From Khoja Wiki

The Khojas In Early Bombay

by Iqbal I. Dewji, Editor. (2024)

In a many ways, the outstanding success of the present-day Khoja global diaspora is a result of their migration, during the 1700s’ and 1800s', from Surat-Kutch-Kathiawar-Sind to this fast-growing English colonial port-city, located just south of Gujarat, on India’s western seaboard and within the route of the ancient Indian Ocean trading networks.

According to a 1883 British report on the Bombay region, which provides the first-ever detailed account of the Khojas, who by this date, were well-settled as a self-governing, prosperous, trading community in Bombay.

Khojas are found in small numbers in some of the large towns. They are settlers from Cutch and Gujarat….They speak Cutchi among themselves and Hindustani or Marathi with others. The men are tall or of middle height, strong, and fair. They shave the head, wear the beard short or shave it, and dress in a skull cap or a head-scarf, a long coat, a shirt, a waistcoat, and loose trousers. The women, who like the men are tall or of middle height, are rather inclined to fatness, fair, and well-featured. They wear a long silken shirt falling almost to the ankles, a scarf of one or two yards of silk thrown over the head, and a pair of loose trousers rather tight at the ankles. They have no special outdoor dress, and appear in public and help the men in their work. Both men and women are neat and clean. Khojas are traders, chiefly, fuel, groceries, hardware, parched grain, and piece goods…They are said to be hardworking, thrifty, and sober, and generally well-to-do…They marry among themselves, finding wives in Bombay or Cutch. They teach their children Gujarati. On the whole they are said to be a rising class.” [1]

In fact, the Khojas were part of the growth of Bombay from its very beginning as a Portuguese factory (trading house) in 1526 and later as a colony from 1535 after the Sultan of Gujarat seceded ‘Bom Baia - the beautiful bay’ to them. We also know from the recorded accounts of the great merchant, Shams-ud-din Gillani that Khoja merchants from Gujarat were trading with the Portuguese in the western Indian Ocean area by 1534.

From time immemorial, the Khojas and their ancestors seem to have traded on that coast and the early Portuguese annals describe numerous flourishing communities of them established between Sofala and Socotra. [2]

A hundred years later, in 1661, when Bombay was handed over as “dowry” to the English East India Company (which was then based in Surat), we know from the pirating of a Khoja-owned ship, The Quedagh Merchant that the Khojas were operating as traders and ship-owners from Surat. And in 1668, when the ‘Company’ moved its ‘factory’ to Bombay, it also lured those merchants (including more Khojas) with the promise of security and facility to tap into the growing business opportunities as the British expanded their hold on India. [3]

Jain and Hindu Banias, and Bohra and Khoja Muslims who had been actively engaged in providing hinterland brokerage and credit services to the Company in the eighteenth century, continued to do so in Bombay while also amassing wealth through wholesale in-country cotton and textiles trade. [4]

Gradually, the Khojas family and merchant guild networks attracted merchants and others from Kutch, Kathiawar and Sind to settle in Bombay and there is an oral tradition that the first Khoja community hall was built in 1740 and by 1790, they also owned a substantial graveyard property in Dongri,[5] the still-existing Khoja ‘Moholla’ neighborhood. (see Alarakhia Sumar)[6]

Interestingly, a Portuguese church named ‘Our Lady of Bethlehem’ dating back to 1613, is also located in Dongri, linking back to the early settlement of the Khojas during the Portuguese period. The record shows that when this church was built, there was a shopkeeper and his family living in the area!

However, it was 'Skull Famine' of 1791 (see Gujarat Famines & Khoja Migrations) which decimated almost 11 million people in North India, that forced many Khojas to move to the safety of Bombay, assisted by the charity of the wealtheir jat members; in the famous Agakhan Case of 1866, the Imam’s lawyer confirmed the early presence of Khojas in Bombay.[7]

However, the earliest written record is from 1804 when the Khoja leadership voted to mortgage their jamaat-khana building to a shroff (money-lender ed.) for the sum of Rs.17,000 because of an appeal for money by the Imam, Shah Khalil Ullah from Iran.[8] As this was a sizeable amount, it suggests that they had developed sufficient credit as a community.

