BHOWNAGGREE, Sir MANCHERJEE MERWANJEE, Parsi statesman (b. Bombay 1851; d. London 1933). His ancestors were from the principality of Bhāvnagar in Gujarat, whence his surname originates (Bhāvnagri). His father Merwanjee (1824-72) was a newspaper proprietor, industrialist, banker, merchant, and the Bombay representative of the thākōr (prince) of Bhāvnagar.
Bhownaggree attended the Proprietary School and Elphinstone College, which educated much of Bombay’s English-speaking Indian intelligentsia. An essay he wrote at Elphinstone was published as The Constitution of the East India Company (1872). It reflected Bhownaggree’s belief that it was in India’s interests to be ruled by Britain as long as the imperial masters treated their subjects fairly. After his schooling, Bhownaggree was immersed in social and educational activities in Bombay, and from 1882 to 1885 he studied law in London. In 1886 he represented Thākōr Takhtsimhji of Bhāvnagar (1858-96) at the London Colonial and Indian Exhibition, which showcased the British Empire. At Takhtsimhji’s request, he then remodeled the government of Bhāvnagar and took charge of the state’s judicial and police department.
Between 1891 and 1894, Bhownaggree made two extended visits to Britain, and began to regard London as his home, reflected in his decision to abandon plans to commemorate his sister Awabai (1869-88) with a memorial hall in Bombay. Instead he funded the Awabai Bhownaggree Corridor at the Imperial Institute, an information center in London on Britain and its empire; it was demolished in 1962. A misspelled version of the name survived in the Bhownagree Gallery, which displayed artworks at London’s Commonwealth Institute until it closed in 1999.
In Britain, Bhownaggree associated with his fellow Parsi Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917). Dadabhai was chairman of the tiny British Parsi community’s organization, the Charitable Funds of the Zoroastrians of Europe, to which he introduced Bhownaggree. Dadabhai was also a leader of the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885 by members of the Indian intelligentsia to lobby for changes in British policy in India (Not till many years later did Congress commit itself to independence.) Despite his friendship with Dadabhai, Bhownaggree opposed Congress, which he believed was undermining British rule, and became known as one of the organization’s principal Indian critics.
In 1892, Dadabhai was elected as the first Indian member of the British Parliament, where he planned to air Indian concerns. At a dinner celebrating the victory, Bhownaggree expressed the hope that an Indian Conservative would soon join the Liberal Dadabhai at Westminster. As a supporter of the British Empire, Bhownaggree preferred the Conservatives to the Liberals, who advocated Irish home rule and included friends of the Indian National Congress, and he soon decided to be that Indian Conservative. In 1895 he ran in North-East Bethnal Green, a working-class London constituency that apparently had no Indian residents, and defeated the Liberal incumbent. Bhownaggree was a hardworking and popular Member of Parliament, and was reelected in 1900.
In Parliament, Bhownaggree called for the resolution of Indian grievances before they could generate discontent with British rule. To counter Congress’s claim that his homeland’s poverty was caused by a drain of tax revenues to Britain, he pointed to the Indian economy’s reliance on agriculture, which meant that most manufactured goods had to be imported; his solution was technical education and government intervention to establish modern industry. He was also critical of the expenditure of Indian money for purposes that did not benefit India, and particularly of discrimination against Indians. The worst instances of this were in South Africa, and Bhownaggree became the chief London correspondent of Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), then the spokesman of the South African Indians.
By 1895 the Indian National Congress was divided and languishing, and hostility to the anti-Congress Bhownaggree provided a point of unity. When Bhownaggree toured India in 1896-97, two Parsi Congressmen, Pherozeshah Mehta (1845-1915), and Dinshaw Wacha (1844-1936), mobilized counter-demonstrations against his visit and secured hostile coverage in much of the press. Nevertheless, by the late 1890s Bhownaggree had considerable Indian support, especially among Parsis. The Rāst Gōftār, one of the main Parsi newspapers in Bombay, was particularly favorable towards him.
