Karim – Queen Victoria’s Bond With Her “Munshi”

In this article we’ll be looking at the life of Mohammed Abdul Karim, a man hated so much by Queen Victoria’s court, that when she died he was deported back to India.

The Early Life of Karim

Karim was an Indian Muslim born in northern India in 1863. His father was a hospital assistant in a British regiment, and he had one older brother along with four younger sisters. In his young years he was teached both Persian and Urdu. His father eventually left his position in the army, and got a job at the Central Jail in Agra. A few years later Karim also got a job at the same jail, and was married to the sister of a colleague.

How Karim Came to Meet Queen Victoria

In 1887 Queen Victoria was to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, after fifty years on the throne. For this occasion she wished to employ som Indians as servants at the court, and gave John Tyler (superintendent at the Central Jail in Agra) the job of finding to suitable men for the job. Karim was chosen for the job, along with Mohammed Buksh, who had formerly acted as servant. After being teached the necessary manners and the neccesary English, the two men were sent to Britain to serve as Queen Victoria’s table hand.

Within very little time of serving at the Queen’s court, Karim came to the attention of Victoria. We don’t know what exactly Karim did or said to catch the attention of the monarch, however Queen Victoria was known to appreciate male beauty, and Karim was a very handsome man when he arrived in Britain. He began telling her stories of India, a place that the Queen had always had a special interest in, but had been unable to visit because of the long journey to get there. Karim also began learning the Queen some basic Urdu, and even introduced curry for the Queen, something she very much liked.

The other, much younger, is much lighter [than Buksh, the other servant] , tall, and with a 

fine serious countenance. -Queen Victoria describing Karim the day he arrived at court.

The Special Relationship Between Victoria and Karim

The Queen hadn’t really had anyone to confide in since John Brown died in 1883, and this seems to be what she found in Karim. It was clear that Victoria was fond of Karim, and she made sure he got more education in the English language. By 1888, one year after Karim’s arrival, the Queen promoted him after he had complained about still being a servant. His position was now “Munshi”, meaning teacher in Urdu, and his official job was to instruct the Queen in Hindustani, the official language of her Indian subjects. The other Indian servant, Buksh, remained a table hand.

Karim was also put in charge of the rest of the Indian servants, and Victoria’s praise of the Indian c

ontinued. At Balmoral he was given the room that had previously belonged to John Brown.

I am so very fond of him. He is so good & gentle & understanding all I want & is a real comfort to me. -Victoria writing about Karim

In 1888 Karim visited his father in India, and wrote to Victoria that his father was hoping for a pension, and that John Tyler was hoping for a promotion. Victoria therefore wrote to the Viceroy in India, asking for these things to be done. This is one of the examples of how much Karim mattered to Victoria, and indeed also how his position was growing at court. Although Karim had started as a servant, he had quickly gained a name at court, and Queen Victoria wasn’t shy of showing of showing his importance to her. Karim would often either share carriage with Victoria when traveling on the continent, or he would follow Victoria in his very own carriage. Victoria’s fondness of Karim didn’t at all go down well in higher society, however.

Antipathy Against Karim

As Karim continued to gain influence at court the jealousy of other courtiers grew. The high society in Britain simply didn’t see an Indian as being of the same importance as themselves, and they would never even speak to an Indian who wasn’t atleast a prince. Queen Victoria (and of course Karim himself) expected people to treat Karim as an equal, but this didn’t happen. Several conflicts emerged where Karim felt unjustly treated, and the Queen would take his side. She brushed of any criticism of Karim, and even when Karim’s brother-in-law in July 1889 sold a brooch that belonged to the Queen, she accepted his explanation (that Indians normally keep what they find).

In 1890 Victoria gave Karim a piece of land in Agra. This way the Munshi had somewehere to go when the Queen died, because Victoria knew that the Royal Household wouldn’t help him when she passed. Karim expanded this piece of land by buying adjacent property in 1898, and he thereby also showed that he was a wealthy man.

In 1899 Victoria (at this point 80 years of age) appointed Karim Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. In the same year he decided to return to Indfia for a year. When he returned the Queen was frail, and she died only three months later, in 1901. Victoria’s son, King Edward VII, allowed the Munshi to see the body of the queen that he had served for many years, but after that arrangements for the Indian’s leaving were quickly made. Any correspondence between Karim and Victoria was burned, and Karim was put on a ship back to India.

 

Karim’s Last Years

The Munshi lived out the last years oif his live peacefully at his estate in Agra. The future King Geroge V visited him in 1905, and wrote positively of him. Abdul Karim passed away in 1909, and was interred next to his father in the Panchkuin Kabaristan cemetary. He left two wives.

After Karim’s death King Edward VII confiscated the last correspondence between Victoria and Karim at Karim’s house. This was disapproved of however, and some of the letters ended up back in the hands of Karim’s family, who kept them private until 2010.

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