Who was Sake Dean Mahomet?
He was a soldier, a masseuse, a restaurateur, a doctor, a litterateur, an entrepreneur, a Muslim, and a Christian. He was an extraordinary man who spiced up the life of an entire nation”. Yes, we are referring to one man. Sake Dean Mahomed.
He authored The Travels of Dean Mahomet, which is the first text to be composed and published in English by an Indian, way back in 1794. He is also the one who opened Britain’s first Curry house some 200 years ago. It is also him who first introduced the term “shampoo” (champi, in Hindi).
He used it in a typical Indian treatment – therapeutic massage. His book, The Travels of Dean Mahomet, is a travelogue and autobiography, presenting a native Indian view of the English conquest of India. This book was written in a series of letters to a friend, coming out in two volumes from Cork in Ireland.
Therefore, he was having the experience to work for the East India Company as a camp-follower and servant. Thereafter, as a subaltern officer in the Bengal Army in 1769 till 1984. He traveled extensively across India before moving to Ireland, and then move to England. Where he did different things besides writing. So much so, that at one point in time, whereas in England, he became very popular and known as “Dr. Brighton”.
Sake Dean Mahomed was born in May 1759 a native of Patna (then in Bengal, now the capital of the Indian state of Bihar). His association with the British East India Company not only supported him to learn the English language. Because, enriched his experience of the contemporary Indian situation, which he narrates in detail in his book.
At the time of writing the book, while in Cork, Dean Mahomet worked on an expansive estate as a domestic supervisor. Where he earned enough to lead a happy life with his family. Due to his marriage with an Anglo-Irish girl, and his employment, he got good access to the rich and elite of the city.
Which was only second to Dublin in the whole of Ireland in terms of affluence and prosperity – thriving on maritime trade with the newer colonies joining in the British Empire. In an interesting move, not quite unusual though for the time. So, he advertised a proposal, at the beginning of 1793. Furthermore, to raise money for the same, he also personally visited some famous and rich families in southern Ireland.
Hist 18th-century travel narrative, memoire, and autobiography by Dean Mahomet present an Indian point of view of a host of things. That ranging from the contemporary history of the British subjugation of India to the socio-cultural and religious aspects prevalent in India. Through this study, unravel the enigma that this person’s life and legacy presents.
His depiction of the Muslim and Hindu society, rituals, religious beliefs, and urban life though provide a unique ethnography of South Asia, is not free from controversies. He also includes descriptions of its urban life, flora, and fauna. He drew upon the genre of epistolary travel narrative to create “his own” representation of Asia and Asians for his Irish and British audience.
A NONDESCRIPT BEGINNING
By birth, a Bihar, then part of the Bengal Presidency, Sake Dean Mahomed, according to his own account, came from an elite Muslim family. Though his claims are purported to be doubtful of an elite lineage. He also claims to be related to the Nawab of Bengal and Bihar, his ancestors having risen in the administrative service of the Mughal Emperors.
Sake Dean Mahomet grew up in a Bengali Muslim family. Not only was he associated with the East India Company, but his father too was a Sepoy. Who died in combat when Dean was only about 10 years old? Dean was effectively “adopted” by Captain Godfrey Evan Baker, an Anglo-Irish Protestant officer.
When he got attached to a European-only regiment. This is really where he mastered the English language and learned deeply to read and write well enough to be able to think of publishing a book. Therefore, he certainly did not receive much or any formal education and schooling.
His military association may not be easy to take, but Dean Mahomet’s unique status as the only 18th-century Indian writer in English was only achieved because of that association. For what it’s worth, one notes that Dean Mahomet saw very little action during the first decade or so that he was associated with Captain Baker.
And as Michael Fischer points out, even as early as the 1780s, it was the Sepoy regiments that were doing the heaviest fighting in the first Anglo-Maratha war and the second Anglo-Mysore war. Fischer speculates that Baker and Mahomet, once they were engaged to a more active combat role, may have found their involvement in the subjugation of numerous opponents of British rule less enjoyable.
Also, Fischer mentions that Mahomet’s patron and friend, Captain Baker, resigned from military service in disgrace in 1782, after being convicted of embezzling funds. This was though not very uncommon amongst the British at that time, but to be court-martialed for it was.
The very same year, Mahomet also resigned from the Army, selecting to accompany Captain Baker, ‘his best friend’, to Britain. They arrived at Dartmouth and traveled onto Ireland where he was to chase his destiny.
