|Tajddin, Mumtaz Ali Sadik Ali: 101 Ismaili Heroes, Vol.1, Islamic Book Publisher, Karachi, January 2003, p 416|
Khengar I (1510-1585), the ruler of Kutchh is credited to have flourished
Mandavi in Kutchh with a port during 16th century. The Bhatia caste of Hindus
in Thatta, Sind was a famous merchant class. For promoting trade in Kutchh,
Maharao Khengar I invited a certain Bhatia Seth Topan in Bhuj and sought his
advice. With the suggestions of Seth Topan, the city of Mandavi with a port was
built with massive sum. Seth Topan employed expert carpenters of Sind to build
ships. He imported wood from Malbar and formed the firnances in Bhachao to
prepare iron-nails. He was thus responsible to lay foundation of trade and ship
building in Kutchh. He also built many temples in Mandavi. In those days, the
Ismaili vakil, Sayed Pir Dadu
(1474-1596) had come in Kutchh from Sind in 1587 and converted a large number
of the Hindus, including Seth Topan in the time of Rao Bharmal I (1585-1631).
The descendant of Seth Topan continued the business in Kutchh for about two
centuries, but the later generations began to reduce in extreme poverty.
Among the greatest Ismaili heroes of East Africa was Varas Sir Tharia Topan, one of the descendants of Seth Topan, who coming from India as a small boy and working for the firm, M/S Jairam Shivji for 6 shillings per month, rose to be known as The King of the Ivory Trade.
He was born on Wednesday, September 21, 1823 in Lakhpat, Kutchh and was a son of a small vegetable seller. No facility of the formal educational subsisted in Lakhpat, which made him unlettered. He worked with his father as a helper. When he was 12 years old, he noticed one evening a playmate stealing money from a shop. He caught the boy in the street, recovered money and as he went to the shop to return it, the owner who, without hearing anything, raised a hue and cry himself accused him of the theft. Poor Tharia was severely belabored by the crowd, which had gathered around him. Fearing the worst and not daring to face his parents, he fled and jumped into the sea, got into the nearest vessel he saw, and took refuge amidst the cargo. The fear of the thrashing he received, sent him to sleep and when he woke up he found that the vessel was on high seas and himself a stowaway. Compelled by hunger and thirst he revealed himself to the crew, and the Tandel, who took compassion on him when he related incidents leading to his refuge in the vessel, tended to his needs as there was no chance of being restored to his parents. This vessel landed him in Zanzibar, where an accountant, who was working with the prominent Indian firm of Jairam Shivji of Mundra, Kutchh and knew his father, befriended him and got him the job of a garden sweeper in the house of Ladha Damji, the owner of the firm. It is an admitted fact that most of the Indian Ismailis came in Africa with industry in their blood, business in their brains and immense calibre to labour in their muscles, but with empty pockets. This illustration richly emanated in the personage of Tharia Topan.
It is also recounted that he had borrowed a small loan from the government and purchased a donkey-cart. He drove his cart in the villages and purchased cloves and coconuts and brought them in the city of Zanzibar for sale. This was however a short-run business but he procured considerable profit from it and repaid the loan. His job with Jairam Shivji however continued.
Coming here at the age of 12 years, illiterate and penniless, Tharia Topan learnt for the first time to sign his name at the age of 13 years, and became a scribe very soon with elegant handwriting in the firm of Jairam Shivji at the age of 18 years, and rising rapidly, he was put in charge of the credit department at the age of 22 years because of his honesty. Thus, he won the heart of his boss, who gave him quick promotions one after another.
He made progress for period of 10 years; and got permission to see his parents in India, who became extremely delightful to find their son was not only alive but also rich. His parents arranged his marriage with a good match. He returned to Zanzibar with his wife.
In the meantime, his wife expired in 1847. His relatives forced him to come back to Kutchh for the second wedlock. In 1848, he went to his native land once again and got married. During his visit he prepared a large number of Ismailis to migrate to Zanzibar and brought many of them with his own expenses and employed them.
It must be known that he was regular in his attendance in the Jamatkhana of Zanzibar, which was built in 1838. He was appointed the 15th Mukhi of Zanzibar Jamatkhana for one year in 1852 with Daud Tejiani as a Kamadia.
In 1698, the Umani Arabs drove the Portuguese from Pemba and in 1710 garrisoned their troops on Zanzibar. From that time until the late 19th century the Arabs held firm foothold in Zanzibar. In 1832, Sultan Sayed Sa’id of Oman moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar. Soon after the death of Sultan Sayed Sa’id in 1856, one of his sons, Sayed Majid, acceded to power with British support, while the second son, Bargash was sent into exile to Bombay, where he became acquainted with the opulence and sophistication of the British rule.
Ladha Damji appointed him the Assistant Customs Master, which provided him several opportunities to come into contact with Sultan Sayed Majid of Zanzibar and the European consular officials.
