On 23 June 1887, two Indians served Queen Victoria breakfast in Frogmore House at Windsor. Queen Victoria was enchanted by the younger of the two – Abdul Karim. He would go on to serve her for over a decade.
Abdul Karim was born in 1863 to Haji Mohammed Waziruddin, and he was just 13 years old when Queen Victoria was given the title Empress of India. As an adult, Abdul took up a position as a vernacular clerk to the superintendent of the Central Jail in Agra, where his father was also employed. His marriage to a sister of a coworker was arranged, and the family became well-known in Agra. Then came the day that Abdul was called to his superintendent. Abdul had helped select carpets from the jail’s carpet weavers for an exhibition, and Queen Victoria had been impressed by them. During the superintendent’s trip to England, Queen Victoria had discussed with him the possibility of employing Indians servants during Jubilee celebrations where Indian Princes were also invited. The superintendent believed Abdul was the right person for the job and Abdul believed it to be a dream come true.
Abdul received a crash course in English social customs, etiquette and the English language. His travelling companion would be Mohammed Buksh, who would be the Queen’s extra groom-in-waiting. After a long boat trip where Abdul was often seasick, they arrived in London to the appropriately named Victoria Hotel. As Abdul and Mohammed served Queen Victoria her breakfast, she was delighted by their tunics and white turbans. They bent down to kiss her feet, and Victoria was sold. She later wrote, “The Indians always wait now and do so, so well and quietly.” Soon, she was asking Abdul to teach her Hindustani. During these times, he would also tell her about India and the story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. They were soon in the court routine and went along as the court moved around the residences. Abdul learned from the lessons as well, and he was soon speaking English well enough to help Victoria with her papers.
The rise of Abdul soon began to be noticed by the Royal Household, and they were reminded of John Brown – The Queen’s Highland servant – who had died in 1883. She had come to lean on John Brown after the death of Prince Albert, and now she was leaning on Abdul. The Royal Household was wary of him. Meanwhile, Abdul wanted to go home – the year was almost up. The Queen was petitioned, and she wrote back, “I am sorry you think you cannot remain permanently in my service, but I quite understand your motives and feel you are right.”
Nevertheless, she asked him to remain another year, and he soon had an elevated position among the servants. In August of 1888, he was appointed a Munshi. Queen Victoria was clearly trying to make him stay longer, and it was working. It was inevitable that the Royal Household began to resent him and Abdul believed himself to be more important than the rest. He was also given John Brown’s old room. When Abdul fell ill in early 1890, Queen Victoria was very anxious, and she began to visit him twice a day.
When Queen Victoria realised how the Royal Household felt about Abdul, she tried to make sure he would be comfortable when she passed away. She began trying to get him a generous grant of land in India. The distance between India and England meant that it took quite some time before Victoria got her way. In May 1892, after a visit to India, Abdul brought back his wife and his mother to England. Victoria wrote excitedly to her eldest daughter, “I don’t think I told you of the two Indian ladies who are here now, and who are, I believe, the first Mohammedan purdah ladies who ever came over… and keep their custom of complete seclusion and of being entirely covered when they go out, except for the holes for their eyes.” Victoria soon became a regular visitor to Abdul’s wife in their new cottage. When she learned that they had not been able to conceive children, she got them medical advice.
The Royal Household was still not happy with Abdul, and they began to discredit him, even though by now they knew that Victoria would continue to stand up for him. There were rumours that he was linked to radical Muslim groups and that he was a spy. Even members of the Royal Family disliked his position, but Victoria paid them no attention. Slowly but surely, a dossier was being compiled on Abdul. In 1897, the physician revealed that he had been treating Abdul for venereal disease and the Royal Household absolutely refused to dine with him. It was a full out revolt. Queen Victoria was outraged and dramatically swept off the contents of her desk. The Household was shocked but continued to threaten their resignation if he stayed on. Once again, Victoria won the battle.
Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was fast approaching and also Abdul’s ten years of service. Victoria had wanted to knight Abdul but was advised against it, and now she wanted to grant him the MVO (Member of the Royal Victorian Order). This too was railed against, and Victoria found the tension of the last few months very tiring. In October, a photo appeared in the press with Abdul looking directly at the camera while Queen Victoria worked beside him. The Royal Household was furious, and Victoria was annoyed at the publication.
On 7 November 1900, Queen Victoria last wrote in her Hindustani Journal, and she was soon seriously ill. On 22 January 1901, she passed away peacefully. Abdul was allowed to see her body before the coffin was closed. After the funeral, the new King demanded all of Victoria’s letters from Abdul and had them burned in a bonfire. Abdul was ordered to leave the country. He was visited by the future King George V in Agra in 1905 who wrote, “I am told he lives quite quietly here and gives no trouble at all.” Abdul died in April 1909, and King Edward VII asked for any remaining correspondence to be destroyed.1