THE ENGLISH SOJOURN: A MAN OF MANY CONTRASTS
Two years after quitting the army, Mahomet went to Cork, Ireland, with Captain Baker and his family, in 1784. It is then that he studied at a local school to improve his English language. This is where he met a lovely Irish girl – Jane Daly, with whom he fell in love with. She was from a decent family and their family was opposed to their proximity and friendship.
Subsequently, both eloped away to tie the knot in the year 1786. The couple later moved to Brighton, England, at the turn of the 19th Century. Mahomet then converted to the Anglican denomination of Christianity.
In an informative biography, contextualizes Dean Mahomet’s life and work. Mahomet’s life in India and then as an early Asian immigrant to Britain and convert from Islam to Christianity. Early in the 19th century, when he moved to London, he also worked briefly as a therapeutic masseur (shampooer) a Scottish nobleman.
In 1810, after moving to London, Dean Mahomet opened the first Indian takeaway restaurant in London: the Hindoostanee Coffee House in George Street in Central London. It served traditional Indian Hookah with real Chilm tobacco and Indian-style dishes.
The premises are now a building called Carlton House. He later moved to Portman Square in London, where he became an assistant to Sir Basil Cochrane at his vapor bath. This is where Dean Mahomet is said to have added an Indian treatment, champi (shampooing) or therapeutic massage, to Cochrane’s bath which soon became very fashionable.
A few years later, in 1814, he opened special treatment baths on the seafront at East Cliff, Brighton. Where he made himself a successful entrepreneur and doctor, providing “oriental medicine” – therapeutic massage and herbal steam baths – to the British public. Mahomet’s practiced his healing arts within the Brighton Pavilion and his own establishment, Mahomet’s Bath House.
The first “shampooing” vapor masseur bath in England, on the site now occupied by the Queen’s Hotel, described the treatment in a local paper as “The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath” (the type of Turkish bath). It is a cure to many diseases and giving full relief when everything fails; particularly Rheumatic and paralytic, gout, stiff joints, old sprains, lame legs, aches and pains in the joints”.
This business was an immediate success and Dean Mahomet became recognized as “Dr. Brighton”. Hospitals referred patients to him, and he was appointed as shampooing surgeon to both King George IV and William IV.
SAKE DEAN MAHOMET: THE LITTERATEUR
Transformation of a man from being a soldier in India with the East India Company to become an author writing in English – not his language – is indeed astonishing. Dean Mahomet’s writings and life bear testimony to the fact that the process of colonization was not just a one-way imperial assertion of the West over a passive and subservient East.
In its place, they reveal that in many ways the Indians represented the Orient to the British public directly and negotiated their complex relationships with Britons both in colonial India, as well as in Britain. His writings present to us an intriguing account of life in late 18th century India.
This quasi-biography of a colorful, dynamic individual presents an Indian’s view of the British conquest of India and conveys the vital role taken by Indians in the colonial process. Especially as they negotiated relations with Britons both in the colonial periphery and the imperial metropolis.
This engaging biography, written in epistolary mode, narrates to an imaginary friend the experiences of traveling with the East India Company and its colonial army. This is quite a treat for the connoisseurs of colonial discourse and those literary scholars who love autobiography.
But, in purely literary terms and simply put, The Travels of Dean Mahomet will not fall in the category of the best. For one thing, the story Mahomet tells is of his life while he was still in India, and it often seems that the most interesting part of the story is Dean Mahomet’s life after India and Ireland. It was only then that he separated from his patrons in Cork and moved to England and started a series of businesses.
Dean Mahomet left a legacy in his transculturation of “shampoo” (Hindi: champi). It appears that the word and concept of shampooing (transformed somewhat from his usage, of course) came into widespread usage in the west through him.
Fortunately, in Michael H. Fischer’s edition of the Travels, there is a substantial account of Mahomet’s English experience. He published another book, Shampooing or Benefits Resulting from the use of Indian Medical Vapor Bath in 1822, which became a bestseller.
INGENUITY IN QUESTION: A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS
As a literary work in general, and as an autobiography the Travels of Sake Dean Mahomed may not stand ground in comparison to some other works of the same period, such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. It is understood that this autobiography might have inspired Dean Mahomet’s.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano hits out at the practice of slavery and writes very critically of the trans-Atlantic slave-trade with well-constructed arguments.
