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The Great White Queen

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The Great White Queen, The Doyenne of Sovereigns, The Grandmama of Europe, Shah-in-Shah Padshah, Victoria et Imperatrix. These are some of the titles used to describe Queen Victoria (1837-1901) during her Diamond Jubilee Celebrations in 1897.  At the age of 78, she was celebrating sixty years of rule over the greatest empire the world had ever known - and also the shortest lived!  A large proportion of her subjects were Muslim.  What influence did this have on her reign, and personal life?

Queen Victoria and Sultan Abdul Medjid

Queen Victoria in 1854 with Sultan Abdul Medjid on her right and President Napoleon III on her left shortly after their declaration of war against Russia in defense of Turkey.

The first time an Ottoman Sultan set foot on British shores was in 1867.  Accompanied by the Khedive Ismael of Egypt, Sultan Abdul Aziz (1861-1876) was received at Dover by the Prince of Wales.  The next day the party travelled to Windsor Castle to meet the Queen, for five days of lavish entertainment before the annual Naval review off Spithead, during which the Sultan was invested with the Order of the Garter by the Queen, at the insistence of the Prince of Wales, who is recorded as saying that to offer a reigning Sovereign any other Order, be he Christian or Moslem would be nothing less than an insult.

By 1876, Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) was reforming much of the decayed Ottoman Empire, and is regarded by many as the last great Sultan, and in 1877 he instituted a constitution, and a parliament met.  He still maintained personal control on affairs of state, however.  In April of that year, Russia again attacked the Balkans and the Caucasus, and Ottoman troops fought bravely, particularly at the siege of Plevna in Bulgaria, but by January of 1878 Russian soldiers were camped ten miles from Constantinople on the shores of the Marmara.  The Ottoman Empire was on the verge of collapse.  Britain was determined to preserve the Empire as a barrier between Europe and Russian expansions, and British troops were sent to the aid of the Sultan.  Queen Victoria was so pro-Turkish that she sent bandages to the Turkish troops, and for the first time since Prince Albert’s death in 1861, she danced a waltz at a conference in Germany where the Russians had come to sign a peace treaty later in the year.

In 1887 the Queen celebrated fifty years of her reign, and was now Empress of India.  At this time two khidmutgars (male waiters) named Mohammed Baksh and Abdul Karim came into her service.  The Queen noted that “the first was very dark and smiling, the second was taller, much more serious, and of a honey complexion.”  On arrival “both kissed my feet”.  Both were Mohammedans, and would wait at her table.  She instructed them that they were always to wear their blue turbans and tunics which she provided for them, and at evening, were to wear white turbans threaded with gold.  All noted that they struck a noble scene at her court.  She also instructed that they must have “every comfort so they are warm at night”.    It was not long before Abdul Karim became the Queen’s favourite.  He was the son of Haji Mohammed Waziruddin of Agra, a sheikh and hakim (herbal practitioner).  Abdul Karim informed the Queen that he was a Munshi by training (a scribe) which delighted the Queen, and at the age of 68 she engaged him as her tutor in Hindustani.  The Queen was very diligent in learning, and before long could greet and welcome her guests from India in their native tongue.  She greatly enjoyed long chats with the various Indian servants in her palaces in Hindustani.

The Queen was fascinated by India and its peoples, and though she was too old to make the long and perilous journey herself, she delighted in receiving visitors from there, and at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, whole rooms were decorated with objects from and in the style of an Indian palace.  The Queen became so attached to the Munshi that he accompanied her everywhere and she allowed him to bring his extended family to England.  They were provided with their own accommodation in the grounds of her various homes, and at Balmoral had a cottage built especially for them named Karim Cottage.  She arranged for meat to be slaughtered for him according to the Mohammedan tradition, and was fascinated by his family who remained in full purdah whilst in Britain.

The Queen was very interested in the faith and beliefs of her Mohammedan subjects and spent many hours in discussion and writing about the subject.  One evening at Balmoral she asked Gathorne-Hardy searching questions about Gladstone’s beliefs and expressed her doubts about a Trinity.  “She then spoke of her Mahommedan servants, their strictness, non belief in the possibility of a son of God, but with a reverence for Jesus.  I am afraid or rather I ought to say without fear that I was not sympathetic (to her views) except in acknowledging an obedience in them (Muslims) where Christians fail ..... She has a horror of evangelical religion.”

The Queen took an annual holiday to Cimiez above Nice in the south of France, and the Munshi accompanied her on the Royal Train.  Efforts by her secretary and the court were made to stop this, but the Queen flew into a rage at the suggestion, sweeping aside the contents of her desk top, and stated that her beloved Munshi would accompany her on this holiday, and instructed them to make the necessary arrangements.  Her courtiers were truly shocked, as they had not seen her in such a rage since the death of Prince Albert.

The Queen died in January, 1901, at Osborne House.  The Munshi was the last to be allowed in to pay his respects to the departed Queen.  King Edward VII did not lose any time in despatching him back to India where he lived a quiet life on the lands granted to his father by the Queen, and the house, also called Karim Cottage.  He died at the age of 46 in 1909.  All the many letters and personal notes between the Queen and the Munshi at Frogmore Cottage, the Munshi’s Windsor home were burnt, and King Edward commanded the Viceroy of India to burn any further letters that may exist between Munshi Abdul Karim and the late Queen Victoria.  His family were, however, allowed to keep a few innocuous examples as mementos.

Sources:

“Heart of a Queen” by Theo Aranson

“Victoria R.I.” by Elizabeth Longford

“Victoria, biography of a Queen” by Stanley Weintraub

“Queen Victoria” by E.F. Benson

 

 

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