On Sinking & Floating & Thomas Cook

As the news breaks this morning that Thomas Cook has gone bust, many travellers, pilgrims amongst them, will find themselves stranded abroad and faced with the problem of getting home. For some this will be an expensive inconvenience, for others it may mean incurring a debt that proves to be the first rung of ruin but there was a time when Thomas Cook was the answer to pilgrim misery not its cause.

The fifth pillar of Islam, the duty to undertake the Hajj, falls to all Muslims healthy enough to travel and with the financial means to undertake the journey and in earlier centuries, the challenges of long-distance travel meant that only the very wealthy, the very devout or those travelling on the charity of others were able to make the journey. Travel to Mecca might take months, but this all changed when the introduction of steam ships (from the 1830s) as well as the completion of the Suez Canal (in 1869).

European shipping companies soon entered the pilgrim travel market, running lines from Bombay and Singapore to Jeddah and the numbers making the Hajj each year grew exponentially. Unscrupulous ship owners driven by profit rather than piety meant that even by the standards of the time, the inhumanity of the pilgrim trade was a scandal. Conditions aboard many of the pilgrim ships were grim, with poor pilgrims on limited water rations often confined below decks for the entire voyage. Outbreaks of cholera on board were common, often costing thousands of lives in a single season.

In 1881 the pilgrim ship the Jeddah, close to the end of its voyage from Singapore, was wrecked off the coast of Aden. The court report details how Captain Clark, his first mate and second engineer jumped into a lifeboat, abandoning almost a thousand men, women and children adrift in a vessel which was sinking. As it was, the ship was rescued by a passing Dutch vessel, the Antenor whose chief officer bravely boarded the sinking ship and led the pilgrims in pumping the water out of the hull until the Jeddah safely reaches port. (This tale was retold by Joseph Conrad in his book Lord Jim.)

Once they arrived in Mecca, the plight of poor pilgrims was often not over. Many made the Hajj thanks to zakat, or charity, the third pillar of Islam, and often could not afford to return home. Thousands were left stranded, destitute and dying on the streets of Mecca. A plantation owner based in Singapore, Sayyid Mohammed bin Alsagoff found a way to capitalise on this. His scheme was simple; he shipped poor stranded pilgrims back to Singapore and in return they worked off their debt on his plantations: a system of indentured labour akin to slavery.

Those travelling from India were citizens of the British Raj and as things went from bad to worse#, it became clear that the British needed to step up to its responsibilities and do something to protect both its people and its reputation.  In 1883 the British attempted to address this by engaging Thomas Cook as official agents. This would assure conditions on board, and ensure pilgrims booked a return passage to India.

It is ironic therefore that while Thomas Cook UK has sunk this morning, its separately owned Indian business remains afloat. 

(A great book on ‘The British Empire and the Hajj’ includes more details and is really worth reading.)

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