• Omer Haq

The Pauper's Pilgrimage

Updated: Feb 27

The Business of Hajj was brewing trouble, the epidemic and international pressure made the British in India take measures to make sure they were not seen in bad light due to poor pilgrims who sometimes resorted to begging in the Holy lands, and chose to stay around till death overtook them, in a belief that they would go straight to heaven.

Old Kaaba Mecca
Kaaba and the Mat'af Area C1953

In 1886, the Government of India described a dilemma in their correspondence with Thomas Cook and Son; they elaborated on the efforts taken by them, from time to time, to alleviate the discomfort experienced by the Muslims during their journey from India to Hijaz. They recognised the sufferings experienced during these travels, especially by the poor class Muslims and wished to take action that would provide relief to them. However this they believed had to be done in a ‘restricted nature.

’This was because the Government of India did not wish to interfere directly in the matters of pilgrimage, which the Muslims considered to be religious obligation, especially not after the Mutiny of 1857

What could have been the solution to this problem?


One of the approaches to the problem could have been to place conditions directly on the pilgrim who intended to do the Hajj by requiring them to make a minimum deposit with the authorities to prove that they could afford the journey, or that they could purchase a round trip ticket. This was a step that was often taken by other states with large Muslim population. But the Government of India felt that a direct restriction on the mobility of poorer pilgrims might spark a violent response among Indian Muslims. Unable to make any direct intervention, the Government of India formulated a doctrine of indirect intervention. So here, the government decided that rather than imposing restrictions on poorer pilgrims, British officials attempted to reform the business of the Hajj. As a result, British reforms were primarily aimed at cleaning up the pilgrimage shipping industry and its associated networks of ticketing brokers.

On one hand, the administrator hoped that by tightening the regulations on the pilgrimage shipping industry, they could eliminate the worst instances of overcrowding and squalid conditions which had been identified as one of the greatest factors contributing to the spread of cholera. On the other hand, by licencing ticket brokerage, they hoped to provide pilgrims with a measure of consumer protection - protection against aggressive touts, pricing scams and coercive monopolies. The strategy was also aimed to require ship owners to make capital investments in their vessels in order to meet new legal requirements for both health and other conditions.


The aim here was that through the strategy, it would make it necessary for the ship owners to have cleaner, larger and better-equipped steamships, which would necessarily lead for the ship owners to raise their ticket prices. Whether the colonial officials admitted it or not, raising and fixing prices was the cornerstone of indirect intervention. If direct measures prohibiting poor pilgrims from setting out to Mecca were too dangerous,

the only other option was to raise the standards of travel in such a way that it either eliminated unsanitary conditions or prised the poorest pilgrim out of the market altogether.

Poor pilgrims were certainly victims of the strategy. However, they were not the enemy in this equation. The true targets of the government's doctrine of indirect intervention were Muslim shipping interests and their associated brokerage network. By the early 1880s, the pilgrimage had become thoroughly commercialised and competitive in nature. From the perspective of authorities, however, the competitive nature of the pilgrimage industry was merely evidence of how this ordered it was. It was very complex that even in the British view, they were not able to understand how to deal with it. It was a complex of indigenous shipping interests and brokers and an inherently unscrupulous system responsible for the widespread and deliberate neglect of government’s evolving pilgrimage shipping regulations.

Bombay (Mumbai) Harbour Scene – c1880’


In January 1886, the Government of India passed a resolution making Thomas Cook and Son the official travel agent of Hajj. After some five years of private correspondence between Cook and the high ranking British officials and roughly two years of negotiation, the firm was handed total control of all governmental functions related to Hajj. As a condition of the agreement between these two parties, the Government of India attempted to foster a government-backed monopoly over the pilgrimage transportation industry for Thomas Cook and Son while simultaneously it gave away the responsibility of regulating the industry to the firm as well.


The brand of Thomas Cook was still synonymous with the idea of modern travel. The firm was rightly considered to have almost single-handedly inaugurated the era of mass tourism by recognising and satisfying the global appetite of Europe's growing middle classes.


Portrait of Thomas Cook

In South Asian history, Cook is reputed as the ‘lordly travel firm’ and this has been doubly reinforced by the fact that Cook’s operation in India was lauded both by the firm and by the highest echelons of British officialdom as a means for encouraging elite travel between England and India. In 1885, the Prince of Wales appointed the company as the official travel agent for the upcoming colonial and Indian exhibition, being held in London in connection with Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. But in sharp contrast to these celebrated episodes of princely travel, the Hajj was viewed as an ‘anachronistic’ and even ‘dangerous’ mode of travel. This was characterized by the movement of poor and increasingly out-of-step with the emerging norms of modern international travel and tourism.


