Queen Victoria and Munshi Abdul Karim her Muslim servant
(Mary Evans Picture Library )
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The man who replaced John Brown in the heart of Queen Victoria was an Indian servant by the name of Abdul Karim. He had arrived to be a khitmagrar - to wait at table but quickly became so powerful in Victoria's affections, that on more than one occasion her Royal Household threatened to resign. Victoria ignored this. Abdul Karin was always at her side assisting in her daily administration with letters and most significantly conversing in Hindi and Urdu.
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He was once accused of seeing confidential letters and passing them to a friend connected with the groups starting to press for self government in India. But Victoria would not question his loyalty. Within two years he had moved from the servant quarters to be a member of the Royal Household. She gave him cottages in the grounds of royal palaces, had his family brought to England and nursed him when he was ill.
She knew well that when she died, he must be provided for and did not trust her own people to look after her protégée. So, she instructed the Secretary of State for India, Lord Cross to have land in India put in Abdul Karim's name. Lansdowne, the viceroy, did not choose to involve himself with details of a low born servant. The matter dragged on with the viceroy putting off the execution of her wishes and Victoria writing to make it clear that she found this tiresome. Eventually it was arranged but with little good grace from the viceroy's office. Why was Victoria so struck with Abdul Karim? He was dignified without being British stuffy. She certainly trusted him.
He became a confidant in the way that few other than Henry Ponsoby her private secretary for three decades and her physician James Reid, did. Also, Abdul Karim made her feel like an empress. After Victoria's death he burned papers and never wrote nor told stories that would embarrass her memory. Victoria had made him comfortable and that's how he remained with his medals and memories until his death in 1909. By then, all was changing. It was no longer the empire Victoria had imagined and adored.
Abdul Karim (1863-1909)
Abdul Karim was of low birth and lied about his background. He had emerged from the bazaar of Agra. His family poor. His father pedalled doubtful cures. Certainly he wasn't the doctor of medicine that his son claimed and which the queen firmly believed him to be. When an envoy told Victoria that he had met Abdul Karim's father in India and that he wasn't a medical man as Abdul Karim had said, she told him angrily that he must have met the wrong man. She wrote to him almost daily and signed her letters, Your loving Mother or, Your Affectionate Mother.
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Such was Victoria's feelings about India - a place she never visited - that there were moments when she exhibited pangs of alienation among her own British subjects. When a courtier confronted the Queen with evidence of Abdul Karim's doubtful doings, she is said to have angrily responded that this was typical of "you British".
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Events of this episode took place in the Indian Subcontinent region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:
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Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim
Extracts from Queen Victoria's journal about Abdul Karim.
"Twenty third of June, 1887: Windsor Castle. A very fine morning with a fresh air. Felt very tired. Drove down to Frogmore with Beatrice to breakfast, and met Vicky and young Vicky there. My two Indian servants were there and began to wait. The one, Mohammed Buhsh, very dark with a very smiling expression, has been a servant before with General Dennehy, and also with the Rana of Dholpore; 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."
"Fourth April 1889. The Queen can never praise him enough. He is zealous, attentive, and quiet and gentle, has such intelligence and good sense and (as all the Indians are) entirely intent on his duty and always ready to obey the slightest word or hint given. He will soon be able to copy a good deal for the Queen - even in French - and is an excellent accountant. He is a thorough gentleman in feelings and
"July the eleventh 1890. The other subject she ciphered as having much at heart was what Lord Cross wrote to him about, viz with respect to a grant of land to her really exemplary and excellent young Munshi, Hafiz Abdul Karim, who is quite a confidential servant and most useful to her with her papers, letters, books, etcetera. It is the first time in the world that any Native has ever held such a position, and she is very anxious to mark this permanently - the more so, as the wish to do anything for his good and respectable father, Doctor Wuzeeredin, on account of his age, and smaller and really very unimportant promotions to others of his family, which the queen knows have, over the years, been given to people with less merit by officials who were interested in them. This being the case, the Queen hopes that this will be done as a mark of approbation of the Queen Empress. When the viceroy goes to Agra, the Queen Empress hopes he will see Dr Wuzeeredin and tell him how satisfied she is with his son."
The Viceroy of India's View
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After the land grant to Abdul Karim in India was finally completed, Lord Landsdowne,Viceroy of India, sent a letter to the Queen, part of which is published below
"Agra, November the 26th 1890. In regard to this matter, the Viceroy thinks it is his duty to tell your Majesty that a grant such as that which has been made to Abdul Karim is most rarely bestowed in this country, and then only to officers of very long and meritorious service. As an illustration, he may mention that quite recently one of the men who at the peril of his life, and under withering fire, helped to blow up the Kashmir Gate of Delhi in the Mutiny received on retirement from the service a grant of land yielding only two hundred and fifty rupees for life. Abdul Karim, at the age of twenty six, has received a perpetual grant of land representing an income of more than double that amount in recognition of his services as a member of your Majesty's Household. The Viceroy does not for a moment question that service rendered to the Queen Empress should receive special and signal recognition, but he must protest against such rewards, when they have been given at your Majesty's express desire, being underrated or spoken of as though they were not of serious importance."