Early modern travel writing is written predominantly by European authors. Such travelogues, writes literary scholar Mona Narain, perform an ideological role in “establishing hegemony over another culture” through a “transcendent colonial gaze.” But what happens on those rare occasions when colonized people write them?
Dean Mahomet’s 1794 Travels, usually cited as the first work by an Indian author writing in English, is a case in point.
Sake Dean Mahomet (Sheikh Din Muhammad) was born in Patna, in what is now the Indian state of Bihar, in 1759. At age eleven, he joined the service of an Anglo-Irish officer in the army of the British East India Company, campaigning in Bengal. In 1787, Mahomet accompanied the officer back to Ireland.
On one hand, Mahomet’s text gives the perspective of an Other on Britain’s growing presence in South Asia. As Narain writes, Travels “joins…European accounts as a document of the initial expansion of the British presence in India in the second half of the eighteenth century.” While the genre was dominated by Europeans, “Mahomet’s text…provides a detailed account of Indian culture and people and their first large-scale encounters with the British from the point of view of the Indian traveler.”
As Narain shows, Mahomet was something of a border crosser, performing “balancing act[s] of the marginalized insider.” He was “writing to familiarize alien identity and culture for the British public.” As a Muslim in a Hindu-majority country, as a member of the British East India Company’s mercenary army (made up of Hindus and Muslims fighting Muslims and Hindus), as an Indian in Ireland and England, Mahomet was a “complex diasporic subject.”
In Ireland, in fact, he married a Protestant and converted to Christianity. “He writes from the viewpoint of a sympathizer and native collaborator with the Company’s army,” according to Narain. Notably, while Mahomet is sometimes critical of the British, he doesn’t “question the basic legitimacy of their foreign presence, their power, and their control of Indian territories.”
At the same time, it’s unlikely that his point of view could ever have come from a European writer. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Narain argues, “Mahomet does not satirize Indian customs or eroticize the Indian landscape or Indian native for the definition of a national identity.”
He also uses the pronoun “we” to include himself and Europeans, fitting himself into “early modern cosmopolitanism.” His work cannot be “seen in binary terms—as either resistant [to] or complicit” with Europeans’ ventures. Written specifically for a metropolitan audience, Travels simultaneously critiques Indian culture from the point of view of an insider—and late eighteenth-century Britain as an outsider, for its negative “attitudes toward other cultures.”
Mahomet lived in Cork for twenty years. He and his family moved to London in 1807, where he opened what seems to have been the first Indian restaurant there. (Since 2005, the location of the Hindoostane Coffee House has been marked with a commemorative plaque.) Mahomet also worked as a shampooing surgeon and barber in London and Brighton Beach, including for two English kings. “Shampoo” is from a Hindustani word that means to knead or to press; initially, in English the word meant therapeutic massage.
Although a pioneer in many ways, Mahomet died in obscurity in 1851. His only other publication was an 1822 tract—on the benefits of shampooing.