This Muslim Man Introduced the Benefits of Shampoo to the British
The term “revolutionary” conjures up myriad images and names in one’s mind. Yet Sheikh Din Muhammad, spelt Sake Dean Mohamet as per 18th century British orthography, would not be one of those in most people’s imagination. And that is a sad forgetfulness of history. A revolutionary, confirms the Oxford lexicon, is a person or incident that may have initiated ‘a complete or dramatic change’. The amazingly colourful life of Sake Din would check more than one box that would fit the classical definition of being a ‘revolutionary’. Yet until as late as the 1990s he was buried in oblivion.
If the period beginning from the middle half of the 18th century, over the course of next 150 years, marks a notorious British colonial exploitation of the Indian subcontinent, in a curious way it also must be remembered for the subcontinent’s modernisation through Western, mostly British, intellectual contact. This cultural, social, intellectual and artistic flourish in the Indian subcontinent is said to be rooted in a movement known as the Bengal Renaissance, that began in the late 18th century and blossomed over the next one hundred years. It would be amiss not to remember Sake Dean as among the harbingers of the Bengal Renaissance.
He was the first Indian to publish a book in English. He was the first Indian restauranteur in Britain. And he was the introducer of ‘shampooing’ in England, which is what he was generally famous for in his times.
His Travel to West
Sake Dean Mohamet was a Bengali Muslim. But not from mainland Bengal. He was born C. E 1749, in Patna, a nondescript city within the Bengal Presidency administratively, but removed from the flurry of Western intellectual discourse, which would soon begin to colour the imagination of the Calcutta-based intelligentsia. Therefore, he was not from the fortunate Calcutta milieu that naturally imbibed British / Western education. On the contrary, Sake Dean must have had an extremely trying childhood. His father, who served in the East India Company’s army, was killed in a battle when Dean Sake was just eleven. All the property went to his elder brother. Luckily, he was adopted by an English army officer Godfrey Evan Baker. One can imagine the struggles Sake Dean had to go through: a little coloured Patna boy in an English family, which soon moved to Cork, Ireland, thus being forced to leave his motherland, family and friends, for ever.
Undaunted, Sake Din turned this adversity into opportunities. He studied hard. Became proficient in English language. And in 1794 published a book titled The Travels of Dean Mohamet. A comment by Michael H Fisher, the editor of a modern Cambridge Univeristy Press edition of the book underlines why this was an extraordinary achievement: “[M]any 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.”
In 1810 Dean Sake moved to London and opened his Hindoostane Coffee House, the 1st Indian restaurant, which served ‘real chilm tobacco and Indian dishes’. Do the owners of today’s booming Indian restaurants and Shisha lounges of London remember this gentleman at all? One wonders!
The Wonder Baths
Dean Sake, however, achieved real fame after he and his ‘pretty’ Irish wife, Jane, moved to Brighton in 1814 and introduced ‘Champooi’ to the British. This was medicated vapour bath and massage. Mahomed’s Baths were known for treating patients with muscular ailments with a massage or champi after a steaming bath of Indian herbs and oils. Mahomed’s successful treatment brought him fame and patients flocked to his baths. In 1822, King George IV appointed Mahomed as his personal ‘shampooing surgeon’. He continued to hold this post under William IV.
It was such a sensation that he wrote two full-length books on this success story. His medical work Shampooing; or Benefits resulting from the use of the Indian medicated vapour bath, featured testimonies from his patients, as well as details of the treatment that made him famous.
He passed away on February, 21, 1851 and lies buried in a grave in Brighton’s St. Nicholas Church.
Yes, there are myriad reasons to remember Sheikh Din Muhammad, out of which, one is of immense relevance in today’s world: as an anti-immigrant xenophobia rages across much of the West, the life of this Indian Muslim demonstrates how deep their contributions have been to the Western society and economy.
(Written by Nilanjan Hajra, Author and Translator)