Heritage

Inside the Controversial Relationship Between Queen Victoria and Her Servant Karim

All evidence of the Queen's confidant was hastily buried by the royal court after the monarch's death.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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The latest Judi Dench film has directed the spotlight once again on the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and her servant, Abdul Karim. For over a century, not much was known about the close relationship the monarch shared with her Indian companion because the royal household tried in vain to erase all memory of it after the Queen died in 1901. It wasn't until 2003 that the issue resurfaced, when author Shrabani Basu stumbled upon memorabilia of Karim in the Queen’s summer home and began to research on him further. This inspired her to write Victoria & Abdul: The Extraordinary True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, which was the basis for the upcoming movie of the same name. Before catching the film on October 4, here are all the things you may want to know about their relationship:

1. Karim was one of two servants given as a “gift” to Queen Victoria.

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Described by Basu as tall and handsome, Karim was 24 years old when he first met the monarch. He arrived in England and waited tables at the Queen’s golden jubilee in 1887. Karim was referred to the position by Dr. Tyler, a clerk at the central jail and his superior.


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2. The Queen grew fond of Karim because he didn’t treat her as a queen.

Queen Victoria took a liking to Karim because “he spoke to her as a human being and not as the Queen. Everyone else kept their distance from her, even her own children, and this young Indian came with an innocence about him,” Basu tells The Telegraph. Within a year, Karim was promoted among the servants and was given the title Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim, making him an official Indian clerk.


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3. He taught her Urdu language and instructed her on Indian affairs.

The Empress of India—who had never even been to India— was very much interested in the culture and asked Karim to teach her Urdu. She once wrote: “Am learning a few words of Hindustani (now Urdu) to speak to my servants. It is a great interest to me, for both the language and the people.” At a late stage in her life, she was still able to learn the language and received Indian royalty in Urdu. Karim, too, received English lessons and pretty soon was able to communicate with the queen directly.

He also introduced chicken curry with dal and pilau, according to Vanity Fair and Victoria biographer A.N. Wilson, and it became part of the palace’s regular menu.

 

4. The Queen treasured her companion so much that she gifted him with properties.

In 2014, a recently renovated Karim Cottage on the grounds of Balmoral was made available for rent. This was the same property that had served as the Scottish home of the Indian servant; he had already been given private quarters in Windsor and Osborne. She had also granted him land in Agra, India.

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5. They had the most intriguing exchange of letters and addressed each other as if they were mother and son.

While the evidence of their relationship was confiscated or destroyed, letters and diaries later discovered proved how close they deemed one another. Basu told the BBC that the letters wrote to Karim were signed "your closest friend" and "your loving mother." At one point, she even begged him not to resign, saying, “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 learn enough Hindustani from you to speak a little.”


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6. The rest of the royal family and statesmen abhorred him.

The fact that a 20-something Muslim servant who had once waited on the Queen suddenly held so much power and influence threatened the royal court. Private secretary Sir Henry Posonby and the royal doctor Sir James Reid resented the Munshi. The latter officer protested the young Indian’s power and according to the Express, had conspired with the Queen’s own son, future King Edward VII, to convince Her Majesty not to grant Karim a knighthood. Despite conceding to their request, Karim remained by the Queen’s side until her death in 1901.

After the Queen’s death, Karim was deported back to India with his wife. All evidence of their relationship and their personal letters were seized and burned. The properties on royal grounds were taken back from him. With no children of his own to preserve his legacy, Karim kept a diary that detailed his decade with the Queen and this was passed on to relatives until it was brought to public attention by Basu.

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About The Author
Hannah Lazatin
Features Editor
Hannah is originally from Pampanga and from a big, close-knit family who likes to find a reason to get together at the dinner table. Experiences inspire her. “Once, at a restaurant, I received an interpretation of my second name ‘Celina,’ and it meant 'someone who tries everything once' and that is me through and through,” she says. As for the job, she wants her “readers to be inspired by the stories of the people we feature and to move them to reach for greater things.”
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