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KHOJAS IN EARLY BOMBAY: by I.I.Dewji, Editor, www.khojawiki.org


In a great many ways, the phenomenal success of the present day global Khoja community is a result of their 19th century migration from Kutch-Kathiawar to this fast-growing English port-city, located just south of Gujarat on India’s western seaboard and within the Indian Ocean littoral trading networks.

Though legend has it that Bombay derives its name from Mumbadevi, a Hindu goddess, it likely originates from "Bom Bahia," the beautiful bay, so named by the Portuguese, to whom it was originally ceded by the Sultan of Gujarat in 1534. (1)

By that date, Khoja merchants from Gujarat were already trading with the Portuguese (see Khoja Shams-ud-din Gillani) and so, it quite likely they were operating in Bombay when it was “given” as dowry to the British in 1661. (Read here the story of Khoja Merchant Kurji and his ship The Quedagh Merchant that was captured by the notorious English pirate, Capt Kidd in 1698.)

When the British East India Company transferred its centre from Surat to Bombay, more Khojas merchants, attracted by the growing opportunities as the British expanded their hold in India, also moved with them.

“The arrival of many Indian and British merchants led to the development of Bombay's trade by the end of the seventeenth century. Soon it was trading in salt, rice, ivory, cloth, lead and sword blades with many Indian ports as well as with the Arabian cities of Mecca and Basra” (2)

However, when the 1791 Skull famine (see Gujarat Famines & Khoja Migrations.) decimated almost 11 million people in North India, some poorer Khojas also made their way to the relatively prosperous Bombay Presidency. By this time, Bombay’s total population was about 100,000. (3)

During the 19th & 20th Century British Raj, Bombay was an active litigious society and because the Khoja merchants were fiercely zealous of their inheritance rights, we have some well-documented information on their lives.


Their earliest presence in Bombay was referenced in the Agakhan Case, where the Imam’s lawyer confirmed to the Court that Khojas definitely lived in Bombay towards the end of the 1700’s. (4) There is also oral tradition within the community that the Khojas owned a graveyard near Dongri since 1790 (see Alarakhia Sumar)

However, the earliest written record is from 1804, when the Khojas mortgaged their jamaat-khana building at a high interest rate to a shroff, (money-lender ed.), for the sum of Rs 17,000, to be sent to their Imam in Iran. (5) As well, the Bombay Khoja account books (which were, due to some ongoing litigation, seized by the British courts) indicated that, in 1807, Rs.1,300 was sent to Imam Shah Khalil Allah. (6)

The Bombay Khoja Jamat Book also clearly notes their presence in 1806-1807. (7)

During this period, the Khojas organized themselves in a setup that they then also used in Gujarat.

“The structure of administration remained much the same as had been introduced by Pir Sadr al-Din. It consisted of a federation of cells, each with a single jamaat or community, at its base. Each council was composed of all the adult males in each jamaat with decisions regarding community affairs made in meetings at the council-hall, the jamaat-khana. For each jamaat-khana, there was a treasurer or steward, the Mukhi, and the accountant, the Kamadia.” (8)

In a Khoja inheritance case, witness testimony by one Hassoon Syed indicated that of the 150 to 200 Khoja families in Bombay in the early 1820's, the majority lived quite modestly (9)

Another series of famines in Kutch-Kathiawar in 1803, 1813-1814, 1823-1824, 1834-1835 caused further migrations to the safety of Bombay. (10) Oral tradition has it that almost 1500 Khojas moved from the Junagadh area to Bombay during this period. Cassum Natha, another case witness, estimated, that by 1847, the Khoja community was closer to 600 families, with approximately 1,000 or 1,500 persons. (11) Alarakhia Sumar, a prominent Mukhi of the Jamaat, was credited with their settlement in Bombay at this time.

“Bombay’s Mohammed All Road in Dongri (11A) became a major centre of Ismaili Khoja settlement, with Khoja families migrating from Kutch and Kathiawar in Gujarat to establish business ventures that derived from an existing Gujarati, mercantile culture.“ (12)

Family connections, community networks and a reputation of honesty allowed the Khojas to prosper rapidly.

