KHOJAS IN EARLY BOMBAY:
by I.I.Dewji, Editor, www.khojawiki.org (2019)
In a great many ways, the outstanding success of the present-day Khoja global diaspora is an outcome of their 19th-century migration from Surat-Kutch-Kathiawar to this fast-growing English colonial port-city, located just south of Gujarat, on India’s western seaboard and within the ancient Indian Ocean trading networks.
By 1534, Khoja merchants from Gujarat were trading with the Portuguese (see Khoja Shams-ud-din Gillani) and so when the Sultan of Gujarat seceded “Bom Bahia,” “the beautiful bay” to the Portuguese, it is likely that the Khojas would have started trading from there. They would have been amongst its leading merchants in 1661 when Bombay was handed over as “dowry” to the English. (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.) (1)
By 1668, the more established Khoja merchants from Surat were lured by the English East India Company when it transferred its base to Bombay to take advantage of the growing business opportunities as they expanded their hold in India.
“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, it was Skull Famine of 1791 (see Gujarat Famines & Khoja Migrations) which decimated almost 11 million people in North India, which forced many poorer Khojas to move to the relative safety of Bombay, assisted by the charity of the wealthier caste members. By this time, Bombay’s total population was about 100,000. (3)
Within the community, there is an oral tradition that the Khojas Jamaat owned a graveyard since 1790 in Dongri, the Khoja mohalla neighborhood. (see Alarakhia Sumar)
That the Khojas were definitely living in Bombay by the end of the 1700s was also confirmed by the Ismaili Imam’s lawyer in the Agakhan Case of 1866 (4)
However, the earliest written record of the Khoja presence is from 1804 when the Khojas mortgaged their jamaat-khana building to a shroff (money-lender ed.) for the sum of Rs.17,000, to send to their Imam in Iran. (5)
Also later when the Bombay Khoja Jamaat account books were seized by the British courts in ongoing litigation, records show that Rs.1,300 was sent to the Ismaili Imam Shah Khalil Allah in 1807 (6).
The Bombay Khoja Jamat Book also clearly notes their presence in Bombay after 1806-1807. (7) During this period, the Khojas organized themselves in a setup that they had also used in India for centuries.
“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)
Later, during the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, Bombay became an active litigious society and since the Khoja merchants were fiercely protective of their property inheritance rights, we have some well-documented information on their lives.
In one such inheritance case, witness testimony by one Hassoon Syed stated 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. Alarakhia Sumar, a prominent Mukhi of the Khoja Jamaat, was credited with their settlement in Bombay at this time.
Cassum Natha, another court witness, estimated, that by 1847, the Khoja community was closer to 600 families, with approximately 1,000 or 1,500 persons. (11)
In this migration, family connections, caste networks and a reputation of honesty made it possible for the Khojas to prosper rapidly. For example, frequently in business, if one failed or defaulted, others would rally around to discharge his debts so as to keep their caste business reputation intact. (12)
"Bombay’s Mohammed All Road in Dongri (13) 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". (14)
By this time, the Khojas became so established in the Bombay rice distribution that the term "Khoja" also came to describe brokers of parched rice. (15)
"....by 1841, there were some 2,000 Khojas there, mostly small traders in grains with a few large merchants." (16)
Justice Perry, in his 1847 judgment in Hirbae v. Sonabae. Gungbae Sonabae, also a significant Inheritance dispute, estimated the number of Khojas in Bombay to be 2,000. (17)
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 the Khojas. (18)
By 1866, their numbers in Bombay had grown to about 4,000. (19)
"By 1860, the Bombay Khojas went into the opium trade in a big way and by 1890, they had overtaken the Parsis from this most lucrative trade". (21)
Whilst the general success of Gujarati immigrants is well documented and attributed to their centuries-old marine mercantile culture, the Khojas had some advantages over other Muslims due to their syncretic faith system.
