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337. Sake Dean Mahomed

Opened the first Indian restaurant in England

Dean Mahomed's remarkable career in Britain, where he lived for nearly three-quarters of a century, gives us unique insights into how one early Indian migrant managed to find a place for himself and his family, first in Georgian Ireland and then in England.

Born in 1759 in Patna, Bihar, Dean Mahomed, according to his own account, came from an elite Muslim family, being related to the Nawabs of Bengal and Bihar, his ancestors having risen in the administrative service of the Mughal emperors. Faced with the altered state of politics in mid-eighteenth century Bengal, according to family narrative, the 'only refuge' for such Muslim families was to seek service, however 'lowly', in the Company's Bengal Army. In 1769, aged 11, Mahomed fulfilled his early ambition to enter a 'military life' when he joined Godfrey Baker, an Irish Cadet, as a camp follower. Mahomed rose rapidly, first to the position of Market Master in 1781, then jemedar (ensign) and finally subedar (captain). Such rapid promotion hints at Baker's patronage, whose own fortunes had risen too. As part of Baker's battalion, Mahomed saw action (e.g., against the Marathas) and he took part in several of the battles (e.g., against Cheyt Singh) that extended the Company's domination over India, a process completed during Mahomed's own lifetime.
In 1782, Mahomed resigned from the Army to accompany Captain Baker to Ireland. What motivated him to abandon his career? According to his own testimony, curiosity to see 'that part of the world' and a conviction that without 'his best friend' he would 'suffer much uneasiness of mind' prompted him to accompany Baker. This suggests that the decision was his own. At the age of 25, in September 1784, Mahomed arrived at Dartmouth to start a new life in Britain.

 For the first several years Mahomed lived in Ireland with the Baker family, in a prosperous part of Cork on the South Mall. His position in the Baker household is not recorded. His biographer suggests that he was 'most plausibly' a 'manager', 'not a servant in livery, but not an independent gentleman either'. An advertisement from Mahomed in a London newspaper of 1813, in which he advertised his skills in 'marketing ... and conducting the business of a kitchen' confirms such an assumption. Of Mahomed's life in Cork very little is known except for a brief account from Abu Talib Khan's visit to the Baker household in December 1799, during which he met Mahomed. We learn that Mahomed was sent to school to learn English, where he met a young woman 'known to be fair and beautiful', the daughter of 'a family of rank of Cork', with whom he eloped to another town, returning to Cork after their marriage in 1786. This was Jane Daly. According to Abu Talib Khan, the Mahomeds had 'several beautiful children ... a separate house and wealth'; Mahomed had published a book, giving an account of himself and the customs of India. Inter-religious marriages would have been difficult enough in Ireland, requiring a bond, but inter-racial marriages would have been most unusual at this time. Negative images of Islam and India current at the time would have informed British consciousness. How did Jane's family see their daughter's marriage? One can only speculate, but their elopement hints at a measure of opposition. The absence of any likely Daly name in the official list of subscribers to Mahomed's book also hints at lack of support. But from the account of Abu Talib Khan there is no doubting that Mahomed had retained the patronage of the Baker clan.

In 1794 Mahomed's book The Travels of Dean Mahomet, written as a series of letters to an imaginary friend, was published in Cork. Written in the genre of eighteenth-century travel writing for an audience of Anglo-Irish with India connections (as seen from the subscribers' list), the narrative demonstrates how well Mahomed had mastered the English language and style. Travels is unique for several reasons. It is the first book to be written and published in English by an Indian. As a historical document, it provides a valuable 'Indian voice', describing India's conquest, which Mahomed witnessed as a member of the Company's army, in a version different from existing European accounts. Mahomed also describes the physical landscape of India--its cities and towns, as well as Indian society--and Muslim life as an insider, giving us an Indian perspective to set alongside contemporary European accounts.

Around 1807-8 Mahomed arrived in London. When exactly and why, at the age of 48 and having lived in Cork for 25 years, he left Ireland is not recorded. The birth of his daughter Amelia in August 1808 locates Mahomed in London's Portman Square, a fashionable area and a haunt of India-returned nabobs. Here, Mahomed first found employment with a rich nabob, Sir Basil Cochrane, who had set up a vapour bath establishment in his huge mansion in Portman Square. Mahomed is said to have added an Indian treatment, 'shampooing' (champi) or therapeutic massage, to Cochrane's vapour bath, a treatment that would later make Mahomed famous in Brighton under the name 'Sake Dean Mahomed'. But before that he embarked on a different independent career: as proprietor of the Hindoostanee Coffee-House.