With the death of Sultan Sayed Majid in 1870, Sayed Bargash returned to Zanzibar and, together with Tharia Topan, whom he appointed as honorary prime minister, was largely responsible for Zanzibar’s urban and architectural development. When Sultan Sayed Bargash (1870-1888) of Zanzibar succeeded Sultan Sayed Majid, on account of his dissatisfaction with Ladha Damji and the firm of Jairam Shivji, he took away from him the custom monopoly and commissioned it to Tharia Topan, who became the Chief of Customs in 1876, and held the post for about three years. The customs being the principal source of revenue, he was now the chief confidential and right-hand of the Sultan.
Henceforth, he came into daily contact with the European officials, who also sought his interview on business and consular matters. The place where he used to sit and attend these guests has been preserved, known as the Barza Tharia.
Tharia Topan was now well set on the high road to fame and fortune. Stanley described him in “Through the Dark Continent” (London, 1878, p. 63) as “one of the richest merchants in town.” He also opened his office in Bombay, operating his business and also appointed his agents almost in all the European ports.
His second wife died in 1863 having no child. He married for the third time in 1864 to Lady Janbai, who was the mother of six children.
His services for the community were also invaluable. He secured some privileges for the Indian Ismaili settlers from the Sultan of Zanzibar and employed them in Africa. He also financed the local and the European merchants as a banker.
He played a key role in the Aga Khan Case of 1866 in Bombay. Imam Hasan Ali Shah invested him the title of Varas. According to the statement of Lady Ali Shah before the court during the Haji Bibi Case on July 4, 1908, Tharia Topan was also the religious tutor of his son, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah like Gulu Haji, Mukhi Ladak and Kamadia Ismail. It must be known that as an official of the jamat, he was also present on the occasion of accession of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah in 1885 at Bombay.
He had a distinction of entertaining Dr. Charles Livingstone (1821-1873) as a personal guest at his home, which is named Livingstone House. Dr. Livingstone was a Christian missionary and a traveler. On July 20, 1871, he started for Ujiji and was attacked in the forest, and for five hours he ran the gauntlet of the spears of his invisible enemies. He writes, "I felt as if I was dying on my feet, at almost every step I was in pain, in my appetite failed, and little bit of meat caused violent diarrhea, whilst the mind, sorely depressed, reacted with the body." He reached Ujiji on October 23, 1871, a living skeleton. Sir Tharia Topan happened to meet him, brought him at his residence, and entertained him.
In this desperate moment, H.M. Stanley who had been sent by James Gordon Bennett, the proprietor of the "New York Herald" to find out Dr. Livingstone dead or alive. Stanley reached Zanzibar on January 6, 1872. He too met with difficulties and was captured by a savage native tribe, and it was Sir Tharia Topan who sent help to him in the form of Tipu Tib, his faithful Arab partner. Stanely also stayed at Sir Tharia's home. H.M. Stanley writes for Tharia Topan in his book, "How I found Livingstone" (London, 1872, p. 8) that, "One of the most honest man among all individuals , white or black, red or yellow, is a Mahometan Hindi called Tarya Topan. Among the Europeans at Zanzibar he had become a proverb for honesty and strict business integrity. He is enormously wealthy, owns several ships and dhows, and is a prominent man in the councils of Seyyid Burgash."
Zanzibar was the great slave market, importing ten to fifteen thousand slaves annually, most of them re-exported to the Arab and Indian world. In 1861, Zanzibar became independent of Oman. Pressure from the British gradually strangled the slave trade, and in 1873, the Sultan ordered the closure of markets closed. Tharia Topan took severe measures to wipe out slave trade in Zanzibar. It was indeed by Tharia Topan’s efforts that Sultan Bargash was able to ink an accord in 1873 for the suppression of the slave trade with Sir John Kirk, a British consular representative at Zanzibar from 1866 to 1887. His inestimable services in connection with the abolition of the slave trade were highly recognized by the Queen of England. He visited England in 1875 with Sultan Sayed Bargash, where the Queen Victoria conferred on him a Knigthood and again in 1890 in India, and became the first Indian to have been knighted both in Africa and India.
H.B.E. Frere writes in "The Khojas: The Disciples of the Old Man of the Mountain" (MacMillian Magazine, vol. 34, 1876, p. 342) that, "A leading member of the community of Khojas accompanied Seyyid Burgash of Zanzibar in his late visit to England, and attracted much notice wherever the Seyyid went. He was a tall, stout, good-humored, elderly man, whose fair complexion, red-dyed beard, and light-blue dress handsomely embroidered, were in strange contrast to the spare, wiry figures, bronzed features, grave expression, and plain somber garments of the rest of the Sultan's Arab suite. He spoke Hinustani fluently, and a little English, and made friends wherever he went. Nor was the interest he incited lessened when it became known that he was Tara Topun, the Khoja merchant of Zanzibar."
He had generated close relation with Sir John Kirk, the British Consul and H.M. Stanley. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah writes in his “India in Transition” (London, 1918, p. 117) that, “Commerce in every branch, the development of agriculture, the supervision of works of public utility, the higher forms of skilled labour, the exercise of no insignificant share of political influence amongst the chieftains – all these were in Indian hands for many a decades before Europeans began to work of thorough and scientific exploration of the East African mainland. And the pioneers of this great enterprise, Stanley, Kirk and others, were indebted to Indians, such as late Sir Tharia Topan, for the organization of their expeditions into the interior.”
