When Arab traders made a fortune in pearl trade in Bombay

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Central Restaurant in Mumbai’s busy Mohammed Ali Road, with its standard Mughlai, tandoori and Indian-Chinese fare, is a popular joint with the families who live in the area. Only a minority of the restaurant’s clientele is probably aware that, a century ago, it was a hub of Arab social activity in Bombay.

Opened during the First World War, Central was one of the places where the city’s small and thriving Arab community gathered to catch up on local gossip. It was a place that offered dishes ”enjoyed by people from various Arab cities” and where the Gulf faithful “could have a meal and listen to Arabic news,” scholar Saif Albedawi wrote in a 2017 paper titled Pearl Merchants of the Gulf and their Life in Bombay. “It was a social venue where they met up with friends after a long working day. They had different kind of dishes, mostly cooked without the chillies that Indians frequently use.”

Bombay, at the time, was a major international hub for the pearl industry, which attracted merchants from the Arab world. “The pearl trade led major Gulf Arab merchants to locate some of their family members in Bombay,” Talmiz Ahmed, a retired diplomat who served as India’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman, wrote in a 2018 article for the Milli Gazette. “These included: the Al Bassam, Ali Reza and Al Gosaibi families from Saudi Arabia; Al Ibrahim and Al Jinai from Kuwait; Al Zayani and Al Urrayed from Bahrain; Al Midfa and Al Sayegh from the Trucial Sheikhdoms, and the Al Sultan family from Oman.”

Some of these families made a fortune in Bombay in the first three decades of the 20th century, owning flats in the city and summer villas in what was then called Poona. Among them was a wealthy Kuwaiti trader named Muhammad Salem al-Sudairawi. History enthusiasts have managed to crowdsource images of al-Sudairawi, several of which have made their way to the internet. One photograph from 1918 shows al-Sudairawi in his car with his three sons and two daughters outside their house in Poona.

Fluctuating fortunes

Those Arabs who managed to accumulate enormous wealth were known as tujjar – merchants based in port cities who traded in large commodities. But in Bombay, the really wealthy families formed just a miniscule minority among the Arab community. Most Arabs in the city were smaller traders who would buy pearls from ships and then sell them in the markets of South Bombay. Or they were brokers working as intermediaries between Indian pearl traders and merchants from West Asia.

Along with the success stories, there were several instances of Arab merchants losing a lot of money in the pearl trade on account of economic problems in India and the volatility in the international markets. One particularly bad year was 1913. India was facing a banking crisis, with banks such as the 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 heavy advances to merchants who were exporting pearls to Europe and the United States.

“There is no enquiry for pearls in European and American markets, as buyers think that the Indian pearl merchants will have to offer them at still lower prices,” the paper wrote. “If the banks call upon the pearl merchants to pay up their loans, the latter will find themselves in a dilemma.” The article said that banks would need the money they lent to meet their own financial obligations, adding, “If the pearl market improves, the situation will amend appreciably; but if there are some failures, grave effects will be felt not only in financial circles but also on Indian trade generally.”

On the same day as The Times of India report, The New York Times wrote an article on the crisis with the headline “More Bombay Failures.” The newspaper said, “While this crisis was in progress, a fresh shock came today in the form of the failure of an Arab pearl merchant doing a big trade. His liabilities are said to be well over $300,000. Many other failures quickly followed.”

The Arab merchant that the American newspaper referred to was a Kuwaiti named Shaikh Abdul Rehman bin Shaikh Abdul Aziz al Ebrahim, who was popularly known as “Mr Lion” and had several horses that would take part in races in Poona and Bombay. In his insolvency petition, the trader said he had incurred heavy debts which he was unable to repay because of the fall of pearl prices and the lack of demand in Europe. “It is only the expected that has happened in this case, but it has caused more anxiety than any previous failures as some local banks have lent heavily on consignment of pearls,” The Times of India said in a report on October 28, 1913. “The situation has become more critical than ever and it is believed the effects of the failure will be widely felt.”

In his petition to the Insolvency Court in Bombay, the Kuwaiti merchant who lived at Chowpatty said his debts accumulated to “rupees seventeen lakhs or so”. While covering the court proceedings, the Indian newspaper made a mention of “Mr Lion’s” Arab, Australian and English racehorses that used to regularly win competitions in Bombay and Poona.

Apart from al Ebrahim, several small-time pearl traders, Arab and Indian, approached the court claiming that they were unable to pay off their debts.

Crisis of 1913

The pearl market managed to recover after a prolonged slump that began with the financial crisis of 1913 and continued until the end of the First World War in 1918. Arab pearl traders continued to come to Bombay for the next decade.

“The exact number of Arabs from the Gulf who lived in India during 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,” Albedawi wrote. The community at its peak is believed to have numbered 500.

Most of the Arab-owned establishments were in Moti Bazar in Kalbadevi and Mohammed Ali Road. “The Gulf traders located many of their offices there for their business, and the richest among them owned buildings, including Hussain bin Essa and his sons,” Albedawi added. Bin Essa, who moved to Bombay in the 19th century from the modern-day United Arab Emirates, was one of the biggest success stories in the pearl trade.

Mohammed Ali Road, which has been 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 vessels not only transported goods and traders, but also ferried pilgrims to Muslim holy sites in West Asia. Close by, Pydhonie had a number of small and medium-sized hotels that catered to short-term Arab travellers. Some of those hotels are still around.

Cultural exchange

The Arabs’ stay in India led to an exchange of ideas and set the tone for political changes in both parts of the world. Many wealthy Arab families sent their children to study English in India. So influenced were they by the Indian freedom movement that it inspired them to promote similar initiatives back home, says Talmiz Ahmed in his article for the Milli Gazette. Indian freedom fighters supported the independence of Gulf countries. “As early as 1928, the Indian National Congress passed a resolution expressing its sympathy with all Arabs in their struggle for freedom,” Ahmed said.

The pearl trade continued to be lucrative through the 1920s, but a couple of factors towards the end of the decade changed this. The invention of cultured pearls in Japan and the stock market crash in 1929 in New York and the ensuing Great Depression crushed the demand for pearls from the Gulf in Europe. Unable to bear losses, many Arab traders wound up their activities in Bombay and permanently returned to their homes in the Gulf.

A few merchants did stay back and went into other businesses, but by the end of the 1930s, the cosmopolitan city of Bombay had lost a large part of its Arab flavour. Arab engagement with the western Indian city diminished after Indian independence but did not altogether end. The Kuwait royal family, for instance, bought a couple of buildings on Marine Drive in the 1950s – the Al Sabah Court and the Al Jabriya Court. Unfortunately, both buildings have been the subject of dispute for the last few decades.

Bombay once again became a popular destination for Arabs in the 1970s after the Gulf witnessed an oil boom. Arabs chose to come back to Bombay to enjoy the nightlife, monsoons and shopping after Lebanon got embroiled in a civil war in 1975. Despite younger and wealthier Arabs now preferring to visit cities in the West, Mumbai – as Bombay was renamed in 1995 – is still a popular destination among a segment of the population in the Gulf. While the pearl trade may be 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 a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.