Victoria's secret crush: How Queen fell under the spell of Indian servant after death of ghillie companion John Brown
00:39 GMT, 21 April 2012
Abdul Karim painted in 1888
Just imagine. It’s the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year, the eyes of the world are on London… and the Prince of Wales threatens to have his mother declared insane.
Unthinkable Well, that’s what happened to Queen Victoria in 1897 after her Royal Household refused to condone any longer Her Majesty’s shockingly intimate friendship with an Indian servant.
It was a relationship that violated Victorian taboos of race and class, and threatened to destabilise the monarchy and the Empire – yet, although Queen Victoria’s earlier scandalous relationship with her Scottish ghillie [an outdoor servant] John Brown is still common knowledge today, her deep affection for her Muslim servant has been almost forgotten.
A new Channel 4 documentary, Queen
Victoria’s Last Love, rediscovers how, as courtiers plotted to depose
the royal favourite, the nation’s Jubilee celebrations teetered on the
brink of chaos.
began a decade previously, in June 1887, when tall, handsome Abdul
Karim, aged only 24, arrived at court as a ‘khitmagar’, one of two
Indian servants recruited as waiters at the Queen’s table. Queen
Victoria, in her Golden Jubilee year, was 68 and had never recovered
from the loss of her dear Albert some 26 years earlier; moreover, her
only other close male confidant, John Brown, had died in 1883. The Queen
was lonely and in need of male companionship.
‘When he first appeared at court, Abdul looked wonderful in his gorgeous sashes and turbans,’ explains royal biographer Professor Jane Ridley. (Unfortunately, he later became rather fat.) ‘Queen Victoria always had a great appreciation of male beauty. So when she saw him, kissing her feet… how could she resist’
Within weeks Karim was well on his way
to becoming rather more than an ordinary dining-room servant. Kitchen
archives at the Queen’s favourite residence, Osborne House on the Isle
of Wight, reveal that curries featured on the menu every Sunday
‘Had some excellent curry, prepared by
one of my Indian servants,’ the Queen remarked in her diary later that
summer. ‘We know that Abdul Karim and the Indian attendants prepared the
meat, procured their own spices and were given a corner of the main
kitchen to prepare these authentic curry dishes,’ says Michael Hunter,
the curator at Osborne House. Meanwhile, Karim regaled the Queen and
Empress, who had never visited India, with stories and legends from the
land that was the exotic jewel in her crown.
Soon he was teaching her Hindustani, having somehow led the Queen to believe he was a man of some education. ‘Young Abdul teaches me,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘He is a very strict master and a perfect gentleman.’ From then until the end of her life, the elderly Queen kept a daily record of her studies and proved an adept pupil, writing in a neat Hindi hand. Karim became her ‘Munshi’, the Hindi word for teacher.
Strong bond: Queen Victoria at her desk, assisted by Abdul Karim in 1885
But their translation exercise books
betray a more flirtatious relationship. Lucy Worsley, curator of the
Historic Royal Palaces, says, ‘He wrote things like, “The Queen will
miss the Munshi very much. Translate. Hold me tight. Translate.” It does
seem quite personal and intimate.’ The Queen seemed to think of Karim
almost as a son, affectionately signing letters to him as ‘your loving
Her indiscreet affection caused
consternation among the Royal Household, led by the Queen’s private
secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby and her doctor Sir James Reid, who resented
the ambitious young Indian upstart who was breaching all protocol. ‘The
Household had never been used to Indian servants,’ explains the
present-day Lady Reid, who married the royal doctor’s grandson. ‘The
Queen was always worrying about their comfort and Sir James had to have
special tweeds made for them in Indian styles because she wanted them to
The Queen seemed to think of Karim almost as a son, affectionately signing letters to him as ‘your loving mother’
The courtiers’ resentment came to a head
after the Queen promoted Karim to Indian Secretary. Even the Viceroy –
the Earl of Elgin – was nonplussed after receiving an ingratiating
Christmas card from the Munshi in 1894, only to be rebuked by the Queen
for snubbing her favourite when he failed to reciprocate. It wasn’t
simply racism; there was no code of etiquette that enabled a Viceroy to
hobnob with servants. (Victoria, however, had no racial prejudice and
had adopted a little African girl in 1850, providing her with an
education and a generous 250 trousseau when she married.)
The Viceroy now despatched his aide-de-camp – Fritz Ponsonby, son of the Queen’s private secretary – to make some overdue inquiries in Karim’s home town of Agra. The Munshi had given the impression that he was the son of an Indian army surgeon. In fact, he came from a much lowlier background. His father was an apothecary at the local prison, where Karim himself had previously been employed as a clerk. It fell upon Sir James Reid to deliver a blistering put-down: ‘/04/21/article-2132054-029A93240000044D-513_634x415.jpg” width=”634″ height=”415″ alt=”Kitchen archives at the Queen's favourite residence, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, reveal that curries featured on the menu every Sunday lunchtime” class=”blkBorder” />
Kitchen archives at the Queen's favourite residence, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, reveal that curries featured on the menu every Sunday lunchtime
On the eve of the Diamond Jubilee, she even threatened to pull out of the celebrations. The Royal Household delivered an ultimatum, triggered by Dr Reid’s revelation – in an extraordinary breach of professional etiquette –that Karim had contracted a venereal disease. Courtiers threatened to resign rather than allow the Munshi to accompany them on a royal holiday in France. In a fit of rage, the Queen swept everything off her desk.
But then her son Bertie, the Prince of Wales, conspired with Dr Reid and encouraged him to deliver another ultimatum. ‘There are people in high places who know Your Majesty well,’ threatened the brave Scottish doctor when he faced her next day, ‘Who say to me that the only charitable explanation that can be given is that Your Majesty is not sane, and that the time will come when, to save Your Majesty’s memory and reputation, it will be necessary for me to come forward and say so.’
The threat hit home and Queen Victoria was forced to concede defeat. There would be no knighthood for Karim, although he remained at her side throughout the celebrations. However, when she died, in 1901, he was dismissed from Court – just days after attending her funeral – and sent back to India. All his letters and mementos from the Queen were confiscated and destroyed: the new King Edward VII did not look kindly on the Indian servant who had been the last great love of Queen Victoria’s life.
Queen Victoria’s Last Love is on Wednesday at 9pm on Channel 4.