An author, soldier, immigrant, and entrepreneur, the life of Sake Dean Mahomed is an eclectic tale of travel, financial ups and downs, and intrigue. A surgeon who was not a medical practitioner, with a Coffee House that didn’t sell coffee, today he is remembered only by a small London plaque that honours his long-standing cultural contributions.
Mahomed’s epistolary book, The Travels of Dean Mahomed, became the first book to be written and published in English by an Indian writer. It also represented the first time that accounts in English of Indian colonisation by the British were written from the point of view of an Indian person.
His life and works illustrate the complex movement of peoples and ideas inherent in the British empire, as his journey led him to consistently transgress cultural boundaries. Dean Mahomed passed through many worlds: India as it came under British control, Ireland as an English colony, and England as it became an imperial power.
Mahomed’s plaque in London is dedicated to his first enterprise, the Hindoostane Coffee House. It was the first restaurant to bring Indian cuisine to the capital, and was advertised as “for the entertainment of Indian gentlemen, where they may enjoy the Hoakha, with real Chilm tobacco, and Indian dishes, in the highest perfection… to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England.”
To be profitable, however, public houses either had to generate a loyal and substantial clientele or to have a prime location, drawing many occasional visitors. By the time Mahomed began his enterprise, the Jerusalem Coffee House already held the patronage of European merchants and veterans of the East Indies. Although his restaurant had good reviews, that didn’t translate to revenue, and Mahomed filed for bankruptcy in 1812.
With the goal of reinventing himself, Mahomed moved to Brighton where he set his sights on holistic health. Featuring oils he marketed as authentically Indian, herbal treatments, therapeutic steam baths, reading rooms, and his signature head massage; both King George IV and King William IV of England became patrons of his spa, earning him the nickname, ‘shampooer of kings.’
Cochrane’s Colonial Container
Mahomed’s royal routes originally began some years prior, when he initially worked for a rich and contentious Scottish nobleman, the Honourable Basil Cochrane, sixth son of the eighth Earl of Dundonald (1753–1826).
Cochrane had himself returned from India in 1805 as one of the wealthiest of the Nabobs and took the largest house in Portman Square. Here, too, the Ottoman Turkish Ambassador established an imposing residence and a mosque. Much of his vast fortune came from contracts provisioning the Royal Navy in India, and he spent much of the rest of his life successfully disputing Navy charges of embezzlement against him.
Meanwhile, Cochrane claimed to have developed a form of vapour cure while travelling; he determined to improve the health of London’s lower classes, and his own reputation, by establishing a vapour bath for their therapy at his plush home, where Dean Mahomed served for several years.
Although Cochrane claimed to have stumbled upon the original idea of the vapour bath while he was in India, he attributed his inspiration not to Indian tradition, but rather to a British innovation which he encountered there: “an accident about this time threw in my way `Mudge’s Inhaler,’ and I made use of it…this naturally produced reflection on the superior advantages that might be obtained from vapour, upon an extensive scale, and with a more general application.”
Over the years, Cochrane’s wealth and social standing enabled him to enlist large numbers of the most prominent members of the medical establishment to authenticate his innovation. He publicised his contribution to public health repeatedly and widely. His most famous work, An Improvement on the Mode of Administering the Vapour Bath (1809), in many ways epitomised the self-promotional, quasi-medical literature of the era. Despite Cochrane’s assertions, the practice of vapour bathing in London was not original to him, and institutions using a variety of such baths had existed for centuries.
The British conquest of India and Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt (1798–1801) had brought ever larger numbers of Europeans into contact with – and power over – ‘the East’. In terms of medicine and health treatments, the perception of ‘the Orient’ as exotic led to conflicting valuations. On the one hand, Asia represented a largely untapped storehouse of wealth, including a wealth of medical knowledge, medicines, and treatments. On the other hand, the growing European conception of Asians as essentially different from themselves suggested that such medical knowledge and medicine might be specific to Asians, and inapplicable or even dangerous for Europeans.
