The trials and tribulations of the first Herbalist

The Te Henui cemetery in New Plymouth contains a most unusual tomb, a domed structure with a minaret at each corner.

The interior has a terrazzo floor and walls lined with agate vitrolite.

Around the walls runs a vitrolite shelf bearing a hermetically sealed casket, a copy of John Rodwell’s English version of the Holy Quran, and a pair of spectacles belonging to the deceased occupant of the casket.

In the centre of the tomb stands a granite table bearing some faded flowers and two candlesticks.

Inscription on the exterior reads “Mohammed Islam Salaman Tomb.’

The burial record gives the name of the occupant as ‘Abraham Walley Mohammed Salaman’ who died on February 14, 1941 at the age of 59.

His obituary in the Taranaki Daily News of February 17, 1941 noted that Mr Salaman had the mausoleum constructed prior to his death at a cost of £2000. At 1941 prices, the amount would have purchased a respectable house.

First Punjabi Muslim

Salaman was the first of the identifiable Punjabi Muslims to reach New Zealand.

The name by which he was known is a corruption of Suliman (the Quranic form of Solomon) and is still remembered in the Punjabi community as ‘Suliman Hakim’ or ‘Suliman the Herbalist.’

According to the 1941 Obituary Notice, he arrived in New Zealand ‘37 years ago.’

If this is correct, then he arrived 1903 or 1904.

The obituary described him as a member of a prominent Indian family, the grandson of a former mayor of Amritsar and related to the late Sir Mahomed Shiffi. This information must be treated with caution as it presumably derives from Suliman’s own account of his antecedents.

Whoever his grandfather may have been he certainly was not the ‘Mayor’ of Amritsar (There was no such office).

Suliman’s widow, Mrs Simpson, has confirmed that he belonged to an Amritsar family called ‘Chaudhuri. ‘Suliman’s father is said to have been a herbalist and Suliman eventually took up the same profession.

The obituary reports that Suliman travelled widely in Europe and the East before arriving in Wellington, where he traded as a merchant and manufactured aniline dye, and supplied khaki dyes for army uniforms during World War I.

Owing to health problems, he moved to Auckland where he became a herbalist, and in or about 1929 he transferred his business to New Plymouth. He also imported Indian silks and was ‘an expert in precious stones.’

Suliman’s herbal treatments were evidently very popular, for his daughter remembers a waiting room regularly crowded with patients, some of who came to New Plymouth from as far away as the Wairarapa district.

As a result, he prospered handsomely and purchased three farms.

In 1930, however, his reputation and practice suffered a serious blow when he was charged with improper medical treatment, unlawfully accelerating the death of a diabetic boy aged six and half.

A severe blow

Declaring him to be ‘plainly a charlatan’ the judge sentenced him to a year of hard labour. Suliman and his business evidently survived the disgrace.

The obituary, avoiding all mention of his trial and conviction, clearly implies that he was an honourable one.

It is, however, possible that he contemplated a permanent return to India following his release from prison.

In 1932, he visited Amritsar with his family and built a large house.

If in fact it had been his intention to retire there, he must have changed his mind.

For he returned to New Zealand and eventually gave the house to an educational institution.

Suliman had three wives, all of them New Zealanders. A daughter called Asher was born of the first marriage in or about 1917. This marriage was evidently terminated because of the wife’s failure to produce a son and Suliman then married Gladys Richards of Nelson. Two more daughters followed before this marriage was terminated for the same reason as the first.

No children were born to the third marriage. The third wife survived her husband and perpetuated both his name and his herbalist business.

She subsequently married a Chinese man called Simpson and with him continued to operate the business under the name of Salaman Simpson.

Source: Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Ministry of Culture and Heritage (text) and Puke Ariki, Taranaki Museum and Library (Picture); also New Zealand Sikhs: Biography of Suliman Hakim (Mohammed Salaman). Reproduced with appropriate permission.

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