Cowasjee Shavaksha Dinshaw Adenwalla: The Pillar of Aden's Progress

Cowasjee Shavaksha Dinshaw Adenwalla, born in 1827, stands as a monumental figure in the history of Aden, Yemen. His life journey, from his roots in India to becoming one of Aden's most influential figures, showcases a remarkable blend of entrepreneurial spirit, visionary leadership, and deep commitment to social development. This article delves into the life of Cowasjee Shavaksha, exploring his pivotal role in shaping Aden's economic and social landscape in the 19th century.

Cowasjee Shavaksha Dinshaw Adenwalla's remarkable journey from the lively streets of Surat, Bombay, to the pivotal city of Aden paints the portrait of a man whose life was as vibrant and multifaceted as the era he lived in. Born in 1827 into the heart of the Parsi community, his upbringing was steeped in the rich tapestry of cultural and religious traditions that would later underpin his personal and professional life. With an adventurous spirit and an acute business sense, Cowasjee set sail for Aden around 1855, a place he would so deeply impact that he would come to be known as "Adenwalla"—a name denoting his profound connection to this strategic port city.

Cowasjee emerged as a central figure in Aden's transformation into a flourishing port during the mid-19th century, a period when the city was blossoming under British rule. He wasn't the only game in town, but he was certainly ahead of the curve, even before merchants like Antonin Besse had begun to make their mark.

Cowasjee's foray into finance with Captain Luke Thomas in 1856 soon evolved into the establishment of Luke Thomas & Co., marking the year 1857 as a momentous one for his business pursuits. Fast forward to 1875, and Cowasjee was making his mark with the construction of a significant edifice within The Crescent of Steamer Point in Aden, and there was speculation that he might have been the proprietor of The Marina Hotel.

Cowasjee's ventures were not confined to Aden alone. His commercial tendrils stretched across the British Empire, with successful trading posts in locales such as Zanzibar and Mombasa. His foresight was impeccable, especially with the imminent opening of the Suez Canal, which would elevate Aden's strategic importance exponentially.

Perhaps one of Cowasjee's most notable contributions to Aden was his involvement with the Tawila Tanks. When the government balked at the cost of further restoration, Cowasjee, alongside Eduljee Manekjee and Hasan 'Ali, proposed a private solution in 1863. They would take over the refurbishment of the Playfair Tank and six hill tanks. A ten-year agreement was struck, later extended for thirty more years, during which they sold the tank water for a profit.

By the 1890s, Cowasjee Dinshaw wasn't just a name; it was a brand, with a fleet of steamers and a likely ownership of an assortment of dhows and buggalows. His coal sales were through the roof, with an astounding 60,000 tons a year, accounting for nearly half of Aden's total coal trade at the time. Despite Antonin Besse becoming more prominent after the first and second world wars, for half of the 19th century, it was Cowasjee who had a grip on all the prime moneymaking ventures in Aden.

But Cowasjee's business acumen was as diverse as it was successful. In 1895, he brought over an entire floating dock from Britain, the "Dinshaw Pontoon," and managed a printing press that rivalled the one operated by convict labor at the Crater Jail. And just as a little side note, there was another printing press in town, founded by Menachem Awwad in 1891, mainly producing Hebrew text.

He won the concession to build and operate a 120km proposed rail link from Aden to Dhala after successfully negotiating a deal with the Sultan of Lahej, who would receive a 4% commission on the profits of the line plus one penny per square of area taken by the line. The first 60km stage of the line was to extend from Aden to Nobet Dukeim. It seems however that the railway plan, for some reason, did not eventuate.

As much as he was a businessman, Cowasjee was also a devout Parsi and a philanthropist of the highest order. He funded the construction of the Cowasjee Masjid for local Muslims and was a pillar for the small but influential Parsee community in Aden. Despite their numbers, the Parsees, under Cowasjee's leadership, were a force to be reckoned with, holding substantial sway over Aden's most lucrative enterprises for much of the 19th century.

