May 14 2020

The Life of Dr Jayakar. A British Agency Surgeon in Muscat

Charlie Sammut

12 May 2020

This podcast has been edited for publication. Any mistakes or discrepancies with the original podcast are the fault of the Editor alone.

Nick Smith Delighted to welcome Charlie Sammut, the Political counsellor at the British Embassy in Muscat today to talk about a remarkable but little-known character in the annals of the UK Oman relationship, Dr Atmaram Sadashiva Grandin Jayakar. He was the British Agency Surgeon in Muscat from 1873 until 1900. Before I give away too much in the intro, can you just set the scene for us and tell us briefly in a few headlines sentences who Dr Jayakar was and how you came to know of his extraordinary story?

Charlie Sammut Thank you very much for having me on and for giving me the opportunity to speak about Dr Jayakar who I have developed quite a deep obsession with. This all started when I moved to Muscat and began working in the Embassy nearly three years ago. In the Embassy, and some of the people who listen to this may have visited, outside of the Ambassador's Office, there is a wall of all the old Ambassadors and all the old Political Agents stretching back into the 1870s. And it is, as you can imagine, a wall of entirely white men, many with all the imperial trappings except the very first photo is an Indian gentleman and underneath the photo is his name, Atmaram Jayakar. He was there as Agency Surgeon, but it also says is that he stood in as the Political Agent many times. This really triggered an interest in me. I have never heard of an Indian subject of the Empire being a Political Agent before. It was so jarring and stark in some ways that at the beginning of this wall, there was this Indian gentleman.

When I began to do some research, he became even more fascinating. What really piqued my interest was a small article from the British Library, which covered many of his talents in depth, which we will cover hopefully, as a real polymath, a zoologist, naturalist, a linguist and a Political Agent. Now the more research I have done on that, I think there are two angles which become really interesting for research on him. One is that he was such an accomplished man in so many different areas. I think that really deserves to be more widely known because when you dig away at it, he's had a huge impact on zoology, on the study of linguistics and really on the understanding of Oman, not just in the imperial sense, but more broadly, of the country itself. But also, I think it is a really fascinating case study into the way that the Empire operated. Oman was independent from the time of the Portuguese occupation and the Sultans were powerful men within their own rights within Muscat and Muttrah, and with their links to the tribes outside Muscat. Muscat itself was a very important part of different trade routes. It was a very cosmopolitan city and a very wealthy city.

As you dig away more at Jayakar’s life, you understand more about how he operated as a Political Agent and also as an Agency Surgeon, you understand more about how the Empire operated in areas like Muscat, from a medical sense, from a political sense, from a geo-strategic sense. What is most interesting, and it comes from him being an Indian subject, is that it reveals and provide some context for the timeless links that exists between Oman, Africa, India and Britain. Certainly, the time that he was in Muscat, was the time of Muscat’s integration into a wider global economy, particularly via the Indian merchants, the British subjects who were there. So, his life is a very powerful example of how Empires operated and how Muscat, as an independent state, operated

Nick Smith Before we dig into his seemingly endless talents. What is the story of his early life? How did an Indian doctor when, as you said, India at the time was a subject of the British Empire, find himself in such a position at the forefront of Omani British diplomacy?

Charlie Sammut It is an excellent question. I had to rely on quite a lot of this from some elements of his biography, from his great great nephew Pratap Velkar who has tried to put together as much as possible. There are a couple of smaller books on him, mainly full of personal reminisces from Velkar’s family. But there is also some reporting in The Times of India and from the Indian Medical Service records themselves. Jayakar was from a Hindu sect called the Pathare Prabhu. This was quite an influential reformist sect, highly educated, quite wealthy. Some of the original settlers of Mumbai. As far as I understand, they were quite integrated into the British Indian society and many of them worked for the Imperial administration, as Mumbai's Clerks and Administrators. So, there was some mix already between this sect and the British Indian Society, so I believe that he would have had a lot of contact with the imperial administration.

