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By Karim Bharij


THE LIFE of Asians in East Africa is something far more alive and complex than can be conveyed on web site.

It is sometimes thought that Indian immigration into East Africa stemmed entirely from the building of the Kenya-Uganda railway at the turn of the century.

In fact, small numbers of Indians had lived in the coastal regions for centuries, having arrived there long before the days of European settlement.

One of the earliest recorded navigational accounts, Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, Circa AD 80, mentions Indians, as well as Arab ships trading along the coast. A Chinese geographical work, of the 13th century mentions Gujarati settlement in the same area. The Arabs seem quickly to have recognised that it was to their advantage to tolerate Indian traders.

In 1840, Sultan Seyid moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar, taking with him many Indian traders. It is quoted that he used every means in his power to allure the Banias of Cutch, Gujarat, and the Concan to Muscat, and by absolute toleration, special immunities, and constant patronage rendered the port a half-Hindu colony.

By 1841, when a representative of the Indian Government was stationed in Zanzibar, involving British interests in East Africa, local Indian population was estimated at about one thousand.

In 1866, John Kirk was vice-consul in Zanzibar and the Indian Community had grown to over 6,000, consisting of Hindus from Cutch and Jamnagar, and all western areas in West India. The total population of Zanzibar was about 300,000, of whom two thirds were slaves.

A few years later, in 1873, the British signed a treaty with the Sultan of Zanzibar ending the slave trade, but it was not until nearly thirty years later that slave status was finally abolished in East Africa.

An Indian who collected customs dues for the Sultan, and also financed Arab caravans, was Jairam Shivaji, who died in 1866 leaving a fortune of about 650,000.

Even before the advent of the railway, a leading merchant, Aladdin, had established trading posts in Uganda, twenty years before the railway reached Lake Victoria. Two other traders, Adage, Alibbhai and M. G. Puri, were well established at Machakos (now a town and about forty miles from Nairobi) at about the same time. Already the pattern was being established which was to characterise Indian life in East Africa until today; one in which commercial resilience and initiative were dominant characteristics.


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