While Cochrane’s innovation had no particular Indian associations, Dean Mahomed apparently added to Cochrane’s bath a practice that he would make famous in England as ‘shampooing’ (‘champing’ – therapeutic massage). In Travels, Mahomed initially attributed this practice to the Chinese, and was even derogatory towards it. Yet by the time he had made himself a figure-head of the practice in England, he had clearly changed his mind.
Shampooing (champi) and the related art, malish, were widely practiced in India. However, many professional practitioners were servants or people of a lower social status. One of Dean Mahomed’s contemporaries in Patna described a noble’s attendants: “one of his…favourite women…presented herself at the foot of his bed…whose office was to chuppy [champi, shampoo] his limbs.…Within the seraglio, these…offices must be performed by women; and…they must be pretty, elegantly dressed, witty, and ready at repartees.” Further, within a household, a wife or servant might regularly shampoo the elders or children of the family to induce relaxation and sleep.
After Dean Mahomed began to ‘shampoo’ in Cochrane’s celebrated vapour bath, the idea of shampooing for health quickly entered the popular medical jargon of London; many commercial bathhouses included shampooing among their advertised therapies. Dean Mahomed, however, gained little credit from Cochrane or the London public for his shampooing at this time. And he soon began his temporary detour into crafting Indian culture and cuisine for presentation to the British elite.
Brighton’s Battery House Baths
After the failure of his restaurant, Mahomed moved his family to Brighton. By December 1815, they had shifted to the Battery House, a prominent location overlooking the sea, just down the Steine from the Royal Pavilion. Brighton, during the half century prior to the arrival of Dean Mahomed and his family, had been growing into a fashionable seaside spa. A series of popular medical texts drew public attention to sea bathing and the reputedly healthful marine environment.
Sea bathing increased in popularity despite the fact that relatively few Englishmen or women actually knew how to swim. A growing number of English families could afford a holiday by the seashore, and were developing a more bourgeois mentality about revealing the body in public. To accommodate their interests and concerns, horse-drawn bathing machines, segregated by sex, sprang up along the shore to convey the bather into the water. Professional ‘dippers’ stood at the foot of these machines to encourage the occasionally terrified bathers, via the dipper’s arms, into the shallow sea.
In addition to outdoor sea-bathing, Brighton emerged as distinctive for its indoor activities as well. A series of medical promoters popularised their hydrotherapy treatments: bathing in, or drinking, various types of water for a broad range of ailments. In 1769, Dr. Awsiter established a hot and cold bathing institution at the foot of the Steine. Long before Dean Mahomed and Jane’s arrival, a range of bathhouses flourished here.
Dean Mahomed advertised a range of uniquely exotic luxuries: “Indian Tooth Powder, which possesses extraordinary excellence. It is the first ever offered to the public in this country… also just introduced from India, the celebrated Culeff [kalaf, Persian for red-black hair dye], for changing the Hair, of whatever colour it might be, to a beautiful glossy permanent Blackness, which will ever remain unaffected by the attacks of time.” Soon, however, they dropped the marketing of these substances to concentrate on a more promising project.
Mahomed and Jane began to treat clients using their own distinctive form of the therapeutic bath, Brighton’s mainstay. They distinguished their bath from others by adding medical herbs and other substances to the vapour and calling it “The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath.” Apparently, Dean Mahomed simply modified Cochrane’s apparatus with the addition of purportedly Indian elements. He used the same type of white flannel cloth and chair with footstool but, in place of Cochrane’s whalebone framework, Dean Mahomed used wood, painted to resemble bamboo, insinuating the Orient.
“Mahomed’s Steam and Vapour Sea Water Medicated baths…are far superior to the common Baths, as they promote copious perspiration, and never fail in giving relief when everything else has been tried in vain, to cure many Diseases, particularly Rheumatic and Paralytic Affections of the extremities, stiff joints, old sprains, lameness, eruptions, and scurf on the skin, which it renders quite smooth; also diseases arising from the abuse of mercury, consumption, white swellings, aches and pains in the joints; in short, in all cases where the circulation is languid, or the nervous energy debilitated, as is well known to many professional gentlemen and others in this country.” – Mr. M. has attended several of the Nobility with the happiest results, can give most satisfactory references.