"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." (22)
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. (23)(Sir Currimbhoy Ebrahim, Baronet (Baronetcy) Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Barrister & Politician),Rahimtullah Muhammad Sayani Jaffer Rahimtoola , Abdulla Dharamsi (Lawyers), Jaffer Padamsee (Landlord) Ibrahim Rahimtoola, Sir Rahimtoola M. Chinoy; Mohamed Ibrahim Rawjee (Civic Leaders).
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 actually happened as the Khojas of Bombay (and Zanzibar) seemed to have lost their economic clout by early 20th century.
"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" (24) (see Manji Ghulamhussian Padamsee (Glassware), Laljibhai Devraj (Glassware), Ahmed Devji (Furniture) Dewji Jamal (Shipping).
They also began to spread themselves across the Bombay area. In the 1881 census, Khojas were noted as residents of the suburb of Bandra. (25)
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 instance, the first school in Khoja history was established in Bombay 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)
As early as the 1850’s, a private newspaper called “The Khoja Doost” was launched in Bombay.
Some of these families were engaged in the incredible Bombay cotton mills industry, which came into being around the 1860s, largely in response to the growing trade with East Africa through the port of Zanzibar, where the Khojas and other Kutchi-Kathiawari merchants had established successful distribution networks. (see 200 Years of History of Khojas in Zanzibar)
"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." (27) (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" (28) (see Sir Tharia Topan of Zanzibar - who even opened an office in Bombay)
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 by 1911 Census, 52,367 (26,387 males and 25,980 females) (29).
As was custom for centuries, the Khoja caste connections established charitable initiatives to deal with these catastrophes. (Tharia Topan’s & Allidina Visram made frequent visits to India to persuade Khojas to move to Africa and to recruit migrants for their enterprises.)
In the steam age following the 1870s, Bombay became 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) Saboor Chatoor
"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 onboard 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." (30)
"The Khoja's contribution to Bombay can best be illustrated from 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." (per: Mr. Mohammad Rahimtoola, Karachi).(31)
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 500,000 and 700,000)
(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. (pp 71)
(5) Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce [hereafter i3J (21 JuIy 1851) (pp 1033-4)
(6) Howard, abid (pp 86)
(7) Howard- abid ( pp 75)
(8) Green, Nile. Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840-1915. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011. (pp 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 ( pp 599)
(12) No. 9342 dated Fort William, 30 May 1878, J. Munro, Inspector General of Police, Lower Provinces, to the Secretary to Govt. Punjab, Judicial Department. Bengal Political, 16 July 1878, A16 and 17; no. 63 dated 19 March 1879, Col. A.H. Bamfield, Officiating Inspector of Police, Punjab, to the
(13) Dongri is a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood in Mumbai. The word comes from "Dungar" a Kutchi word for hills-which apparently have been blasted out of existence in Dongri! 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.
(14) Jones, Justin. The Shi'a in Modern South Asia Religion, History and Politics. 139.
(15) Bulley, Anne - The Bombay Country Ships 1790-1833(pp 276)
(16) Chatterji, Joya. Routledge Handbook of the South Asian Diaspora.
(17) 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)
(18) Bombay – Wikipedia-the Free Encyclopaedia
(19) Howard-Speech abid (pp 5)
(20) Dobbin, Christine E. Urban Leadership in Western India: Politics and Communities in Bombay City, 1840-1885,. London: Oxford University Press, 1972. (pp 151)
(21) Chatterji, abid
(22) 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. (pp 56)
(23) Chandavarkar, abid
(24) Enthoven, R. E. The Tribes and Castes of Bombay. Vol. 2. Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1975. (pp 217)
(25) Bombay: Gazetteer Jan 1883 vol 11 Kolaba Gov. Central Press, 1882. (pp 16.)
(26) Howard- Speech abid (pp 5)
(27) Jagga- Bombay abid
(28) Prestholdt, Jeremy. Domesticating the World African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
(29) Gazetteer abid
(30) Metcalf, Thomas R. Imperial Connections India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 179.
(31) Since its inception as a Municipal Corporation, the Khojas have provided seven Mumbai mayors from the Bombay’s leading Khoja Families.
Photo Gallery of Colonial Bombay