There were never many Parsees in Aden – according to the 1872 census there were only 121 Parsees of the total 19,289 population. However, by 1883 when the Holy Atash in the Fire Temple was first consecrated there would have been considerably more Parsees. They were not very popular amongst the Arabs, perhaps for the same reason that the Indians in Uganda became unpopular for owning the majority of the best shops and other enterprises.

To add a bit of colour, there's this account of Sir William Russell's visit in 1858, where he talks about Cowasjee's soda water and his shop that sold just about everything:

"We reached the Hotel at last. Ah! Parsee Cowasjee, where did you get that soda-water? Anyone who remembers those early days when his nurse would put the soapsuds into his mouth, will know what we who drank of that Aden soda-water experienced. But who can describe the horrors of the brandy, except the man who can do justice to the strange qualities of the bottled ale.

Our only resource, as it was too hot to visit the station till sunset, was to inspect the stock in Cowasjee’s shop next door. It consists of the whole house minus the roof, and it contains everything that a man does not want. I suppose that passengers going out to India anticipate here their Indian purchases, as passengers bound for Europe here invest their money in Paris gloves made at Malta, or in Windsor soap. There are some people to whom a shop is an abstract necessity for disbursement. Here, then, in Cowasjee’s you see men and boys buying Chinese slippers they will never wear, and all sorts of garments and articles they don’t want, and Cowasjee, a Parsee, with large olive coloured, oval, smooth face, quickeyed, and intelligent, place his hands on his portly person, and smiles placidly whilst his Parsee assistants glide round the curious shelves, and recommend things they never tried - Yarmouth bloaters, pate de diable, pith hats, pocket handkerchiefs, eau de cologne, Whitechapel cigars and Piver’s perfumery."

[The Hotel he mentioned at the beginning of this extract was the Prince of Wales Hotel, which closed for a while shortly after his visit. It re-opened later as the Hotel de l’Europe under French ownership.]

The Cowasjee Dinshaw family got a brief but important mention in William Maxwell’s account of the Prince of Wales’ [the future George V] visit to Aden in 1901. “The Prince and Princess were welcomed in a pavilion, and received an address from Mr Cowasjee Dinshaw, a wealthy Parsee merchant, whose father had a like honour in 1875, when the [present] King visited Aden as Prince of Wales.”

And don't forget this extract from Mrs (later Lady) Brassey’s book ‘A Voyage in the Sunbeam’, an account of a round-the-world voyage in her husband’s steam yacht in 1876-77. The Sunbeam called in at Aden for 24 hours in April 1877.

“At nine o’clock [in the evening] we dropped our anchor in the roads; a boat came off with a bag of newspapers and to ask for orders in the morning. It was sent by the great Parsee merchants here, who undertake to supply us with coals, provisions, water, and everything we want, and spare us all trouble. ...... We reached the shore about 7.30 [in the morning]. Mr Cowasjee had sent his own private carriage to meet us. It was a comfortable open barouche, with a pair of nice horses, and two servants in Eastern liveries, green vests and full trousers, and red and orange turbans. We went first to his store, which seemed to be an emporium for every conceivable article. There was carved sandal-wood, and embroidered shawls from China, Surat and Gujerat, work from India, English medicines, French lamps, Swiss clocks, German toys, Russian caviare, Greek lace, Havannah cigars, American hides and canned fruits, besides many other things. But this general store is only a very small part of their business, for about 60,000 tons of coal pass through their hands every year”.

Cowasjee's impact was felt not just in the bustling markets and along the docks of Aden but also in the hearts and lives of its people. His legacy was one of progress, innovation, and benevolence, traits that saw the city through its golden era and beyond. His death in 1900 marked the end of an epoch, but the foundations he laid continue to resonate, a reminder of the lasting influence one individual can have in crafting the destiny of a city and its inhabitants.