Monday, June 20, 2011

June 23, 1887 --- The Munshi

At Frogmore, the Queen is presented with a new servant, a Jubilee gift from her Indian subjects. Abdul Karim is to become as controversial in the latter years of Victoria's reign as John Brown had been two decades before.

The Queen takes an immediate liking to Karim; after a few weeks, she wrote that "She cannot say what a comfort she finds [him]." He taught her Hindustani; "Munshi" means language teacher. At first her ad hoc adviser on Indian affairs, the Queen later named him to the newly-created post of Personal Indian Secretary.

Long smouldering resentments in palace corridors exploded. Working through back-channels in the India Office, the Munshi's rivals learned that his father was a lowly jailhouse apothecary, not, as claimed, a famous surgeon. Victoria called the report "outrageous" and reminded her informers that, after all, she had appointed a grocer's son a Bishop. Tensions ran high; at Sandringham, the Prince of Wales offended the Munshi by making him eat with the servants and the Duke of Connaught complained about "the nigger." In 1897, the Queen was outraged to be told that it would be unwise to allow the Munshi to accompany her to the continent, P.M. Salisbury noted that the French might think it "odd." She finished a tirade on racial hatred and jealousy by sweeping everything off her desk.

As if to certify the Munshi's position, the Queen agreed to a photograph of the two; she is seated at her writing desk as the Munshi stands in attendance. When the picture appeared in The Graphic, the sensation it caused with the public and the embarrassment among her friends prompted the Queen to admit: "I ought never to have allowed the publication of that." As she grew older and weaker, Victoria was less able to defend the Munshi and his "enemies" slowly reduced his influence. When his mother died, King Edward ordered the Munshi repatriated and put all his papers to the torch.

The photo as published in The Graphic on October 16, 1897.

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