previous section
next chapter


A Text and a Life

[W]e have never been as aware as we are now of how oddly hybrid historical and cultural experiences are, of how they partake of many often contradictory experiences and domains, cross national boundaries, defy the police action of simple dogma and loud patriotism. Far from being unitary or monolithic or autonomous things, cultures actually assume more “foreign” elements, alterities, differences, than they consciously exclude.

Dean Mahomet composed his book Travels in 1793–94 as “a series of letters to a friend,” recounting to the Europeans among whom he lived the world of India from which he came.[1] He began his autobiographical travel narrative with his wrenching departure in 1769 from his childhood home among the Muslim elite of north India. He concluded it with his voyage of immigration to colonial Ireland in 1784. Through Travels, he presented his personal account of the multitude of peoples and customs he encountered while marching across north India as part of the English East India Company's military conquest of his homeland. His Travels thus represents a fascinating perspective on these peoples, these customs, and this colonial conquest: the first book ever written and published by an Indian in English.[2]

Dean Mahomet grew up during the tumultuous late eighteenth century, as the largely Muslim rulers of north India—whom his family had served for generations—succumbed to the expanding English East India Company. The Company rapidly shifted from a commercial corporation to the assertive ruler over vast Indian territories—two hundred and fifty thousand square miles by 1800, a million by 1856, with another half million under its indirect control. While the English Company continued to trade (especially in cotton cloth and opium), its extraction of taxes and loot from Indian lands under its sway garnered even larger sums. In this environment, Muslim families such as Dean Mahomet's had to make difficult and potentially dangerous choices about their future and their allegiances. Many chose service to the English: Dean Mahomet recounted the entry of his father, his elder brother, and then himself into the English Company's army.

During Dean Mahomet's twenty-five years in India, he moved among multiple roles. The premature death of his father, and his elder brother's inheritance of their late father's position, left him at age eleven to make his own fortune. In 1769, he attached himself as a camp follower to a teenage Protestant Anglo-Irish officer, Godfrey Evan Baker; the two men remained together until Baker's death eighteen years later. Over the course of their respective careers in the English Company's army (1769–83), Dean Mahomet rose to become a subaltern officer, as Baker rose from cadet to captain and independent command. During these years with the Company's army, Dean Mahomet's relationship with other Indians remained ambivalent. While his Muslim relatives accepted him as an honored guest at their domestic rituals, he nevertheless stood as an outsider to their world by virtue of his attachment to the British. Some Indians in the countryside assaulted him as part of their resistance to British control; others rescued him and gave him shelter. In his life and writings, he revealed the social and cultural tensions inherent within that substantial class of Indians which fostered British colonial expansion over India.[3]

Through Dean Mahomet's own words and surviving British records, we can retrace his eventful journeys with the English Company's army as it passed up and down the Ganges River, forcing the many peoples and states of north India under British rule. His dramatic narrative of his travels though diverse cities (including Calcutta and Benares) and rural environments (including dense jungles, arid plains, and rich agricultural regions), and his range of interactions with the varied peoples living in each, enables us to understand the complexity and internal divisions within Indian society. We can note the specificity with which he described his natal community's internal social organization and domestic customs, in contrast to his more limited knowledge of those of other Indian castes—for example, Brahmin Hindus. His marches with the English Company's army took him perhaps as far west as Delhi and certainly as far east as Dhaka (today Bangladesh); later he sailed to Madras in south India (see Map). As he traveled, the multiplicity of Indian society meant that each city and region which he encountered struck him as novel. He described each vividly to his British audience.

As we examine Dean Mahomet's life and words, we can see the vital roles taken by many different classes of Indians in the colonial process. The English Company used remarkably few Europeans to conquer and rule India. For example, in 1771 the Company had only 187 British civil officials in Bengal to govern some thirty million people; thousands of Indian subordinate officials at many levels carried out the actual work of administration.[4] Similarly, the Company's armies which extended and enforced British rule consisted of many times more Indians (officers, soldiers, servants, camp followers, and their families) than Europeans (mainly Protestant English, Anglo-Irish, Irish, Scottish, or Welsh officers, men, and—less frequently—their families). Dean Mahomet brings alive for us this colonial world in which an array of ethnicities and social and economic classes interacted, sometimes in hostility, sometimes in cooperation, always in cross-cultural exchange.

