before”. Karim taught her about the Koran and the fundamentals of Indian culture, and within two months Victoria had stopped sending him instructions through her staff and started writing him directly.
As the Queen’s interest turned into a genuine zeal, it seemed a beautiful friendship was suddenly blooming. Victoria was happier than she had been in years, but the same couldn’t be said for Karim.
In India, he was a prison clerk surrounded by people who spoke his language; but most importantly, he was treated as an equal. Palace life in England was a totally different story. In his own private diary, Karim described himself as “a sojourner in a strange land and among strange people”.
At the same time, he was growing weary of carrying out such menial tasks and longed for something more. The Queen wasn’t oblivious to his unhappiness, either. In a letter to a friend, she wrote that she knew he was anxious to return to India, adding that “I particularly wish to retain his services”.
To keep him from leaving, Victoria decided to appoint Karim the new title of “Munshi” (meaning “teacher”) and elevated him to the level of a noble. The Queen was relieved when Karim agreed to stay, and their bond grew even stronger, some would say the former servant was now closer to Victoria than her own children ever had been.
Although there’s no evidence to suggest that their relationship was anything more than an unlikely friendship, the amount of time they spent together was bound to turn heads. This was especially true when the pair spent the night together at Glas-allt-Shiel, a remote cottage in Scotland that the Queen had previously shared with John Brown and had vowed never to return to again after his death.
Resentment in the Royal Household
It seemed like, in almost no time, Abdul Karim had gone from a woefully unprepared young Indian servant to the Queen’s closest friend and confidant. And while the two lived in blissful harmony, jealousy spread thick and fast through the royal household.
Karim traveled with Victoria through Europe and was given the best seats at banquets and operas, a private carriage, and even had several portraits of himself commissioned by the Queen herself.
At Balmoral Castle, the Queen’s Scottish estate, Karim was allocated the room previously occupied by John Brown. The rest of the Queen’s inner circle resented Karim not only for the gifts he was given but for the niceties his family was awarded on Victoria’s behalf.
Upon Karim’s request, Victoria provided his father with a higher pension, arranged a generous promotion for Karim’s previous employer John Tyler and allowed his wife to be brought to England, where the couple was given a homely cottage.
According to Shrabani Basu, Karim’s father even got away with being the first person to smoke a hookah in Windsor Castle, despite the Queen’s known aversion to smoking. Unlike John Brown, whose loyalty was not questioned, Karim’s behavior encouraged many to think that he was simply exploiting his new position for personal gain and prestige.
Victoria wasn’t blind to the kind of negative attention their friendship was attracting, but she was far too besotted by Karim to care. The Queen now spent most of her afternoons in Karim’s room; she even fluffed up his pillows and examined boils on his back.
The Royal court was not best pleased with the Queen's behavior. They didn’t see it fit for the Queen of England to be treating a former Indian servant as an equal, let alone seating him at tables full of his superiors.
And they weren’t afraid to say it, either. Victoria’s son Arthur complained that having an Indian stand beside him made for “a very conspicuous figure among the gentry” and claimed it was undignified to treat an Indian man of common birth like royalty.
In a letter that begged a fellow secretary to unearth some dirt on Karim that might remove him from his station, the Queen’sassistant private secretary Fritz Ponsonby wrote: “If it were not for our protest, I don’t know where she would stop”. Ponsonby then added “But it is no use, for the Queen says that it is race prejudice and that we are jealous of the poor Munshi”.
Perhaps Karim’s most openly-scathing review came from lady-in-waiting Marie Mallet, who rued “Why the plague did not carry him off I cannot think, it might have done one good deed!”.
Meanwhile, Victoria’s personal doctor Sir James Reed went as far as to write Karim directly to tell him “You are from a very low class and can never be a gentleman”. For good measure, he added the following threat: “If the queen were to die and any letters of hers were found in your possession no mercy will be shown to you”.
It seems like Reed had never heard the phrase “Be careful what you wish for” because things were about to take a turn for the worst.
Death of Queen Victoria
81-year-old Queen Victoria breathed her last breath at Osborne House On January 22nd, 1901 at 6:30 pm after 63 years and 7 months on the throne, longer than any of her predecessors.
Most people could not fully comprehend the mortality of the little old lady who had sat upon the throne for so long, and her death shocked the nation. Plus, there was no one alive who could remember how to properly bury a monarch, and this queen had requested an all-out military state funeral.
She hadn’t forgotten about her beloved John Brown, though, and was buried wearing a ring he gave her, as well as having a photograph and a lock of his hair in a special case placed in her casket.
Among her final wishes, the Sovereign also made one thing very clear: Abdul Karim was to be one of the principal mourners at her funeral; an honor usually afforded only to the monarch’s closest friends and family. The Queen’s family complied with the request, and Karim was even given the honor of being the last person to view her body before the casket was closed.
But with Victoria out of the picture, Karim was left with no protection. After the funeral, Victoria’s newly-crowned son King Edward VII sent guards to the cottage Karim shared with his wife and forced the Munshi to gather every personal letter and picture the Queen had ever sent him. Some of them had been signed “your closest friend”, “your true friend” and even “your loving mother”.
Once he’d collected every last shred of evidence that mentioned his being in England, Karim was made to watch as the guards burned the very last records of his friendship with Victoria. The only records that remained were those written by the court which painted Karim as an arrogant man who had used the Queen for his own personal gain.
After Edward's succession to the throne, Abdul Karim and the rest of the Indian servants were banished from the royal court and sent back to India. Karim may have been forcibly removed from Victoria’s timeline, but she had made several precautions to make sure he was well looked after in her absence.
Shortly before her death, she wrote “I have in my testamentary arrangements secured for your comfort”. Victoria had left Karim a massive plot of land back in India, as well as a small fortune to live off of.
In fact, the type of land grant Victoria acquired was usually reserved for war heroes, and she fought tooth and nail to secure it for him. She’d even had to change her will, though she assured Karim no human being would ever hear of it.
Karim would live the remainder of his days in comfort with his wife and his great fortune would eventually be inherited by his nephews when he died in Agra in 1909 aged just 46, but his legacy would be hidden from the Western world for years to come.
Abdul Karim's Legacy
For the next 100 years, Abdul Karim was a name spoken only in hushed, shameful tones within the Royal household. That is until Shrabani Basu spotted his portrait and set things into motion.
Over the course of the next five years, Basu carefully unraveled this tricky tale as she pored over the Queen’s remaining Hindustani exercise books and personal diaries to connect the dots of the touching relationship that Victoria’s own children had so carefully erased from history. Though their letters may have been incinerated, something else survived the guard’s bonfire: Karim’s own personal diary.
The book had stayed in the family of Abdul Rashid, the Munshi’s nephew, for several generations until his descendants shared the journal with Basu over a century after the queen’s death. Basu eventually released her own book “Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant” in 2010, and in 2017 the story was even adapted into the movie “Victoria and Abdul” starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal.
According to Basu, the film is fairly accurate, except that it portrays Victoria and Karim as saints rather than as real people with real flaws. In fact, Lord Salisbury, Britain’s Prime Minister at the time, speculated that the Queen probably enjoyed the scandal her friendship with Karim created, because it was the only excitement she could get in her old age. Who can blame her?
So, there you have it, turns out good old Queen Victoria wasn’t such a snob after all. No matter how hard they tried to blot out and re-write his narrative, Victoria’s heirs couldn’t completely erase the Munshi from history.
And now, at last, thanks to the hard work and dedication of Shrabani Basu, we’re able to appreciate this most unlikely and intense friendship that crossed both class and racial lines all thanks to a delicious plate of chicken curry. Thanks for reading.