The Bombay Khojas had organized themselves in a self-governing setup that they had used over the previous four centuries (and which was also the pattern for most of the Bombay merchant communities.) [9]

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.[10]

Later, during the course of the 1800’s, Bombay became an active litigious society and because the Khoja merchants were fiercely protective of property inheritance rights[11], we have some well-documented information, both from the court records as well as from the local Indian press, on their lives.

Witness testimony was that of the 150 to 200 Khoja families in Bombay in the early 1820's, the majority lived quite modestly.[12]

However, a series of famines in Kutch-Kathiawar in 1803, 1813-1814, 1823-1824, 1834-1835 forced many to flee to the safety of Bombay where there were many established Khojas. (see Gujarat Famines & Khoja Migrations)

Cassum Natha, another litigation witness, estimated that by 1847, the Khoja community was closer to 600 families, with approximately 1,000 or 1,500 persons.[13]

Following each such migrations, family connections and jati (guild) networks coupled with a growing reputation for honesty made the Khojas prosper. For example, frequently in business, if one failed or defaulted, others would rally around to discharge the debts so as to keep reputation of the guild intact. [14]

Bombay’s Mohammed Ali Road in Dongri became a major center of Khoja settlement, with families migrating from Kutch and Kathiawar in Gujarat to establish business ventures that derived from an existing Gujarati, mercantile culture.[15] 1841, there were some 2,000 Khojas there, mostly small traders in grains with a few large merchants.[16]

By the 1850s’, the Khojas became so firmly established in the Bombay's rice distribution network that the very term 'Khoja' came to denote brokers of parched rice. [17]

Justice Perry, in his 1847 judgment in Hirbae v. Sonabae. Gungbae Sonabae, another significant Inheritance dispute, estimated the number of Khojas in Bombay to be 2,000. [18]

Whilst the early community thrived in the new prosperity of Bombay, the disputes over the Agakhan’s leadership lead to many disagreements, as the records show that the earliest riot in Bombay’s history occurred in 1850 at Mahim, Bombay in consequence of a dispute between the two rival factions of the Khojas.[19]

By 1866, their numbers had jumped to about 4,000 [20] and gradually, the Bombay Khojas began to use Bombay as their base to pursue overseas trade opportunities, primarily in Africa, but also in other parts of Asia. (See U Kan Gyi(Burma); Rajabali Jumabhoy(Singapore); Dewji Jamal (Tanganyika).

By 1860, the Khojas went into the opium trade and by 1890, they had overtaken the Parsis from this most lucrative trade.

Thus the still considerable trade between India and China, in which opium was progressively displaced by cotton yarn as China’s major import from India, offered great opportunities to Bombay traders. In this particular field, Parsis increasingly gave way to Gujarati Muslims, both Khojas and Bohoras.[21]

Whilst the general success of Gujaratis is well documented and rightly attributed to their centuries-old mercantile and maritime culture, the Khojas had some unique advantages due to the syncretic faith system imbedded in their mercantile jat. The centuries of living and trading under often hostile orthodox Muslim rule and an accommodating Hindu populace had prepared them well for thriving in the cosmopolitan society of Bombay.

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]

It was through these very 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]

For instance, the very first formal school in Khoja history was established in Bombay around 1825, whilst an English medium school was set-up in 1850s.[24]As also as early as the 1850’s, a newspaper, 'The Khoja Doost' was launched in Bombay.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Bombay community numbered around 8,500 and was vibrant, relatively wealthy, with several members engaged in a wide range of economic activity.[25]

(See Sir Currimbhoy Ebrahim (Baronet);Muhammad Ali Jinnah(Barrister & Politician):Rahimtullah Muhammad Sayani;Jaffer Rahimtoola and Abdulla Dharamsi(Lawyers); Jaffer Padamsee(Major Landlord);Sir Ibrahim Rahimtoola; Sir Rahimtoola M. Chinoy and Mohamed Ibrahim Rawjee Civic Leaders).