Although these distinctive features were later imitated by competitors, Mahomed’s success and family continued to grow. By 1815 he claimed to have treated “a thousand Cases.” Increasingly, publicists who touted Brighton and its growing healthcare industry featured the Battery House Baths in their guidebooks. In addition to a growing body of loyal and distinguished clients, he also developed a personal history that presented him to his clients in a suitable manner.
From about 1818, Dean Mahomed began to publicise the title: “Shampooing Surgeon”. He later extended his publicity campaign by publishing a book containing both descriptions of many of the cases he had treated and glowing testimonials from his grateful patients. Such tracts, while expensive to produce, were a frequent vehicle for bathhouse advertising. He entitled the work Cases Cured by Sake [Shaikh] Deen Mahomed, Shampooing Surgeon, And Inventor of the Indian Medicated Vapour and Sea-Water Baths…(1820).
During Mahomed’s years in the Battery House Baths, the entire medical bath industry continued to expand dramatically. Numbers of therapeutic baths sprang up across Britain, using a variety of types of vapour, chemicals, electricity, and fluids as their healing medium. Like Dean Mahomed, the promoters of these baths published numerous tracts, pamphlets, and books advertising their services as universal remedies.
Two distressing incidents occurred which could have ruined Mahomed’s budding career. John Claudius Loudon, a promising landscape gardener, took treatment at Mahomed’s bath for a painful rheumatic right arm. The shampooers working under Dean Mahomed misjudged the brittleness of Loudon’s humerus, and snapped the bone close to the shoulder. It never healed properly; and ultimately Loudon was compelled to have it amputated!
In the second incident, an elderly gentleman of means, Mr. Spode, died while undergoing a shower at Mahomed’s West Cliff baths. According to a newspaper report, Spode “ordered a shower bath, when he was ready, the water was, in the usual manner, discharged upon him, when, shocking to relate, he fell instantly dead.” The death is supposed to have been produced by the shock being too severe for a frame already much debilitated, or from apoplexy. The coroner’s verdict was – Died by the visitation of God.
Despite these untoward incidents, the town of Brighton stood behind Dean Mahomed and his baths continued to flourish. When the newly crowned Victoria (r. 1837–1901) first visited Brighton, Mahomed displayed “a transparency of large dimensions, representing Her Majesty walking into Brighton, preceded by a number of damsels strewing flowers before her.” His public expressions of loyalty to the royal family were not unusual among entrepreneurs in Brighton, where royal patronage bestowed the greatest cachet and attracted the attention of a less elevated but more broad-based market.
By the late 1830s, however, his connection to the British royal family had faded. King William’s favour changed to other baths, making them more fashionable. Queen Victoria herself never graced his Baths, and ultimately, she found Brighton uncongenial, closed the Pavilion, stripped its furnishings, and sold it out the year Dean Mahomed died (1851).
Shampoo, Champi and Champissage
The word ‘shampoo’ in English may be derived from the Hindi chāmpo (चाँपो [tʃãːpoː]) and dates to 1762. The Hindi word referred to head massage, usually with some form of hair oil. Similar words also occur in other North Indian languages.
In India, the traditional hair massage is still common. Different oils and formulations with herbs may be used; these include neem, shikakai or soapnut, henna, bael, brahmi, fenugreek, buttermilk, amla, aloe, and almond in combination with some aromatic components like sandalwood, jasmine, turmeric, rose, and musk.
Narendra Mehta, blind from infancy, grew up experiencing the benefits of this tradition. An osteopath and massage therapist, he developed a unique system of massage he called the “champissage” (a portmanteau of chāmpi, the Hindi and Urdu term for the practice) and founded the London Centre of Indian Champissage (now Champissage International). After his death, his wife Kundan Mehta and their godson Moses Chundi took over the running of the centre, which today trains students across the globe.
According to Champissage International, massage has always played a vital role in Indian life. It features in the earliest Ayurvedic texts, which date back over 4000 years. These ancient texts describe that, when used in conjunction with herbs, spices and aromatic oils, massage has an important medical function and cannot only strengthen muscles and firm skin aesthetically, but also encourages the body’s innate healing processes.