The Coffee-House, established in 1810 at 34 George Street, Portman Square, is perhaps the first example of an enterprising Indian achieving economic survival through ethnic 'cultural entrepreneur-ship', as an advertisement in The Times put it. Aimed at Anglo-Indians, Mahomed offered them the enjoyment of Hookha, with 'real chilm tobacco', and Indian dishes 'in the highest perfection, and allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England', in a setting decorated with Indian scenes. Thus, Mahomed sold what whites could not offer: authentic Indian taste in an Oriental atmosphere. Further, his appeal to the wealthy 'Indian gentlemen' (Anglo-Indians) shows that Mahomed's success was dependent on their patronage. The Hindoostanee Coffee-House must have attracted enough support, for Mahomed expanded into 35 George Street. Given the strict licensing laws, managing a restaurant would not have been easy. Building up a loyal clientele takes time, too. Coupled with that, breaking into an established market would have been difficult, regardless of how 'novel' his idea. It seems that Mahomed over-reached himself by too rapid an expansion: his 'purse' was not 'strong enough to stand the slow test of public encouragement', and he was forced to declare bankruptcy in the London Gazette in 1812. However, the Hindoostanee Coffee-House--furnished with 'Asiatic embellishments', offering 'dinners in the Hindustanee style' and other refreshments in 'the same genre'--made enough of an impact on some Londoners to merit a mention in The Epicure's Almanack, the nineteenth-century version of the Good Food Guide, long after the Coffee-House had closed down.

 Having fallen on hard times, in 1813 Mahomed advertised for a situation as a butler or valet, adding that he had 'no objection to town or country' in order to increase his employability. His son William, aged 16 and a postman in London, could not have earned enough to support the family. By then Mahomed was past middle-age, and starting afresh could not have been easy. Is it any wonder, then, that this painful episode is not mentioned in any of his subsequent writings, except obliquely and in the most general terms as 'reverses ... attended with all the uncertainty, and precarious circumstances of struggling fortune'. The only direct mention--of 'the breaking of his Banker'--is made to A.B. Granville much later, and Granville, who knew Mahomed in Brighton only, assumed it referred to Mahomed's bank in Calcutta.

Around 1814 Mahomed arrived in Brighton as a 'shampooing surgeon' at the Devonshire Place bath-house, possibly as a result of his advertisement. The date can be inferred from two sources: a testimonial from a grateful patient, dated 10 November 1814, and the baptism record from March 1815 of his daughter Rosanna. Brighton at this time was a growing and fashionable health resort. Its population, about 2,000 in 1750, grew from 4,000 in the 1780s to over 7,000 by 1801, and would shoot up to 65,000 by 1850. It attracted numerous visitors, too. The coming of the railway made Brighton accessible, drawing crowds from London and elsewhere. Significant among the reasons for its growth were the popularisation of the health-giving properties of sea bathing (and sea-water drinking) in the medical writings of Dr Richard Russell, and the patronage of the Prince of Wales (later King George IV), reflected in the building of the Royal Pavilion. As the fashion for sea bathing took off, many indoor (cold and hot salt-water) baths were established, the first by Dr Awister in 1769. Long before the arrival of Mahomed and his family, Brighton boasted a variety of bathing establishments offering different cures.

Here Mahomed set up his own distinctive establishment: the Indian Vapour Baths and Shampooing Establishment. As with the Hindoostanee Coffee-House, he found a new way to cultural entrepreneurship, trading on his Indian-ness, emphasising the Indian qualities of his Medicated Vapour Bath: the use of special Indian oils in shampooing and herbs for the bath 'brought expressly from India'. Mahomed claimed that he introduced shampooing to Britain, that his treatment was more powerful and 'superior' to other remedies for rheumatic aches and pains, that he alone, 'a native of India', possessed 'to an eminent degree' the art of shampooing. At Mahomed's Baths patients first lay in a steaming, aromatic herbal bath; having sweated freely, they were then placed in a kind of flannel tent with sleeves. They were then massaged vigorously by someone outside the tent, whose arms alone penetrated the flannel walls.

At first he met with scepticism and ridicule. His son Horatio writes that there was 'tremendous opposition, the public press teemed with abuse, the medical faculty shook their heads and doubted' while 'ninety-nine in a hundred of the public at large' considered the cure to be nothing more than 'a cheat and a Hindoo juggle'. Undeterred, Mahomed offered to treat patients for free, and it was only after 'several gratuitous cures' of patients who had failed to respond to other treatments that interest was aroused, winning over the hesitant and bringing Mahomed recognition.