Travels exposes the complex and often alienating attitudes Dean Mahomet—and tens of thousands of other Indians in service of the English Company—held toward the British conquest. Many felt distanced from cultures of the old regimes which their ancestors had served. All remained apart from the Europeans who hired them. Like Dean Mahomet, each worked in distinct ways to create new social spaces for themselves between these cultures.

Dean Mahomet in Europe (1784–1851)

In crossing boundaries, Dean Mahomet went further than most of his class. Following the abrupt and disgraceful end of his patron Baker's military career in 1783, Dean Mahomet began yet a more distant journey: as an immigrant to colonial Ireland. After marrying Jane Daly, a young Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry woman, he published in Cork his two-volume memoir of his Indian travels. In this 1794 work, he retained a strikingly accurate command of detail long after the events he described. He also demonstrated his elegant command over high English literary conventions.

Modern readers of his Travels can note the ways in which he appropriated the English travel narrative genre—the only Indian to do so in the eighteenth century. His generally sympathetic representations of Indian peoples and beliefs distinguished his work from those of Europeans in revealing ways. He, after all, wrote as someone from India for an audience of Europeans, representing himself and his background for their approval. Their images of India stemmed from their position as the colonizer not the colonized. Yet, Dean Mahomet too had fought to support the English Company's colonial regime in India.

While Dean Mahomet's book apparently bolstered his stature in the eyes of Irish society, it also highlighted his alien origins from the Europeans whom he had served and among whom he lived, married, and wrote. Further, his presentation of India had little lasting effect on prevalent British colonial attitudes toward the land of his birth or its cultures. After over two decades in Cork, he left Ireland, looking elsewhere for a place for himself and his family.

Dean Mahomet and his growing Anglo-Irish-Indian family emigrated to London around 1807. The increasingly cosmopolitan world of the British capital presented both opportunities and constraints for immigrants from India, Ireland, or elsewhere in the burgeoning British empire. In London, Dean Mahomet served for a time as a medical practitioner in the fashionable mansion of a rich Scottish nobleman and veteran of the East Indies. Then he started an Indian coffeehouse catering to members of the British elite with “Oriental” tastes. By 1812, however, he had exhausted his financial resources. Searching around for yet another way to market his Indian attributes to the British public, he moved to the resort town of Brighton, on England's south coast.

Starting over again at age fifty-five, Dean Mahomet struck upon a profession, combining Indian and British medical practices, that would bring him fame if not fortune. In Brighton, he created appreciation for his medical arts as an Indian therapeutic masseur. Through skillful practice and publicity that elicited the patronage of the British elite including the English royal family, he rose to the top of the professional world of medical bathhouse keepers. Claiming exclusive access to “Oriental” medicinal arts, Dean Mahomet negotiated for himself a distinguished place in British society. He left for us carefully crafted newspaper advertisements, his second autobiographical book (about Oriental and Western scientific medicine), evidence of the architecture of his bathhouses, and his medical innovations. From these, we can explore the ways that he created images of himself, combining Asian and English elements in ways that for two decades proved highly attractive to British society.

Dean Mahomet lived, however, during a time of expanding British imperialism. As the Victorian era proceeded, British attitudes toward Indians, Muslims, and the Orient generally, hardened into doctrines of British racial superiority. These English ideologies of an essential “difference” between English and Indians diminished the space available for his own representations of India to the British.[5] In the years before his death in 1851, he lost control over his career and reverted to the margins of British society.

The Significance of Dean Mahomet's Work

Dean Mahomet's act of writing Travels, including his selections of content and genre, have powerful implications for the ongoing scholarly debate about the relationship between literature and colonialism. Edward Said, in his highly influential work, Orientalism (1978), asserted that Westerners enforced—and largely still enforce—exclusively unilateral cultural representations of Asia: “The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging,…constitutes one of the main connections between…culture and imperialism.…From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself.”[6] As Pratt demonstrates, European travel writers consistently objectified colonized peoples and localities through the “imperial gaze,” constructing them for the West.[7]

Despite the unquestionable fact of Dean Mahomet's authorship of his Travels, many Westerners of his day believed Asians incapable of authoring such a polished work of English literature. Even today, some readers may cling to similar doubts and look for a British hand behind Dean Mahomet's pen. While he clearly borrowed—in today's terms, plagiarized—brief sections of his descriptions from European authors (as I analyze in Chapter Three), he nonetheless clearly retained his own voice throughout. Further, unlike some of his British contemporaries, Dean Mahomet's book presented Indians as human beings worthy of respect in their own terms. They had virtues, superior in some ways to—albeit different from—those of Europeans. Few European works of his day took his position. Thus, Dean Mahomet's book stands as an important counterexample to any one-sided view of English literature during the age of imperialism as the sole preserve of Europeans.