Today, Indian infants often receive a daily massage from birth until they are three years old to keep them supple and in good health. From three to six years of age, they are massaged once or twice a week. After six years of age, they are taught to share a massage with family members. Massage occurs across the generations in India as an integral part of family life.
In 1978, Narendra made a return to India to research this traditional touch. He studied it wherever it was practiced: in barber’s shops, on street corners, at the beach and in family homes. He enjoyed being worked on, but he couldn’t help feeling that there was something missing.
Although he experienced a slight improvement in well-being, the effects were too short lived to be of any therapeutic benefit. Barbers focused on the scalp and women focused on the hair. In addition, everyone who worked with Narendra had his or her own individual technique, which had been handed down through the generations. He decided that he would begin to formalise what he was experiencing and apply his heightened sensitivity as a blind person to discover which part of his body reacted most positively to specific movements.
Neandra extended the therapy to include more of the body, and introduced Ayurvedic touches to the massage by including the three higher Chakras (energy vortices): Visuddha, Ajna and Sahasrara, so that the body’s entire energy system could be rebalanced. Today’s team of practitioners of this contemporary therapy aim to harness the benefits of providing space for emotional wellbeing, innate placebo responses, relaxation and touch.
During Mahomed’s youth, India contained a diversity of polities and cultures, with little national unity. As the Mughal imperial state and regional powers – including both indigenous rulers and nominally Mughal appointees – declined, Mahomed and his family, as well as hundreds of thousands of other Indians, entered into the service of the English East India Company during its formative years.
Mahomed remained with the English Company’s Bengal Army for fifteen years as it expanded British control over additional Indian territories, suppressed insurrection by enemies and subordinate Indian allies alike, and crushed resistance to this new order among the Indian rural population. Travels reveals the inherent contradictions of his intermediate position and his conflicted attitudes toward the colonial process. He served the British, but also recognised the costs.
In 1794, Dean Mahomed published the first account of this imperial process from an Indian’s perspective that was intended directly for an anglophone audience in Britain. His very act of asserting his own narrative challenged European assertions of monopoly over representations of “the Orient.” Yet he selected a fashionable English genre and addressed the British elite as his “friend.”
Living, writing, marrying, and raising a family in colonial Ireland, Dean Mahomed felt how “hybrid historical and cultural experiences are,…how they…cross national boundaries.” For forty-five years in England, Dean Mahomed tried, eventually with some success, to market his version of Indian cuisine and medical practices to the British public.
Dean Mahomed’s “Hindustanee Coffee House,” his “shampooing,” and his “Indian medicated vapour bath” all founded their appeal on, and sought to profit from, this British attraction for his Indian identity. He merchandised nothing purely Indian, yet his services proved particularly attractive precisely because he presented them as foreign. Ultimately, however, Dean Mahomed lacked the capital required to sustain his career, and establish his independence.
Over the nineteenth century, a growing British sense of imperial supremacy over Asia meant that Britons sought control over such representations. After his death, Mahomed’s “shampooing” became a name for hair-wash and the Turkish Bath under British management, and displaced the Indian Vapour Bath. In this sense, Dean Mahomed’s creations were appropriated with little recognition of his role.
Mahomed’s descendants became British, but felt that they were always marked with a difference. Despite the accomplishments of his progeny, particularly in the medical field, many English contemporaries continued to remark upon their “Oriental” features: “dark and typically Eastern.” Most of them retained the name Mahomed – although Britain’s changing racial prejudices led one branch to convert to Dean.
Their stories, and those of other Asian immigrants and their descendants, also deserve to be told in the context of the conflicted development of multicultural British society. It wasn’t until 2005 that Mohamed’s achievements as a writer, veteran and entrepreneur were honoured with a plaque. It hangs near the former location of the Hindoostane Coffee House. The green medallion is found inside the small entrance to an office building that’s not open to the public; you can only see it through the glass.
“To ignore or otherwise discount the overlapping experience of Westerners and Orientals, the interdependence of cultural terrains in which coloniser and colonised co-existed and battled each other through projections as well as rival geographies, narratives, and histories, is to miss what is essential about the world.” – Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism