The opium trader who became one of India's richest men
The philanthropist and businessman’s relationship with colonialism is a complex legacy On his fourth trip to China, Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy was captured by the French. It was the middle of the Napoleonic Wars and hostilities between the British and the French had carried over to the Indian Ocean. Jejeebhoy was on a British ship called the Brunswick when, off the coast of Point de Galle in present-day Sri Lanka, it came face to face with two French frigates. The Brunswick was a trade ship and didn’t have much of a crew. They didn’t stand a chance. The passengers, mostly merchants like Jejeebhoy, were taken hostage to South Africa. They were released there but had no way to get home. It took Jejeebhoy four months to make it back. But when he did, his life had changed forever. He had made friends with the Brunswick’s young doctor, William Jardine. This chance meeting turned, as historian Jesse S. Palsetia writes in his book Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy of Bombay, into a friendship “that would change both men’s lives and influence the course of history.” When Jejeebhoy met him, Jardine’s time as a doctor of the East India Company was almost at an end. He had plans to set up a trading house in Canton, now known as Guangzhou. That trading house still exists, as a conglomerate with a market capitalisation of more than $40 billion. Jardine’s firm would become so enormously successful because it was soon going to corner the market on one particular commodity, one that was much more profitable than cotton, and one whose demand was exploding because the British had got millions of Chinese hopelessly addicted to it: opium. Opium wasn’t just another trade good for the British Empire. It was the necessary corollary to another commodity: tea. The British were importing tens of millions of pounds of tea from China every year. There seemed to be no end to the demand and everyone involved was making huge profits. There was just one problem. They didn’t have the cold hard cash or rather, cold hard silver to pay for it. JJ Hospital, named after founder Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy. JJ Hospital, named after founder Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement With all of the Empire’s physical currency disappearing into China, the British were running a huge trade deficit. They needed something that the Chinese wanted as much as they wanted tea. Opium was the answer. And it was essential to keeping the Empire’s entire economy afloat. Shipped from Bombay The opium came from the East India Company’s nearby colony, India. It was grown in Malwa and shipped from Bombay. At its height, almost one-third of the entire trade was going to one firm, Jardine’s trading house in Canton. And the man who enabled this trade from India was becoming stunningly wealthy. By the time he was 40, Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy had allegedly made more than ₹2 crore — in the 1820s. He was already one of the richest men in the entire country, but he had his eye on even greater prizes. The life of Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy makes for an excellent story. It neatly divides into two acts. In the first act, Jejeebhoy lives a life of adventure and daring. In the second act, he becomes an elder statesman, a civic figure working for the benefit of the community. This is no accident. Jejeebhoy’s ambitions were sophisticated and manifold. They would’ve been far out of reach for anybody who wasn’t willing to reinvent themselves. Even in his earliest days, there are signs that Jejeebhoy was conscious of his persona, taking steps to change details of his life to better fit his desired narrative. Sir JJ School of Art founded by Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy.