Indian honours: Abdul Karim

Crown of Indian Empire badgeWith the release of the film Victoria & Abdul, we look at awards given to Indian members of the royal household and the honours that Queen Victoria conferred on Abdul Karim.

Indian honours

The honours dedicated to British interests in India are usually regarded as starting in 1837 with two military decorations, the Order of British India for ‘long and honourable service’, and the Order of Merit for ‘distinguished service in action’.

These Hanoverian distinctions were retained when the government of India was assumed by the Crown in 1858, and new honours were created. The first was the Order of the Star of India, which began with one class of knight (KSI) in 1861 (Gazette issue 2253), and grew to three classes of knight grand commander (GCSI), knight commander (KCSI) and companion (CSI) in 1866 (Gazette issue 23119).

Two more orders were added in 1877 to mark Queen Victoria becoming empress of India. The Order of the Indian Empire had one class of member (CIE) and marked general services, while the Order of the Crown of India (CI) was restricted to women, including senior royal and Indian women (Gazette issue 24539). The Queen often wore the Crown of India badge bearing her royal and imperial cypher (VRI), but rarely used the insignia of her other Indian orders.

Exhibition and extension

The imperial dimension featured in two royal settings in 1886, when the Queen opened the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, and later extended the Order of the Indian Empire to two classes.

The exhibition was attended by representatives from across India, and organised by officials such as John Tyler, who played an important role in the Abdul Karim story (Gazette issue 25602). The Queen’s journal reported that she saw 'the making of carpets, which the men (all out of prisons) do sitting ... Dr Tyler ... was in charge of these men, who mostly come from the gaol at Agra. Many of the men prostrated themselves & kissed my feet, & all seemed so delighted to see their “Kaisar-i-Hind"' (Queen Victoria’s Journal, 6 May 1886).

Tyler’s services were rewarded with the CIE, and he was gazetted as superintendent of the Central Prison at Agra in charge of the ‘Indian Jail Manufacturers’ (Gazette issue 25602). His investiture took place at Osborne on 2 August 1886, on the same day that a second class was added to the Order of the Indian Empire. No knight commander (KCIE) nominations were made until February 1887, and the order was extended again in advance of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, when the recipients of the new first class of knight grand commander (GCIE) included the future King Edward VII (Gazette issue 25712).

The Queen’s jubilee programme included many events, some of which were attended by John Tyler, who had helped to select two men to enter her service. Tyler went to Windsor on 18 June 1887 to introduce ‘the 2 Indian servants he has brought over for me, 2 fine looking men, handsomely dressed in scarlet with white turbans’. One was Muhammad Bakhsh, the other was the 24-year-old Abdul Karim.

The attendants were in place by late June, when the Queen invested four senior Indian princes, and she also began to receive language lessons. As early as December 1887, the Queen recorded that she had used Urdu when presenting her daughter to the Gaekwar of Baroda’s wife. The success of the Indian servants no doubt helped John Tyler to secure his knighthood in 1888 (Gazette issue 25812).

Karim soon found special favour with the Queen, and was promoted to the status of personal munshi (teacher), and later became her Indian secretary. There were precedents for foreign employees joining the household, including Victoria’s German librarian Hermann Sahl, who had received an honour from her shortly before Karim’s arrival (Gazette issue 25705).

The munshi regularly accompanied the Queen to Osborne, and on her two annual visits to Balmoral, as well as joining trips to family and holiday destinations such as Darmstadt, Florence and Nice. Karim received property and other family favours through his contact with the Queen, and was one of several Indian sitters in a series of images she commissioned from the artist Rudolf Swoboda. He was also painted by Heinrich von Angeli, whose work includes four major portraits of the Queen.

Karim was present at many royal events, including the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894, when the Queen knighted the lord mayor (Gazette issue 26515). He also attended investitures, as in February 1895, when he accompanied the senior household officers, and by the time he witnessed the next major investiture, which was held at Osborne in August 1895, he had joined one of the orders.

Indian Empire

Most of the honours to which Karim was exposed were distributed by government ministers, although the Queen controlled the Victoria Faithful Service Medal, which she had instituted in 1872 and usually awarded for long service. The earliest Indian recipients were Karim’s companion, Muhammad Bakhsh, in 1889, and Ahmed Hussain, Karim’s successor as an attendant, in 1891. The medal was also given to two more attendants who were painted by Swoboda, Yusuf Beg and Ahmed Khan.