He was educated at a Maratha School before he went to Dr Wilson's school, which was a school for young Indian subjects and according to one of Dr Jayakar’s contemporaries, Lieutenant Colonel Kirtikar, who was also in the Indian Medical Services, he was apparently one of Dr Wilson’s favourites. He was particularly noted because he received a scholarship, via a competition, and gave it to a poorer student. He graduated and then went directly to the Grant Medical College, which was one of the foremost medical colleges in the imperial world. It was also quite revolutionary in its own way, particularly in terms of prioritising medical care at bedside and being a practitioner. There's a lot of academic literature around this, about how places like Grant Medical College with the blend of Indian and English Doctors often melded Indian medicine and Western medicine and different practises together, into what they called Colonial science or Colonial medicine. Now he appears to have done very well at Grant Medical College and was granted a Degree from Bombay University in 1867 but I think what's really important is that he managed to gain access to a travelling fellowship, for Hindu students to go and take up further study in the UK. I think he was the first to take this up. He used it to try and join the Indian Medical Service, which was responsible for public health, sanitation and medicine across India. What is really important about this, is that you can only join the Indian medical service if you took the tests in the UK and so while, the Indian Medical Service had been opened up to Indian applicants, very very few people had the money to travel to the UK to do that. But he did and he used a Scholarship. He was educated at Netley in the Army Medical College and he passes his exams. I think he was 8th out of 12 and then returned to Gujarat and was posted from 1871 as a Civil Surgeon before going to Muscat in 1873. That is really where our story starts because that is where he spent the next 27 years of his life.

Nick Smith In terms of the role of the Agency Surgeon, especially his interaction with the Political Agent. What did that look like at the time? What were his roles and responsibilities? What was he expected to do?

Charlie Sammut This is an important question because I think it is underplayed sometimes. So, I think one of the most important things we need to realise, is that the Political Agency was a very powerful institution. The Political Agent himself would have direct relationships with the Sultan. He would advise, and he would help shape decisions where there were British interests to protect, because that is why the Political Agent was there, and while they were largely economic and strategic, they would be quite ruthless in pursuing those. But this administration was only two people. There was a Political Agent appointed by the Governor of Bombay and below him is the Agency Surgeon. In Muscat, Jayakar’s role, as the Agency Surgeon for 27 years, was effectively to run a hospital for Omani citizens and to help with public health and sanitation measures. From time to time, he would look after the Sultan himself. He was the Sultan’s personal Doctor. I think that's incredibly important, because Doctors in the Indian Medical Service are seen as agents of Empire. It was an important part of imperial diplomacy, in some ways, and their ability to integrate with local societies and to begin to develop links with them. I do not have figures for how many people Jayakar would have seen. But in 1907, which is shortly afterwards, the hospital was treating 1800 patients a month and this is in a population of probably 40 to 50,000 so that's an incredible amount of public diplomacy and in some way, the ability to institute sanitary and public health measures that really legitimates the colonial presence. So, it is not just a Political Agent talking to the Sultan, there is somebody from the Empire who is dealing with the populist as a whole. It becomes a tool of Empire, a vehicle for Western ideas. They developed consent. There was a cholera epidemic in 1900 for instance. And Jayakar was at the forefront of treating that in a way that the Sultan was not – the Sultan enabled him and empowered him - but it was Jayakar providing the treatment. He was providing disinfectant, cholera pills etc. I think the British Empire itself realised how critical this was. If you don't mind me quoting somebody, General Sir Neville Chamberlain said in 1887 that ‘the peaceful and civilising influence of the work done over dispensaries by the Regimental Surgeons on the frontiers of India has been a political importance equivalent of the presence of some thousands of bayonets’. I think that is important. You can really see there, how medicine has a role in legitimating an imperial presence. Bringing something to a country like this makes the Political Agent's life easier.

