The true story of Queen Victoria’s friendship with Abdul Karim

Judi Dench and Ali Fazal star in 2017 film depicting the monarch’s relationship with her servant

Sabrina Barr
Sunday 24 May 2020 09:25
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Victoria And Abdul - Trailer

As the second-longest reigning monarch in history, much is known about the life of Queen Victoria, her stoic demeanour, her marriage to Prince Albert and their shared interest in the arts to name a few.

However, in 2017 the release of a film titled Victoria and Abdul brought another side of the monarch to light — a close connection she forged with a young Indian man called Abdul Karim in the final years of her life.

The film, which stars Judi Dench as the monarch and Ali Fazal as her confidant, is based on a book written by historian Shrabani Basu of the same name. It explores how the pair came to be in each other’s lives, how their relationship endured over the years and the obstacles they faced from disapproving members of the royal household.

Here is the true story of Queen Victoria’s friendship with Abdul Karim:

Where did Karim grow up?

Karim, whose full name was Mohammed Abdul Karim, was born in India in 1863, Basu stated in her book. Growing up in a Muslim household, he was the second of six children, with one older brother and four younger sisters. His father worked as a hospital assistant for a regiment in the British army.

As a child, Karim was tutored in Persian and Urdu, going on to work as a clerk at a jail in Agra, where his father was also employed.

The prison ran a rehabilitation programme for inmates, where they were trained in the art of carpet wearing. In 1886, some were granted the opportunity to travel across the globe to London, where their skills were displayed at an exhibition. The prisoners who went on the trip were chosen with the help of Karim.

Queen Victoria, then in her late sixties, visited the exhibition. Afterwards, the monarch, who was also Empress of India, told the jail's superintendent that she wished to employ two Indian servants, as recorded in a note to Lord Landsdowne included in Basu's book. The two servants would work for her during her Golden Jubilee year, marking 50 years since her accession to the throne.

After being chosen as one of the two servants, Karim was taught English and learnt about British manners before meeting the Queen. He was employed alongside a man called Mohammed Buksh.

How did Karim and Queen Victoria first meet?

When Karim first travelled to England, he waited on the Queen at Frogmore House in Windsor, which hosted the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's wedding reception May 2018. It has been a favoured royal retreat for more than 300 years.

Shortly after her first meeting with Karim, Queen Victoria revealed in her diary that she had started learning some words in Hindustani after becoming acquainted with her two new servants. “It is a great interest to me for both the language and the people, I have naturally never come into real contact with before,” she wrote, as recorded in Basu’s book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story Of The Queen’s Closest Confidant.

Kari soon began teaching the Queen Urdu, one of the major languages spoken in South Asia and now the national language of Pakistan. From there, their relationship went from strength to strength.

In 1888, the year after Karim had arrived in England for the Golden Jubilee, Queen Victoria granted him a new position, titled “Munshi”, to signify his role as her personal language teacher. However, their conversations did not solely concern language. The pair also talked about subjects including philosophy and politics, Karim’s biographer, Sushila Anand, said.

Throughout their 14-year friendship, which lasted until Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, the monarch made her fondness for Karim apparent. As part of his role in the royal household, he supervised other Indian servants, and was assigned a room at the Queen’s estate Balmoral Castle in Scotland. And in 1899, Karim was appointed a commander of the order (CVO), an honour given to him on the monarch's 80th birthday, as reported in the London Gazette on 30 May that year.

However, other members of the royal family did not share the monarch’s affinity for the young man, making it clear they did not wish to treat him above the rank of servant. And when they expressed their dislike for Karim, the Queen stood her ground in his defence.

How did the royal household react to the development of their relationship?

One of the reasons why many may not have been aware of Queen Victoria’s friendship with Karim was because much of their correspondence was burned. Having made his disapproval for Karim clear during the Queen’s lifetime, following her death, her eldest son, Edward, ordered that letters sent between the pair be destroyed, Anand and Basu wrote in their literary works about Karim's life.

Individuals in the royal household had not approved of the “rapid advancement” of Karim to Queen Victoria’s close confidant, stated the monarch’s biographer Carolly Erickson in Her Little Majesty: The Life of Queen Victoria, who said that “his race made all emotions run hotter against him”.

“Racialism was a scourge of the age; it went hand in hand with belief in the appropriateness of Britain’s global dominion. For a dark-skinned Indian to be put very nearly on a level with the queen’s white servants was all but intolerable, for him to eat at the same table as them, to share in their daily lives was viewed as an outrage,” Erickson wrote.

Basu, author of Victoria and Abdul, told Time that she uncovered private papers written by members of the Queen’s household, including the monarch’s doctor, Sir James Reid. In one paper, Reid made his objection to Karim abundantly clear, writing that the Queen had developed “Munshi mania”.

The historian stated that Karim has been portrayed as a “rogue” in Western biographies, as an individual “who manipulated the Queen and got famous”, which is why she wanted to investigate his life and his relationship with Queen Victoria in greater detail.

How is their friendship remembered?

Basu first gained an interest in Karim after spotting a painting of him at Osborne House in the Isle of Wight, a former residence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. “I knew that Abdul Karim had come from India to England to serve Queen Victoria in 1887, but the portraits told me he’d been painted as a noble man”, she said, noting that he had been painted “beautifully, in red and gold”, and depicted holding a book.

After conducting research into Karim’s life, Basu thought that all correspondence between him and Queen Victoria had been destroyed, as per King Edward VII’s orders. However, she managed to get in touch with Karim’s descendants, who revealed they had kept his journals safe. Karim did not have any children of his own, as he and his wife were unable to conceive, so his descendants came from his relatives.

“When [the journals] were handed over to me, it was an amazing moment,” Basu said. “There’s a line in one that says, ‘Whoever’s hand this falls into, I hope they like this story.’ And after over a hundred years it had fallen into my hands.”

Having already written a book about Queen Victoria and Karim, the discovery of his journals spurred Basu to revise the publication for a second edition. This book became the basis for the 2017 film Victoria and Abdul, in which Dench and Fazal star. Although the film offers a fictionalised version of their friendship, Basu stressed that the events that take place in the feature did occur.

“The thing is, it’s not fiction — it’s fact. Whatever is being shown on screen actually happened — it’s not some cooked-up ‘jewel in the crown’ Raj nostalgia story. This happened. Queen Victoria learned Urdu, she wanted her mango and she stood by Abdul Karim. It sounds like a fantasy, but it isn’t.”

Victoria and Abdul is being shown on BBC2 on Saturday 11 April at 9.15pm.

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