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Abdul Karim arrived at the court of Queen Victoria in 1887, just after the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. He was 24 years old, and would remain in Britain until 1901, when he was sent back to India after Victoria’s death. Known as her Munshi, Karim was a teacher, advisor and confidante who taught the Queen the Hindustani language and was also appointed as her Indian Secretary. His presence at the court, and supposed influence over the Queen, caused much concern among courtiers and the government. This letter from Lord Ponsonby, the Queen’s Equerry, expresses some of these concerns.
Some saw Karim’s presence as dangerous; the Queen herself accused the royal household of being ‘prejudiced’. Some suggested that it was damaging to give him access to the government papers related to India. Historical evidence suggests that while Karim may have been allowed access to more papers than was perhaps advisable, there is no evidence that he was a spy. His family background was found to be trustworthy. In that sense, the attitudes displayed in Ponsonby’s letter are more an example of the race and class attitudes of the time, a defining feature of the British-Indian relationship during the period of the British Raj in India (1858–1947).