As regular readers may be aware, I am putting out tentative feelers in the way of free-lance writing. Amongst the first of my commissions is to write a series of articles for The Muslim Academy Website which is a not for profit organisation set up to create cross cultural discussion promote the sometimes lesser known aspects of the Muslim world to a western audience. This is one of my short articles.
In the mid 19thC Queen Victoria oversaw and empire on which the sun never set and it was a well known fact that she saw India as the ‘Jewel in the Crown’. What is less well known however is her fondness for her Munshi or Teacher and the great influence that he had over both her and it threatened to destabilise, the Monarchy, Great Britain and the Empire itself.
Ever since Queen Victoria was proclaimed the Empress of India she became intrigued by the country, its many cultures, traditions and religions. In June 1887 Abdul Karim arrived at her palace to serve as one of two “Khitmagars”, a table waiter. He was 24 years of age, tall and dark and was very much a striking individual in terms of his appearance.
Queen Victoria was a lonely figure, in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert who had died so many years earlier and then once more grieving over the death of her servant and close friend John Brown who spent many years with her in the Highlands of Scotland, some have even alleged that they had shared intimate moments, something most uncouth and unbecoming of anyone in Victorian Britain, let alone the Queen. As such, the Royal Court and British government were all ready on edge at the possibility the Queen may repeat such a relationship.
Queen Victoria however was the Queen and what she said and did was what counted and she had no such worries. She took her duties as Queen seriously and as far as could be possible in those less enlightened times wanted to treat all her subjects with care and equality, providing they accepted her as the monarch.
Within weeks, Abdul Karim was becoming her favourite servant and he introduced Victoria to the future staple meal of many British, the Curry with authentic spices and such. Soon he began to teach the Queen Hindi and Urdu, languages which Victoria became fluent in and would eventually write to her Munshi in these languages several times a day.
The Queen was always very anxious that her Indian staff were comfortable and well cared for. She would ensure that on her trips to the chilly Scottish mountains that they all had extra warm clothing and blankets to keep warm at night.
This all caused uproar in the circles of government. Not so much because of race or colour but simply it was not the correct etiquette for the Queen to be close to any of her staff.
Abdul Karim himself had not been entirely honest with the Queen and led her to believe he was from a better family background than was true and when he saw how the Queen liked and indeed relied on him, he threatened to leave unless he was given a much higher official status.
He would see ever letter the Queen ever wrote and soon began advising the Queen on how to treat disputes between Hindus and Muslims in India, the Viceroy of India noticed that most of his advise favoured Muslims as Karim himself was Muslim.
It was left to Sir James Reid to deliver a terrible yet beguiling authentic put-down: ‘By your presumption and arrogance you have created for yourself a situation that can no longer be permitted to exist,’ he thundered. ‘You are an impostor. You are from a low class and never can be a gentleman.’ All this at a time when the Queen wanted to give Abdul Karim a knighthood.
Things came to a head in 1897 on the Queens Diamond Jubilee when with the world watching and global dignitaries in attendance in London, the Queen threatened to pull out whilst her Royal staff threatened to go on strike.
The Prince of Wales plotted with Dr Reid and encouraged him to deliver another ultimatum. ‘There are people in high places who know Your Majesty well,’ threatened the brave Scottish doctor when he faced her next day, ‘Who say to me that the only charitable explanation that can be given is that Your Majesty is not sane, and that the time will come when, to save Your Majesty’s memory and reputation, it will be necessary for me to come forward and say so.’ The threat was serious and Queen Victoria was forced to admit defeat.
There would be no knighthood for Abdul Karim, although he remained at her side throughout the celebrations. However, when she died, in 1901, he was dismissed from Court just days after attending her funeral and sent back to India. All his letters and mementos from the Queen were confiscated and destroyed. The new King Edward VII did not look kindly on the Indian servant who had been the last great love of Queen Victoria’s life. Abdul Karim from the son of an Indian prison doctor to one of the most important men in the British Empire and introduced the Queen and in a way the much of Britain and her empire to Islam and the cultures, tastes and styles of India.