DR MANOEL AGOSTINHO DE HEREDIA
(1870-1937) ~ installment # 3
The first quarter of the twentieth century saw Bombay’s emergence as rival to Calcutta to be commercial, industrial and financial capital of India. Amongst many factors contributory to this development were the enterprise, business acumen and access to sources of capital of great merchant houses like Tata, Mafatlal and Khatau who even today are names to conjure with. These great houses were Bombay-based but their operations were nationwide.
Circumstances were consequently propitious for Manoel Agostinho to avail of acquaintances and friendships that had been made through his medical practice, in order to venture into the business world. But mere inspiration to become an entrepreneur was not, and never has been, enough; the aspirant must have a grasp of business principles and practices, and an understanding of the complex linkages between owners and users of funds; above all, he must possess credit-worthiness. That Manoel Agostinho was able to win all these pre-requisites within a decade of residence in Bombay is the note-worthy feature of his career as entrepreneur.
He was quick to realise that the accelerating tempo of business activity must inevitably spur demands for all types of insurance; that an. insurer could expect to prosper only if the risks insured were correctly assessed , and that his professional expertise and, yes, integrity, could be his contribution to the capital needed for promoting a life insurance company. Amongst his circle of acquaintances he identified two who were suitable and willing to be his partners in such an enterprise.
This was the genesis of the Asian Assurance Company Limited, whose Managing Agents were S.H. Mehta & Company. The first initial stood for Dhirajlal P. Shroff, a merchant banker of Surat, related to leading Gujarati business houses, like that of Sir Purshottamdas Thakurdas; the ‘Mehta’ was Jamnadas M. Mehta, Bar-at-Law, a brilliant lawyer and political activist who later became a Minister, and the middle initial was, of course, Dr Heredia.
Many Goan relatives and friends subscribed to the share capital of the ‘Asian’. Names of well known businessmen also figured in the Shareholders’ Register; amongst them, that of Abdul Tayeb E. Maskati after whose merchant-prince father the great Maskati Market in Surat had been named. Later, Maskati’s father-in-law, Dr. Taherali M. Kajiji, LL.D, joined the "Asian’s" management with the designation of Managing Director, his responsibility being the signing of insurance policies. Dr. Kajiji’s impressive presence, his high social standing and his reputation for probity were a shield against the spread of any damaging rumours by rival insurers.
Of cardinal importance to the stability and prosperity of an insurance company was and continues to be the wise and provident investment of funds that accrue from premium income. This function was initially assigned to the Managing Agents, that is, the triumvirate of Shroff, Heredia and Mehta. It was not long before Shroff and Mehta delegated this power to Manoel Agostinho, having been satisfied that he could be trusted. Thus, he became the de facto Chief of Investment, as well as Chief Medical Referee of the Company.
At the time of his death, the ‘Asian’ had attained the top bracket of Indian insurers, and under the stewardship of his son James Nathaniel retained that position until life insurance business was nationalised in 1956.
Pressed by compatriots to give some attention to Goa’s development, Manoel Agostinho promoted, along with an able engineer, Mr. R.D. Char, (who went on to establish a battery manufacturing company that has been a leader in this field till recently), the Bardez Electric Supply Co. Ltd., at Mapusa, and the Daman Electric Supply Co. Ltd., at Daman. Both plants took firm root in their native soil.
There never has been a successful entrepreneur whose track record is totally free from failure. Manoel Agostinho’s one failure was a steam navigation company. It was styled the "Maji Agbott Co.," because it was meant to provide Goans (and other Konkan coast dwellers) an economic alternative to the steamers that Killick Nixon & Co.( a Managing Agency firm that managed a score of trading, mining and manufacturing companies) plied between Bombay and Goa, under the flag of the Bombay Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. (One of my earliest childhood memories is standing on the deck of the S.S. Britomar before it set out on the Maji Agbott Company’s inaugural voyage).
This venture challenged an established shipping monopoly, backed by massive resources and, tacitly, by British power. It would have been a miracle if it had succeeded. However, it afforded Manoel Agostinho one more valuable acquaintance - that of the redoubtable Narottamdas Morarji, founder (along with that pioneer industrialist Walchand Hirachand) of the first Indian shipping company - The Scindia Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. Many years later, when occasion arose for his son James Nathaniel to set up an organising office of "the Asian" to do insurance business in Sri Lanka, Seth Morarji arranged the necessary introductions to the Sri Lankan officials and to Sri Lankan businessmen, through Scindia Steam’s Colombo agents, Narottam Pereira & Co.
Manoel Agostinho’s earnings as a physician would not have sufficed for him to rear and educate his eleven children, to get enviably good matches for all his daughters who reached marriageable age before his death, and to settle the two sons who had acquired professional qualifications by that time - James Nathaniel, a commerce graduate specialised in actuarial science, having joined "the Asian" management as Secretary in 1932, and Albert Francis, a graduate in Medicine and Surgery, having relieved his father in the Kalbadevi dispensary two years later. It was Manoel Agostinho’s business earnings and profits that made up the difference.
His medical practice and his business ventures were each by themselves full time occupations. One marvels that he should have been able to give each occupation full attention without prejudice to his management of the other, over a span of twenty-five years. That he did this, and also led an active social life, participating in every significant event, in the Goan community in particular, seems incredible.
Manoel Agostinho as a ‘Sociable Man’ is as much a phenomenon as he appeared as ‘Physician’ and as ‘Entrepreneur’.