In the second half of the 19th century, Britain’s subject Muslim populations were largely concentrated in India and the Indian Ocean’s littorals. The southern Arabian port of Aden, occupied in 1839, was ruled from Bombay; Zanzibar became a British protectorate in 1890, and Britain increased its control over Peninsular Malaya’s Muslim sultanates. This inner empire of largely Islamic territories broadened considerably with British expansion into Sudan and Nigeria in the late 1890s. Throughout the lifespan of Britain’s Muslim empire, the largest number of its Muslim subjects was Indian. Indians formed the largest number of pilgrims from outside Arabia alongside Egyptians and Indonesians. By the end of the nineteenth century, the annual transregional travels of thousands of Indian pilgrims to and from Mecca had become a permanent fixture of the British imperial administration across India and its consular administration in Arabia. Consequently, this chapter’s geographic focus is the Hijaz and, across the Arabian Sea, India.

The majority of existing works on Britain and the Hajj centre on the late 19th century. Although this chapter will acknowledge these studies’ concerns, which mostly concentrate on British efforts to combat epidemic disease and anticolonial, pan-Islamic activities related to the Hajj, emphasizing these aspects has tended to exaggerate the extent and effectiveness of Britain’s overall ability to exercise control over certain aspects of the pilgrimage. This chapter builds on Radhika Singha’s pioneering work on “pauper” pilgrims to move beyond other studies that take indigent pilgrims as a given feature of the Hajj and explores the interactions between this group of pilgrims and British officialdom. These pilgrims were often seen by officials and others as incapable – the very attribute that such officials often displayed in their inability to stem the flow of poor pilgrims between India and the Hijaz. Alongside sanitary and quarantine regulations and concerns about pilgrims’ potentially subversive sojourns in the Hijaz, destitute pilgrims’ travels occupied a substantial amount of time for those officials tasked with engaging with the Hajj.

Before analysing British interactions with destitute pilgrims in detail, this chapter opens with an appraisal of Britain’s relationship with the Hijaz up to the 1850s. It considers accounts from this period that mention poor pilgrims and highlights the initially dismissive British response to this group. Surveying the wider context of British perceptions of Islam – especially in relation to the impact of the 1857 Indian rebellion – shows how these fed into suspicious attitudes toward the pilgrimage. Nevertheless, British views of Islam became more ambivalent and less hostile as the century wore on; the empire’s deepened interactions with the Hajj formed part of this shift in attitudes. The chapter continues with a brief examination of the 1865 cholera epidemic, which focused Britain’s attention on the pilgrimage, and then provides a Muslim perspective on the Hajj by analysing the begum of Bhopal’s pilgrimage account.

Britain’s engagement with destitute pilgrims increased in complexity from the 1870s as authorities in Jidda and India attempted to grapple with the seemingly intractable question of how to deal with the presence of these pilgrims, stranded in Jidda after the conclusion of each Hajj. Officials did not develop a clear-cut policy on this issue. A huge body of information on destitute pilgrims, often contradictory, was produced by a variety of British and Muslim officials and by local Indian Muslim leaders consulted by the British. Muslims significantly influenced an official stance of inaction toward these pilgrims. One area, however, where Britain attempted to supervise pilgrims’ travels was Thomas Cook’s appointment as a travel agent for the Indian Hajj from 1886 to 1893. But Cook’s exit from the Hajj travel market further underscored the limits of Britain’s capacity to exercise a supervisory role over the flow of pilgrims to and from Mecca.

The issue of destitute pilgrims is emblematic of Britain’s interactions with the Hajj; Britain was simply unable to exercise control over this group. Britain’s relationship with the pilgrimage in this period was characterized by numerous contradictory drives and an underlying uncertainty that was almost disabling in enacting various policies. A desire to exert a degree of control over certain aspects of the Hajj ran in tandem with an almost complete inability to enact certain administrative measures. An important reason for this was British wariness about the consequences of interference in such an important religious practice, reflected in and exacerbated by their assiduous cultivation of local Muslim opinion across India on this issue. In doing so, Britain was drawn deeper into the intricacies of the Islamic faith. By the eve of the First World War, Britain’s engagement with this group of pilgrims was transformed into wholesale repatriation of them, effectively underwriting the cost of their Hajj.

The key role played by Muslim employees at Jidda formed another important part of British interactions with the pilgrimage. These men energetically occupied themselves with the thorny issue of destitute pilgrims and helped shape Britain’s emergent Hajj administrative apparatus by contributing to official knowledge about the pilgrimage. The work of these men within imperial bureaucracies demonstrates the complexity of Anglo-Muslim relations in this period, which cannot be characterized as being implacably hostile. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, motives of pragmatic self-interest drove British and Muslims alike.