Homi Bhabha, Henry Louis Gates, Edward Said, and other scholars have shown that Asians and Africans regarded their power to narrate and represent their own experiences in their own terms as powerful modes of resistance to European cultural domination.[8] For example, former slave Olaudah Equiano (and other antislavery activists of Dean Mahomet's day) explicitly argued that his autobiographical book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano…The African, Written by Himself (1789), proved the humanity of Africans and hence the immorality in trafficking in such humans as if they were mere property. Indeed, Equiano toured Ireland, including Cork, publicizing his autobiography in 1791, just three years before Dean Mahomet published his Travels.[9] The existence of such non-European perspectives on, and participation in, the imperial process exposes the multilaterality of that process. Nevertheless, while Dean Mahomet's book demonstrates the existence of long-neglected Indian voices in the colonial process, the limited impact of his book on British attitudes toward India suggests European lack of openness to his narrative.

Some modern readers may expect that, because Dean Mahomet was ethnically Indian, he would have produced an account radically—instead of subtly—different from his contemporary European writers. Such an anachronistic expectation of an Indian nationalist stance misinterprets his position and circumstances. We must move beyond the stark dichotomies of identity between colonized and colonizer, Orientals and Westerners, “us” and “them” that have become the hallmark of both imperialist and nationalist/anti-imperialist discourse.[10] Rather, each person embodied a range of positions, as Dean Mahomet and Equiano demonstrated in their writing and their lives.[11] Dean Mahomet wrote for the British elite, on whom he depended and among whom he married and lived as an immigrant, about his years of service as an Indian camp follower and then subaltern officer in the English Company's army as it conquered India. In his Travels, he assessed the virtues and flaws of both British and Indian cultures, each of which did much to shape his identity. He stood between them, rather than as wholly part of either.

Dean Mahomet chose the fashionable English genre of the epistolary travel narrative for his presentation of his life in India. Constructed letters, addressed to a fictive European friend, enabled him to establish a personal relationship with his British readers. He further identified with his intended audience by publishing at the head of his book the list of his three hundred and twenty prominent British patrons. He dedicated his book to a colonel in the English Company's Bengal Army, W. A. Bailie. The sophisticated genre he chose also allowed him scope for allusions to high English literature and Latin quotations (which he did not translate into English, thus presupposing the erudition of both his readers and himself). Since this literary genre held great popularity in Britain at the time, but was unknown in his natal culture, his choice recapitulated his self-location as an intermediary, drawing upon an English form to represent his Indian background for an elite anglophone audience. Pratt uses “transculturation” to describe how subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture. While subjugated peoples cannot readily control what emanates from the dominant culture, they do determine to varying extents what they absorb into their own, and the uses to which they put it.[12]

Dean Mahomet's deliberate use of an autobiographical voice in Travels, especially in his early chapters, bears on the current debate over differences between conceptions of the self in Asia as opposed to Europe.[13] Some scholars argue that the concept of the individual as a historically minded being, and hence autobiography as a literary genre, emerged only in post-Enlightenment Europe; more recent scholarship has questioned this assertion as ethnocentric.[14] Although the term “autobiography” would first appear in English print only years later in 1809, Dean Mahomet clearly presented himself as an individual, with passages (particularly in his first chapter) which show his self-awareness—imagining how others perceived him. Each of the engravings which he published in Travels represented an aspect of his identity: an European-dressed Indian Gentleman, an Indian army officer, and an Indian courtier in an Indian ruler's procession (figures 1–3 of this book).[15] His decade living in Ireland prior to writing Travels distinguished his account from those of Muslims and Asians who visited Europe but did not remain as immigrants.[16] Indeed, Dean Mahomet lived continuously in Europe for the last sixty-six years of his life.

