When you think of Queen Victoria it is natural to think of the grandeur of the British Empire. It was an empire so vast in its sweep that the Sun never set on it. At the center of this global power sat an equally grand queen whose reign is still remembered as the great Victorian Era during which BritainCoronation Portrait of Queen VictoriaCredit: George Hayter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons made unprecedented advances in science, arts, culture. architecture and literature.

It was also during Victoria's reign that India came under the direct rule of Britain, making it the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

If India, the Crown Jewel of the British Empire, made Victoria, the Empress of India, it also sent to her Abdul Karim who was to strike a chord with her.

Abdul Karim came to Victoria as a manservant on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee (1887) of her reign. Though he was to serve in the kitchen and the dining room of the Queen, Abdul Karim soon became her favorite.

The Rise of Abdul Karim

This was perhaps because Victoria had an affinity with India and its culture. Now the Queen got an opportunity of learning about India first hand from Abdul Karim, a knowledgeable and dignified young man. Soon Victoria was learning about India, its customs and culture from Abdul Karim who also taught her Urdu. In turn, Victoria arranged tutors for Abdul Karim to advance his knowledge of English to facilitate communication between them.

Later Abdul Karim was elevated to the position of her personal Indian Munshi (clerk) to help her deal with Indian affairs. As her personal aide he often accompanied the Queen on her tours staying in cottages in the royal palaces instead of the servants’ quarters.

Ousting Abdul Karim

Such an unprecedented rise in the fortunes of a mere servant
wAbdul KarimCredit: By Rudolf Swoboda (1859–1914) ([1] Original in the Royal Collection[2]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commonsas bound to irk the royal household. Efforts were made to oust Abdul Karim from the queen’s grace. It was alleged that Abdul Karim may be passing sensitive information from the queen’s correspondence to outsiders. Some also accused Abdul Karim of lying when he (Abdul Karim) said that his father was a doctor in India.

But the queen had confidence in her favorite. She disregarded the allegations which were later found to be baseless. Abdul Karim burned or surrendered all the letters the queen wrote to him signing them as Your affectionate mother and Your loving mother. No evidence has been found that Abdul Karim ever passed on any information he got as Victoria’s confidant to anybody. And his father was indeed a Hakim, a physician practicing the traditional Indian medical system.

Rare Favors

When Victoria commissioned the Australian painter Rudolf Swoboda for the portraits of her favorites, she asked him to paint Abdul Karim also. If that was not enough she also conferred upon Abdul Karim a rare honor reserved for Indians of outstanding merit. She made him the Companion of the Order of Indian Empire (CIE) in 1895, much to the displeasure of the court circles.

Knowing that Abdul Karim’s days in the Royal Household would be over on her death, she wanted to make some provision for her favorite. For that she wanted the authorities in India to grant him a piece of land in India. Here also Victoria met with some resistance but she had her way and Abdul Karim got land in Agra, India, where he returned soon after the death of Victoria in 1901.  But Abdul Karim did not survive his benefactor very long. He died in 1909 at the age of 49.