Thomas Cook’s first package holidays ‘were offered to help Muslims travel to Mecca’

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SHAFAQNA - Historians discover firm’s first holidays were offered to help Muslims travel to Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the 1880s.

It was the world’s first modern travel agency and has since sold millions of holidays to sun-seeking Britons.

Now historians have discovered that one of Thomas Cook’s first package holidays was offered to help Muslims travel to Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the 1880s.

A Thomas Cook ticket, dated to 1886, entitles the holder to a return trip from Bombay, now Mumbai in India, to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

At the height of the British empire the government sought the help of Thomas Cook to arrange travel for its millions of its loyal citizens living in India.

he Hajj is a mandatory religious trip to Mecca which all adult Muslims capable of doing so must complete at least once in their lifetimes.

At the time Britain ruled over approximately half of the world’s Muslims from west Africa to southeast Asia.

This lead to historical figures such as Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill becoming interested in the pilgrimage and even pencilled it into their calendars.

In a memo to the British Cabinet in 1920, Churchill said: “We are the greatest Mohammedan power in the world. It is our duty to study policies which are in harmony with Mohammedan feeling.”

Research by Dr John Slight, St John’s College, Cambridge, has argued that the pilgrimage was a matter of British concern during the years of the empire.

He said: “It was one of the most significant unintended results of Britain’s rule over a large part of the Islamic world.

“Britain ended up facilitating the pilgrimage in an ultimately futile attempt to gain legitimacy among its Muslim subjects. Inadvertently, it ended up acting like a Muslim power.”

Thomas Cook was called in by the Government in 1886 to manage the situation after a scandal surrounding the near-sinking of a pilgrim ship that made the front page of The Times.

The firm was given a contract to arrange journeys for Muslims living in India, as subjects of the British Crown, to perform Hajj.

However by 1893, after suffering financial losses, the firm had to pull out of the venture.

John Mason Cook, Thomas’ son, remarked at the time: “Some government officials said I am powerless to make any improvement.

“I reminded them that government officials have been to a great extent powerless in relation to that pilgrimage.”

Thomas Cook Company Archivist Paul Smith added that the company are proud to have played a part in a tradition which is still ‘going strong’ today.

He added: “We are very proud of our heritage and this is one of the many stories along the way.”

Another effect of the Empire’s role was that British people were inspired to make the pilgrimage to Mecca or convert to Islam.

Famous Victorian explorer Richard Burton travelled to Mecca disguised as an Afghan physician and Arthur Hamilton, director of the Political Intelligence Bureau in British Malaya is named as one of several high profile Muslim converts in the book.

Dr Slight’s research, The British Empire and the Hajj, covered a period from a cholera outbreak in 1865 to 1956 when the Suez Crisis reduced Britain’s capacity to manage the Hajj.

The British Empire and the Hajj, published Harvard University, will be available in Britain in October.

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