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.

(Manji Gulamhussein Padamsee,Ahmed Devji (Furniture); Qasim Mohamed Mitha (Trading); Nur Muhammad Chinoy (Automobiles & Electronics), Ahmed S. Moloobhoy (ship-demolition)

Bhatias, Khojas and Cutchi Memons came into prominence in the second half of the nineteenth century, when they established themselves in all the major ports of the Arabian Peninsula. Originally grain sellers, these communities began migrating into Bombay in the latter decades of the eighteenth century and went on to form merchant colonies in Muscat, Aden and Zanzibar.[26]

Some of the Khoja families were engaged in the 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 Khojas in Zanzibar History)

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 (Baronet);Dostmohamed Allana;Jairazbhoy Peerbhoy, one of the largest property owners in Bombay who had links with Karachi, Burma, Bengal, Aden, East Africa, Japan, China and Europe.

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]Tharia Topan of Zanzibar even had an office in Bombay. Swahili dictionaries published in Bombay in 1841/44 and Lucknow (in today’s Pakistan) in 1880 give a hint at how sophisticated these far‐reaching trade networks have been.[29]

.....big Gujarati cotton traders and piece-goods merchants (including Khojas) dominated the Indian Merchants Chamber (“the largest business association in Bombay”) [30]

The Great Indian Famine of 1900 also called the ‘Chappanyo’ was so severe that the population of the Kathiawar Agency (including Kutch) decreased by 15 percent. Oral tradition has it that almost 1,500 Khojas moved from the Junagadh area during this period and Ahmed Devji is credited with their settlement in Bombay at this time.

According to the 1901 Census, the total Khoja population in Western India grew to an estimated at 50,837 (25.555 males and 25.282 females) and by 1911 Census, 52,367 (26,387 males and 25,980 females)[31]

As was custom for centuries, the Khoja family and jat (guild) connections established charitable initiatives to deal with each of these catastrophes. As well from the 1870’s, successful overseas Khoja merchants like Tharia Topan, Allidina Visram and others made frequent visits to India to persuade their jat-bhais to move to Africa and the Middle East, as well as to recruit store clerks and distributors for their vast enterprises in the African hinterland.

In the steam age following the 1870s, Bombay became a major embarkation port for those headed for 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).

The people are flocking to Africa” the Protector of Emigrants in Bombay reported in September 1896, “of their own free will, at their own expense. . . . Many have embarked for Mombasa in the hope of finding work on the Uganda Railway, or in connection with the trade and wants that will spring up with the railway construction. Within one month, he 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. [32]

The Khoja contribution to Bombay during this early period can be best illustrated from the List of the Mayors of Bombay from 1887 to 1984. There are seven Khojas on 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.[33]

