The story of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim: 60 seconds with Shrabani Basu

At the time when the British Empire was at its height, a young Indian clerk called Abdul Karim gained the affection of Queen Victoria, quickly becoming her closest confidant and teacher. In her talk at our York History Weekend this November, Shrabani Basu will tell the story of their controversial relationship, which caused a storm in the royal court but survived the best attempts to destroy it.

Shrabani Basu.

Ahead of her talk, ‘Love in the Time of Empire, the story of Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim’, we caught up with Shrabani to find out more…

 

Q. What can audiences look forward to in your talk?

A. They will hear about a hidden story from history, about the unusual relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant, Abdul Karim.

 

Q. Why are you so fascinated by this topic?

A. I found it fascinating that a young Indian Muslim man was at the centre of the royal court at a time when the British Empire was at its height. It is a part of history that the royal family tried to destroy after Queen Victoria’s death.


Queen Victoria, Empress of India, pictured in Bombay, Mumbai in an illustration from the magazine 'The Graphic', c1877. (De Agostini/Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Getty Images)

Q. Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history.

A. I saw a different side to Queen Victoria; she was not the dour woman dressed in black that we are used to. She was ahead of her time. She had no prejudices of race or class. She defended the Indians against the prejudices of her household, family and the government. She also learnt Urdu from Abdul Karim and could read and write in Urdu by the end of her life.


Portrait of Queen Victoria. (De Agostini/Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Getty Images)

Q. What is the hardest question you’ve ever been asked about your area of expertise?

A. Whether I have ever had to lie to get documents or access! Thank goodness, I haven’t.

But I did sneak into a building pretending to be a resident when I was researching my book Spy Princess: the Life of Noor Inayat Khan. The building was 84 Avenue Foch, Paris, and it was used as a prison by the Gestapo. I knew that Noor Inayat Khan, the SOE agent (Special Operations Executive), was imprisoned in the attic rooms. The building is a private building now. I wrote formally asking for access, but never got a reply. Once I was outside the building, I just had to go in. It is one of those gated Parisian buildings. I saw a resident entering, and just followed him in. The marble staircases were exactly the same as from that period. It made me shudder to think that the residents had no idea what the building was used for.

 

Q. If you could go back in time to meet one historical figure, who would you choose and why? 

A. Noor Inayat Khan. She is my heroine.


Britain's Princess Anne unveils a sculpture of Noor Inayat Khan. Dubbed the 'spy princess', Kahn was sent into occupied France in the Second World War to help the resistance. (LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Q. If you could go back in time to witness one moment in history, what would you choose and why?

A. I would like to be in the room where Jawahar Lal Nehru made his famous 'Tryst with Destiny' speech at the stroke of midnight on 15 August on India's Independence Day. It still brings a catch to my throat when I hear it. Incidentally, my birthday also falls on 15 August (not 1947), so it’s a special day for me.

 

Q. What historical mystery would you most like to solve?

A. Jack the Ripper


Illustration shows the police discovering the body of one of the victims of Victorian serial killer, Jack the Ripper, c1888. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Q. What job do you think you would be doing now if you weren’t a historian/author?

A. Anything that involved travel. A diplomat maybe, or a history guide.

Shrabani Basu is a journalist and author whose books include For King and Another Country and Curry: the Story of the Nation’s Favourite Dish. She will be speaking about Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim at BBC History Magazine’s York History Weekend on Sunday 26 November.

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