Queen Victoria's Indian confidant: An interview with Shrabani Basu

In the latter years of her reign, Queen Victoria developed a surprising and controversial friendship with Abdul Karim, an Indian servant. To mark the release of a new film about the episode, Ellie Cawthorne talks to Shrabani Basu, author of the book on which the movie is based...
 
This article was first published in the October/November 2017 issue of BBC World Histories Magazine.
A new film released this September, starring Judi Dench as the Queen and Ali Fazal as Abdul, shines a light on the little-known relationship between Victoria and her Munshi. (Movie Stills DB)
 

As Queen Victoria celebrated her golden jubilee in 1887, the British empire was approaching its zenith, encompassing a fifth of the globe. Keen to flaunt its imperial splendour, the royal household transported subjects from across the globe to take part in the celebrations. One of those brought to England was 24-year-old Indian jail clerk Abdul Karim, who was chosen to wait on Victoria and present her with a ceremonial Mughal coin. Here, Shrabani Basu discusses their relationship... 

 

Q. Did Victoria and Abdul strike up a rapport straight away?

A. Yes – the queen noticed Abdul immediately. She even recorded their very first meeting in her journal, describing him as “much fairer [than his fellow attendant Mohammed Buksh] with a fine countenance”. Very quickly, she arranged for Abdul to have extra English lessons so that she could speak with him more. Soon after, she asked him to teach her Hindustani (Urdu). 

 

Q. How did the relationship develop?

A. It all happened very quickly. Abdul had absolutely no experience as a servant, and no wish to stay in England, but within a year he held a key role in the royal household. 

He became known as Victoria’s Munshi (teacher) and went on to teach Urdu to the queen for the next 13 years. Victoria wrote in her Hindustani journal every day, no matter where she was. Even if Abdul was ill, Victoria would take the diary to his house so that she could still take her lessons. 

Adbul was not only Victoria’s Munshi but also a close friend and confidant. He clearly meant a lot to her on a personal level: she even kept a photo of him in her dressing room.

A 19th-century portrait of Queen Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Empress of India. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

 

Q. What was it about Abdul that appealed to Victoria so much?

A. People always say it’s loneliest at the top. Following the death of [her loyal Scottish companion] John Brown four years earlier, Victoria was incredibly isolated. Abdul was a breath of fresh air. Perhaps because he was so young, he didn’t have the stuffy formality of the rest of her household. He very quickly crossed that barrier and spoke to the queen like a friend rather than a servant. 

Victoria entered a new world with Abdul – he opened the door to an Indian wonderland. Because the queen was never able to visit his country, Abdul brought its colours and culture to her. 

Abdul told Victoria about Holi (the festival of colours) and Diwali (the festival of lights), and shared stories from Indian history. Victoria particularly loved hearing about Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his dead wife. She found this story incredibly romantic; it reminded her of the elaborate tomb she had built for Prince Albert.

Suddenly, the queen had something to look forward to – discovering spicy food, speaking a new language and delving into an entirely alien culture. She even set about building an ornate Durbar Room in Osborne House, inspired by the courts of Indian rulers and decorated with both Hindu and Muslim artwork. All of this energised her; it gave her a new lease of life.

Abdul was equally fascinated by England and Europe. He especially loved English hunts and the scenery of Scotland, which reminded him of the mountains around Kabul. There were some cultural differences, though – he was quite disapproving and moralistic about all of the drinking that went on.

 

Q. Abdul faced opposition from Victoria’s household. Why? Was it simply because he was Indian,or were other factors involved?

A. As well as being Indian, Abdul was a commoner, so both nationality and class caused concerns. Another issue was that he was Muslim. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was seen as a predominantly Muslim-led revolt, so there was a strong mistrust of Muslims in the British establishment.

The fact that an Indian Muslim from a low class could be so close to the queen offended the whole royal household, from Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting to her son Bertie, the Prince of Wales. They were absolutely appalled that Victoria lavished Abdul with titles, houses, and land back in Agra. So the whole establishment was out to get him. They tried to pin various accusations on him, insinuating that he might be passing information to a friend in the Muslim Patriotic League, or could even be a spy for the Emir of Afghanistan. Of course, there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support any of these accusations.

 

Q. What was happening back in India at the time?

A. In 1858 the East India Company’s power was transferred to the crown (the company was dissolved in 1874), and in 1876 Victoria became empress of India. By the time she met Abdul, 30 years had passed since the 1857 rebellion, but an independence movement was stirring, with growing demands for home rule and for Muslim minorities to be represented.

 

Q. Did the relationship have an impact in India?

A. As well as describing Indian culture, Abdul kept Victoria up to date on his country’s political situation. He told her about the tensions between Muslims and Hindus, and the attitudes of ordinary people towards the British administration. The queen trusted Abdul to give her an authentic voice from the streets, rather than the filtered version of events she would get from her household. Though the monarch’s political power was largely symbolic, Victoria frequently wrote to the viceroy of India about issues that Abdul had brought to her attention. For example, she demanded to know what was being done to prevent riots.

The Victoria Memorial in Calcutta [now Kolkata]. Donations to build the memorial poured in, as “many Indian people appreciated the fact that the queen had made so much effort to engage with their culture,” says Shrabani Basu. (Getty)

 

The connection also helped endear Victoria to the Indian public. Many people appreciated the fact that the queen had made so much effort to engage with their culture. When the viceroy was raising funds for a memorial to the queen in Calcutta [now Kolkata], he highlighted her friendship with the Munshi, and the fact that she learnt Urdu. Money poured in, and the edifice that it built is now the biggest memorial to Victoria anywhere in the world. 

 

Q. Why has this story gone under the radar for so long?

A. After Victoria’s death, the royal household came down very heavily on the Munshi. Bertie (by that time, crowned King Edward VII) ordered a raid on Abdul’s house, seizing his letters from Victoria and burning them on a bonfire. After 13 years of devoted service to the queen, Abdul was treated like a common criminal. He wasn’t the only one sent packing, though; Victoria had many Indian servants, all of whom were thrown out unceremoniously.

If Edward VII’s aim was to delete the Munshi from history, he did a good job. Abdul disappeared from the history books. It took me four years to piece together his story; the trail was incredibly difficult to follow. No one had looked at his diary for 100 years, and even his descendants didn’t know the location of his grave, which I discovered in a desolate, overgrown graveyard. That is the extent to which he had been forgotten.

This colourful story has also been erased from the accepted narrative about Victoria. For a long time, most people did not know that the queen could read and write Urdu – western biographers hadn’t bothered to open her beautifully kept Hindustani Journals because they couldn’t read the language.

At the heart of this story is a young Muslim man holding a key position, at the height of empire – and I think that’s fascinating. It’s important that this story is told, despite all the attempts to suppress it. 

Shrabani Basu is the author of Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant (The History Press, 2010). The film based on her book was released in September. 
 
Issue 7 of BBC World Histories Magazine goes on sale tomorrow (8 November), featuring articles on America's turbulent past, Aztec myths and more.
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