Frogmore Cottage, Meghan and Harry’s new home, once belonged to a young man Queen Victoria addressed as ‘your loving mother’ and ‘your closest friend’. She even signed off some letters with a swirl of kisses!
Victoria visited Abdul Karim, her teacher or munshi, at the cottage “every second day” and “never missed a lesson”, according to the writer Shrabani Basu.
Mr Karim was just 24 when he arrived in England from Agra to wait at table during Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887.
To the cook’s amazement, Abdul Karim strode into the kitchen and prepared the Queen a fine chicken curry, daal, and fragrant pilau. After that, Victoria decreed that curries be added to the daily menu, and the delicious scent of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg drowned out the reek of over boiled cabbage and mutton.
Coming out of the dining room one day, Victoria asked that Karim “speak to me in Hindustani, speak slowly that I may understand it, for I wish to learn”. She soon acquired a special scarlet morocco notebook in which she noted down Hindu phrases. She arranged for Karim to have an hour’s English lessons every day, so that he could converse with her.
Karim was promoted from table servant to clerk or munshi rapidly. Once he was elevated in 1888, all photographs of him serving her at table were destroyed.
Victoria gave him a vast tract of land in Agra as well as a furnished bungalow at Windsor (Frogmore Cottage) and cottages at Osborne and Balmoral. Sir Henry Ponsonby remarked bitterly: “That damned Hindu has as many homes as she has”.
The queen’s munshi was named in court circulars, given the best positions at operas and banquets, allowed to play billiards in all the royal palaces and had a private horse carriage and footman. He was decorated with the high honour of the companion of the most eminent order of the Indian empire.
Mr Karim’s father even got away with being the first person to smoke a hookah (water-pipe) in Windsor Castle, despite the queen’s dislike of smoking.
When Karim went on leave to India, Victoria missed him, writing that he was “very handy and very useful in many ways”.
The Three Mrs. Karims
Karim soon brought over his three wives to Frogmore Cottage, though he wisely called two of them “aunties”. Victoria’s doctor, Dr. Reid, noted that every time he went to tend to an ill “Mrs. Abdul Karim”, a different tongue was presented to him.
If the royal household had disliked John Brown, now deceased 4 years, they loathed Karim. His sizeable salary of £991 (in 1901!), plus generous allowances, stirred up a heady mix of jealousy, racism and social snobbery.
By all accounts, Karim was high handed in his personal dealings, including the other Indian servants, who regularly complained about him.
Victoria may have enjoyed riling up her staff and family. One of her ministers, Lord Salisbury, observed presciently: “She really likes the emotional excitement, as being the only form of entertainment she can have”.
Karim started to make outrageous requests – including “enormous quantities” of narcotic drugs, including morphine and laudanum, to his physician father. It was an amount of poison Victoria’s doctor Sir James Reid estimated to be enough to kill 15,000 men.
Unless Victoria came to her senses where the munshi was concerned, Dr. Reid threatened that she would be declared mentally incompetent. A regency would be established by parliament, with her son Bertie as Regent.
In any case, Karim’s own self-publicising and his recurring bouts of gonorrhoea (which Dr. Reid related gleefully to the Queen) caused him to fade into the background for the last year of her life.
Karim remained at court, but now he was as ornamental as her “gold eggcup and small golden spoon”.
Barely hours after the queen’s funeral, her son Edward VII unceremoniously sacked the Queen’s munshi. The family tried to erase every single proof of the Queen’s friendship.
Luckily, a branch of Karim’s family kept his diaries, detailing his extraordinary 10 years in London as Queen Victoria’s beloved teacher and friend.
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