The Curious Case of the ‘First’ Indian-American Citizen
Los Angeles in the 1880s was a town reinventing itself. The Gold Rush was subsiding but the air was filled with promise and there were new opportunities for those who knew how to seize them. Among these was an enterprising and ingenuous Parsi gentleman from Bombay, who “with a little money and a little mystery” was able to wrangle American citizenship and make a comfortable life for himself there. His name was Eduljee Sorabjee, a ‘rarity’ whose creative mind helped him work his way through the system!
Sorabjee became a naturalized American in 1890. In the absence of early records, it is difficult to say with certainty whether he was indeed the first Indian to acquire American citizenship but he was definitely among the earliest.
Driven by personal circumstance, Sorabjee journeyed to Los Angeles, via Bombay, Lancashire and then New York. He lived there till his death in 1913. We have details of his life from newspapers of the time, such as the Los Angeles Times, compilations detailing the early history of South California, and digital repositories like ancestry.com. The story of Sorabjee’s life unfolds against the backdrop of early Los Angeles, and runs parallel to the city’s evolution into one of America’s largest metros.
Those who came were charmed by its climate and location. Besides the promise of gold, there were fruit orchards, and fortunes to be made from industry and real estate. It was the last that Sorabjee found immensely profitable, and over the years, he became quite wealthy.
The Mills of Lancashire
Sorabjee was born in Bombay on 6th March 1849 (1852, according to some sources). He was a favoured godson of Bombay’s ‘cotton-spinning king’, Dinshaw Maneckji Petit, who made a fortune speculating on cotton yarn during the American Civil War (1861-1865), when the demand for Indian cotton increased manifold in England.
Sorabjee travelled to Lancashire, the heart of Britain’s cotton industry as a technical apprentice and to study engineering, especially the machines indispensable to Bombay’s cotton mills. He stayed in England for nine years and became proficient in five languages: English, Persian, Urdu, Gujarati and Marathi. He even wrote a book in Gujarati on the cotton textile industry and won an award that was the equivalent of Rs 3,000 from the British government.
The young entrepreneur made a total of three trips to India, returning with much-needed machinery for the cotton mills, including the heavy-duty Corliss engines manufactured by the Ingliss and Spencer Company. However, tragedy soon struck in Lancashire. In the space of a few months, between August 1882 and January, 1883, Sorabjee lost his 32-year-old English wife Louisa Talbot, year-old daughter Sherin and month-old son Rustum.
A year later, he married Mary Norris but realized that the damp climate of Lancashire wasn’t sanguine enough. Rather than return to Bombay, he decided to travel West, to the US. He arrived in New York in July 1885 and by November, he had already moved to Los Angeles.
Although Sorabjee was the lone South Asian in Los Angeles, that too with an English wife and a year-old daughter, there were several others who had made a similar journey from Britain to Southern California. Many Englishmen set up large-scale orange orchards there while some also brought along their love for cricket.
As far as Indians go, the Sikhs from Punjab moved to the West Coast of America in large numbers in the end-1890s. Lascars and Bengali-speaking peddlers were often seen on the East Coast and in New Orleans during this time, and there was the occasional presence of other South Asians as well.
South Asians were commonly referred to as ‘Hindus’ but, regardless of the misnomer, merchants from India always stood out, probably for their very distinct demeanour and accoutrements. Two Bombay-based merchants, Tulsidas Javadiji and Mooljie Thackersey, also travelled to the US in the wake of the cotton boom. And there is the fascinating case of the ‘Lahore-born Parsi,’ Conjee Rustumjee Cohoujee Bey, who took on the name ‘Anthony Frank Gomez’ and served in the US Navy during the Civil War (1861-1865). A missionary-cum-teacher, Ishuree Dass, travelled to the East Coast in the late 1850s and left behind a detailed travel account.
Trade relations also existed between the US and British India, despite the domination of the East India Company and the British Government. The Karachi based businessman and philanthropist,Jehangir Kothari, who visited the US and met Sorabjee there, was assisted in his travels by his friend, Dossabhoy Merwanjee, US Vice-Consul for Trade in Bombay.
A ‘Royal’ Past
Sorabjee was described as “slender, dark-eyed, muscular and sinuous, full of life and activity”. He was seen as well-read, elegant in his manner and well-travelled. Later reports said he came to prefer Los Angeles and the US, in general, because of the American respect for liberty and equality, aspects he greatly valued over India’s many constraints, including those imposed by caste.