“..,,,by 1841, there were some 2,000 Khojas there, mostly small traders in grains with a few large merchants.(13)

Justice Perry, in his 1847 judgement in Hirbae v. Sonabae. Gungbae Sonabae, also a significant Inheritance dispute, estimated the number of Khojas in Bombay to be 2,000. (14)

Whilst these early communities thrived in the new prosperity of Bombay, they had their share of disagreements, as the records show that the earliest riots in Bombay’s history occurred at Mahim in 1850 in consequence of a dispute between two rival factions of Khojas! (15)

Gradually, more and more Khojas began to use Bombay as their base to pursue trade opportunities, primarily in Africa, but also other parts of Asia. (16) (see U Kan Gyi) By 1866, their numbers in Bombay had grown to about 4,000. (17)

Whilst the general success of Gujarati immigrants is well documented and attributed to their centuries-old mercantile culture, the Khojas had some peculiar advantages.

“By 1860, the Bombay Khojas went into the opium trade in the big way and by 1890, they had overtaken the Parsis from this most lucrative trade. (18) Prior to this time, the Khoja were so much into the rice trade that the term "khoja" also came to describe brokers of parched rice. Bulley, Anne - The Bombay Country Ships 1790-1833(pp 276)

“These Ismaili communities (Khojas and Bohoras) often followed social practices and customary laws which bore close relation to the Hindu communities from which they had converted. … More crucially, local usages regarding usury and inheritance laws allowed them to accumulate and retain capital within the family beyond the constraints, which orthodox Islamic law may have imposed.” (19) Some historians have argued that the Khoja Inheritance cases arose largely from the fears of a mercantile community to the dissipation of family wealth (which may have occurred in the following 150 years, although this needs further research)

Clearly, though, it was through these methods of wealth generation and transmission that “the Khojas had raised themselves from obscurity, poverty and illiteracy to prominence, wealth and intelligence during the 19th century. (20) (see Sir Currimbhoy Ebrahim(Baronetcy)Muhammad Ali Jinnah,Jaffer Rahimtoola,Abdulla Dharamsi (lawyers),Jaffer Padamsee(Landlord)Ibrahim Rahimtoola,Sir Rahimtoola M. Chinoy;Mohamed Ibrahim Rawjee (Civic Leaders)

“By the end of the nineteenth century, the Bombay community numbered around 8,500 and was vibrant, relatively wealthy, with several members engaged in a wide range of economic activity “(21) (see also Manji Ghulamhussian Padamsee(glassware),Laljibhai Devraj(glassware), Ahmed Devji(furniture))

They also spread themselves across Bombay area. In 1881 census, Khojas are noted as residents of Bandra. (22)

Whilst most Khojas were small traders and shopkeepers, a number of major family fortunes were made during the second half of the century and they ended being amongst the global elites in wealth, education, travel and sophistication. For example, a newspaper called “The Khoja Dost” was started around the 1850’s.

Some of these families were engaged in the incredible Bombay mills industry, which came into being in the 1860’s, largely in response the growing trade with East Africa, through the great port of Zanzibar, where the Khojas and other Kutchi-Kathiawari merchants had established business.

“Since the 1860s the Bombay economy has been based on cotton - its export and the manufacture of cloth. With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, and the consequent cotton famine, Bombay suddenly emerged with a virtual monopoly of the world cotton trade. Its merchants acquired wealth, land and prosperity surpassing that possessed by the colonial masters.” (23) (See Sir Currimbhoy Ebrahim), Dostmohamed Allana

“Bombay had become the Indian Ocean’s most important commercial and industrial center and its success was related, in part, to East African demand for a constellation of consumer goods” (24)

Another very bad famine, the “Chappanyo” of 1899-1901 (see Gujarat Famines & Khoja Migrations) caused more to flee from Kathiawar and according to the 1901 Census, the total Khoja population in Western India was estimated at 50.837 (25.555 males and 25.282 females) and 52,367 (26,387 males and 25,980 females) according to the 1911 Census (25) Once again, Khoja connections created charity initiatives (See Tharia Topan’s visit to India)

Bombay was also welcoming to newcomers, with the newly-rich Khoja merchants setting up many charities for the poor and uneducated. For instance, the first school in Khoja history was established around 1825, whilst an English medium school was set-up and run by the Khojas, through the generosity of Kassambhai Nathabhai, by 1850’s! (26)

In the steam age following 1870s, Bombay become a major embarkation port for those headed for better lives in East Africa, as there now was a regular service between Bombay and Zanzibar and later after the establishment of direct British colonial rule in East Africa, to Mombasa.(see Hasham Jamal Pradhan)

