Queen Victoria was widowed in 1861 following the death of her beloved husband Prince Albert. Famously, she never remarried before her own death 40 years later. And while there was a well-known, though undefined, relationship with John Brown, a servant from the Scottish Highlands, he too died in 1883. Only recently, however, has it has been revealed that Victoria had another close relationship after Brown – one that her family successfully conspired to conceal after her death.
Alexandrina Victoria was born in 1819 at London’s Kensington Palace. She succeeded to the British throne aged 18 in 1837 on the death of her uncle William IV. Victoria only became queen because three of her uncles who were heirs to the throne all died and left behind no legitimate children.
Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840. Born in the same year as her, Albert was her first cousin. And, by all accounts, the young Queen was love-struck. After the wedding, she wrote in her diary, “He clasped me in his arms, and we kissed each other again and again! His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness – really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a husband!”
Then, just two months after the wedding, Victoria was pregnant. She went on to have nine children – not an unusual number during the Victorian era. In 1861, however, tragedy struck when Albert died. Contemporary physicians diagnosed typhoid. However modern medics have speculated that another ailment – such as kidney failure or stomach cancer – may have killed him.
Victoria was devastated at Albert’s premature death at the age of 42, and she now donned the black widow’s garb that she would wear for the rest of her life. There is no evidence that she had physical relations with any other man after Albert died. But her relationship with one servant, Scotsman John Brown, did raise a few eyebrows.
Victoria and Brown were close during the 1860s; however, there is no evidence they were ever in a relationship. Victoria herself described her relationship with Brown in a letter. “Perhaps never in history was there so strong and true an attachment, so warm and loving a friendship between the sovereign and servant,” she wrote.
Nevertheless, some unkind contemporaries referred to Victoria as “Mrs Brown.” The Queen was unperturbed and responded that this tittle-tattle was “ill-natured gossip in the higher classes,” according to David Duff’s 1968 book Victoria in the Highlands. Then in another blow to Victoria, John Brown died in 1883 aged 56. She had lost yet another trusted confidant.
And it seems that no one filled this gap in Victoria’s life for some years. But in 1887 a new character entered the Queen’s life: Mohammed Abdul Karim. Victoria described the meeting in her diary, writing of Karim and his fellow Indian, Buksh. “The other, much younger, is much lighter [than Buksh], tall and with a fine serious countenance. His father is a native doctor [in] Agra. They both kissed my feet.”
Muslim Karim was born in 1863 – more than four decades after Victoria’s birth. His birthplace was the city of Lalitpur, in what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His father was a junior medic with the British Army who later worked at a prison. Karim himself became a clerk at the prison. But then he was given a very special mission in 1886, which led to him traveling to London and meeting the Queen.
Karim’s mission came about because of Victoria’s keen interest in her Indian colony. She had requested that some Indian servants should be sent to take part in her Golden Jubilee – the celebration of her 50 years on the throne – in 1887. Karim was one of those chosen.
After what we can only imagine was a somewhat nerve-wracking crash course in how to conduct one’s self in the presence of British royalty, Karim arrived in England. He made a good first impression on Victoria, and her liking for him continued unabated.
By the end of August, just a couple of months after he’d arrived in England, Karim was giving the Queen lessons in Hindustani – the language now called Urdu. And she also laid on extra English lessons for her new servant. By February of the following year, 1888, Karim’s English was now excellent, the Queen asserted.
But Karim was not content with his position as a servant in the royal household. In India, he had the status of clerk, and he felt that his duties such as waiting at table for the Queen were beneath his dignity. And Victoria was apparently happy to comply with his wishes.
Karim was now given the title of “Munshi,” which can be loosely translated as secretary or personal assistant. This was a huge jump in status for Karim. In an apparent indication of his sensitivities, even photographs of him in his role as a waiter were destroyed.
Victoria continued to shower favor on Karim. He was given John Brown’s old room at Balmoral, the royal castle in Scotland. He also enjoyed privileged seating at the opera, ran his own carriage and was allowed to bring his Indian wife to Britain. But other courtiers and members of Victoria’s family became increasingly resentful at this perceived favoritism.
Anger towards Karim was partly down to his elevated position at court. However, ingrained racism was common in 19th-century British society, so this may have also played a major part. Victoria herself recognized this. One of her staff, Fritz Ponsonby, wrote about the Queen’s feelings in an 1897 letter.
“The Queen insists on bringing the Munshi forward, and if it were not for our protest, I don’t know where she would stop,” Ponsonby wrote. “But it is no use,” he continued, “for the Queen says that it is ‘race prejudice’ and that we are jealous of the poor Munshi.”
Then, when Victoria died at the age of 81 in 1901 at her Isle of Wight residence, the depth of hostility towards Karim was revealed in all its ugliness. Edward VII, Victoria’s son and successor to the throne, ordered for all of his mother’s letters to Karim to be destroyed. Her daughter, Princess Beatrice, also removed references to Karim from the Queen’s diaries.
Edward dismissed Karim, and he returned to his native India, where he died in 1909 aged 46. And unlike John Brown, Karim played little part in histories of Victoria’s life. But all that changed when a determined researcher, Shrabani Basu, uncovered Karim’s long-lost diaries. These clearly showed the depth – and even passion – that existed between Karim and Victoria.
Shrabani Basu’s book, Victoria and Abdul, provided the basis for the 2017 movie of the same name. Judi Dench plays Victoria, while Bollywood star Ali Fazal takes the role of Abdul Karim. The extraordinary story of Queen Victoria and the Indian servant has now taken its rightful place in history.