Karim did not receive the Faithful Service Medal, as it was intended for ‘below the stairs’ staff, and instead he became a companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) after serving the Queen for almost eight years. His name was gazetted in the 1895 birthday list with more than a dozen other candidates, including five Indian recipients (Gazette issue 2628). As usual for Gazettes of this period, the notice contained no hint of the services rendered by Karim or most of his companions.

The CIE was limited by statute to 20 appointments in any year, and Karim joined around 450 individuals who had already received the honour, of whom a third were Indian. They included Rudyard Kipling’s father, Lockwood Kipling, who received the CIE while principal of the Mayo School of Industrial Art in Lahore (Gazette issue 25660), and later helped to create the Indian themed Durbar Room at Osborne, where Karim witnessed several state events, including a reception for King Chulalongkorn of Siam.

The CIE was regularly awarded to Indian recipients after Karim, with more than 600 nominations being made between 1895 and the final appointments, which were gazetted shortly after India became independent.

Karim was invested as a CIE at Windsor on the Queen’s 76th birthday, 24 May 1895, when she presented him with the gold and enamelled badge, complete with its imperial purple riband. The insignia was supplied by the royal jewellers Garrard, and consisted of a crowned red rose, with the Queen’s central portrait based on a Wyon effigy that was widely used in contemporary Indian coins.

The portrayal of insignia could be challenging, as evidenced by Victoria & Abdul showing Karim wearing a knight commander (KCIE) badge rather than his breast badge, while the Queen’s badges reversed the royal portraits and used unofficial ribands. Karim’s Dictionary of National Biography entry was also affected, as it presents a photograph of his colleague Sheikh Chidda wearing his royal medal rather than Karim and his insignia (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), Vol. 30, page 879).

The munshi’s career brought him into contact with several heads of state, including President Fauré of France and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. His exposure to the courts of Queen Victoria’s close relatives also allowed him to add a few European badges to his collection, including insignia from the German emperor, the grand duke of Hesse, and the reigning duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Victorian Order

Victorian MedalThe Queen’s personal honours were extended in 1896 with the creation of the Royal Victorian Order (Gazette issue 26735), which began with five classes of member, and with medals in silver and bronze. The level of award usually reflected the rank or standing of the individual within the household or institution involved, and the first year’s grants included silver medals for her Indian attendants, Ghulam Mustafa and Sheikh Chidda. Their medals showed the Queen’s effigy on one side, with the VRI cypher and the words, ‘Royal Victorian Medal’ on the other.

Karim was not with the Queen when the Victorian Order was instituted, but was on the fourth of his five home visits to India that were organised every few years between 1888 and 1899. He eventually joined the royal order, but not for three years after Mustafa and Chidda received their medals, and only after a period of difficult relations with members of the royal household.

The Queen’s doctor, Sir James Reid, was regularly involved in discussions about Karim’s status at court, including the negotiations which arose after a senior colleague, Sir Fleetwood Edwards (the first secretary of the Victorian Order), and the prime minister (the Marquess of Salisbury) advised against him being honoured in connection with the Diamond Jubilee (Michaela Reid, Ask Sir James (1987), page 146). The jubilee list omitted Karim’s name, and instead reported grants to several of his household colleagues, including a baronetcy for Sir James Reid, and membership of the Victorian Order (MVO) for the Queen’s equerry, Frederick Ponsonby (Gazette issue 26871), whose role in the Karim business was outlined in his Recollections of Three Reigns.

Karim maintained his position in the face of strong opposition, and he and the Indian attendants played their parts in the Queen’s daily routine, including the time she spent with her Battenberg grandchildren. Karim was, for example, invited to Prince Maurice’s christening at Balmoral, and witnessed one of the earliest cinema shows, which was held at Windsor in 1897 to celebrate the birthday of Prince Alexander, the Queen’s favoured grandson. The children’s mother, Princess Beatrice, was alerted to the controversy surrounding Karim, and was careful to remove most of the references to him when she re-wrote her mother’s journal.