“Within one month, he (the Protector of Emigrants in Bombay) counted 1,449 people leaving for East African ports. The total for the year 1895-96, of 6,908, was more than twice the number of the preceding year. The passengers on board one of these ships, questioned by the Protector, included, among others, thirty-two masons and tile turners from Kutch, sixty laborers from villages in Gujarat, three Khojas and four Hindu tailors from Rajkot, and sixteen Brahmins, who intended to “follow whatever suitable business offers.” (27)

However, when the opium trade fell drastically after 1910 (when export to China was banned), they shifted to the piece-goods trade but their numbers in China fell precipitously in the 1925 and 1930s, while they continued to grow at a regular pace in East Africa.”. (28)

"The Khoja contribution to Bombay can best be illustrated the List of the Mayors of Bombay from 1887 to 1984. There are quite a number of Khojas pre-partition and post-partition in this list and it just goes to show the strength and value of the community, that they administered possibly the most economically rich city in British India."(Mohammad Rahimtoola, Karachi)

As this brief early history illustrates, the Khojas of the Far East and East Africa and their subsequent migrations to the West, owe much to the phenomenal success of the Bombay Khoja.

Notes & References

(1) Jagga, Lajpar Rai- Bombay: One and Many (https://www.questia.com/magazine/1G1-19331642/bombay-one-and-many)

(In Mumbai, Muslims make up 15% of the population, one out of every five Muslim is a Shia and their total numbers are estimated between 5 lakh and 7 lakh)

(2) Bombay – Wikipedia-the Free Encyclopaedia.

(3) Growth of Mumbai - Wikipedia-the Free Encyclopaedia.

(4) Howard, E. I. The Shia School of Islam and Its Branches, Especially That of the Imamee-Ismailies: A Speech. Bombay: Oriental Press, 1866. 71

(5) Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce [hereafter i3J (21 JuIy 1851) (pp 1033-4)

(6) Howard, abid 86.

(7) Howard- abid 75

(8) Green, Nile. Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840-1915. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 177.See also Asani,Ali. From Satpanthi to Ismaili Muslim: The Articulation of Ismaili Khoja Identity in South Asia* (Harvard University)pp 12 - Published in Farhad Daftary, Modern History of the Ismailis, 2010

(9) The Telegraph and Courier (24 June 1847): (pp 599) (10) Bhacker, M. Reda. Trade and Empire in Muscat and Zanzibar Roots of British Domination. London: Routledge, 1992. 160. (11) Telegraph abid

(11A) Dongri is an area in Mumbai. The word comes from "Dungar" a Kutchi word for hills-which apparently have been blasted out of existence! The word 'Dungare' (Workmen's overalls worn in Britain) also has its origin from Dongri because these dresses were made from cloth from this place. The Portuguese church of Dongri, named as Our Lady of Bethlehem dates back to 1613, an inscription on the main entrance of the Church tells us. Wikipedia-Dongri (12) Jones, Justin. The Shi'a in Modern South Asia Religion, History and Politics. 139.

(13) Chatterji, Joya. Routledge Handbook of the South Asian Diaspora.

(14) Perry, Erskine. Cases Illustrative of Oriental Life and the Application of English Law to India, Decided in H.M. Supreme Court at Bombay. London: S. Sweet, 1853. 1.; New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, 1988).(pp 1)

(15) Bombay – Wikipedia-the Free Encyclopaedia

(16) Dobbin, Christine E. Urban Leadership in Western India: Politics and Communities in Bombay City, 1840-1885,. London: Oxford University Press, 1972. 151.

(17) Howard-Speech abid(pp 5)

(18) Chatterji, abid

(19) Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan. The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Classes in Bombay, 1900-1940. Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 56.

(20) Chandavarkar, abid

(21) Enthoven, R. E. The Tribes and Castes of Bombay. Vol. 2. Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1975. 217.

(22) Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency. Bombay: Gov. Central Press, 1882. 16.

(23) Jagga- Bombay abid

(24) Prestholdt, Jeremy. Domesticating the World African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

(25) Gazetteer abid

(26) Howard- Speech abid (pp 5)

(27) Metcalf, Thomas R. Imperial Connections India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 179.

(28) Chatterji, abid

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