Authors: Shrabani Basu
In November 1895 Sir Henry Ponsonby died, succumbing to his long illness. The Queen wrote to his daughter Magdalen:
There is one person who feels your beloved Father’s loss more than anyone, and whose
to him is
, and that is my good Munshi Abdul Karim. Your dear father was kinder to him than anyone, always befriending him, and the loss to him is, as he says, that of ‘a
Father’. He could not well go to the funeral tomorrow to his regret, but sends a wreath, and I enclose what he wrote on it as I fear in the multitude of similar wreaths this tribute of gratitude might be overlooked.
Magdalen wrote to Reid, enclosing the Queen’s letter, asking: ‘If you think I ought to write to the Moonshi [sic], I will if you think it is expected of me, and that the Q. wishes it. I don’t want to start him as a brother.’ Reid told her not to, saying that the wreath was made in the garden on the Queen’s special command and that she dictated what was to go in it. Yet, there was no doubt that Henry Ponsonby had been kinder to the Munshi than his successor, Arthur Bigge, or his son Fritz Ponsonby would ever be, and the Munshi was aware of this. Karim wrote in his memoirs that Sir Henry was ‘perhaps the best officer that ever served in Her Majesty’s Household … I myself received innumerable favours from him and always found him a true friend and his memory will be held sacred by me as long as I live’.
As Karim continued to be decorated, rewarded and protected by the Queen, the media became fascinated by him and soon the Munshi featured in lengthy newspaper articles. On 19 December 1895
newspaper carried an article on Karim titled ‘The Queen’s Munshi Follows his Sovereign to Osborne’. In the flowery language of the Royal reporter, it covered the journey made by Abdul Karim and his family, their cat and the canary, across the Solent to Osborne House, describing his unique semi-regal position in the Royal Court.
The Munshi Abdul Karim came to England as the Queen’s personal attendant and instructor in Hindoostani. Her Majesty, having acquired the language, has promoted Abdul Karim to be her private secretary for India, and he now occupies a position as regards India corresponding to that held for the United Kingdom by the late Sir Henry Ponsonby. He has his own apartments, his personal staff and is admitted to the drawing room with the gentlemen of the court. No longer does the Queen rest upon his arm when moving
from room to room, but she rests upon his judgment when she is in communication with the subject princes of the Great Empire beyond the seas and Abdul Karim Knows His Own Importance.
Yesterday the Queen travelled from Windsor to Osborne. So did AK. For the Sovereign, the
was the detailed yacht, for the dusky secretary the
. Like his Sovereign he is a stickler for secrecy and like her, too, he is very human. He never travels without his Scotch attendant, he has a horror of salutes; and though he courts ceremony it must not be ostentatious. The Queen has her animal attachments and the donkey is her favorite; the Munshi takes a lower ground, but his cat and his canary go with him wherever he travels.
The Munshi stands some six feet in height, speaks broken English in a melodious voice, and interprets to his wife and mother in law who are so veiled and draped as to resemble moving automata, and as they pass down the
they vanish out of sight of the porters, who are the only spectators of the passage of the singular Oriental who has a rooted antipathy to the gaze of the vulgar. Yet to look upon his face and hear his voice one would think that the Munshi could tame lions and silence tigers. But he has an exalted position and fully recognises his own importance. For the Munshi is the only member of the Queen’s personal staff who is allowed to travel in semi-regal state.
The Munshi could not have asked for more.
There were other articles on the Munshi in the newspapers and magazines. Never had an Indian been so profiled in the media. The Munshi pasted one of the clippings from
in the Queen’s Hindustani Journal as part of his annual year-end entry. The article carried a picture of him and the cottages given to him by the Queen: Frogmore Cottage in Windsor, Arthur Cottage in Osborne and Karim Cottage in Balmoral.
The article concluded: ‘By the decoration of the CIE just conferred by her Majesty upon the Indian Secretary, is marked the value placed upon his services.’
The article eulogised Karim and said he was a well-wisher of the people and helped his relations, orphans and the poor, mixed with people of other religions in London and still kept his own faith.
Karim ended the year on another high note. He wrote:
Now at the close of this eighth volume of Her Majesty’s Hindustani lessons, her humble teacher the Munshi would again lift up his voice in thankfulness to His God for his mercies.
To tell of all the kindnesses & honours received of God through Her Gracious Majesty is quite beyond his power. Their name is legion. But the Munshi must chronicle with deepest gratitude and humility how that his father has been made a Khan Bahadur by the Govt of India for his 40 years of able and faithful service, and how that Her Majesty recognizing the increasing duties of her Munshi in taking the charge of various important papers & in undertaking the arrangements for the service of Indian Attendants, has been fit to honour him with the title of CIE and this she did on her last happy birthday, the 77th of her age, and the 58th of her reign.
