The Regent’s Canal
And The Trail To The British Raj, Parsis, And Sir Cowajee Jehanjir Readymoney
by Ibn Warraq
From New English Review, September 2008.
Descending the steps from one of the many original Victorian bridges over the canal, to the paths alongside it, I had set off in a westerly direction hoping to reach Little Venice. Unfortunately, many sections of the towpaths were closed until 7.30 A.M., and I was forced to emerge onto the street level and cross some of the splendid crescents that gently lead one to Regent’s Park. There were a few early morning joggers on a crisp but sunny Sunday morning, along with people exercising their dogs, all of whom seemed vaguely threatening. I found myself on a park bench contemplating a Victorian fountain along the footpath, called Broad Walk, that I had stumbled upon by accident. Closer inspection of the fountain revealed a charming inscription, which read,
Sir Cowasji Jehangir [1812-1878] was a highly respected Parsi (sometimes written ‘Parsee”) merchant and philanthropist of Bombay [Mumbai]. In a 2001 census, there were reckoned to be nearly seventy thousand Parsis in India. There have been a number of very illustrious Parsis in all areas of public life, from the rock star Freddie Mercury (real name, Farrokh Bulsara) to Zubin Mehta, the Orchestra conductor. In England, the first Asian to be elected to the House of Commons (Liberal) in 1892 was Dadabhai Naoroji [1825-1917], a Parsi economist, and the second Asian to be elected to the House of Commons (Conservative), in 1895 for Bethnal Green, was also a Parsi, Mancherjee Bhownagree [1851-1933].
But who were the Parsis? Parsis, probably derived from “Persians”, were Zoroastrians who were driven out of Persia after many years of Muslim persecution subsequent to the Muslims’ decisive victory at the battle Qadisiyya in 636 C.E., which gave them control of the ancient lands, home of one of the most sophisticated civilizations of antiquity, that of the pre-Islamic Persians. As Parsi historian S. H. Jhabvala wrote, “The Arabs thereafter became masters of Iran with ruination of all that made Iran the glory and greatness of the world…”, and “Muslim fanaticism dictated Islam on the unwilling and unsubdued soul of the Iranians”.1] As the celebrated 11th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica put it, “The Mohammedan invasion (636) with terrible persecutions of the following centuries was the death blow of Zoroastrianism”, though some Zoroastrians did survive as a persecuted minority in small enclaves at Yazd and Kerman.
The Parsis came to settle in 936 on the coast of Gujarat in India, where they were received hospitably by the Hindu rajah, Rana Jadhav.
At first an agricultural community the Parsis’ fortunes changed dramatically when the British established trading posts at Surat and elsewhere in the early 17th Century. They were very receptive of European civilization, and its ways of doing things – whether in commerce or science or politics. The Parsis took to trading with zest and natural flair. The British, in the form of the East India Company, acquired Bombay from the Portuguese (the name “Bombay” said to be derived from “Bom Bahia,” good port, in Portuguese) in the late Seventeenth Century. And since complete religious toleration was decreed soon afterwards, the Parsis from the Gujarat began to settle there. The subsequent prosperity of Bombay was owed largely to the commercial spirit of the Parsis. By the 19th Century, they were a wealthy community, having considerable success in heavy industries such as the railways and shipbuilding. As S. H. Jhabvala remarked, “Not that the Parsee was a favoured race, for the British entertained a sense of equality and justice for all- but that the Parsee found a new freedom for all the latent powers he had bought with him to his county as a heritage from the land of his birth”.
As Sir Cowasjee Jehanghier (Bart) the son of Sir Cowasjee, our subject, wrote in 1890, in his father’s biography, “The Parsees have benefited by the great development which has taken place in the trade of Western India and they can also claim to have contributed much towards creating the existing standard of prosperity. But they have never allowed the main fact to escape from their mind that they are naturally and by old association the colleagues and friends of the English merchants and the humble and constant supporters of their Government”.
Sir Cowasjee’s family, the Jehangirs or Jehanghiers acquired the sobriquet Readymoney by the promptitude of their payments in any commercial and financial transactions, and also for their willingness to offer financial help during several pecuniary emergencies to the East India Company. The Parsis were the first to establish commercial dealings on a large scale with China. The Jehangirs prospered and bought extensive estates in Bombay.
Sir Cowasjee learnt English at Sergeant Sykes school in the Fort of Bombay, and, at the age of fifteen, became a warehouse clerk for an English firm. For the next ten years he worked for various English firms, and finally in 1837 was appointed guaranteed broker to two European firms. By 1846, Sir Cowasjee was an independent trader, becoming a Justice of the Peace the same year. In 1860, he became a Commissioner of Income Tax; in 1871 he received the Companionship of the Order of the Star of India. In 1872, Sir Cowasjee became a Knight of the United Kingdom.
Like many Parsis, Sir Cowasjee was grateful to the British for their religious toleration which made possible the success of his co-religionists in Bombay. Sir Cowasjee was sincerely distressed when the Prince of Wales fell seriously ill during a visit to India. On the Prince’s recovery, Sir Cowasjee acted characteristically and sent £200: “This gift I make as a free will offering in token of my heartfelt joy at the recovery of the Prince of Wales from his severe and distressing illness.” He left it to the Prince to “devote the amount among the deserving institutions in London for the amelioration of the poor”. The Prince directed that the sum be made over to the London Fever Hospital. The famous London satirical journal Punch, in 1872, carried this item on the affair:
Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Readymoney died, after a long illness, in 1878. His son J.Cowasjee Jehangir Readymoney was knighted in 1895, and made a Baronet in 1908. The fourth Baronet, born in 1953, carries on the distinguished name of the Jehangirs to this day.
While Zoroastrians continue to face persecution in modern day Iran, along with other religious minorities such as the Bahais – all reported by Amnesty International – it is worth pondering the story of the Parsis of India. Fleeing persecution, the Parsis first encounter an enlightened Hindu ruler, and then flourished thanks to the religious toleration of the British and their sense of equality and justice for all.