Lastly, the other roles that Jayakar would have had, from a medical perspective, is helping to categorise and understand the population. This is the imperial obsession with collecting information and categorisation. He is written a couple of treatises about Muscat and the health conditions. You can tell he has a very strong imperial stance. The Empire was institutionally racist in many ways, and it did look down on people that it dealt with, and Jakayar, even as an Indian subject, has clearly adopted this. He is quite scathing about the sanitation of Muscat and the cleanliness of some of the people. He talks about how there were mounds of dirt and filth and the stench is unbearable in some areas of Muscat. He had a role in helping to improve that but it's interesting as well, how he wrote a medical topography of the country in the early 1870s and it really is a racial categorisation of the different people in Muscat, what was a very cosmopolitan city. It categorises and splits them up and effectively enables the elements of the Empire to understand how to deal with them -who are they and who should they be looking after? I think again that comes back to enabling the Empire to use medicine as a tool of Empire.

Nick Smith Dr Jayakar is clearly proud of his standing in the in the British Empire and his role as the Agency Surgeon. But from your research, do you ever get a sense that he may have felt a conflict with being Indian, when India was under the control of the British Empire, and with his position at the Residency?

Charlie Sammut It is an interesting question because there is a huge paper trail behind Jayakar because, as we will touch on later, he produced a huge amount of academic literature. He is present in all the Imperial Records, he comes up in the Times of India. In some ways, he is clearly quite a well-known Indian overseas. But I am really struggling to find any kind of personal correspondence. The closest I have come is his letters to the British Museum, particularly Dr Gunther It is interesting because you can clearly see that he does have a real desire to be part of the Empire, to be part of the Imperial administration. His colleague, Lieutenant Colonel Kirtikar talks about how he was intensely loyal to the British Empire. It is really hard for me to tell, but the Empire was institutionally racist, the Indian Medical Services was institutionally racist. And I really do not think you can underplay his level of success. The academic literature around the Indian Medical Services, talks about how anti-competitive and anti-innovation it was. But yet it was intensely competitive in terms of getting promoted – it was largely based on time served. Only 10 Indian subjects reached the level of Lieutenant Colonel and only 10 reached their full 30 years’ service. Dr Jayakar did both of these. There are a couple of articles, one in the Times of of India, talking about whether Jayakar has been passed over for promotion because he was, what thy would term, a ‘native’. He was an Indian subject. But it is hard for me to establish how he feels about the Empire. Largely, I think he just felt a sense of loyalty and a sense of mission, that he was an important person. Explorers who came through Muscat, particularly Theodore Bent in 1895 but also some interesting stories from the Bishop of Lahore, who travelled there in 1891, talk about how well he knows Muscat, how well he knows Muttrah and how well he knows the people there.  I get the sense that he just had a sense of mission and, I suspect sometimes he must have been frustrated. As every Indian subject would be.

Nick Smith In his role, it seems as if his Indian heritage also certainly had benefits, especially with his interaction with the local Hindu merchants, who played a very prominent role in the commercial life of Muscat at this time.

Charlie Sammut That is a great point. Muscat was always at the heart of different trade routes and because of that, it has always been a very open, cosmopolitan city based on trade. That grew into an Empire, a trading Empire. That role during Jayakar’s time from 1873 to 1900 in Oman, was degraded a bit, largely by steamer traffic, but also by the actions the Empire took to move against the slave and arms trade. But the British Indian subjects who were there, the merchants in Muscat, Muttrah, Sohar were integrating Oman constantly into the global economy.  There's some really great academic works by people like Calvin Allen and Chhaya Goswami talking about the links between the Indian merchants, many of whom came from an area called Kutch and how they integrated Oman into a much wider global economy; selling dates to America, for instance, selling arms onward into Afghanistan and elsewhere. That economic power is incredibly important as it supported the Sultans, but it is also why the British Empire was present; to protect those subjects, to protect wider strategic interests as well. I really get the sense that Jayakar had a wonderful facility with languages. He was ranked very highly by the Indian Medical Services for his Arabic skills. He spoke good Gujarati, good Bengali as well. There is an article in The Times of India when Jayakar left, when he was given three different leaving presentations on three different days by the Hindus of Muscat, Hindus of Muttrah and the Khojas/Al Lawatis of Muttrah. They all seem to talk very fondly about his role as a Doctor but also his role as a Political Agent, as a man who they knew, who worked with them. One particular story, which I think really highlights this, is during the rebellion of 1895 when some of the tribes from outside of Muscat effectively sacked Muscat. During these eruptions, the role of the Political Agency, was to protect the British Indian subject. They would move their good offshore for instance. There was was quite a lot of damage caused during the 1895 rebellion, so a Committee was set up to establish effectively how much stock and money the merchants had lost and what Sultan Faisal needed to reimburse them for. Jayakar headed up this committee. There was a lot of forgery claims and I think in the end, the total came to something like 70,000 dollars which was then levied as a punitive tax by the Sultan on the tribes. But it would have been a lot more had Jayakar not led this Committee. This got him many plaudits, right from the Secretary of State for India downwards because, what effectively they recognised, was that he knew the Indian merchant community so well, and Muttrah so well, he was able to see through a lot of these fraudulent claims because he was integrated in that community and he understood them. That was one of his key roles, acting as a link between the different communities.