Bhownaggree lost his parliamentary seat in 1906, and embarked on a career as an apolitical Indian elder statesman in Britain. He advised the government, hosted Indian visitors to Britain (including Congress leaders), and was active in organizations connected with India. During the First World War, at the request of the British government, he wrote The Verdict of India to counter German propaganda highlighting Indian discontent. As in his Constitution of theEast India Company, Bhownaggree wrote of a British Empire that, on balance, benefited India.
In 1908, Bhownaggree had succeeded Dadabhai as chairman of the Charitable Funds of the Zoroastrians, which the following year he renamed the Parsee Association of Europe. To the organization’s older charitable focus he added social events, and in 1920 he oversaw the purchase of the first Zoroastrian House as the Association’s headquarters. John Hinnells suggests that under Bhownaggree, the Association became a prototype of the community organizations established by Asian immigrants to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. Bhownaggree, who was knighted in 1897, died in London in 1933. His remains were interred in the Parsi section of Brookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Motibai, by whom he had two sons, Merwanjee (1874-1900), and Nusserwanjee, and a daughter, Perin (Mrs J. N. Bahadurji).
Bhownaggree’s works include The Constitution of the East India Company, Bombay, 1872; Mahārāni Viktōriyā, tr. and annotated by M. M. Bhāvnagri; Skātlandnā Pahādi Mulakmām Karēlā Pravāsōnum Varnan, Bombay, 1877; “The Present Condition and Future Prospects of Female Education in India,” Journal of the Society of Arts, 1885; “The Present Agitation in India and the Vernacular Press,” The Fortnightly Review, 1897; letter to Joseph Chamberlain on the South African question, in Transvaal: Correspondence relating to the position of British Indians in the Transvaal (British Sessional Papers, House of Commons, Cd 2239), London, 1904; “The Industrial Development of India,” in Broad Views, 1907; The Verdict of India, London, 1916. The largest collections of his unpublished letters are in the Sir George Birdwood Collection, Oriental and India Office Collections, The British Library, London, and the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers, National Archives of India, New Delhi. Gandhi’s letters to Bhownaggree are in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Ahmedabad, 1958-, vols. 3-9; Dinshaw Wacha republished many of the hostile articles about Bhownaggree’s 1896-1897 visit to India as The Indian Political Estimate of Mr. Bhavnagri, M.P., or The Bhavnagri Boom Exposed, Bombay, 1897.
J. McLeod, Indian Tory: A Biography of Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownaggree, in progress; J. R. Hinnells and O. Ralph, Bhownaggree Member of Parliament: 1895-1906, London, 1995. J. R. Hinnells, Zoroastrians in Britain, Oxford, 1996, especially pp. 110-32, 174-94, 215-16; Idem, Zoroastrian and Parsi Studies, Aldershot, U.K., 2000, pp. 307-34; Idem, The Zoroastrian Diaspora, Oxford, 2005, especially pp. 366-75 and 340-52.
Shorter accounts, of varying quality, are in: Famous Parsis, Madras, n.d. (c. 1930), pp. 475-88; obituary, The Times, 15 Nov. 1933, 9a-9b; Eckehard Kulke, The Parsees in India, Munich, 1974, pp. 224-28; Candida Monk, “Member for India: The Parliamentary Lives of Dadabhai Naoroji and Mancherjee Bhownaggree,” M. Phil thesis, Manchester University, 1985; Rozina Visram, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes, London, 1986, pp. 92-97; Barry A. Kosmin, “London’s Asian M.P.s: The Contrasting Careers of Three Parsee Politicians,” Indo-British Review, 1989; Jonathan Schneer, London 1900, London, 1999, pp. 240-48; Sumita Mukherjee, “Narrow-majority’ and žBow-and-agree’: Public Attitudes Towards the Elections of the First Asian MPs in Britain, Dadabhai Naoroji and Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownaggree, 1885-1906,” Journal of the Oxford University History Society, 2004; Jane Ridley, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, 2004. There are four portraits of him in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
December 18, 2006
Originally Published: November 15, 2006
Last Updated: November 15, 2006