Sunday, January 31, 2010

Queen Victoria and Abdul: The royal love for Urdu

Munshi Abdul Karim's name might not ring a bell today but his life and stay in England has now been documented in a book. Munshi Abdul Karim was sent as gift from India to the Queen in 1887. From being a waiter, Munshi Abdul Karim rose to become one of Queen Victoria's closest confidante and companions.

(Portrait of Munshi by Rudolf Swoboda commissioned by Queen Victoria)

He started teaching her Hindustani/Urdu and constantly enlightened her on India and her people. His proximity to the Queen caused consternation among the Royal staff members but the Queen's interest in India and Abdul Karim ensured no one could touch him.

Munshi Abdul Karim's life and his relationship with Queen Victoria is the subject of a book written by Shrabani Basu. Titled Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidante, the book explores the intimacy and trust the Queen shared with Munshi Abdul Karim. However, after Queen Victoria's death the Munshi was shipped back to India with his wife and relatives. If not for this book, Abdul Karim would have remained unknown and hidden in the records of the British Royalty.

His eminence can be gauged by a simple reference to the London Gazette. The 25 May, 1895 issue of the London Gazette mentions Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim as the last name under the head 'To Be Companions'. The May 30, 1899 issue of the London Gazette says:

THE Queen has been pleased to make the
following appointment to the Royal Victorian
Order :—
To be Commander.
The Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim, C.I.E., Indian

Thus, Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim became The Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim, C.I.E., Indian Secretary. Between this journey lies the extraordinary story of an ordinary Indian native from Agra, walking the corridors of the mighty British Empire in England. Before Munshi Abdul Karim there were several Indians who were in demand for their knowledge of Urdu and Persian. They were employed to make the Britishers learn the languages used by the masses and the native Maharajas and Nawabs.

Michael H Fisher, an expert on the British Raj, notes that a certain Monshee Mahomet Saeed advertised in London newspapers in 1777 offering to teach Persian and Arabic to Britishers. Sheth Ghulam Hyder, a Bihar native, came to London to work as Persian teacher. He applied to the Haileybury College in 1806 and was appointed on a salary of 200 pounds a year.

In 1799, Mirza Abu Talib Khan came to England to start a Persian department but returned back to India. Maulvi Mir Abdul Ali of Varanasi and Maulvi Mirza Khalil of Lucknow were later selected to go to England in 1807 and 1808 respectively, and were offered 600 pounds per year at Haileybury College. Fisher writes that Abdul Ali and Ghulam Hyder became Christians and died in debts due to their lifestyle.

In 1809, Mir Hasan Ali belonging to the ruling family of Awadh too came to England and was appointed as Persian and Hindustani teacher in Addiscombe College. He went back to India in 1817 after marrying an English woman. Mirza Khalil too went back to India on an annual pension of 360 pounds.

Their lives, as brought out by scholar Michael Fisher, stand in stark contrast to that of Munshi Abdul Karim. Unlike the munshi they had come to England on the strength of their knowledge and expertise in the Indian languages which they sought to share with the eager Britishers. Munshi Abdul Karim, however, started as just a waiter and rose to enjoy the confidence and affection of the mighty Queen Victoria.

And that is why Munshi Abdul Karim will continue to live for longer times in our collective memories than the others, as the pauper who almost became a 'prince'.


  1. With all the hype surrounding the book and the glamour of Abdul's relationship with the Queen, it was a good change to read something about the many others who came to England and what their lives was like. Ive quite enjoyed your post.

  2. I remember being told when still a child that the Urdu teacher of Queen Victoria hailed from Mandawer in District Bijnor, U.P. His haveli still stands in that historic and ancient town. Surprisingly, he is not mentioned in this book.

  3. Thank you Mr Manohar.
    Anonymous: It would have been great if you had given your name. I think you are speaking about Munshi Mazhar Ali. Please share with us if you know more about him.

  4. Munshi Abdul Karim taught Queen Victoria to write Urdu and there are letters written by the Queen in her hand. I have seen copies of those letters.