The past year like all years, has had its joys and its sorrows, but on the whole I think it has been a happy year for Her Majesty. There has been it is true the death of the mother of Prince Henry of Battenberg and likewise the death of the old Highland Attendant of Her Majesty, Francis Clark, but these events sad as they were have been outweighed by the joyful news which has come of the betrothals of Princess Alexandra of Coburg and of Princess Maud of Wales. This last engagement has been eagerly looked for and it is certain was hailed with great pleasure by the Queen.
In the future English history will tell us of an important event of the past year viz the visit of H.H Nasrullah Khan, son of the Ameer of Afghanistan as the guest of the Queen and the Royal Family. Again we shall read with interest and pleasure of the visit of Don Carlos, King of Portugal, as the guest of Her Majesty at Balmoral. Scotland indeed is glad and proud to receive this friendly visit of a foreign potentate.
The Munshi prays for the long life and happiness of Her Majesty and the members of the Royal Family through whom he had the honour of being presented to the Royal guest from Portugal.
Lastly, happy was the day that brought the glad tidings to Her Majesty of the birth of a daughter on the 18th of November last to the Empress of all the Russians.
The last sorrow also was a great, the loss of Her Majesty’s good, kind and true friend, Sir Henry Ponsonby’s death on the 21st November last.
I am my readers, obedient servant, H. Abdul Karim. December 2, 1895
Remarkably free of spelling or major grammatical errors, the entry in English in Karim’s handwriting showed that the Munshi had made great progress and had nearly mastered the Queen’s language.
he Munshi was to be shadowed. Though opinion was still divided in the government on how dangerous he was, he was visiting India, and the Viceroy wanted his movements carefully tracked.
‘The Munshi is coming out. I am not sure about the exact date, but about this time,’
an excited Lord Elgin wrote to Lord Sandhurst, the Governor of Bombay. He advised him to be cautious in following the Munshi and asked him to report back if any of the ‘intriguers’ in the native states and elsewhere who were ‘generally watched by the British government’ made any attempt to approach him.
Elgin had received the clearance from Whitehall to follow the Munshi, but advised extreme caution. He was clear that while no steps were to be taken that could be seen to ‘show a dislike for the Munshi personally’, general information about visitors and the like could be easily obtained. The whole matter was conducted in hushed tones and confidential telegrams. Elgin wrote personally to Sandhurst so that ‘no written instructions need issue to any police officer’. He informed Sandhurst that the Munshi could be contacted by ‘the certain gentleman’ he had mentioned while in Bombay. ‘My object therefore is to ask you to do what you can with as little stir as possible,’ the Viceroy said. ‘You will understand that mistaken zeal in this case might do more harm than good and would be capable of any amount of misrepresentation.’
Earlier, in February 1896, Hamilton, who had just taken over from Henry Fowler as Secretary of State for India, had told Elgin that he did not think the Munshi was ‘as dangerous’ as some
believed and that the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, concurred with that view. ‘He [the Munshi] is a stupid man,’ wrote Hamilton. ‘And on that account he may become a tool in the hands of other men.’
However, Hamilton clearly thought it worthwhile to ask for surveillance orders on the Munshi, but he clarified that this would have to be done with extreme caution as it could backfire if the Queen got to know. He wrote:
I think that you would be justified in keeping such general notice of his proceedings as to enable you to determine whether or not anything unusual is going on and if there are signs of a proper agenda of intrigue to have recourse to closer supervision. I should be inclined to restrict at first to a very general and unobtrusive supervision … It would be better to err on the side of laxity than of vigour of watch at first.
Elgin, too, was worried that if it was discovered they were unnecessarily trailing the Munshi, it could do more harm to the authority of the Indian government than ‘any amount of underhand intrigue’. About the Queen, he felt: ‘The older anyone becomes the less reasonable they are to argument in anything effecting the personality of a favourite.’
Meanwhile, the New Year had begun gloomily in Osborne House. Prince Henry of Battenberg, husband of Princess Beatrice and the Queen’s youngest son-in-law, died of fever on 20 January. He had gone to West Africa to join the Ashanti expedition just over a month ago, but had contracted high fever and died at sea on his way back. His death left the Queen distraught. She had been very fond of her son-in-law, called Liko by the family, who had lived under her roof after the wedding. She relied on him much more than she did on her son and heir, Bertie. With two of her daughters widowed, the Queen felt helpless. The body arrived at Portsmouth and, after the funeral on the Isle of Wight, the Queen sent Beatrice and the four children to Cimiez to recover at the Villa Liserb. She would join them later in the spring.
The Munshi, who always stood by the Queen’s side like a rock on these tragic occasions, was also to go on leave soon. He was as upset as she was about the death and wrote in his journal:
‘How suddenly does death sometime steal upon us. Truly it is the terminator of delights, the separator of Friends, the Devastation of Palaces and Houses and the replenisher of graves.’