The British monarchy has been known to be better than the KGB at covering up its scandals and destroying evidence. But where there are secrets, there are detectives lurking nearby (especially when it comes to the affairs of the royal family). Queen Victoria’s kids did their best to cover up her private life, especially the relationship she formed with Indian servant, Abdul Karim. All records of Victoria’s young “munshi” (teacher), as she called him, were supposedly destroyed by relatives, but a discovery of Abdul’s lost diary in 2010 revealed a complex relationship suggesting that the two were more than friends. Did the Queen, 40 years his senior have a not-so-secret crush or was this relationship a way to fill the void of loneliness?
For Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, 50 kings and queens were invited on the occasion of her fiftieth anniversary on the throne. Two of the monarchs present were Indian princes and the Queen specifically asked for two waiters of Indian origin to attend to her guests. One of the waiters, Abdul immediately charmed Victoria and in the years that followed, would go from being her servant to a powerful advisor to the Queen– and a topic of scandal at court.
Abdul was only 24 when he had arrived in England, but his lowly status in England did not satisfy him and he intended to return home, until he met the Empress of India, Queen Victoria. Smitten by the young Indian, the Victoria upped his status by making Abdul her teacher in the language of Urdu. He introduced her to curry, Urdu writing, and even a hookah that his father smoked in the palace. Queen Victoria was becoming a true Indophile.
The court was meanwhile repulsed. Abdul was a Muslim and a servant and yet he was closer to the Queen than anyone else in her immediate circle. Four decades his senior, Victoria brought Abdul with her on all her trips and treated him as a close companion. They thought she had lost her mind, or at least tried very hard to insinuate she had. But Victoria defended her protegee, even giving him a generous land grant in India.
The two added more fuel to the fire by spending a night together in one of the Queen’s cottages where she had only previously stayed with Albert. While a romantic relationship is thought to be unlikely by most historians, the two surely had a special bond. Abdul filled the masculine void in the Queen’s life, entertaining her and teaching her.
Thanks to the disdain of her own family, Victoria’s and Abdul’s records of correspondence were almost entirely destroyed after the Queen’s death. A few souvenirs exchanged between the unlikely friends however did survive. In her personal notes, the words “Abdul taught the Queen” were written in Urdu calligraphy. She had also been taught to write: “You will miss the munshi very much” and “Hold me tight”. She also signed off her letters in Urdu with: “dearest mother.” The context might be forever locked away in-between the pages of their diaries, but their fascination with one another is well documented in a movie soon to be released called Victoria and Abdul…