Dean Mahomet's marriage to an elite European woman, as well as his use of literary (and later medical) accomplishments to enhance his honored place in British society, suggest the diversity of experiences among Indian immigrants to Britain. British society relegated the vast bulk of Asians in Britain at this time to the lowest social classes.[17] Nevertheless, many of the elite in Ireland subscribed to Dean Mahomet's book and accorded respect to his marriage with a woman of their class. Later, large numbers of the English elite submitted their bodies and health to his hands as a medical surgeon and masseur. These attitudes remind us that British society during his lifetime did not demand racial segregation or condemn (what would later be called) interracial sexuality, including sexuality involving White women and Black men. Indeed, a number of other Asian and African men married or moved freely through society with European women during this period.[18] Thus, Dean Mahomet's marriage and his degree of success as a professional medical man stand as warnings against simple projections backward of later English racial categories or attitudes.

Overall, Dean Mahomet's life and his writings reveal much about cultural interactions within the imperial process, a process which created what Pratt terms “contact zones”: “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination.”[19] Dean Mahomet lived for decades in colonial India and Ireland, where the dominant English used force of arms to try to impose their rule and culture on the indigenous peoples. Yet these English impositions proved far from hegemonic, as his own self-expressions indicate. Throughout his life in these colonies, he made himself a man transculturated: neither assimilated into the dominant English colonizing culture nor integrated with the subordinated, colonized one. By examining his life and writings, and those of other such intermediaries, we can move toward an understanding of the hybridity of the imperial process.

The neglect his Travels has endured for two centuries among literary critics and historians indicates the marginality of its position and his. Like other books published in Cork, Travels received little attention in the metropolis. As an Indian author, Dean Mahomet did not fit European conceptions of India. Thus while elite journals in London knew of his book, they did not accord it a review (although they did review many travel narratives about India by Europeans, even ones they considered inferior).[20] Further, when Irish nationalism ended the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, few of the more than four hundred and fifty copies of Dean Mahomet's book survived. Thus, this republication of Travels brings his book and role in the imperial process to our attention.

A Guide to This Volume

This book reproduces many of the words of Dean Mahomet and sets them and his deeds in their historical context. In order to understand the world in which he moved in India, Chapter One surveys his life to 1784, when he emigrated. Readers who wish to go directly to his original account of his life in India might begin with Chapter Two: a republication of his entire book, Travels. To present his work as directly as possible, I have made no changes in his organization. I have, however, left out the list of subscribers and also placed in square brackets the modern form of place names for which he simply made up his own phonetic spellings as no standard transliteration system existed in his day. I have also translated, in brackets, his Latin quotations. The Glossary contains brief definitions of key words he used and the index includes the full names of people he mentioned. Chapter Three traces his eventful later life, from when he concluded his narrative in Travels at age twenty-five until his death at ninety-one.


I would like to thank Paula Richman, Roswita Fisher, James Fisher, Dane Kennedy, and Lynne Withey in particular for their careful suggestions for revision of drafts of this book. Rozina Visram, J. Stewart Cameron, and Prabhu Guptara were especially generous in sharing their knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, Dean Mahomet.

I am grateful to the staffs of the following libraries for graciously allowing me access to their collections: Brighton Reference Library, British Library, Cork Public Reference Library, East Sussex Record Office (Lewes), Family History Centre (Chancery Lane), Greater London Record Office, Guildhall Library, Marylebone Public Library, National Army Museum, National Archives of India, National Library of Ireland, India Office Library (British Museum), Pavilion Art Gallery and Museum (Brighton), Public Record Office of England (Chancery Lane, Kew), Public Record Office of Ireland, School of Oriental and African Studies Library, Society of Genealogists Library, Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (St. Catherine's House, London), Principle Registry of the Family Division (Somerset House, London), Trinity College (Dublin) Library, University College Cork Library, Wellcome Institute, Westminster Public Library.

Finally, I thank Oberlin College for awarding me Research Status for this project. I am, of course, responsible for the material in this book, including any errors.


