Zoroastrian Heroes: Sir JamsetJee Jejeebhoy


“Though thou art young in years, thou art old in wisdom...SOW NOT THE SEEDS OF THAT TREE TODAY WHICH TOMORROW MAY INJURE THEE IN ITS FRUITS.... to thy care I entrust the whole family....”, Jamsetjee’s dying father is reputed to have said to him (Karanjia 1998). Jamsetjee was but sixteen years old then, the youngest of three orphans, they having lost their mother (who also had immense faith in young Jamsetjee) only a few months before this.

Welcome, dear reader, to a continuation of our conversations about our past heroes. In Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy we have one of the best known of our most illustrious forebears, a pioneer, arising out of a “rags to riches fairy tale” who blazed a path, in a rapidly changing world, from extreme poverty to fame and glory. He set the stage, as it were, (for the three heroes discussed by us earlier, Dadabhai, Bhikaiji and Jivanji), through his integrity, vision and philanthropy to make the name of the Parsis, as a community, respected and loved by others.

Born on 15 th. July 1783, in Mumbai (then Bombay) to a poor weaver Jejeebhoy and his wife, Jeevibai, Jamsetjee was the youngest of three surviving children, out of their initial brood of five. After the age of five, Jamsetjee spent his early years in Navsari, playing with his neighbours, his parents being unable to afford to send him to even primary school. On his parents’ death, in 1799, he went to live and work with, and for, his maternal uncle, Framji Battliwala in Bombay, selling old empty bottles for a living. There he taught himself (to read and write) Gujarati, elementary accounting, and a smattering of English.

During Jamsetjee’s early years, colonial Bombay, (Britannica 1995) was already a buzzing, thriving, and exciting place, with many shops, rich with goods, thriving industries and a bustling harbour teeming with ships. Jamsetjee’s young eyes would have feasted on these, while he would have simultaneously, ruefully contemplated his own poverty. As with some of their predecessors [like Banaji Limji circa 1690, (Godrej, P., & Punthaki-Mistree, F., 2002) and Hirji Jivanji Readymoney circa 1754], Jamsetjee, his Uncle Framji and cousin Tabak turned their eyes initially Eastward to China, to seek their fortune, in the lure of the legal opium trade.

In all Jamsetjee made five voyages to China and back, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. During these five voyages, Jamsetjee rose from being his cousin Tabak’s accountant at sixteen, to being his Uncle Framji’s manager at eighteen, and then by age nineteen trading in his own right. Starting at first, with his own very meagre savings, he made and lost more than one fortune, mainly trading Indian cotton for Chinese tea and silk, and Malwa/Malava opium (via Daman) for Chinese silver. He survived enemy gun-fire, starvation, high-jacking by enemy ships, and came close to losing his life, but ended by becoming immensely rich, well known and highly respected, all by the tender age of twenty-four years. In anybody’s book that is some achievement. What were the qualities of heart and mind that overcame his early lack of education or fortune, and made him so successful?

His parents had noticed his personal integrity, loyalty to friends, and a benign care for those around him. But perhaps even they could not have known fully his great strength of purpose, a great determination to succeed, the self-discipline which made him educate himself, the ability to envision the future, a tremendous capacity for organisation, and his incomparable shrewdness and wisdom in business affairs, which his contemporaries came to respect, and made a mighty colonial power like Britain acknowledge and reward.

The Voyages & Marriage : The first voyage (1800–1801) was exploratory and uneventful. *The second voyage (1801-1802) was exciting, full of adventure, but ultimately successful and immensely profitable. Jamsetjee had begun establishing links with other ports like Madras, Calcutta and overseas. * Soon after returning from his second voyage, he lost his house and half his profits, in a fire on Feb. 17 th 1803, when a third of the city of Bombay (approximately 1000 houses) burned, and there were many fatalities. *Three weeks later he married, in March 1803, his childhood friend and cousin, Framji’s daughter Avabai, when he was nineteen and she only ten. As was the custom, the bride returned to her father’s home till she was older (fifteen being the minimum acceptable marriage age according to Zoroastrian custom) coinciding well, five years later, with the end of his voyages. *Jamsetjee’s third voyage (1803–1804) was successful and uneventful, a recovery from the losses in the fire, and a consolidation of his network of contacts, adding Siam, Singapore, and Sumatra, to the Indian ports. He now seemed set for a successful future, but felt he should make at least one more voyage. *He set sail on his fourth voyage (1805) with all his merchandise on board, to make a final ‘killing’. But in the Sunder Straits, disaster struck in the shape of a French man-of-war. Jamsetjee lost everything, and almost died of starvation when set ashore from the French ship in Cape Town, S. Africa. He finally returned to Bombay, via Calcutta, almost given up for dead by then. *Undaunted, within months, he set sail again, for a fifth and final voyage (1806-1807). In this most successful voyage, he extended his commercial contacts and communications network in the East, and added Egypt and England in the West, seeking new markets in the export of Indian pearls in exchange for cassia and silk from China, with opium still the main money earner. On his return he was worth a sizeable fortune, and his integrity raised the status of Parsis in India and later in Europe.