One strand of British thinking about the pilgrimage was tinged with paranoia and suspicion over the Hajj’s potential as an occasion for anti-British activity. Because Mecca and Medina were closed to non-Muslims, the idea of these cities and the Hijaz as a menacing, unknown space contributed to this perception. However, these views became gradually more nuanced from the early 1880s as Britain’s Muslim employees, especially those in Jidda, provided a fresh channel of information on the Hajj to their employers. This chapter’s examination of Islamic “subversion” related to Mecca and the Hajj and directed against Britain reveals the largely ephemeral nature of this phenomenon and shows how some officials who dealt with this topic were prone to exaggeration and hyperbole. Taken together, these themes show how Britain’s evolving association with the Hajj was not an aspect of imperial administration that was likely to disappear. If anything, the complexities that surrounded Britain’s interactions with the Hajj demonstrate how officials were drawn haphazardly, yet irrevocably, into a deeper engagement with this aspect of Islamic religious practice. Britain’s emergent administrative involvement with the Hajj in this period brings into focus some of the material realities of Britain’s Muslim empire.

The initial impetus for England’s first forays into the Red Sea area during the seventeenth century was trade. However, these efforts were opposed by Indian merchants, the Hijazi authorities, and English pirates operating in the area. A mob massacred several British merchants in Jidda in 1724. British merchants were again put under threat from the local populace in the late 18th century because the East India Company authorities refused to continue the Mughal practice of sending annual donations from Surat to the Holy Cities. Nevertheless, the relative profitability of the Jidda trade meant that British merchants remained engaged in commercial activity at the port.

Several events precipitated a more active British connection with the region. In the aftermath of his invasion of Egypt in 1798, Napoleon informed the sharif of Mecca that he would “facilitate” the Hajj, continue to send Egypt’s donations to the Holy Places and confirm the appointment of the Egyptian amir al-hajj. In response to Napoleon’s offensive, Bombay’s governor dispatched a small naval force to the Red Sea, which attacked French-held Suez and Qusayr in April and August 1799. Captain Sir Home Popham was dispatched to the Red Sea in 1800 to coordinate forces from Britain and India against the French and ensure the cooperation of local rulers, especially Sharif Ghalib of Mecca. Popham was also ordered to establish a factory in Jidda for trade with India and to secure concessions and treaties with the sharif.

Mahdi Ali Khan, an Indian Muslim notable, was Popham’s assistant in negotiations with Ghalib. These went nowhere; Ghalib distrusted the British because they were Christians and a potential economic threat to Hijazi trade. Ghalib floated the possibility of acquiescence with British proposals, but only in exchange for a guarantee that Britain would ensure his in dependence from his Ottoman suzerains. Popham refused; Britain was concerned with preserving the Ottoman Empire’s territorial integrity. Mahdi Ali Khan became involved in local plots to unseat Ghalib, hoping that another ruler would be more amenable to British requests. Popham’s recourse to Ali Khan points to what William Roff calls the “inherent ambivalence” of British attempts to understand and engage in Hijazi affairs – they were in many ways powerless without using men like Ali Khan, a feature seen later in this book. Napoleon’s Egyptian misadventure highlighted the strategic and economic importance of the Red Sea and the Hijaz to Britain, and British awareness of the Hijaz was further enhanced by reports of the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali’s campaigns against the Saudi-Wahhabi forces in the Hijaz from 1811 to 1818.

In October 1837, the East India Company appointed British agents – elevated to vice-consuls by the Foreign Office in October 1838 – to Suez, Qusayr, and Jidda in order to “facilitate steam communication” between Egypt and India. Alexander Ogilvie was the first vice-consul in Jidda and arrived there to serve in its hot climate at the end of 1838. An economic treaty with the Ottomans that same year led to a large increase in trade with Jidda. Indian Muslims played a key role in this trade – the richest person in Jidda in the 1850s was Faraj Yusr, an Indian who had interests in shipping and banking. The majority of goods imported to Jidda were British, and by the 1880s the value of these was around £1.5 million.

By 1897, British subjects in the Hijaz (mainly Indian Muslims) made up approximately one-seventh of the population, with over three hundred families in Jidda alone; over 50 per cent of commerce was in Indian hands. Aden’s seizure by troops dispatched from the Bombay Presidency in January 1839 was driven by British desires for a suitable port in the region that would protect the route to India and encourage greater trade. Indian pilgrims who briefly transited through the port back and forth between India and the Hijaz formed a substantial portion of Aden’s large Indian Muslim community.

Excerpted with permission from The Hajj and Britain’s Muslim Empire, John Slight, Speaking Tiger Books.