Abdul Kareem, Munshi, secretary and “loving son” to Queen Victoria is the subject of the film”Victoria and Albert”, little is known about the Queen’s final companion before her death, except perhaps the royal household’s discomfort at their closeness.
Abdul Kareem was born near Jhansi in British India, the son of a hospital assistant. In 1887, Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year, he was one of two Indians selected to become servants to the Queen Victoria, who came to like him a great deal and gave him the title of “Munshi”, an Urdu word often translated as “clerk” or “teacher”.
According to Abdul Kareem’s biographer Sushila Anand, Queen Victoria’s own letters testify that “her discussions with the Munshi were wide-ranging—philosophical, political and practical. Both head and heart were engaged. There is no doubt that Queen Victoria found in Abdul Kareem a connection with the world that was fascinatingly alien, and a confidant who would not feed her the official line.”
When Abdul Kareem Arrived in the UK he once threatened to leave but was begged by Victoria not to leave and to stay a little longer until she could learn the “Hindustani” language from him and their friendship continued to flourish. He taught her how to write in Urdu and Hindi, introduced her to curry – which became a daily item on the royal menu – and eventually became her highly decorated secretary.
Their closeness triggered a great deal of hostility from the Royal Household, similar to when Queen Victoria developed a close relationship with John Brown, her loyal friend and servant who had died a few years earlier, “If the royal household hated Brown, it absolutely abhorred Abdul Kareem.” author Shrabani Basu told the BBC. Despite this opposition, Abdul Kareem still rose quickly through the ranks and was rewarded by land and wealth in India and seniority in the staff by Queen Victoria.
“The rapid advancement and personal arrogance of the Munshi would inevitably have led to his unpopularity, but the fact of his race made all emotions run hotter against him. Racialism was a scourge of the age; it went hand in hand with belief in the appropriateness of Britain’s global dominion. 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 as them, to share in their daily lives was viewed as an outrage. Yet the queen was determined to impose harmony on her household. Race hatred was intolerable to her, and the “dear good Munshi” deserving of nothing but respect. –“Erickson, Carolly (2002)
After Queen Victoria’s death, her son, Edward VII, dismissed the Munshi and his relatives from the court and had them sent back to India. However, Edward did allow the Munshi to be the last to view Victoria’s body before her casket was closed and to be part of her funeral procession.
Abdul Kareem died at home in India, at Kareem Lodging’s in 1909, he was survived by two wives and as he had no children of his own he left his wealth to his nieces and nephews. When partition took place in India in 1949, Abdul Kareem’s family like other Muslims left India for Pakistan and Kareem lodgings was confiscated by the British government and redistributed amongst Hindu refugees from Pakistan.
“In letters to him over the years, between his arrival in the UK and her death in 1901, the queen signed them as ‘your loving mother’ and ‘your closest friend’,” author Shrabani Basu told the BBC.