Whereas, in the Travels of Sake Dean Mahomet, the author clearly avoids any critical judgment of the negative policies and practices of the British colonial establishment in India. By contrast, the historical reference points of Dean Mahomet’s narrative are in tandem with the British perspectives.
Frequently, his view-points resonate with those of his colonial masters. Maybe he had no choice, as he was employed as aide-de-camp and a soldier by the army of the British East India Company. We can divide the chapters of this autobiography into two broad categories.
One, those containing stories of specific military encounters, experiences and travels, and most action-packed. Whereas the other, those containing detailed descriptions of Indian society, people, religion, tradition, and geography, etc., mostly with appreciative tenor and language.
Writing on culture and society, Dean Mahomet, rather surprisingly glorifies the practices that were conservative and discriminatory, or at best, ignores them. He is neither apologetic nor defensive, for instance, when commenting on the Purdah amongst Muslim women, or the caste system amongst Hindus.
These components of Indian social order would be dealt with by many later British travelers in India and would become a key sign of the radical difference of “Oriental” culture in the European imagination. But Dean Mahomet is either unaware of all that, or because he’s writing before the exoticism of Purdah had been established as a staple of Anglo-Indian writing, he overlooks it:
Thereafter, it may be here observed, that the Hindu, as well as the Mahometan, shudders at the idea of revealing women to the public eye. They are held so sacred in India, that even the soldier in the rage of slaughter will not only spare but even defend them.
The Harem is a sanctuary against the fears of wasting war, and ruffians covered with the blood of a husband, shrink back with confusion at the apartment of his wife. At that times, his writings appear in sinks with some of the key tropes of colonial discourse, for instance, when he refers to the hill-dwelling tribes of Bihar as “savages”:
Our army is very numerous, the market people in the rear were attacked by another party of the Paharis. who plundered them and wounded many with their bows and arrows; the piquet guard closely pursued them, killed numerous, and apprehended 30 or 40 who were brought to the camp?
The next morning, as our hot tee wallies, grass cutters, and bazar people, went to the mountains about their usual business of procuring provender for the elephants, grass for the horses. Therefore, fuel for the camp, a gang of those licentious savages rushed with violence on them. Inhumanly butchered 7 or 8 people, carried off three elephants, and as many camels, with numerous horses and bullocks.
Hence, the use of such disconcerting and pejorative language is thankfully not a frequent occurrence in Dean Mahomet’s Travels. His personal bias for the urban and established north Indian culture. Something he perhaps identifies himself with is quite evident in his writings.
It is rather exciting to observe that he uses the terms “savages” only for those whom we would call today as “tribal”, as he never uses it for the Marathas, who happened to be his military opponents. There are many sociocultural matters, such as Muslim rituals – marriage, circumcision, death, etc.
Sake Dean Mahomed also describes in detail the cities he visited – Calcutta, (now Kolkata) Delhi, Allahabad, Madras, Dhaka, etc. His glorification of Indian Nawabs, their opulence and profligate lifestyle reflect his internecine desire to construct before his English audience the image of an exotic India. He uses highly embellished language to describe them, for instance, describing a Nawab from Calcutta, he writes:
Soon after my arrival here, I was amazed by the impressive appearance of the Nabob and all his train, amounting to about 3,000 attendants, proceeding in the solemn state from this palace to the temple.
Furthermore, Sake Dean Mahomed formed in the magnificence and richness of their attire one of the most brilliant processions ever be held. The Nabob was carried on a lovely pavilion, or meanah, by 16 men, alternately called by the natives, Baharas, who wore a red uniform.
The refulgent canopy covered with tissue, and they lined with embroidered scarlet velvet, trimmed with silver fringe. That was well supported by four pillars of beautiful massy silver and resembled the form of a lovely elbow chair, constructed in oval stylishness.
Hence, in which he sat cross-legged, leaning his back against a fine cushion and his elbows on two more covered with scarlet velvet, wrought with flowers of gold.
His descriptions and narratives are not only full of Persian and Hindi and Urdu words, but they are at times quite stimulating too. For example, Mahomet describes Ramzan (Ramadan) as a “month-long Lent”.
A grave downside of Dean Mahomed’s writings on India is that he allegedly plagiarized quite a few passages while describing India from other British travel writers John Henry Grose’s Voyage to the East Indies in 1766.
