The Indian Man Who Taught Queen Victoria About Racial Prejudice
Because the most important lessons in life can come from the least expected people.
Perhaps the greatest part of history is its gossip, all those historical episodes in which we hear about everyday life and relationships that made a mark in history. These are stories we can relate to our own experiences and decisions. That's why we can learn from them and find issues that, no matter the passing of time, are still present. Keeping this in mind, I'll tell you a story about a friendship that, as sugar-coated as it might look, reveals deep truths about racism, colonialism, and even hypocrisy.
Sounds appealing, right? Well, let me tell you about the lovely (or not?) relationship between Queen Victoria and her servant, Abdul Karim.
In 1887, as part of the Queen Victoria’s celebration for her Golden Jubilee (which commemorated her fiftieth anniversary on the throne), she hosted a very fancy banquet for dozens of foreign governors around the world. For this matter, she also led a remarkable procession, in which she was escorted by Indian cavalry. Among her chaperones, there was a young man that not long after this, became a very important person in the Queen’s life. He originally had arrived to Queen Victoria’s party because he was a “gift” sent directly from India. His mission was to assist the monarch so she could exchange conversations with the princess of India. So, in June 1887, while the great celebration was being held, the Queen became very interested in the Indian servant. She even wrote about him in her journal, describing Karim as, “tall with a fine serious countenance.”
When the Golden Jubilee was over, the Queen asked Abdul to keep her company while traveling to her summer house, located in the Isle of Wight. During their stay, the Indian man spoiled her with amazing dishes from his homeland country, which included spices he brought to the United Kingdom. The monarch was so delighted with his cuisine she even declared that the dish had to be included in her daily meals. Only a month later after getting acquainted, the Queen wrote about Abdul again. This time, she explained that thanks to her new companion, she was learning new words in Hindustani. This way she was able to speak to her servants in their native tongue. Not so long after this, she was already asking Abdul to teach her Urdu too. Because of this cultural bonding, the Queen gave Karim the name of Munshi
(“clerk” in Urdu). He became the first servant to receive this title.
Months went by, and Abdul developed a very special relationship with Queen Victoria. Because of this, he evolved from servant to trusted advisor and leader in charge of all the Queen’s servants. Sadly, the rest of her court weren’t so happy with the royal’s decision. They often invented rumors about Karim and believed he had mean intentions underneath. But she didn’t care at all and even accused them of "racial prejudice." This friendship remained until Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. Her successor, King Edward VII, sent Karim back to India, even though among the Queen’s last wishes she asked for him to be one her mourners at the funeral. But once she passed away, there wasn’t much left to do, and he couldn’t take part of it. After many years abroad, Karim returned to his hometown, where the Queen had already secured a property for him. He lived there for eight years, until he died peacefully.
I know that, when told this way, this story sounds like taken from a Disney movie. However, the story wasn't that pretty. Yes, all of these events happened. Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim were close friends, and their relationship might have opened a little bit more the Queen's mind regarding racism. I mean, by learning Hindustani, she was able to communicate with her servants and grow closer to them. But they were still "gifts" from a colony. Even with all the privileges he was granted, Karim was still the Queen's subordinate. What's even worse, she put him in charge of other servants. Of course, we might guess that Abdul wouldn't say a word because he was living a good life alongside the Queen. You know, the kind of life he may have never had under other circumstances. Unfortunately, we're not even sure what his thoughts were about the way he was treated. Because in the end, he was a companion, so his voice was only heard by the Queen in private. Being that the rest of the royal members didn't like him at all, his opinions and thoughts weren't valid to anyone else.
In a way, this is the saddest part of the whole story. The Queen and Karim were close,
she listened and paid attention to him. However, she never allowed him to speak his mind in public. Sure, there are paintings and other memories of him, but there aren't records of his thoughts and opinions, ironically the same ones that seemed to be immensely attractive to the Queen. In fact, the only way to know him is through the Queen's journal. Therefore, if it wasn't for her, no one would know he had existed. Should he be thankful to her because he was a privileged servant? Queen Victoria considered Abdul's opinions for important matters, but in the end, she didn't do much for him regarding his slave-like status.
She did care for him. I mean, she even gave Abdul a piece of land that was waiting for him back home. But why didn’t she give him something in the United Kingdom? Did she know he would eventually be sent away, so was she just getting ready for the inevitable? Didn’t she care about what would happen to him after she was gone, and was this gift just a way of clearing her debts with him?
It’s actually really confusing to think about this situation, because Queen Victoria allowing a servant to grow closer to her was quite scandalous at that time. But looking at the bigger picture, she didn’t do much about racism overall. Karim wasn’t her equal, and for that matter, his people weren't either. And sure, Abdul did his part by being a nice person and quickly adapting to the context, but still, he didn't do much for his own situation and that of his people because his circumstances didn't really allow him to do so. We don't know if he was okay with the whole thing or not. In the end, while there was a transcendental bond between them, it wasn’t an equal or perfect friendship. As we now know, it was far from being perfect, or even a true friendship for that matter.
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