Victoria and Abdul: The Actual Story Behind the Queen’s Controversial Relationship with Her Indian Attendant
The relationship between Queen Victoria and her handsome, young Indian attendant Abdul Karim was deemed so controversial and scandalous by her family members that, upon the monarch’s death in 1901, they scrubbed his existence from royal history. According to The Telegraph, Victoria’s son Edward immediately demanded that any letters between the two found on the royal premises be burned. The family evicted Karim from the home the queen had given him, and deported him back to India. Victoria’s daughter Beatrice erased all reference to Karim in the Queen’s journals—a painstaking endeavor given Victoria’s decade-plus relationship with Karim, whom she considered her closest confidante. The royal family’s eradication of Karim was so thorough that a full 100 years would pass before an eagle-eyed journalist noticed a strange clue left in Victoria’s summer home—and her consequential investigation led to the discovery of Victoria’s relationship with Karim.
But why was the relationship so controversial—beyond the interclass curiosity of the Queen of England confiding in a servant—that it warranted full censure?
According to historians, Victoria’s family and staff members exhibited prejudice of the racial and social variety, which compounded with jealousy as Victoria became closer with Karim and afforded him privileges including traveling with her through Europe; titles; honors prime seats at operas and banquets; a private carriage; and personal gifts. The queen entertained Karim’s family members, helped his father get a pension, and enlisted local press to write about him. Victoria also commissioned multiple portraits of Karim—which would be the key to discovering the depth of their relationship (more on that later).
Karim was the only servant to ascend to the queen’s inner circle since the death of her Scottish confidante John Brown, who helped fill a personal void in Victoria’s life after her beloved husband, Albert, died. (Dench also starred as Victoria in the movie adaptation of that tongue-wagging palace relationship, Mrs. Brown—named for the nickname the queen’s staffers gave her behind her back.) Though court members did not approve of Brown’s relationship with the queen, they considered Karim’s friendship far worse.
According to historian Carolly Erickson in Her Little Majesty, “For a dark-skinned Indian to be put very nearly on a level with the queen’s white servants was all but intolerable, for him to eat at the same table with them, to share in their daily lives was viewed as an outrage.”
Did Victoria catch wind of the racist animosity swirling in her palace? She sure did. Her assistant private secretary Fritz Ponsonby ended one letter, which protested Karim’s favored standing, by outlining Victoria’s assessment of the inter-palace resentment: “the Queen says it is ‘race prejudice’ and that we are jealous of the poor Munshi.”
Ahead, more burning questions about Victoria and Karim answered.
How did they meet?
According to Shrabani Basu, the journalist who uncovered this friendship after a 2003 visit to the Queen’s summer home and wrote about it in her book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, the Queen had expressed interest in the Indian territories ahead of her Golden Jubilee in 1887, and specifically requested Indian staff members help serve at a banquet for heads of state. As such, Karim, the son of a hospital assistant living in the North Indian city of Agra, was one of two servants selected and presented to Victoria as “a gift from India” on the occasion of her 50th year on the throne. Karim, who joined Victoria four years after the death of her beloved Brown, quickly set to work for the nearly 80-year-old monarch. Victoria wrote that her first impression of the handsome Karim was that he was “tall with a fine serious countenance.”
What did they bond over?
At Victoria’s summer home on the Isle of Wight, shortly after the Golden Jubilee, Karim impressed the monarch by cooking her chicken curry with dal and pilau. According to Victoria biographer AN Wilson, the queen enjoyed the dish so much that she incorporated it into her regular meal rotation.
As she became more interested in the culture, she asked Karim to teach her Urdu—then known as Hindustani.
“Am learning a few words of Hindustani to speak to my servants,” Victoria wrote in her diaries. “It is a great interest to me, for both the language and the people.” In order to better communicate with Karim, she also insisted that he double down on English lessons until the two were able to communicate directly with each other. Though he was hired as a servant, Victoria quickly promoted him to “Munshi and Indian Clerk to the Queen Empress” at a monthly salary of 12 pounds. He was later promoted to a highly decorated secretary.
As for what the Queen saw in Karim, beyond his provenance, Basu told The Telegraph, “He spoke to her as a human being and not as the Queen. Everyone else kept their distance from her, even her own children, and this young Indian came with an innocence about him. He told her about India, his family and was there to listen when she complained about her own family.”
“I am so very fond of him,” Victoria wrote. “He is so good and gentle and understanding. . . and is a real comfort to me.”
How close were they?
“In letters to him over the years between his arrival in the UK and her death in 1901, the queen signed letters to him as ‘your loving mother’ and ‘your closest friend,'” Basu told the BBC in 2011. “On some occasions, she even signed off her letters with a flurry of kisses—a highly unusual thing to do at that time. It was unquestionably a passionate relationship—a relationship which I think operated on many different layers in addition to the mother-and-son ties between a young Indian man and a woman who at the time was over 60 years old.”