Past & Present 191.1 (2006) 189-228
In 1948, John Hobhouse, a senior manager of Alfred Holt & Co. (also known as Blue Funnel or Ocean Steam Ship), the premier British shipping company sailing east to China, Malaya and the Straits Settlements, began to wonder whether it any longer made good business sense to engage in the pilgrim trade. Since the nineteenth century, Holts steamers had carried Malay and Indonesian Muslims to and from Jiddah during the Hajj season; in fact, until the Second World War nearly all Holts ships had been equipped to carry pilgrims if necessary, in order to accommodate a traffic with uneven scheduling. Profits from paying passengers had largely been made on the eastbound voyage, where freight coming from Europe was usually light in volume; but, with respect to the westbound voyage, Hobhouse noted, 'it would almost always have been possible to fill the space more profitably with cargo'. In the late 1940s, with Holts still reeling from wartime losses, enjoying a better balance in outbound and homeward cargo volumes, and facing pressure from fading colonial governments to provide superior accommodation and safety facilities, Hobhouse wondered whether 'the economics of this trade' did not warrant disengagement altogether. Advised that this would place the company in very bad odour in the region, especially as Asian shipping would be a far more competitive force in the future, he compromised. Holts would continue to transport hajjis, but numbers would be limited. 'The maximum will be fixed from season to season, and we shall not complain if it is not reached'. Politically, this 'diseconomics' of scale seemed the best business decision possible.
Hobhouse's exchanges highlight two broad themes in the history of the Hajj that are addressed in this article. First, migration in modern times, whether long-term or short, has always been a business as well as a movement of peoples. Steamship companies, railway companies, agents, brokers and labour recruiters turned all forms of migration into big business, and in so doing they provided the organization, means and often initiatives, by which the great transoceanic flows of humanity occurred. Historians of the Hajj have noted the central importance of the steamship, and the creation of better lines of communication, in the development of mass pilgrimage to Makkah during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Other factors — changing imperial policies, rising commodity prices, questions of Islamic identity, the prestige and self-justification attached to pilgrimage, and the advance of orthodox forms of Islam — were equally influential in promoting an event that was of immense significance to the cultural identity of its participants and to the unifying processes
of modern Islam. But, ironically, none of this occurred without the intrusion of Western businessmen, who applied the same business logic and mechanisms that they deployed in their transportation of other populations, or even freight, around the world. Although historians have not been insensitive to the commercial dimensions of the Hajj, nor to the contribution of the steamship, there has been little, if any, sustained assessment of the effect of European shipping practice on the annual pilgrimage to Makkah. Curiously, awareness of the impact of modern technology and business organization has been limited to statements about their existence, without any analysis of how shipping companies facilitated the Hajj. The ease with which Europeans captured the lion's share of the business — they were, after all, not the only ones with steamships nor the only ones in the trade — has also been assumed rather than understood. One purpose of this article, therefore, is to show that pilgrim traffic formed part of a wider, mass transportation business, and that European shipping companies, by applying to this traffic the logistical command they had acquired in their other migration trades, made possible large-scale, regular, even routinized carriage of hajjis across thousands of sea miles. The Hajj was a religious event — but business also contoured the pilgrimage.
Furthermore, the transportation of Muslim pilgrims by European shipping companies was an imperial trade, and as such it conformed to...