The Subaltern Travel Writer Who Introduced Curry and Shampoo to Britain

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Sake Dean Mahomet is a subaltern travel writer who embarked on an adventure that introduced curry and shampoo to Britain.

Every day, Mahomet stood to stare out of his doorway at the British soldiers marching by. He had long cherished the dream of a life in the military, though his own father had died just that year in service as a soldier with the East India Company.

The year was 1770, and the young boy who eyed the finely-dressed British officers, yearning for an introduction, would set a series of firsts for an Indian. His account of his experiences, ‘The Travels of Dean Mahomet’, is the first book in English to be published by an Indian; his business ideas led to the introduction of both curry and shampoo to Europe, and his knack for adventure saw him elope with an Irish girl from Cork and settle in Brighton. As the lives of subalterns go, his was one that did not lack adventure.

Sake Din Mahomet was only 11 when he found his calling with the East India Company. He managed to befriend an Irish captain called Evan Baker, who recruited him as a subaltern officer. The job was largely peaceful – for twelve years, they saw no combat. But the Maratha campaigns in 1771 saw them called away from Patna, and Mahomet soon found himself pitted against his own people.

The brigade he was part of was notorious for looting the villages they passed by. Local villagers took a shot at revenge when they raided Mahomet’s camp and kidnapped him, as he was resting on his elaborate palanquin. The villagers stripped him bare and wanted to kill him, but ultimately spared his life, and he ran back to the camp shirtless, to give the officers word of the raiders. In the counter-attack, a few were captured – and their ears and noses chopped off as a message.

Mahomet’s account of his travels is a treasure trove for history buffs, postcolonial theorists and people who like to use the word ‘subaltern’. It’s an insight into the early stages of colonization – through the eyes of a local accomplice, who was a subaltern by profession (and not just by an academic application of the term). Was he colonized? He wrote in the language of the colonizers, using the 18th-century style of English writing so accurately that even today some doubt he actually wrote the book himself. How could a subaltern speak, and so well?

He describes India, her people, and her customs – as he traveled from place to place. Every new village and town were a fresh experience, and he wrote as if presenting his country for a foreign audience. His reviews of Indian customs, food habits, and settlements would not be too far amiss on a travel website today. Read for example his five-star review of the practice of chewing paan:

The taste of it is, at first, little better than that of common chalk, but soon turns to a flavor that dwells agreeably on the palate

In his day, Madras was “a regular square about a hundred yards at each side”, Delhi like a “crescent standing on the river Jemma, which runs through it” and Surat as “one of the most considerable towns in the world.” Calcutta was then the seat of power.

A new life in Europe

Mahomet wouldn’t linger in India for long. At 25, he left the subcontinent along with his captain, Baker, who took him to Cork in Ireland, to settle down. It was there that he began composing his travelogue about India.

…when I first came to Ireland, I found the face of everything about me so contrasted to those striking scenes in India … that I felt some timid inclination, even in the consciousness of incapacity, to describe the manners of my countrymen, who, I am proud to think, have still more of the innocence of our ancestors, than some of the boasting philosophers of Europe

Baker died in 1784, and Mahomet eloped with a teenage Irish girl called Jane Baker. He took up writing his travels in the form of a series of personalized letters to an imaginary acquaintance, a style of writing called epistolary. His readers were largely Britain’s elite, and he had about 234 of them.

His travelogue was published in 1794 but was not a great success. In 1810, he turned to the restaurant business, setting up the Hindoostan coffee house in London’s George street, giving Britain its first Indian restaurant 50 years before the first fish-and-chips restaurant would open. It shut down a year later, and he went bankrupt soon after, despite making the restaurant rather famous. He still had spunk and put out a newspaper advertisement seeking employment as a butler, proudly publishing his previous experience.

A brief stint as a ‘therapeutic practitioner’ allowed Mahomet to introduce the word ‘shampoo’ to Europe, taken from the Hindi ‘champo’ meaning to knead. He kneaded the heads of elite clientele at “Sir Basil Cochrane’s Vapour Baths.” The practice of vapour bathing was then emerging as a marketing buzzword, and Mahomet took the idea up in 1816 with his wife Jane – adding a dash of the Oriental touch, and calling it the “the Indian Medicated Vapour Bath.”

Mahomeds, baths, sake, dean
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By 1818, Mahomet was the ‘Shampooing Surgeon’ of Brighton, and later became the “Royal Shampooing Surgeon” of both King George IV and William III. He eventually set up “Mahomed’s Baths” in Brighton, and published two books of the virtues of vapour baths.

Over the years, he made several attempts at advertising India, its exotic sciences and practices through his entrepreneurial efforts. But his much-advertised baths failed, though he had occupied a place of prominence in high British society. But it is worth remembering today the image of India he must have presented Britons in his 45 years on the Isles.

The first English novel written by an Indian is no less a read for being the first, and Mahomet’s accounts are easily one of the most interesting travelogues to be found on the internet today. He is relevant today – at once as the first Indian English writer, the introducer of Britain’s national dish, the bringer of shampoos and vapour baths and perhaps the earliest advertisement for Incredible India.

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