Given that Indian pilgrims were singled out as the source of epidemic cholera, both Britain and the Government of India found themselves in a very awkward struggle against the tide of international opinion. During the height of the cholera era during the 1860s to 1890s, Britain vehemently opposed the international quarantine regulation and stricter passport regulation proposed by the rest of Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

In 1886, Wilson, the Acting Commissioner of Police for Bombay, described the paralysis resulting from this dilemma:


“The acting commissioner has the honour to report that a large number of Indian pilgrims are no doubt very poor, and go to the Hijaz not so much with an intention of maintaining themselves, but by begging which they could do better in India, but on account of the sanctity of the place, and with a feeling that if they died there, they will go straight to paradise. Some stay on waiting till death overtakes them, and others having no funds to return to India are forced to beg, but beyond warning them, it seems impossible to prevent them from going there. Any interference in this matter on the part of the British government would certainly be taken as an interference in their religion.”

So as a result of the government of India's post-1858 guarantee of non-interference in religious matters, colonial administrators repeatedly refused to impose any sort of ‘means-testing’ to restrict the ability of its poor pilgrims. As the resolution outlining Thomas Cook and Son’s appointment explains, the general consensus among British officials was that the pilgrims should be required before proceeding on the voyage, to deposit a sum of money sufficient to cover the costs of their returning journey. Despite this admission that such a regulation would prevent much misery and suffering, local authorities in Bombay were vehemently opposed to the interference of any nature on the ground, that it might be misunderstood and misinterpreted. As a result of this, instead of imposing a compulsory deposit system, the government decided to merely make a public notice in English, Hindi and Persian, warning the pilgrims, that they should not undertake the journey unless they have at least 300 rupees in order to meet the expenses of the quarantine on Cameron islands, the journey from Jeddah to Mecca and back and to be still able to afford the cost of the return ticket to India. With this regard, the Government of India's response was an anomaly.

Eventually, the French in Algeria, the Dutch in Java, the Russian-controlled Muslim territories in Central Asia, all adopted some form of a compulsory passport or deposit system in order to regulate the mobility of the pilgrims.

Later, France, the Netherlands and Russia adopted a mandatory system of return tickets in order to prevent indigent pilgrims from becoming stranded in Hijaz without enough cash to pay for their passage back home. Even more curious was the fact that other British possessions, including Egypt and the trade settlements, eventually adopted a similar deposit and ticketing system, while the Government of India completely refused to do the same.



Old Picture of Mecca and Kaaba dating 1887 (1800s)
A photograph of the Kaaba (center of photo) in the city of Mecca circa 1887

It is not that the British officials were unaware of the advantages of the system, as one of the British officials stationed in Jeddah, Console G. Bytes, complained in April 1875 to his colleagues in Bombay. He writes, “I have to remark that at the termination of the pilgrim season, a large number of British-Indian subjects are left at Jeddah as vagrants and paupers entirely destitute of the means of subsistence, many of them die due to starvation. The passport system adopted would enable the authorities of the port to which passports are granted to ascertain whether the pilgrims who present themselves for these documents are amply provided with funds for the purpose of performing their pilgrimage and returning to their countries. This precaution is always taken by the Dutch and the French governments. However, the reason why the subjects of these nations are not left in the state of poverty and destitution to die in the streets.”


For nearly three decades following the 1866 International Sanitary Conference, Britain declined to submit any international agreement proposing stricter quarantine procedures, or an integrated system of compulsory documentary and ticketing practices. Instead, the Government of India wanted an entirely separate package of reforms. As a result of their fears that fees attached to either passport or mandatory return tickets might be interpreted by the Indian Muslim as government attempts to bar poor Muslims from making Hajj, the British sought a less direct path to pilgrim reform.


Like we spoke before, the doctrine of indirect reform was primarily aimed at regulating the pilgrimage intertwined , shipping and brokerage industry. So, at the centre of this problem was a new legislation which was created, named The Native Passenger's Ship Act of 1870. It was then amended in 1872, 1876, 1883 and 1887, culminating in the 1895 Pilgrim Ships Act. These regulations were primarily aimed to restrict the number of passengers in a vessel in hopes that by elevating instances of overcrowding, the risk of cholera outbreaks would also be eliminated or at least mitigated.

