Dharamsi Khatau: A Pioneer and Merchant Prince

From interviews with Akberali A. Khatau

Dharamsi Khatau
(from A.A. Khatau)

My grandfather Dharamsi Khatau was born in Nagalpur, Kutch in 1865. He had four brothers Jivraj Khatau, Manji Khatau, Kassim Khatau and Killu Khatau. Yes it’s the same “shaheed” Killu Khatau, the student of Mulla Qader Husayn Saheb who was martyred in Bombay. After the death of Killu in 1878, my grandfather left Bombay in 1880 with his father and mother along with the wife of Killu Khatau and Killu’s daughters. The journey to Mombasa by dhow took about a month. On the way Khatau Nanjani, my great-grandfather saddened by the death of Killu passed away. He was lowered into the sea with full honours.

When the dhow arrived in Mombasa, Dharamsi Khatau decided to stay on board and disembark in Zanzibar. In Zanzibar he established Dharamsi Khatau & Co., which grew to become a successful import company that used to import textiles from Germany. It had forty branches throughout East Africa, in Mombasa, Lamu, Malindi, Mazeras, Takangu, Kisumu, Bukoba, Nairobi and Meru etc. Many Ithna-Asheri pioneers began working with Dharamsi Khatau & Co before establishing their own businesses including Rashid Moledina, Abdalla Kanji, Rashid Nurmohammed of Kampala, Moledina Virji and Ali Mohammed Jagani.
In 1893 my grandfather called his brother Jivraj Khatau to manage the Mombasa branch of Dharamsi Khatau & Co. It was Jivraj who extended the company’s business deep into the interior. There is an interesting incident that my father told me about Jivraj Khatau. One day Walji Bhanji was delayed in paying for goods bought from the German firm Messrs. Hansing & Co. He was sent a notice threatening court action. When the news reached Jivraj Khatau, he became very angry and told the firm’s German representative: “Walji Bhanji is my brother.” Later that day the notice was torn up by the German in Jivraj’s office. The Germans knew if they didn’t take the notice back all business dealings between Dharamsi Khatau & Co. and Messrs. Hansing & Co. would stop. You see, that’s how it used to be in the old days.

Above: An old envelope the remains of the business empire (from A. A. Khatau)

The First Ithna-Asheri in Nairobi
From Cynthia Salvadori’s - We Came in Dhows and interviews with Mulla Anverali Valimohamed Walji and late Hussein A. Walji
Walji Bhanji was born in Kutch in 1869. He had two brothers Khaku Bhanji and Karim Bhanji. After Khaku’s death, Walji Bhanji married his brother’s wife Kaiserbai and raised his brother’s children Suleman Khaku and Bachibai. Kaiserbai bore him two sons Alibhai and Valimohammed. In 1898 Walji Bhanji left Kutch and arrived with his family in Mombasa. He stayed with Ladha Kanji and opened a small shop selling matches and tobacco. In 1899 he decided to go to Nairobi. He travelled by train to Voi and then by donkey to Nairobi. Very quickly Walji Bhanji was able to establish a successful import-export firm.
The firm grew to almost sixty branches across East Africa. There was even a branch in Nakuru opened in 1902 and supervised by Karim Bux.
The firm used to import piece goods and salt from India, sugar from Mauritius and would export raw cotton and from 1909 onwards ivory to India and the Far East. Walji Bhanji’s sons Valimohammed and Alibhai and his step son Suleiman were made partners in the firm. It was Suleiman who extended the firm’s operation into the interior. Cotton ginneries were set up in Mbale and Butiaba. Walji Bhanji himself stayed mostly in Mombasa, Valimohammed worked in Zanzibar and Alibhai was in charge of buying ivory.
There was a time when Walji Bhanji was so famous amongst the Africans that they were singing songs about him as they pushed the handcarts bringing cotton and ivory to the depots. At first the family lived in Walji Bhanji’s buildings on Old Killindini road but later Walji Bhanji acquired the big house (Leven House) near the stairs by the Old Port and the whole family lived there. The ground floor was the head office with all the accountants and everybody. On the top floor Suleiman lived with his family.
Eventually Walji Bhanji’s luck ran out. The Great Depression hit Africa – and Walji Bhanji lost a lot of currency, German marks. Smith Mackenzie advanced him a large sum to purchase the cotton crop. Locusts devoured the entire crop.
In 1932 he was declared bankrupt. All Walji Bhanji’s properties were put up for sale. Datoo came to auction them. For three days after the auction Walji Bhanji never left the house, his big house by the Old Port. On the third day, there in the house he died.

23rd March 2018 (5th Rajab 1439 AH)

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