Like any shrewd businessman Mahomed relied on marketing and publicity to build up a clientele, as shown by the very many advertisements he placed and the use he made of numerous 'testimonials' praising his cure. Cases Cured, a book of letters from grateful patients, was published in 1820, according to Mahomed at 'the pressing desire' of the nobility and gentry. In the vestibule of his establishments were 'hung ... crutches of former martyrs' of rheumatism, lumbago or sciatica, said to have been cured by Mahomed's 'vigourous and scientific shampooing'. He kept visitors' books (separate ones for men and women) for patients' comments. Each new edition of his book Shampooing, or Benefits Resulting From the Use of the Indian Medicated Vapour Bath, As introduced Into This Country, by S.D. Mahomed (A native of India), first published in 1822, carried the names of patients successfully cured and glowing notices from them. The book, largely consisting of descriptions of successful cures for asthma, paralysis, rheumatism, sciatica and loss of voice, reached a third edition in 1838. Mahomed attempted to demonstrate that what in India was regarded as 'a restorative luxury', in England worked as a 'most surprising and powerful remedy' for many diseases. The book also has a short biographical sketch of his life. Re-inventing himself, Mahomed edited out his period in Cork and London. He advanced his birth by ten years to 1749 and provided himself with medical training, claiming that he had been 'educated to the profession of, and served in the Company's services as a surgeon', a claim that is dubious. As a self-publicist, and in the competitive environment of Brighton, Mahomed may have exaggerated the miraculous effects of his cures. The use he made of names came in for questioning, too, on occasion. But by the standards of the time, and before the law of 1858 that regulated the medical profession, Mahomed remained, according to his biographer, 'within the bounds of medical and advertising ethics of the day'.

A flair for marketing and publicity was not the only factor contributing to Mahomed's success. The popularity of his Baths may also have been due to the fact that he was in the right place at the right time. The Pavilion, Nash's Oriental fantasy, was completed by 1821, a reminder (in the words of a contemporary in the Monthly Magazine) of the 'fairy palaces of the sovereigns of the Hindus' and, in the context of the developing Raj, the Regent as a 'virtual sovereign of the East'. Mahomed's Baths, with its associations of Oriental luxury, would have blended in perfectly.
emises, a symbol of his success, opened on the sea-front at East Cliff, its d├ęcor suggesting 'oriental and classical Grecian exotica'. Here, female patients were personally supervised by Mahomed's wife, Jane, as the expressions of gratitude in the visitors' books attest. Mahomed's Baths became famous, meriting a mention in Brighton guidebooks and newspapers in both Brighton and London. According to one gushing notice, Mahomed's Baths were 'daily thronged, not only with the ailing but the hale ... the powerful efficacy of [the Baths] ... have brought foreigners to him from all quarters of the world'. Indeed, the visitors' books bear testimony to how well the Baths were patronised. His patients from among the nobility and gentry included Lords Castlereagh, Canning and Reay, and Lady Cornwallis and Sir Robert Peel. Some patients declared their undying gratitude; amateur poets composed verses, one even crediting the growth of Brighton to Mahomed's reputation for curing illness. Princess Poniatowsky of Poland presented him with a silver cup. Mahomed's highest achievement was to be appointed Shampooing Surgeon to King George IV, an appointment continued under William IV. In 1825, Mahomed installed the apparatus for an Indian Vapour Bath at the Pavilion and royal account books record baths given to the royal household. Such patronage enhanced his social standing and patient numbers rose. Mahomed opened a second establishment in London, at 7 Ryder Street, St James's, managed by his son Horatio. The medical profession of the time recognised his treatment, too. Dr John Gibney, the senior physician at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, sent him patients. As rival establishments, for example Molineux's, were set up, to prevent poaching Mahomed made much of his baths' Indian qualities. But he was not without his critics. One contemporary, for instance, wrote: 'a dingy empiric has invented a new system of humbug, which is in great dispute here ... called shampooing; a sort of stewing alive by steam ... '. In verses parodying Brighton's characters, those about Mahomed were not without overtones of anti-Islamic feeling.

Mahomed's Baths remained among 'the noted institutions of Brighton' and Mahomed himself one of its 'local celebrities', long remembered driving to the Races 'gorgeous in Eastern costume, with his pretty wife by his side, and a dagger in his girdle'. A kind-hearted and benevolent man, in his prosperous days he was said to have 'a heart and hand ready to relieve the wants of others'. As a public figure patronised by royalty, Mahomed often loyally illuminated his Baths with gas lights to mark royal occasions. From 1841, as a Brighton citizen, he was on the register of voters.
Mahomed retired from active work in 1834, aged 75, handing over to his son Arthur. With Queen Victoria's accession to the throne in 1837, Brighton lost its favoured place and Mahomed his prominence. A financial blow in 1841 spelled the end of Mahomed's Baths. He died in February 1851, his wife Jane preceding him in December 1850. A simple tombstone in St Nicholas's churchyard records his identification with 'Patna, Hindoostan'. Today, Mahomed is merely remembered as an 'exotic and romantic figure' in Brighton's history, and his Baths as providing an 'intriguing sensation' of the 'voluptuous indulgences of the East'. His other achievements lie forgotten.

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