These acts established clear limits on the maximum number of passengers according to each ship registered or estimated tonnage.

There were guidelines set for gradually increasing the minimum superficial space per passenger, according to their accommodation in upper or lower decks. In addition to addressing the most basic question of overcrowding, these acts also stipulated mandatory provisions for the safety and welfare of passengers and the shipping company’s crews and obligation towards passengers. It included access to cooking fuel, clean water, proper ventilation and fresh air, clean latrines and medical supplies.


Hajj Pilgrims in Mina 1800s
Pilgrims in the eastern part of the Mina Valley, circa 1887

To make sure that the shipping companies were complying with the order and to allow for easier surveillance of those sick pilgrims during the journey, the Act also required that the ship carrying more than 100 pilgrims have a qualified medical officer. With the 1883 Native Passengers Act, sailing vessels which had long been in decline were officially banned from pilgrimage trade.


The most dramatic of the examples in this process came when Britain, relenting to decades of international pressure and against the Government of India's ardent protests, signed the convention produced in 1894 - the Paris International Sanitary Conference. The convention stipulated that minimum space for each adult pilgrim be raised from 9 to 21 feet in order to meet the new international standards for superficial space. The Government of India's 1895 Pilgrimage Ship Act required that all vessels, at least 500 tonnes, be able to achieve a speed of at least eight knots under monsoon conditions. As government standards for ship boards, fittings, anchors, cables, nautical instruments, safety equipment and overall tonnage and speed during monsoon conditions were gradually raised. shipping companies were forced to either update their existing vessels or obtain newer ones.


Pilgrims pray while standing around the Kaaba in Mecca, circa 1887

Although the government framed these reforms as either the products of international pressure or their own promotion of the best interest of pilgrims Scholars have generally under emphasized the extent to which the legislation was designed to be least partial and to be a less challenge to Muslim owned shipping companies. Muslim shippers with comparatively limited access to capital and correspondingly older, less well-appointed and smaller vessels struggled to comply with these regulations. During this period, Muslim shippers made several strategic adjustments. First, they found a niche in the market by catering to lower-end clientele. Second, smaller individual or family-owned firms pooled their resources, either to chart a ship for pilgrimage season or to raise enough capital to stave off European competitors.

At the same time, the Government of India also engaged in a parallel attack on Bombay and Calcutta’s pilgrimage brokers, shipowners, dependent on a large network of these brokers to attract the business and sell tickets.

They worked for a commission and these brokers were repeatedly accused of leasing pilgrims through a mixture of misinformation, intimidation and bait-and-switch pricing scams. Worst still, they also conspired with ship owners to pack in more pilgrims per ship than was legally permitted. Here, The Times of India sketches a typical interaction between pilgrim and brokers in Bombay:


Hajj pilgrims from India disembarking at Jeddah, 1940. Picture for illustration purposes only. – Royal Geographical Society/Gerald de Gaury

“On arriving at the port, some by rail, some by local steamers and others on foot. They're all more or less waylaid by what sailors call ‘crimps’, but who term themselves as ‘Hajj brokers’ or runners, etc. And any person who knows the in and out of Bombay, or knows large seaport town will understand that these individuals make all kinds of fair promises to entice pilgrims to their master’s house, and once with their luggage, of course, they cannot very well leave without buying a passage ticket from the master of the house.”


As this pattern became more familiar, the broker became the most ubiquitous villain in official descriptions of pilgrimage trade. In an attempt to protect pilgrims from these unscrupulous brokers, in 1883, Bombay passed the Pilgrim Protection Act, which required all brokers to obtain a licence from the Bombay police commissioner. In conjunction with these licencing measures, a new position called ‘The Protector of Pilgrims’ was created and was stationed at the port. This Muslim official was instructed to act as a special advocate, providing information and assistance to intending pilgrims. Dr Abdul Razaq was sent to accompany India's pilgrimage consignment for the year 1878. He was later appointed as a Muslim vice-consul of Jeddah in 1882. Two years later, additional Muslim vice councils were stationed at Cameron Island quarantine, nearby the Yemeni port of Hodeidah. This was in an attempt when the British officials realised that they needed greater representation on the other side of the Indian Ocean. On the side of receiving these pilgrims in Hijaz. Through such and yet many more reforms that followed,


Kaaba in Modern Era

The Government of India tried to regulate the Pilgrims and their experiences even close until the independence of India and then the same was carried on by the Independent Government of India. We hope to cover more on the subject in future episodes.

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