Thursday, July 2, 2015

Kabell Mockbell and his coffee empire. Part 1.

Many memoirs of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s mention Mockbell's coffee salons as popular meeting places in Sydney and I'll write more about his coffee business at a later date. What interests me here is, who was Kabell Mockbell?

Exact details about where he was born are hard to pin down. He applied for citizenship three times and gave conflicting accounts of his origins. He was probably born in Istanbul, and claims to have been a Turkish national. He also states that his mother was Egyptian and he had served time as a cadet with the British military forces in Egypt. On his first application for naturalisation he claims to have been born in Yemen.

Whatever the truth he was a staunch supporter of the Turkish state, a friend of the Turkish ambassador in Sydney and, as his subsequent business interests in Sydney would suggest,  he also had close contacts in Egypt. He enjoyed dressing up in his traditional costume (described as an 'Arab costume of blue embroidered with gold' Sydney Morning Herald,  25 July 1896), he used the 'fez and Arabic writing' as a trade mark on his coffee products and decorated his coffee salons with 'Arabian' decorations (Evening News, 11 September 1896).

It is also difficult to determine when he arrived in Australia, it may have been as early as 1883 or possibly later, in 1890. He was certainly advertising his coffee by 1894 (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1894). He married in 1907 and he and Adelaide Florence subsequently had three children, Lallah, Kabell junior and Fuad. He first applied for naturalisation in 1904 and was rejected. He applied again in 1914, claiming those indebted to him refused to pay monies owing because he was not a British subject. This application was rejected because at the time Turks were considered enemy subjects as well as being included under the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which limited non-white immigration. His final application in 1926, by which time he was a very successful business man and his status as an enemy subject had changed somewhat, was accepted.

I have only uncovered the bare bones of Mockbell's history, but the change in his status and the challenges of being a Muslim, dark skinned and a wheeler dealer business man in Sydney in the years between Federation and the beginning of the Second World War make for an interesting story.

Kabell Mockbell appears to have made himself a significant figure Sydney in the early days of the twentieth century. Although he was only 5' 1" he made his presence felt. For example the Evening News reported his enthusiasm over the adoption of constitutional government by the Ottoman Empire in 1908 and what he hoped would be accomplished 'with the sympathy and diplomatic help' of the British, now that the Turk was civilised and 'no longer a ferocious and terrible monster' (Evening News, 26 January 1909). In the light of subsequent events it is poignant to read Kabelespousing his respect and reverence for Great Britain; he would give his last penny and his own life and that of his son in her defence.

The Evening News (25 July 1910) also reported a gathering of 'forty dark skinned representatives of the Ottoman Empire interspersed with a few white Australians' who met at Mockbell's residence in Lavender Bay ('Matoppo'/'Motoppo', 21 Arthur Street) to celebrate the second anniversary of the Ottoman constitution. Among the guests was the Mayor of Redfern, Alderman Leitch, whose municipality was the home of most of Sydney's Ottoman community. Although the Turks were now included in the immigration restriction laws it was noted that they had always proven themselves to be good citizens. The Ottoman ambassador, Arif Nassoor Bey, was quoted as saying
Great Britain stood by us in our past trouble, and with her continued support in the future, we hope to make Turkey advance with a free people, until it is a nation worthy in every sense of the position for which the Young Turk party has aimed.
With the outbreak of hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and Italy, which resulted in the defeat of the Ottomans and their withdrawal from Libya, Mockbell took it upon himself to refute newspaper reports of Turkish barbarity. As a solution to the conflict he proposed that England act as a referee and leave Turkey to work out her conflict with the Italians in her own way, confident that the Turks would be victorious. He called on his fellow Muslims to defend Tripoli and appealed for funds to be donated to the Turkish Relief Fund for soldiers involved in the Balkan War. (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate, 19 January 1912. The conflict in Libya and the imminent defeat of the Ottomans encouraged nationalist groups in the Balkans to also take up arms against the Ottoman Empire. These conflicts were significant precursors to World War One.)

Mockbell's position as both a loyal Turk and a loyal supporter of the British Empire became more and more compromised and his pronouncements more and more reflective of his crisis of allegiance.
In a letter to the editor of the Evening News published on 1 September 1914, he wrote
As a Mussulman I know the sentiments of our people here and through your courtesy I ask the help of your paper in calling upon the people of our religion throughout Australia to get in communication with me, in order that we may consider the best means of showing to England and Australia how we can help the Empire in this, her hour of need. We have eaten your salt and are filled with the desire to call your people our brothers.
In his letter to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs (10 November 1914), in support of his application for naturalisation, he laments his 'wretched position' as 'an enemy of the British community', a position forced upon him through no fault of his own, and is fervent in his desire to 'demonstrate to the people with whom I have been living for a long period that my loyalty to the British Crown and the people of Australia is as strong as ever'. He also makes it clear that he has no dealings with Germans or with German firms and that he deeply deplores the state of affairs forced upon his country by 'these brutal Teutons'.

In the Sunday Times  of 25 April 1915, a fateful day, under the heading 'Neutrals in Sydney Favour Allies' he is quoted as saying 'I want to see the British flag on top everywhere. I am an Egyptian Turk of Arab parentage'. Notwithstanding The Mirror of Australia (17 October 1915) accused Mockbell of having been the former consul-general for Turkey and having fought for Turkey in the last Balkan War.  Later the same newspaper denounced his coffee salons as meeting places for Germans. (Mirror of Australia, 17 October, 1915).

From the beginning of the war he donated generously to various charities including the Red Cross and the Lord Mayor's and the Patriotic Fund. He also donated cigarettes to the army and intriguingly is supposed to have made available 'information that would have been impossible to obtain otherwise'. At the end of the war Kabell donated the 'Khedive Suite', a suite of Egyptian furniture (reputedly inlaid with mother or pearl and decorated with Arabic mottoes and valued at 700 pounds),  to a raffle in aid of the AIF Memorial and War Chest Funds (Sydney Mail, 13 November 1918).

What Mockbell made of the post-war history of Turkey is unrecorded. As we shall see, although Kabell was no doubt a flamboyant personality, his business ventures were not entirely successful despite coffee salons across Sydney bearing his name. Kabel Mockbell died on 31 October 1936 (Sydney Morning Herald 2 November 1936).

Note: The information above, which is not attributed to newspaper sources, is taken from Kabell Mockbell's various applications for naturalisation which can be viewed on line at the National Archives of Australia.