Nick Smith Was Jayakar a pioneer in some sense? After Jayakar, did you begin to see Indian subjects integrated into British Political Residencies in a wider sense? Or was he quite unique?

Charlie Sammut It is difficult. I do not know enough about British India itself. Certainly, there are Indian subjects all over the imperial administration. And there are certainly more in the Indian Medical Services at the turn of the century. But he was certainly a trail blazer. And I still do not think you saw many at the top end of the administration. When Jayakar stood in as a Political Agent, and to be clear he was never the formal Political Agent, he stood in for absences, but over the course of 27 years in Muscat, he spent several years as Political Agent in total. When he Political Agent, he was the man who led the relations with the Sultan. A good example is around 1888 when Sultan Turki died, he nursed him to his death, he was seeing him every day but equally he was there as a Political Agent. When Faisal, his son, becomes Sultan, it is to Jayakar that Faisal writes the note that says, ‘I will continue our relations with the British Empire’. It is Jayakar providing that early guidance. Telling him to broaden his range of advisers. Jayakar has this incredible role, as Political Agents did, with all the various tribes that travel through Muscat and all the various advisors around the Sultan. You have a very independent, powerful sultan, but you also have a parallel power structure around the Political Agent who also talks to all the tribes. I have not found anyone else who is like that. I think it is an incredible role, really, both to be so influential from a medical perspective on the populace of the country, but also to have the kind of political role as well.

Nick Smith You touched on earlier in our conversation about how he is this renowned polymath, not only a medical doctor, but also an accomplished linguist, pioneering biologist, published zoologist. What are his works in those fields? And does this legacy still hold true today?

Charlie Sammut The most interesting things about him is that he was an incredible polymath and, in that way, in a sense, he followed in the path of the Surgeons who had come before him. Surgeons were always a very important part of the East India Company, and they always helped to treat native rulers because that got you access. But they are also there to look at the flora and fauna of a country, to begin to understand and categorise. Jayakar really took that on. He produced an enormous amount of material and knowledge, particularly for the British Museum, from a naturalist perspective. And he was a member of the London Zoological Society and many other different societies. He found something like 25 different species of fish, a goat is named after him, he found the Arabian Thar, a seahorse is named after him. He found snakes, shells and butterflies. He produced an enormous amount of knowledge, and he developed a network all across Oman that brought him samples. So, when you read his letters, he is talking about sending men into the interior, bringing knowledge from local Arabs and different areas of the community. He really became a cultural go-between in many ways, between Oman and the imperial metropoles, but also producing all that knowledge and categorising it and making it known was a way of integrate Oman into the imperial Empire of knowledge, not an Empire of self, but an Empire of knowledge. The British Empire had an obsession with becoming an Empire based on data, on information and he was right at the heart of that. Other Political Agents, like Samuel Barret Miles and Percy Cox, did a huge amount of travel and a huge amount of zoology as well. Kirtikar talks about him being ‘immortalised in the Grand Temple of Science’. A great temple to be part of! He also did a huge amount linguistically. He wrote two huge articles on the Omani dialect, still referenced in PhDs. He discovered the Shihuh dialect up in Musandam. He put together a huge book on Omani Proverbs, which is still very much used and was recently republished, and you can still find at the Sultan Qaboos University library. His work on language and on proverbs meant he had a real insight into Omani culture. How Omanis use language as a vehicle for their own culture. This was an Empire that thrived on knowledge, on monopoly of knowledge, and elevated knowledge to power based on the ideology of positivism. Jayakar was at the forefront of that when there was very little know of Oman outside of Muscat.