Family: Jamsetjee and Avabai had ten children altogether, of whom only four of the youngest survived. These were three boys, Cursetjee, Rustomji and Sohrabji and one girl, Pherozebai, all of whom, following in their parents footsteps, went on to also make their own mark in society.

Continuing Opulence: Seven years after returning from his last voyage, Jamsetjee’s shrewd business-sense, saw in 1814, further opportunities for exporting Indian cotton. He bought six ships to avoid paying freight charges to British ships and thousands of bales of raw Indian cotton, which he supplied to foreign countries, making colossal profits. Another seven years later, by 1821, Jamsetjee had cornered, with the partnership of Messrs. W. Jardine & Matheson, in Hong Kong, the entire very important China trade, which continued with some alterations, till the 1839-1842 ‘Opium Wars’.

New Directions: Jamsetjee now turned his attention to giving back to his city and community (Zoroastrian and Non-Zoroastrian alike), in two ways. First, he took on voluntary public works and duties, working with other young patriots, for their rights to jury duty, (very important in a colonial setting for justice and fairness), to be made “Justices of Peace” (JJ was the first Indian to be accorded these rights), collecting of public subscriptions for statues to those who championed the Indian cause, donations to commemorate the marriage of Victoria and Albert and the birth of the Prince of Wales. He was voted the first Honorary President of the, politically very important, Bombay Association, where Dadabhai Naoroji was also making his mark. He became a trustee of the Parsi Panchayat, from 1823-1859, and revolutionised its former sloppiness. He wrote a book, Kholaseh-i-Panchayat, in which he castigated the priesthood for their ignorance of their own religion, and for preying on the superstition of women. Secondly, he espoused the idea of “wealth earned, becoming wealth shared for the common good”. There are scores of his acts of philanthropy too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say, if anyone was in need, they did not have to ask. Jamsetjee would send donations from a few hundred rupees, to thousands of pounds, ships laden with goods, offering his own home to friends in need, donations to public feasts, etc. He built many wells, the Poona Bund and Waterworks, several dozen schools via his Sir J.J Benevolent Institution, Agiaries & Atash Adarians, the Mahim Causeway (to provide a fitting approach for the Mahim Creek Bridge built by his wife Avabai) and finally the two magnificent crowning glories of his philanthropy, the Sir J. J. Hospital (the first, properly equipped, civil Hospital in Bombay), and the Sir J. J. School of Art (now with the three divisions, of Fine & Commercial Art & Architecture) to which people come from all over India.

He was a visionary in many respects, e.g., the importance of the education of women, (his own daughter was not only educated, but her early portraits show her with an imposing pagri/turban on her head, giving her an equal status with men) which he shared with Dadabhai. He allowed his wife the independence of a private income. He set up a family Trust, to manage the hereditary Baronetcy for future generations, which included a magnificent residence befitting a baronet. He kept detailed accounts of all his business deals, which he donated to the nation, and which are housed in the University of Bombay Library to this day.

A grateful colonial Government and nation awarded him:

  • The first Indian Knighthood (1842). Sir J. J.’s coat of arms proclaimed “Industry & Liberality”
  • A gold medal (1842) studded with diamonds, with Queen Victoria’s image and inscription.
  • The Freedom of the city of London, (1855) “for a blameless private life and public worth”.
  • The first Indian Baronetcy (1857) - a hereditary title, for his family in perpetuity.
  • A statue sculpted by the famous Baron Marochetti was shipped from Britain

In India Jamsetjee had had the confidence and friendship of the Governors of Bombay and other British dignitaries, with whom he had many dealings involving business and pleasure alike, over the decades of his busy life. He was now holding a hereditary title, an honour, indeed, for the son of a poor weaver.

But his acts of benevolence did not just involve the rich, the well connected, or the just struggling. Towards the end of his life, wishing to reach out to the poorest of the poor, Jamsetjee took to getting into his horse-drawn carriage each day at dusk, and driving along the Esplanade from the Fort to Back Bay. There were two bags of money, constantly replenished, one on his left and one on his right. He would take fistfuls from each, and distribute them indiscriminately, to the poor, ragged, hungry souls lining the road with outstretched hands. This became a daily routine till he passed away on April 15 th. 1859. His family declined the offer of a military funeral from the Government. The entire city of Bombay came to a standstill, with flags at half-mast, and the longest cortege known to its inhabitants. The Uthamna ceremonies were observed all over India and Hong Kong, as befitted “Parsi-Lok-Na Motta Seth”.

Avabai, may be said to be a minor hero in her own right, being not only a devoted and diligent wife and mother, but also with her own private fortune, which she used to ameliorate the living and working conditions of country dwellers, educating Bombay youth in general and Zarthustrian studies, becoming in later years a prominent public benefactor herself, chiefly for erecting the bridge over the Mahim creek, which has a dedication to her in four languages.



Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1995.
Godrej, P. & Punthaki-Mistree, F. Eds. Zoroastrian Tapestry, Mapin Publishing 2002.
Karanjia, B. K. Give Me A Bombay Merchant - Anytime!, University of Mumbai, 1998.