Given the relative size of the United Kingdom today, it’s easy to forget that Great Britain was a superpower 150 years ago. The saying that the sun did not set on the British Empire was certainly true during the Victorian age. Anything and everything the British public desired and that the world had to offer England imported to its shores during the late 1800s. India became a large and important jewel in Britain’s imperial crown.
One commodity that became fashionable among certain moneyed families of the period was foreign domestic help. Britain’s India colony held a great fascination at the time, and the subcontinent’s wealth of spices, jewels, and fabrics became all the rage in London. Thus, importing Indian labor became rather the thing to do as well.
This story is about one particular upper class British family who followed the trend and brought Indian servants to England. The family was not only well to do, but it was also well respected. The patriarch of the clan had died some years before, but it was the grandmother, the widow, who actually ruled the roost. And she became particularly taken with one of the Indian servants the family procured.
Her adult children at first were mildly amused at the attention the older woman showed the much younger—and differently colored—man. Soon, their amusement turned to concern and then to almost outrage as the relationship between the old woman and the young man seemed to be turning into one that resembled the relationship between a mother and son. The old woman would write letters to the servant, giving him gentle instruction and matronly advice in a kind, adoring tone. She asked the young man to teach her some of his native language, also. She affectionately gave him the title of “my teacher,” and she elevated him to somewhat of a personal private secretary. Such a thing was unheard of in polite society of the day.
The family became apoplectic. “This simply must not stand!” they would say to each other out of her earshot. “What will everyone say?” they wondered. “It’s an outrage!” her oldest son remarked on more than one occasion (and with some bitterness, too, it was noted). Such was the level of racism at that time that the family feared their good name would be besmirched if the young man would be seen by friends and relatives to have an exalted position in the family. And so, the old woman’s family began plotting how they could arrange to have the servant dismissed without incurring the wrath of the matriarch who had come to dote on the young man so.
But such was the special bond between the pair that the young man lived to see his benefactress die in the early 1900s. Even at the old woman’s death, the special bond between the pair was on display for all to witness. And, again, the family was outraged.
For, you see, it was neither her family—her 9 children—nor her 42 grandchildren—who saw her mortal remains as the lid to her coffin closed. No, that particular honor fell to one Abdul Karim, a Muslim Indian man.
It was he who last laid eyes on the body of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.