He was a munificent donor for numerous causes. In 1881, Sir John Kirk established an English school in Zanzibar, in which Sir Tharia Topan donated Rs. 200,000/- In 1887, he built the Sir Tharia Topan Jubilee Hospital at a cost of 30,000 British pounds. The foundation stone of the Jubilee Hospital was laid on July 8, 1887 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign. Prof. Abdul Shariff writes in “Zanzibar Stone Town” (Singapore, 1998, p. 38) that, “Indian architectural influence reached its apogee in the old dispensary, built on a ground scale by Tharia Topan, an ostentatious merchant prince, as a hospital on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. It was built at a time when Sultan Barghash was building his palaces. The front of the building consists of an ornately carved two-story balcony in which the fretwork and fascia boards run wild. The door entrances and windows as well as many parts of the interior walls are copiously decorated with moulded plaster, and the large dinning room on the second floor has a hook in the ceiling to hang a chandelier. Topan died before the building could be completed, and it was bought by the trustees of Haji Nasser Nurmohamed, another prominent Indian merchant.”
In 1885, at the age of 62 years and already ailing, he travelled to Bombay to make the necessary arrangements for the construction of the Jubilee Hospital, but was never returned to Zanzibar. The foundation was laid by his nephew, Hashim Virji Patel. During this time, the gostling established a firm based in Bombay, Morris completed the design of the Jubilee Hospital, and supervised production of all the joinery, which Patel brought to Zanzibar in 1885. After a dispute between Tharia Topan and Patel, a new foreman, Haji Mistry was appointed, and he travelled to Zanzibar in 1890 with a crew of Indian craftsmen and masons from Kutchh to complete the project. Meanwhile, Sir Tharia Topan was seriously ill and had an eye operation in Bombay.
When the shadows of death were gradually closing upon him, he wrote in his will that, “If there arises any dispute among my heirs after my death, the advices of my best friend Sir John Kirk must be sought, and his decision should be considered final.”
In sum, the runaway Tharia Topan of Kutchh became Varas Sir Tharia Topan of Zanzibar died on Wednesday, February 9, 1891 at the age of 68 years at Bombay. The Tharia Street in Zanzibar was named after him in his memory.
During his visit to East Africa, the Imam quoted him in Zanzibar on January 27, 1937 that, “I don’t understand why your youth class does not go in the villages of Tanganyika, Congo and Western Regions? Tharia Topan had migrated from a farthest place of Kathiawar and settled here, why you don’t go as far as Atlanic regions?”
In his welcome speech during the opening session of the World Ismaili Socio-Economic Conference at Karachi on December 15, 1964, Varas Amir Aly Fancy, the President of the Federal Council for Pakistan, recalled the invaluable services of some of the great Ismaili leaders of East Africa in presence of Hazar Imam. He paid rich tribute to Sir Tharia Topan for his great role in trade, industry and the jamat.
His third wife, Lady Janbai was a very influential lady with a close business relation with the Consols, Sultans and other leading merchants. She expired on Monday, February 12, 1934 at Zanzibar. The street called “Lady Janbai Seth” was named after her in Zanzibar.
It must be known that the death of Sir Tharia Topan resulted in further interruption of the construction of the Jubilee Hospital. Haji Mistry sent his crew home to India pending the outcome of a dispute over the terms of Topan’s will. Due to the personal initiative of Sir Gerald Portal, the new British consul, Tharia’s widow, Lady Janbai decided to resume the works, and in 1892, Haji Mistry was again sent out to Zanzibar with his crew of craftsmen. The budget set aside by Lady Janbai was exhausted in 1893, before completion of the building. After Portal’s death in 1895, it seems that furnishing and staffing of the completed building became a problem, and the hospital could not open. Lady Janbai, living in Bombay, eventually decided to sell the building. It was bought in 1900 by the estate of another rich merchant, Haji Nasser Nur Mahomed, with the intention to use it as a charitable institution. Henceforth, it became known as “The Khoja Haji Nasser Nur Mahomed Charitable Dispensary.” Haji Nur Mahomed’s trustees set up a dispensary on the ground floor of the building, and subdivided the upper two floors into apartments. This mixed use of the building continued until the revolution in 1964, when the occupants fled the island and the dispensary fell into disuse. Thus, it passed into government control. A change in government policy in 1985 paved the way for a more liberal economic development policy. In October, 1990, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture leased this old dispensary from the government in order to restore this major landmark to its former splendour. In 1993, when the architect first spent time investigating the building, it appeared to be in a dreadful condition. After an initial phase of research, the construction contract for the restoration of the building was signed in April, 1994, exactly one hundred years after its first completion.
The old dispensary restoration was supervised by Cameron Rashti, the Project Manager of the Historic Cities Support Programme. This is the second major historic building following the restoration of Baltit Fort in Hunza. Zanzibar has now become an attractive tourists destination, and the Stone Town is subject to increasing pressure as a result of modern development. Since its inauguration about one hundred years ago, the old dispensary has been hailed as a symbol of multi-cultured Zanzibari architecture. Its design, its rich decoration, and its construction techniques were exceptional quality.