The Queen rewarded Karim’s services two years after the jubilee, making him a commander in the Victorian Order (CVO) on her 80th birthday in May 1899 (Gazette issue 27084). The official warrant of appointment impressed with the order’s seal and bearing the imperial signature ‘Victoria R I’, styled him as ‘The Munshi Hafiz Abdul Karim ... Our Indian Secretary’. Karim’s badge consisted of a white cross with a central oval containing the VRI cypher and ‘Victoria’ motto, and was worn from a riband of dark blue, edged with stripes of red and white.

Karim was only the 9th substantive (as opposed to honorary) recipient of the CVO, and followed a few long-serving staff from outside the Queen’s household, including George Gordon, who joined Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein in the 1860s, and John Clerk and Debonnaire Monson, who became equerries to the Duke of Edinburgh in the 1870s.

Only 18 individuals received the CVO from the Queen, with six appointments being made in connection with her visit to Ireland in 1900, including one for Sir Arthur Vicars, whose heraldic career ended in disaster with the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels. The final year of the reign also brought promotion to commander as a parting gift for Maurice Müther, who had succeeded Hermann Sahl as the Queen’s German secretary (Gazette issue 26819).

Karim and the other commanders enjoyed special status, as they ranked before the companions of the other orders – the Bath (CB), Star of India (CSI), St Michael and St George (CMG) and Indian Empire (CIE) – and wore their badge at the neck rather than on the left breast, as the companions did until the system was changed in 1917. The CVO’s higher standing meant that Karim’s post-nominal letters were 'CVO, CIE', as he died before the change took place, although they are often rendered in the post-1917 style of 'CIE, CVO'.

The CVO was rarely awarded to Indian candidates after Karim, with fewer than ten Indian nominations to that class of the Victorian Order being made between 1899 and independence in 1947. The rare exceptions include grants connected with the great coronation durbar of 1911, and the Prince of Wales’s visit in 1922.

After Abdul

Queen Victoria remained loyal to Abdul Karim to the end, and on 4 February 1901, two days after her funeral service in St George’s Chapel, he joined the royal family when her remains were laid to rest in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore. Karim walked in the solemn procession behind Sir James Reid, Maurice Müther and her last German secretary, Georg von Pfyffer-Heydegg (Gazette issue 27316).

Karim’s connection with the royal household ended in 1901, as King Edward VII decided not to retain the services of an Indian secretary, and so he returned to Agra, where he died eight years later.

King Edward introduced a fresh Indian dimension to the royal household after Karim’s departure, following the coronation durbar announcement that six Indian soldiers would be appointed annually as orderly officers. The King received his first Indian orderlies at Buckingham Palace in May 1903, with their British officer in charge, Major Charles Bruce of the Gurkha Rifles, who gained celebrity for leading the Mount Everest expedition during which Mallory and Irvine lost their lives. The King’s orderlies attended various court functions, including the main July investiture at which Bruce received his badge as a member of the fourth class of the Victorian Order (MVO), and his team were later presented with silver Royal Victorian Medals. 

The number of orderlies was reduced to four in 1904 and they were appointed annually, with the exception of the war years, until 1939 when conflict again interrupted the practice. The last Indian orderlies were presented to King George VI in May 1939 under the command of Major Christopher Birdwood of Probyn’s Horse, and came from the Punjab Regiment, Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners, Rajputana Rifles and Light Cavalry. Birdwood and his men received the customary MVO and Victorian Medals on completing their term, as well as posing for the final photograph in a series that showed each year’s officer in charge and orderlies before a portrait of the King-Emperor.

No Indian orderlies were nominated after World War 2, but a revised practice emerged out of the Gurkha units that joined the British service after Indian independence. The first of the Queen’s Gurkha orderlies were appointed in 1954, and since then, two have served her each year.

The Gurkha officers receive an honour at the end of their term of duty, in this case the fifth class of the Victorian Order, with the result that the Queen has presented the MVO to more than 120 Gurkhas, most recently Captains Ganeshkumar Tamang and Lalitbahadur Gurung (Gazette issue 61982). The order’s insignia still bears Queen Victoria’s royal and imperial cypher VRI in the style that was emblazoned on the uniforms worn by her Indian attendants during Abdul Karim’s time at court.

About the author

Russell Malloch is a member of the Orders and Medals Research Society and an authority on British honours.