Pilgrims’ Progress: The Business of The Hajj
Miller, Michael Barry, 1945-
Past & Present, Number 191, May 2006, pp. 189-228 (Article)
Published by Oxford University Press
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- Alfred Holt & Co. was also known as Blue Funnel or Ocean Steam Ship. It was the premier British shipping company sailing east to China, Malaya and the Straits Settlements. It was involved in the pilgrim trade in the post-WWII period even though the shipping company was suffering from wartime losses. It faced competition from rising Asian shipping business.
- Since the nineteenth century (1800s), 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 1948, John Hobhouse, a senior manager of Alfred Holt & Co. began to wonder whether it any longer made good business sense to engage in the pilgrim trade.
- 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 shipping 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.
- 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.