1. Throughout this book, except in direct quotations, I spell Dean Mahomet as he did in Travels. His name was not uncommon for Indian Muslims; indeed, “Din Muhammad” was a war cry within his community. For a more extensive study of Dean Mahomet's life, see Michael H. Fisher and Dean Mahomed, The First Indian Author in English (1996). [BACK]

2. Prabhu Guptara, Black British Literature (1986). [BACK]

3. For Ranajit Guha and other members of the Subaltern Studies Collective, Dean Mahomet's class origins and role in the English Company's army would have placed him in the “indigenous elite,” oppressive of the Indian “subaltern” classes. See Ranajit Guha et al., eds., Subaltern Studies, volumes 1–8 (1982–94). [BACK]

4. This figure is compiled for covenanted officials from East India Company, List (1771). Much scholarship on colonial India (and European imperialism generally) has focused on Dean Mahomet's class of intermediaries or “compradores” who served as the interface between Europeans and the subordinated peoples. E.g., C. A. Bayly, Indian Society (1988); Ronald Robinson, “Non-European Foundations of European Imperialism” (1976); Shubhra Chakrabarti, “Collaboration and Resistance” (1994). [BACK]

5. See Thomas R. Metcalf, Ideologies (1995). [BACK]

6. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1979), pp. xiii, 283. [BACK]

7. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes (1992). [BACK]

8. E.g., Homi Bhabha, “Signs Taken for Wonders” (1985); Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994); Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “James Gronniosaw and the Trope of the Talking Book” (1988); Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (1993). [BACK]

9. While there are parallels between Dean Mahomet's Travels and Equiano's and other former slaves' narratives, it is important to emphasize the fundamental differences as well. For example, Dean Mahomet never experienced slavery nor mentioned his conversion to Christianity, two vital elements in their works. See Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed., The Classic Slave Narratives (1987). [BACK]

10. Said, Culture and Imperialism, pp. xxiv–xxv; Metcalf, Ideologies. [BACK]

11. Consider, for example, that Equiano, in addition to his antislavery activities, once purchased slaves for his employer. He explained that he selected his “own [Igbo] countrymen” to buy as slaves, in preference to other African peoples. Equiano, Interesting Narrative, Chapter 11. [BACK]

12. Pratt, Imperial Eyes, p. 6. [BACK]

13. E.g., Sudhir Kakar, ed., Identity and Adulthood (1992); and Sudhir Kakar, The Inner World (1981). [BACK]

14. For various positions on this problematic, see Karl Weintraub, “Autobiography” (1975); Stephen F. Dale, “Steppe Humanism” (1990); and Gustav E. von Grunebaum, Medieval Islam (1953). [BACK]

15. These three engravings are signed by J. Finlay, an obscure artist. He may have been a military officer, with technical training as a surveyor, who passed through Cork at this time. The frontispiece portrait of Dean Mahomet appears to be based on an oval ivory painting but the original artist's name has been garbled as H. Ghaylbamdy. Significantly, Figures 2–3 both foreground a hooka, which Dean Mahomet would feature in his London coffeehouse; see Chapter Three. [BACK]

16. Scholars who have studied Muslim and/or Asian visitors to Europe include Susan Gilson Miller, Disorienting Encounters (1992); Jonathan D. Spence, The Question of Hu (1988); Simon Digby, “An Eighteenth Century Narrative” (1989); and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, The Arab Rediscovery of Europe (1963). [BACK]

17. Studies of early Asian immigrants to Britain include Rozina Visram, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes (1986); and Peter Fryer, Staying Power (1992). [BACK]

18. For examples from England: Meer Hasan Ali married an English gentlewoman sometime between 1810 and 1816; David Octerlony Dyce Sombre (a man of mixed Indian and European ancestry) married an English Viscount's daughter in 1840; Abu Talib Khan and Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, among other travelers, wrote about their free social intercourse with elite Englishwomen. Mrs. Meer Hassan Ali, Observations on the Mussulmauns of India (1832); Abu Taleb Khan, Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan (1810; 1814); Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, A Persian at the Court of King George, 1809–10 (1988). “Interracial” marriages within the lower classes in Britain also appear to have been relatively common. For example, of the sixty-one families that left Britain to settle the British colony of Sierra Leone in 1786, forty-four were interracial: mostly British women and men of African descent. Douglas A. Lorimer, Colour, Class and the Victorians (1978). [BACK]

19. Pratt, Imperial Eyes, p. 4. [BACK]

20. E.g., G. Willis, Willis' Current Notes (March 1851), pp. 22–23; Review of John Henry Grose, Voyage (1757) in Monthly Review (1757). [BACK]

previous section
next chapter