Dean Mahomet’s Travels contain about seven percent of its text from other sources. The reasons why he chose to copy others may be either his incompetence or sheer negligence. Apparently, he used Grose’s writings to fill in some gaps where he himself may not have encountered certain things.
Whereas Sake Dean Mahomed knew quite well of Muslim religious practices as he himself was a Muslim. He may not have known Hinduism that well. As we find out, he has gone wrong on a few occasions while dealing with things related to Hinduism, like caste, etc.
In the absence of the modern ideas of copyright and related laws, he may have found Grose’s way of putting things too attractive to resist.
This issue of plagiarism brings us back to Equiano, albeit somewhat obliquely. Gustavus Vassa was in fact not born in Africa at all, as he states in The Interesting Narrative, but rather in South Carolina.
This can be further verified in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and this follow-up colloquy. Some of the text from the first three chapters of Equiano’s book, telling Equiano’s life as a child in Nigeria, and subsequent capture by slave traders, are in fact taken from a Quaker traveler named, Anthony Benezet.
Because Equiano perhaps invented a different early life to strengthen his point about the evils of slavery and the slave trade. The disruption of the idyllic African childhood makes a better story than being directly born into slavery, which is what probably happened. Carretta also shows that almost everything Equiano describes as happening to himself in his adult life can be verified by historical documents.
From the above instances of “plagiarism”, we may draw that though both the books are quite extraordinary in their own ways, both the authors lacked full command over their voice as they stated their point of view. Both the authors, Gustavus Vassa / Equiano and Dean Mahomet seem reasonably confined to the then existing conventions of the day in so far as travel literature in English is concerned.
The fact that they even borrowed aspects of their own self-description from English writers only reinforces how precarious their respective authorial positions were. This critical expose, though, does not intend in any way to take anything away from the significance and contribution of Sake Dean Mahomet in the history of writing in English by Indians.
A LASTING LEGACY!
Sake Dean Mahomed also authored the books, Cases Cured and Shampooing Surgeon, Inventor of the Indian Medicated Vapor and Sea Water Baths, etc. though becoming very popular in his own lifetime, are hardly known today, even in literary circles.
Sake Dean Mahomet and his wife, Jane Daly, had six children: Rosanna, Henry, Horatio, Frederick, Arthur and Amelia (Ansari 2004: 57-58). His son, Frederick, owned Turkish Baths at Brighton and managed a boxing and fencing academy near Brighton.
Frederick’s son (Sake Dean Mahomet’s grandson), Frederick Henry Horatio Akbar Mahomet (1849-1884), went on to become an internationally known physician, who also worked at Guy’s Hospital in London, and made substantial contributions to the study of high blood pressure.
Another of Sake Dean Mahomet’s grandsons, Rev. James Kerriman Mahomet, who converted to Christianity, was later appointed as the Vicar of Hove, Sussex, in the 19th century. This underlines the fact that most of his descendants had eventually assimilated into Christian English society.
By the dawn of the Victorian era, claims Pakistani literary critic Muneeza Shamsie, Sake Dean Mahomet had begun to lose prominence and until recently was largely forgotten in history. It was only after Alamgir Hashmi, a poet and scholar, drew attention to this author in the 1970s and 1980s.
That a kind of renewal of interest in his writings has followed. However, it might tantamount to limiting, in many senses, the legacy of this man of many parts if we confined him as the “pioneering flag carrier of Indian Muslim culture to the British Isles”. Without doubt, he was one of them, but he was much more and beyond – a truly cosmopolitan and a man far ahead of his times!
However ironical it may sound, but it was the British, who have taken utmost care not only to preserve but also to honor his legacy. His books are properly kept in the Brighton Jubilee Library rare books collection. On 29 September 2005, the city of Westminster revealed a Green Plaque commemorating the opening of the “Hindoostanee Coffee House”.
Death of Sake Dean Mahomed
Sake Dean Mahomed died on February 24, 1851, at the age of 92 and was buried in St Nicholas’ churchyard in Brighton. Different commemorations of and tributes to Mahomed’s legacy have taken place in the 21st century. He will always stand out as the one who made the maiden effort to traverse the unknown.
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Reference: DR. ALOK KUMAR DAS – JAZAN UNIVERSITY, JAZAN, – KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA.
Originally posted 2020-02-11 20:26:18.