The curiosity Sorabjee aroused was amplified partly by his frequent allusions to his Persian ‘royal lineage’, for he claimed descent from Persia’s ancient kings, Cyrus, Darius, Artaxerxes and Cambyses. He often cited the story of how the Parsis moved to India following persecution in their original homeland, Persia, in the 1st millennium CE. His West Asian origin story also drew him to Los Angeles’s small Armenian community, which had fled Ottoman Turkey around the same time.
Sorabjee’s story may have aided his naturalization as an American citizen in 1890. The Naturalization Act of 1790 granted citizenship to immigrants who were ‘free and white’. African-Americans were granted citizenship rights only in 1870; Native Americans in 1924; and Asians continued to be excluded till the 1940s. Sorabjee was thus among the first South Asians to acquire citizenship by naturalization.
That this was a complex and ambiguous legal ruling became apparent barely 25 years later when, in 1909, the courts granted Bhicaji Balsara, a Parsi like Sorabjee, citizenship, at a time when xenophobia against Asians was rampant. In the legal reasoning of the times, Parsis considered themselves ‘Aryan,’ the same ancestry claimed by Caucasian populations, i.e., those of largely European origin, in the US.
The American courts and immigration authorities insisted that such a distinction was based on cultural commonalities, historical similarities and theories of a common origin, regardless of how obscure these were and impossible to define. Around the same time, the new ‘science’ of eugenics, with its false emphasis on physical markers as an indicator of racial superiority, was becoming popular. The Alien Exclusion Act of 1882 had already debarred the Chinese, and South Asians had seen discrimination, especially in the Bellingham Riots in Washington in 1907.
On occasion, Sorabjee faced an identity crisis and his ‘royal Aryan’ lineage didn’t always give him a free pass. For instance, in 1910, the Los Angeles Times reported an instance where Sorabjee was appointed as a juror in a case involving two Hispanic men. The judge asked him to define himself as he felt Sorabjee looked much like the defendants themselves! Sorabjee, once again, detailed his Persian antecedents and the history he always recounted when asked questions like this. Clearly, the judge wasn’t convinced for he ruled that Sorabjee was unsuitable as a juror!
Sorabjee was often mentioned when people of the same ethnic origin gathered in Los Angeles. This wasn’t only when Kothari stopped over in Los Angeles during his world travels, but also when Maneckji Bhumgara set up his art dealership in the city. The tendency of the press to ‘exoticize’ Asians amused Sorabjee. The Los Angeles Times once quoted him as saying, ‘How simple a thing it is to become somebody in this country – a little money, a little mystery, and presto, a beggar rides, a nobody is king until his money is gone.”
A Generous Man
Sorabjee was noted for his fine collection of jewellery and antiques. He donated some medallions dating from the Revolt of 1857 and ancient copper and bronze coins to the British Benevolent Society in 1887. His house was called ‘Bombay House’ and known for its flowers and shrubbery.
He was also known for his generosity. He offered rent-free accommodation to a destitute family in Los Angeles, and canvassed for aid when one of America’s first industrial disasters wiped out over 2,000 lives in Johnstown in Pennsylvania in 1889.
Sadly, his marriage did not last long, and there are records of a divorce in 1894, after which his wife, Mary, returned to England. His daughters, Louisa (named after his first wife) and Gulnar, followed her a decade later, where they were baptized as Catholics soon after they arrived.
How He Made His Fortune
But what was Sorabjee doing in Los Angeles all this while? A versatile entrepreneur, most of his early fortunes came from wise investments in real estate in eastern Los Angeles. After the real estate boom collapsed in the late 1880s, Sorabjee saw great potential in waterworks—a system of pipes and drains to supply water from streams further uphill to dry south Pasadena. Now a distinct part of Los Angeles, Pasadena at the time was away to the north-east of the city.
Around 1898, Sorabjee became associated with the Marengo Water Works as its ‘zanjero,’ or water distributor or manager. These waterworks speeded up Pasadena’s development—and Los Angeles’s too—for alongside the water pipes, the company offered residential housing lots at competitive prices; the area was also close to the South Pacific railroad track.
When he died in July 1913, Sorabjee left behind an estate of $15,000 for his family. His wife and daughters returned to California in 1918, soon after the end of World War I. Sorabjee was described as an “untiring and unselfish friend” in the obituaries that appeared about him. These also mentioned how he had jumped into a Los Angeles reservoir two years before his death, to save a woman who had intended to commit suicide. As a result, he contracted tuberculosis of the larynx, causing his somewhat untimely death at the age of 64. His plans to visit Europe and then India for a last visit remained unfulfilled.
– ABOUT AUTHOR
Anu Kumar has studied history and management and, more recently, done a Master's in Fine Arts (Writing Fiction) from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, USA. She writes for readers of all ages and is a published author.