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The First Man of Curry

Sake Dean Mohamet
Owner, writer, entrepreneur

Sake Dean Mahomet'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 Mahomet, 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. In 1769, aged 11, when his father died prematurely, Mahomet fulfilled his early ambition to enter a 'military life' when he joined Godfrey Baker, an Irish Cadet, as a camp follower. Mahomet rose rapidly, first to the position of Market Master in 1781, then jemedar (ensign) and finally subedar (captain) as his father had been. Such rapid promotion reflects Baker's patronage, whose own fortunes had risen too. As part of Baker's battalion, Mahomet saw action 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 Mahomet's own lifetime.

In 1782, Mahomet resigned from the Army to accompany Captain Baker, who was dismissed the service, to Ireland. At the age of 25, in September 1784, Mahomet arrived at Dartmouth to start a new life in Britain.

For the first several years Mahomet lived in Ireland with the Baker family, in a prosperous part of Cork on the South Mall. Mahomed's life in Cork is not well documented except for a brief account from Abu Talib Khan's visit to the Baker household in December 1799, during which he met Mahomet. We learn that Mahomet 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. From the account of Abu Talib Khan there is no doubting that Mahomed had retained the patronage of the Baker clan for this unusual relationship. Baker died in 1786.

In 1794 Mahomed's book The Travels of Dean Mahomet, written as a series of letters to an imaginary friend, was published in Cork. 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 Mahomet witnessed as a member of the Company's army, in a version different from existing European accounts. Mahomet 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 Mahomet arrived in London with wife Jane and 10 year old son William. The birth of his daughter Amelia in August 1808 locates Mahomet in London's Portman Square, a fashionable area and a haunt of India-returned nabobs. Here, Mahomet 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 Mahomet famous in Brighton under the name 'Sake Dean Mahomed'. However he was given little acknowledgement at the time so he embarked on a different independent career: as proprietor of the Hindoostanee Coffee-House, the first dedicated Indian restaurant in Britain.

The Coffee-House, established in 1809 at 34 George Street, Portman Square just behind Cochrane's house. 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 and Oriental scenes. Mahomed, unfortunately, over-reached himself by too rapid an expansion despite taking John Spencer on as partner: 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.

Having fallen on hard times with Henry Edwin born 1810 and Deen in 1812, 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. 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. Here Mahomet 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 Mahomet'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. Soon he was claiming to have served thousands od visitors.

'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 Mahomet'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. Mahomet 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.

Re-inventing himself, Mahomet 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. 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. Mahomet's highest achievement was to be appointed Shampooing Surgeon to King George IV, an appointment continued under William IV.

Mahomet opened a second establishment in London, at 7 Ryder Street, St James's, managed by his son Horatio. 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, Mahomet 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.

Mahomet 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 Mahomet his prominence. A financial blow in 1841 spelled the end of Mahomed's Baths. He died in February 1851 aged 92, his wife Jane preceding him in December 1850. He was buried in St Nicholas' churchyard in Brighton and his tombstone says he was 102 years old!!

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