At Frogmore Cottage in Windsor, the first Indian member of the royal household, Queen Victoria’s trusted aide Abdul Karim, suffered the cruelty of watching his letters from Victoria being burned — just hours after she had been buried in the Royal Mausoleum a short walk away.
The Queen had become close to Abdul, whom she called the Munshi, or teacher, and learned Urdu from him. She loved to sit and talk with him at her homes in Scotland, the Isle of Wight and at Windsor.
Queen Victoria would also bring European royals to visit him and his wife, Khadija, for tea in the cottage a stone’s throw from Windsor Castle.
But their closeness sparked racism and jealousy among the court and other members of the Queen’s family — and ultimately, just hours after Victoria was buried in 1901, a group of senior royals and courtiers came to his home and ordered that all his letters from the monarch be destroyed.
“It was early morning and just hours after her funeral. [Queen] Alexandra and Princess Beatrice were standing there and a lot of guards, and they ordered a raid on his house and all of his letters were taken and burned,” says Shrabani Basu, whose 2010 book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant inspired the film starring Judi Dench in 2017. “It was a heartbreaking moment in Abdul’s life. It was a bit of dark history.”
Abdul lived at Frogmore Cottage for around 10 years until he was sent back to Agra, India, after Victoria’s death.
The Queen had allowed him to decorate it how he liked. “I imagine it was very beautiful and he filled it with beautiful objects he was given by European royalty,” says Basu. “I’m sure it was full of exotic things.”
“She would bring European royalty with her to visit,” she adds. “They would often go there for tea and meet the munshi and his wife. Her diaries are full of mentions of meeting the Munshi and his wife for tea.”
Just as enlightened Victoria was a monarch open to other races and people and “ahead of her time,” as Basu calls her, there are parallels with Meghan — the first mixed-race woman to marry into the royal family, now moving into the same home he enjoyed.
“There is a certain poignancy about them choosing Frogmore Cottage,” says Basu, speaking from Delhi.
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Sadly, there is unlikely to be anything left of Abdul, as the cottage was later converted into four separate staff quarters.
Frogmore was one of three cottages Victoria gifted Abdul, along with Osbourne on the Isle of Wight and Karim Cottage at Balmoral in Scotland.