When Arab traders made a fortune in the pearl trade in Bombay

The central restaurant in Mumbai’s busy Mohammad Ali Road, with its standard Mughlai, tandoori and Indian-Chinese food, is a popular joint with families living in the area. Only a minority of the restaurant’s customers probably know that, a century ago, it was the center of Arab social activity in Bombay.

Opened during World War I, Central was one of the places where the city’s small and affluent Arab community gathered to catch up on local gossip. It was a place where dishes were offered “enjoyed by people from various Arab cities” and where the faithful of the Gulf “could dine and listen to Arabic news,” scholar Saif Albedawi said in a 2017 paper in the paper of Pearl Merchants of the Pearl. Wrote in Gulf and There Life. in Bombay. “It was a social place where they met with friends after a long working day. They had a variety of dishes, mostly cooked without chilies, which Indians often use. ,

Bombay at that time was a major international center for the pearl industry, which attracted merchants from the Arab world. Talmiz Ahmed, a retired diplomat who served as India’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, wrote in a 2018 article for the Milli Gazette, “The pearl trade has allowed prominent Gulf Arab traders to visit some of their families in Bombay. Inspired to find out the members.” “These include: the Al Bassam, Ali Raza and Al Gosaibi families of Saudi Arabia; Al Ibrahim and Al Jinai from Kuwait; Al Zayani and Al Ureyd from Bahrain; Al Midfa and Al Sayegh from the Trucial Sheikhdom, and the Al Sultan family from Oman.

Some of these families made fortunes in Bombay in the first three decades of the 20th century, owning flats and summer villas in the city that was then called Poona. Among them was a wealthy Kuwaiti merchant named Muhammad Salem al-Sudairawi. History enthusiasts have managed to crowdsource images of al-Sudayrawi, many of which have made their way onto the Internet. A 1918 photograph shows al-Sudairawi in his car with his three sons and two daughters outside their home in Poona.

ups and downs luck

Those Arabs who managed to amass enormous wealth were known as Tujjars – merchants based in port cities who traded in large commodities. But in Bombay, the really wealthy families constituted a minor minority among the Arab community. Most of the Arabs in the city were small traders who bought pearls from ships and then sold them in the markets of South Bombay. Or they were brokers acting as intermediaries between Indian pearl merchants and merchants from West Asia.

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Along with success stories, there were many examples of Arab traders losing a lot of money in the pearl trade due to economic problems in India and volatility in international markets. A particularly bad year was 1913. India was facing a banking crisis, with banks like Credit Bank of India failing and depositors rushing to withdraw their money. This crisis affected both the stock market and the pearl market. On October 27, 1913, The Times of India wrote that banks were suffering because they had made huge advances to traders who were exporting pearls to Europe and the United States.

“There is no testing of pearls in European and US markets, as buyers think that Indian pearl traders will have to offer them at even lower prices,” the paper wrote. “If banks ask pearl merchants to repay their loans, the latter will find themselves in a dilemma.” The article stated that banks would need the lent money to meet their own financial obligations, he said, adding, “If the pearl market improves, the situation will improve significantly; but if there were some failures.” If so, serious impact will be felt not only in financial circles but also on Indian business in general.

On the same day as The Times of India reported, The New York Times wrote an article on the crisis titled “More Bombay Failures.” “While this crisis was going on, today a new blow came in the form of a billion pearl merchant failing in a major business. His liabilities are said to have exceeded $300,000. Many others,” the newspaper said. Failures immediately followed.”

The Arab merchant the American newspaper referred to was a Kuwaiti named Sheikh Abdul Rahman bin Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Ibrahim, known as “Mr Lion” and had several horses that raced in Poona and Bombay. used to take part. In his insolvency petition, the merchant stated that he had taken huge debts which he was unable to repay due to the fall in pearl prices and the lack of demand in Europe. The Times of India, in a report on October 28, 1913, said, “In this case only the expected has happened, but it has raised more concern than any previous failures because some local banks have taken huge loans on pearls.” Have given.” “The situation has become more serious than ever and it is believed that the effects of the failure will be widely felt.”

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In his petition in the Insolvency Court in Bombay, the Kuwaiti businessman living in Chowpatty stated that his debts have accumulated “seventeen lakh rupees or more”. Covering the court proceedings, the Indian newspaper referred to “Mr Lions” Arab, Australian and English horse racers who regularly won competitions in Bombay and Poona.

In addition to Al Ibrahim, several petty pearl merchants, Arabs and Indians, approached the court claiming that they were unable to pay their debts.

crisis of 1913

The pearl market managed to recover after a long recession that began with the financial crisis of 1913 and continued until the end of World War I in 1918. Arab pearl traders continued to visit Bombay for the next decade.

“The exact number of Gulf Arabs who lived in India in the first half of the twentieth century is not known, but their numbers certainly increased during and after the end of the pearl fishing season,” wrote Albedawi. The community is believed to have numbered 500 at its peak.

Most of the Arab-owned establishments were in the Moti Bazar of Kalbadevi and Mohammad Ali Roads. “Gulf merchants located many of their offices there for their trade, and the richest of them owned buildings, including Hussein bin Essa and his sons,” said Albedawi. Bin Essa, who moved to Bombay from the modern United Arab Emirates in the 19th century, was one of the greatest success stories in the pearl trade.

The Mohammed Ali Road, which is divided beyond recognition by a 2.4-kilometre-long flyover, hosted the offices and homes of small-time Arab pearl merchants, brokers and shipowners, whose ships not only transported goods and merchants, but Transported the pilgrims to the Muslims. Sacred sites of West Asia. Nearby, Pydhonie had several small and medium-sized hotels that catered to short-term Arab travellers. Some of those hotels are still around.

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cultural exchange

The stay of the Arabs in India led to an exchange of ideas and set the tone for political change in both the parts of the world. Many wealthy Arab families sent their children to India to study English. Talmiz Ahmed, in his article for Milli Gazette, states that he was so influenced by the Indian independence movement that it inspired him to bring similar initiatives back home. Indian freedom fighters supported the independence of the Gulf countries. Ahmed said, “In early 1928, the Indian National Congress passed a resolution expressing sympathy with all Arabs in their struggle for independence.”

The pearl trade remained lucrative through the 1920s, but some factors changed that towards the end of the decade. The invention of cultured pearls in Japan and the 1929 stock market collapse in New York and the ensuing Great Depression crushed the demand for pearls from the Gulf in Europe. Unable to bear the losses, many Arab traders ceased their activities in Bombay and returned to their homes in the Gulf permanently.

Some merchants stayed and moved on to other businesses, but by the late 1930s, the cosmopolitan city of Bombay had lost a great deal of its Arab flavor. Arab association with the West Indian city diminished but not completely ended after Indian independence. For example, Kuwait’s royal family bought some buildings on Marine Drive in the 1950s – Al Sabah Court and Al Jabariya Court. Unfortunately, both buildings have been the subject of controversy for the past few decades.

Bombay once again became a popular destination for Arabs after witnessing an oil boom in the Gulf in the 1970s. After being embroiled in the Lebanese civil war in 1975, Arabs opted to return to Bombay to enjoy nightlife, monsoons and shopping. Young and wealthy Arabs now prefer to travel to cities in the west, Mumbai – as Bombay was renamed in 1995 – is still a popular destination among a section of the population in the Gulf. Although the pearl trade may have history, the city remains an important cultural and economic link between India and the Arab world.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is Kalpalata Fellow for History and Heritage Writing for 2022.

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