Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim: Royal Scandal
Queen Victoria’s Loves: Abdul Karim
Many people know about Victoria’s attachment to her servant John Brown but an relationship that is not as well known is her affection and friendship with a young Indian, Abdul Karim.
This story tells us many things but mostly, it reveals that the queen was a woman ahead of her time. The word ‘Victorian’ when applied to the feelings of the day tend to suggest staid, dour and insular opinions. The relationship between Victoria and Karim shows that this was far from the case as far as the queen was concerned.
Her courtiers, household and family were another matter, however. This was so much so that her eldest son threatened to have his mother declared insane. What had she done that was so terrible?
The men in the queen's life
Victoria was a strong-minded woman. Even as a child she was intelligent and forceful. But she was also a woman who enjoyed the company of men.
There's no doubt that her husband Prince Albert (pictured on the right) was the love of her life. He was also her supporter in her work life, as well as her partner.
I suspect that Victoria was a passionate woman.
Her diaries show entries about Albert which are definitely written by a woman of passion. Scroll down to see an extract from her diary.
When Albert died at the young age of only forty-two, the queen was inconsolable. She had lost her husband, her lover, her best friend and her confidante.
The story of Queen Victoria and John Brown is well known. He was an employee at Balmoral. Victoria was surrounded by male courtiers, advisors and peers of the realm but the one man she developed a close friendship with in her widowhood was Brown.
The queen liked men who were forthright - Albert certainly had been. Men who were deferential were to be expected but Brown would tell the queen exactly what he thought, even if these were things another person would dare to utter.
This is not to imply that their relationship was anything other than friendship but it was extremely valued by the queen who again, was heartbroken when she lost him too at the age of only fifty-six.
The Queen and the Munshi
Even though she was the Empress of India, the queen had never traveled to the country. Nevertheless, it fascinated her.
She was always pleased to entertain Indian princes when they visited England, so much so that it was deemed that for her to have a couple of Indian servants in her own household was an excellent idea.
One of these, who traveled to Britain, was Abdul Karim. In his homeland, he worked as a clerk in the local jail.
He was only twenty four when he was chosen to be a royal servant - and exceptionally good looking, wearing exotic Indian garb. The queen was instantly fascinated.
Initially, Abdul was a servant waiting on table and other menial jobs which he felt were completely beneath him, but the queen soon promoted him. She appointed him her 'munshi' (teacher) and he instructed her in Hindustani.
He oversaw the making of the Indian meals which the queen adored. He was with her at all times and even accompanied her when she went on royal tours.
Increasingly, he became an important part of her life which created outrage. This time, there was little suspicion about the nature of the relationship because of the huge age difference but tongues still wagged.
Part of the household's outrage was more than just Abdul's rapid rise within the hierarchy - it was felt that the relationship was unseemly because of his race and his religion.
She bestowed more and more favours upon him. She commissioned a fine painting of Karim. She had a cottage built for him within the grounds of Balmoral. Abdul now had his own servants. She had his wife brought over from India. When she discovered that the couple were not able to conceive, she sent her own private physician to investigate.
It was thought that matters had come to a head when Victoria and Abdul spent the night together at Glassalt Shiel, a property she had stayed in with John Brown.
But the final blow to the household and the queen's family was when she announced that she intended to knight Abdul.
This was deemed intolerable - largely because of:
- His lowly birth
- His race
- His religion
The queen pooh-poohed everyone's objections. As the celebrations for her Golden Jubilee approached, she astounded everyone by stating that she would take no part in any of the ceremonies or services if she didn't get her own way.
It was at this stage that her son (later Edward VII) and her private doctor made their own announcement - that they would declare the queen insane if she went ahead with her plans.
On the right, you'll see what her doctor said to her after conspiring with her eldest son.
Victoria had no option but to give in. She attended the jubilee celebrations but with Abdul at her side.
Abdul had, over the fifteen years he had been with the queen, acquired his own wealth. But when Victoria died, he realised that it was just as well.
The new sovereign, Edward VII who had plotted to have her declared insane, had all her letters and documents that had any mention of Karim, destroyed.
The discovery of Karim's diary
In 2010, author Shrabani Basu wrote about the relationship between the queen and the Indian. She travelled to India to promote the book there.
She was contacted, via the British Council, that an eighty five year old woman who was a relative of Abdul's had in her possession his diaries which covered the period he spent with Queen Victoria.
Once the author had access to these, she updated the book - the one you see here. It's important that, if you want to learn more about this fascinating story, you read the 2011 edition, which is the edited version.
She came to two important conclusions:
- The first was to clear Abdul's name. The people who objected to his relationship with the queen spread the word that not only was he a money-grabbing social climber, he also interfered with Indian policy via his special relationship with the queen. It was said that he influenced her to be pro-Muslim
- The second was to make us re-think our opinion of Victoria. Far from being straightlaced, she abhorred the prejudice that was shown by her family and courtiers. She was a woman ahead of her time who believed in equality for all.
Below see a video of the author speaking about this book.
The passion of Queen Victoria
Above you see part of Victoria's diary entry for the day after her marriage to Prince Albert. It seems that they continued to enjoy a happy married life.
It's well known that she hated pregnancy and childbirth. She wasn't even particularly fond of babies and children.
And yet the fact that she and Albert had nine children demonstrates only too well that her passion continued.
On the death of John Brown
Victoria was only twenty years old when she wrote the first diary entry above, referring to her love of Albert.
When John Brown died she was in her sixties and more restrained in her writing. Nevertheless, it can be seen that the loss of John Brown affected her deeply.
Although there was never any evidence that their relationship was anything other than friendship, it is interesting that she mentions his 'power of frame' as is her mention of 'everything she needs'. She also compares it to the death of her husband by using the phrase 'the second time', again demonstrating the strength of her feelings.
The men in Queen Victoria's life
Visit Karim Cottage
Today, the Balmoral estate has several cottages that are available as holiday accommodation. This includes the fully renovated Karim Cottage; the home that Queen Victoria had built for Abdul Karim and one of the reasons why there was so much resentment against him.
The map below gives you some indication of the fabulous location.You can contact the Balmoral estate at this number.
I couldn't complete this article without recommending this fabulous film to you.
Chronicling the relationship between Queen Victoria and John Brown, it stars Dame Judi Dench and Billy Connolly. I highly recommend it.
© 2014 Jackie Jackson
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