Strange attendants to the British royals

I’m not sure about the status of Abdul Karim with regard to Queen Victoria, but we know pretty much about Grigori Rasputin. So having weird fixtures in the house isn’t all that strange to the royal family. The question is why? Were royals really that superstitious? Well, up to the turn of the 20th century probably more than 99% of humans were superstitious. But you’d think things would be different in the royal household.

Abdul Karim was a servant in the royal household, but Rasputin’s position in Russia is not analogous. He visited, but he wasn’t a member of the Imperial Household, and had no position at court.

As to why Abdul Karim was on the staff in England, I don’t see that superstition had anything to do with it, and I don’t see why you would imagine that it did. Victoria was very conscious of her position as Empress of India, and of the fact that she had never set foot in the place, and she wanted to add some Indian servants to her staff to provide some connection, perhaps more symbolic than actual, between her and her Indian subjects. Initially the plan was that they would wait at table and perform other relatively menial functions, but fairly soon the Queen was taking instruction in Urdu and Hindi from Karim, and conversing with him about life and conditions in India, and she had him appointed to a clerical position in the household.

It seems the resentment among the British staff and even some in the royal family and the Government, was more than just foppishness and outright racism (customary at the time.) The Munshi was already openly (and secretly) corresponding with the queen, often in Urdu, and he had access to some of her other letters. Beyond the most obvious explanation that he had become a highly favored attendant to the queen, there’s little to explain Victoria’s attachment, and the rest of the staff’s resentment.

The establishment around royals, whether that’s just other members of the family, the people who keep the household going, the people who keep the public ceremonial show going, or the people who keep government and the state going - any or all of them can be hypersensitive to someone seemingly so close or influential over the monarch as to risk upsetting their established ways of doing whatever it is - especially if that’s seen as a matter of some perceived interloper’s whims and “getting above themselves” rather than a thought-through reform decided through the usual channels. Hence the resentment.

This is more acute when it impinges on the business of state and government (another example would be Juliana and Grief Hoffmans in the 1950s, and it might have been a background factor in the attitude to Wallis Simpson).

Victoria was a great romantic, and she was fascinated by India. And he was easy on the eye, as well as offering something out of the ordinary in teaching her Urdu as well as telling her the kind of things she wanted to hear about India - which wasn’t necessarily what the government of the day thought she ought to hear.

I’ll propose an ‘emotional’ answer: loneliness on the part of the monarch/royal in question.

In the case of Rasputin, Alexandra was isolated, disliked, and frightened by her child’s illness. So someone offering hope and, I would think, a real difference from the royal family ( if I recall, she did not get on well- at all- with her mother-in-law) would be highly attractive.

Victoria, too, was isolated. On purpose. Her mother just about broke her with the ‘Kensington System’ and I think anything and any one that offered a real alternative was highly attractive. See Abdul Karim, who provides a window to India. See John Brown and Scotland. They were, of course, subjects of her empire, but as far as her imagination could take her from the problems of her youth and her widowhood.

Kings and Queen are no less susceptible to desiring the company of interesting, charming, or dashing companions than anyone else in the world is. Whether the motives of these companions were to ingratiate themselves with the monarch, or just to assist them in whatever manner they were able, the basic concept of “this dude is pretty cool, I would like to have him hang out with me” doesn’t seem to be constrained by class or by time period.

The brick-sized biography of Victoria I bought and read last year suggests that Victoria’s upbringing also made her feel like a German immigrant among the English (as her mother was) and even as an old woman and Queen, she still considered herself something of an outsider within her own empire. Other outsiders, like Brown and Abdul Karim, were attractive and sympathetic to her; that her court disapproved of them only made them more appealing to her.

For someone in Victoria’s position, a person who seems to see you and not only your job (while definitely not losing sight of the job!) is a precious pearl.

I don’t see anything specific to European royalty on these kinds of flunkies.

E.g., Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer to decide the best dates when planning events. And since she ran a lot of the operation, this mattered quite a bit.

Just because someone got to a top position doesn’t mean they aren’t idiots about some things. (Or almost everything.)

With regard to Nicholas and Alexandra, I cannot think of a pair of sovereigns who might have been less suitable monarchs. They were unpopular, weak-willed, confused, vulnerable, lacking in confidence, and basically unprepared for the magnitude of their challenges in every possible sense. It should be small surprise that they turned to a mystic who promised them guidance, affirmation, and solutions to their problems. Their psychology was really no different from the people who join cults or dial Ms. Cleo. The problem was that these tiny, inadequate people were put in charge of a European behemoth. Oops.

Keep in mind, we are living in an aberrant time. We have a rule of law and a system of government that exists beyond the whims of the monarch. The world these people lived in had a lot in common with “Game of Thrones,” in which a person’s family and close personal allies were the only people they could trust. The desire for a trustworthy confidant - Whether that be Rasputin, Potemkin, or an old gypsy woman - had to be overwhelming.

And Nicholas had - and more or less threw away - the opportunity to move exactly to that sort of government in 1905. If he hadn’t decided to try being his own commander in chief, if he hadn’t put his wife in charge of the civil government…

Though as a general point there is an extent to which monarchs, even in his position, are hemmed in by the inherited system and find it resistant to their whims (assuming they have the imagination to have a whim that’s the right thing to do). There can be a lot of vested interests who can know better than the monarch how to bring the right sort of pressures to bear.

Yes. This is an oversimplification, because I wanted to get my point across without writing a lengthy article.

Alexandra was no different than any other desperate parent whose child has a fatal illness and is thus susceptible to falling prey to charlatans who promise to save the child. She had already been under tremendous pressure to produce a male heir, and then after four girls she got Alexei, but he had hemophilia. And it was well-understood exactly how it was inherited, so she must have felt like a horrible failure even in her “success.” She had previously lost a 3-year-old brother to it, and her 4-year-old nephew died of it just months before Alexei was born, so she knew exactly what her son’s fate was likely to be. Medicine really had nothing useful for hemophilia until the 1950s–life expectancy when Alexei was born was about 13, and didn’t surpass 20 until the 1960s. So when Rasputin seemed to have an effect on him, she clung to it desperately. Plenty of parents today also pursue quackery for their children who have terminal illnesses.

There was nothing particularly new about British monarchs employing servants from ethnic minorities. George I had had his Turkish servants, Mehemet and Mustapha, Sake Dean Mahomed had worked for George IV and William IV, and there had been Indian and Arab keepers employed in the menagerie at Windsor. They were unusual - that was partly the point - but not unknown.

What was controversial about Karim was that he rose to a position of some confidence with the Queen, which to many courtiers was objectionable on grounds of both class and race. Had he continued waiting at table, nobody would have objected.

But exactly the same had been true of Mehemet and Mustapha. Perhaps even more so.

Ah, but George wasn’t a weak-willed woman!

What was aberrant was absolute monarchies; while some monarchies were stronger than others, the notion of “everything stems from the King” is, for Europe, a late-Middle-Ages/Renaissance invention; other locations had their own systems of checks and balances, and even the extreme case which were closest to “let the strongest rule” had to take into account this detail that 21 men with daggers are stronger than one with a sword.