Notes & References

  1. Bombay Gazetteer Jan 1883 vol 11 Kolaba
  2. Frere, H.B.E - The Khojas: The Disciples Of The Old Man Of The Mountain, MacMillan's Magazine, Volume 34 1876 342.
  3. India in the World; the World in India 1450-1770 a-1450-1770/ “Surat, for example, saw its shipping cut to about one fourth between the late 1600s and the mid-1750s. Most of the city’s traders left for other ports, many of them for Bombay, the new British capital for the west coast”.
  4. Doshi, Sapana. Imperial Water, Urban Crisis-A Political Ecology of Colonial State Formation in Bombay, 1850–90.
  5. Dongri is a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Mumbai. The word comes from 'dungar',a Kutchi word for hill-which apparently has been blasted out of existence in Dongri. The word 'Dungare' (workmen's overalls worn in Britain) also has its origin from Dongri because these garments were made from cloth from this place.
  6. see Aldrick,Judith.The Sultan's Spymaster: Peera Dewjee of Zanzibar.Location 3988-3989, where she quotes 'The next letter is dated 4 October and is headed ‘Samuel Street, Khoja Moholla, Bombay.’
  7. Howard, E. I. The Shia School of Islam and Its Branches, Especially That of the Imamee-Ismailies: A Speech. Bombay: Oriental Press, 1866 pg 71.
  8. Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce [hereafter i3J 21 July 1851 1033-4.
  9. ibid Doshi, “These communities conducted their commercial activities through caste networks and hierarchies such as panchayats (caste governing bodies), and mahajans (commercial guilds)g”
  10. 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.
  11. The Khoja Inheritance cases, in which many ‘Shetias’, the community’s long established leading families. resisted the imposition of the Islamic law of strict division of property at death, preferring instead to continue the Khoja traditional ‘Hindu’ law with its automatic giving of the entire estate to the eldest son with an implied ‘trust’ for lifetime care in favor of all immediate family members. Allegedly advancing "women’s rights' (the English did not apply such rules to their own country till late in the century), the British colonial courts gradually whittled down estates amidst the growing fears of the mercantile Khojas to the gradual withering away of family wealth. so much that within the next one or two generations, having lost their competitive position Vis-à-vis the Hindus,most Khoja business familiesas lost their apex economic and social status. It was truly unfortunate for the Khojas that their inheritance laws got entangled in the struggle for control of the community’s affairs.
  12. The Telegraph and Courier (24 June 1847): 599.
  13. Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce [hereafter i3J 21 July 1851 1033-4.
  14. Letter 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.
  15. Jones, Justin. The Shi'a in Modern South Asia Religion, History and Politics. 139.
  16. Chatterji, Joya. Routledge Handbook of the South Asian Diaspora.
  17. Bulley, Anne.The Bombay Country Ships 1790-1833 276.
  18. 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.
  19. Bombay – Wikipedia-the Free Encyclopaedia.
  20. Howard, E. I. The Shia School of Islam and Its Branches, Especially That of the Imamee Ismailies: A Speech. pg 5 Bombay: Oriental Press, 1866.
  21. Markovits, Claude (2002), The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750-1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Patna, Cambridge University Press, 15.
  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 56.
  23. ibid.
  24. ibid Howard – Speech 5 (An interesting query is why it took more than 50 years for the Khojas to start any new schools in Bombay or nor elsewhere globally - as far as I know.)
  25. Enthoven, R. E. The Tribes and Castes of Bombay. Vol. 2. Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1975 217.
  26. Indira Gandhi National Open University. UNIT 27 COLONIALISM AND TRADE: 1857-1947 13.
  27. Arabindan-Kesson, Anna E. From Salem to Zanzibar: Cotton and the Cultures of Commerce between Salem and East Africa, 1820-1861-Chapter in Patricia Johnston and Caroline Frank, (eds.), Global Trade and Visual Culture in Federal New England (University of New England Press, 2014) Kindle Location 195-196 “Over the course of the 1880s this trend intensified, so that in 1887-88 Zanzibar imported almost all of the unbleached drills, more than half of the unbleached, Indian-manufactured sheeting, as well as nearly one quarter of all dhoti (a lighter loincloth material) exported from Bombay. In terms of value, these cottons comprised the most important category of Indian-manufactured Bombay exports. By 1888, Bombay exports of unbleached and English cloth to Zanzibar had reached the astonishing amount of more than fifteen million yards a year.” Compare "Between 1855 and the beginning of the American Civil War, East Africans consumed more than twenty-nine million yards of xq cloth”.
  28. Prestholdt, Jeremy. Domesticating the World African Consumerism and the Genealogies of Globalization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  29. Barton, Eric “ ...what tribe should we call him ?” The Indian Diaspora, the State and the Nation in Tanzania since ca. 1850. 2013, Stichproben. Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien. No. 25/2013, Vol. 13, 1‐28 Kindle Location 129-130.
  30. Metcalf, Thomas R. Imperial Connections India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 179.
  31. ibid Gazetteer.
  32. Markovits, Claude. Indian Business and Nationalist Politics, p.31.
  33. Mohammad Rahimtoola, Entreprenuer, Karachi.(2017)

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