Nick Smith What happened to him? He lived a was fascinating with all these incredible achievements. Did he just fade away into history?

Charlie Sammut It is quite sad actually. He left Muscat in May of 1900. It was dealt with in quite an imperial fashion. He was extended for a year, and that was approved by the Secretary State for India. But then when he left, it appeared to just merit a couple of lines. The people of Muscat and Muttrah seemed to have taken much more care, particularly the Hindus; they gave him leaving parties, addresses and seemed to really care about him. He returned to Bombay, back to his family. He had a mission for the next few years of his life which was translating Al-Damiri’s “Al-Haya Al-Hayawanat” , ‘The Life of Animals’ which was a dictionary of all the different animals that turned up in the Koran. It is about 8000 pages long. I mean, it is a huge undertaking in Arabic, which shows his facility with the language. Interestingly, he dedicated that book to Samuel Barret Miles as his good friend, which I think is another example of how he felt about being the part of the Empire. But I have only picked up anecdotal details, largely from the book his great great nephew put together. But it appears that he struggled a bit to reintegrate into Indian society. He had converted to be a Christian in the 1868. He was apparently very much an Anglophile. He would dress in a three piece for dinner at night. And it just seemed he struggled to readapt to British Indian society and it is hard for me to tell because we are missing a lot of personal correspondence. But I think there is also just an issue that many of us confront that, for so long he had been such an important man in Muscat with such a sense of mission. Then he retired. Like for many people, that is a challenge, it is a change. I am not sure how well he adapted. For 27 years he was there at every important moment in Muscat; he brought in the Empire's gunboats to remove Ibrahim bin Qais in the siege of Suwayq in 1887, he was there when Sultan Turqi died in 1888. He was effectively in charge of Muscat when there's a huge storm in 1890 that compromised a huge amount of the data harvest, he was there for 1891 treaty that was signed, he was on the ship when Sultan Faisal was recognised, the 1895 rebellion. He was there for everything. And then I think it was a struggle for him to return back and just be a person at home

Nick Smith He lived a remarkable life. And I know you are currently undertaking some research in the Indian Archives. So what gaps are there left to fill in?

Charlie Sammut I personally think the life of Jayakar is a gap. You would be amazed at how many different articles he turns up in, but it is never been bought together in a coherent narrative about the impact that he had. I guess the only thing I am missing is the person. You get these insights from the literature, for instance, you mentioned his name at the start, Atmaram Sadashiva Grandin Jayakar. Grandin is a British surname and he adopted it because it was the name of the Landlady who looked after him when he was in the UK for a few months. Clearly she had a huge impact on him. There was never a native Indian who wanted to take an English surname before. It sent them into a bit of a tizzy. But I think overall, if you look at the literature and you look at the history of Muscat and Oman, the history of British relations with India and with Oman, Jayakar is missing. He actually played an enormously influential role in the history of Oman and in the history of the British relationship with Oman, and I think that's why he deserves to be remembered.

Nick Smith Charlie, thank you so much for taking us through the life and times of Dr Jayakar and we are certainly fortunate that photo outside the British Ambassador’s office piqued your interest.

Charlie Sammut And it still does! I am hoping if anyone else has any more information or want to talk about in more depth, please do get in touch and I will share my obsession. 

Other News

See all news

May 15 2020 BOS

The beginning of iLab Marine is still etched in my memory. In 2018, I joined The Research Council of Oman (TRC) as an Operation Engineer in environmental research that involves using advanced marine t...
Read full story

May 13 2020 BOS

An insight into the importance of music in Oman, how this changed under HM Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and the art of "Al-Mawlid".
Read full story

INSIGHT Music in Oman