Reviewed by: Stephen Halliday
Author: Shrabani Basu
Publisher: History Press
Price (RRP): £18.99
Two themes emerge from this account of the relationship between Abdul Karim and Queen Victoria. The first is the strength, indeed obstinacy, of the queen and her complete freedom from racist sentiments. The other is the wimpishness of her courtiers.
Abdul was sent to England to wait at the queen’s table during the 1887 Golden Jubilee celebrations when the 68-year-old monarch wanted servants who reminded her of her status as Empress of India. The handsome young Indian quickly became her confidante, replacing in that capacity John Brown, who had died four years earlier. Abdul cooked curry for Victoria, which quickly became a favourite dish, and taught her Hindustani, thereby gaining the title of Munshi or teacher. He showed enterprise in acquiring status, land, homes and honours. The queen’s wish to grant him a knighthood was frustrated only by her courtiers’ insistence that, since the Munshi was a Muslim, it would antagonise Victoria’s Hindu subjects.
Abdul’s influence, notably on behalf of Muslims in Indian affairs, antagonised the queen’s family and courtiers who lamented “the advance of the Black brigade”. Many threatened to resign when Victoria announced that the Munshi would accompany the royal party to Nice in 1897 (while he was being treated for VD). Faced with the ultimatum the queen, aged 78, started to throw things and the courtiers backed down.
The author has, incidentally, traced the origin of the phrase “We are not amused” to a risque joke told over dinner. A charming tale which should have been told before.
Stephen Halliday is the author of The Great Stink of London (The History Press Ltd, 2001)