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June - July 2009

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Contribution by the people of the Indian origin in East Africa’s Social and Economic Development

by Sir J. C. Chande

Indeed, the remarkable tenacity and courage of the Indian trader has been mainly responsible for stimulating the wants of the indigenous peoples, even in the remotest areas, by opening to them a shop-window on the modern world.

– East Africa Royal Commission, 1955

Reference to the personalities made in this paper are relevant only to the extent that they were major players in creating history of the Indian settlements in the east coast of Africa.

India has had a very long association with the East Coast of Africa. Perhaps as far back as the time of Mohenja Daro and Harappa in the first and second millennium BC, Indian sea-borne traders had contacts with East Africa through the monsoon winds. Some time during the first millennium immigrants from the Indian Sub-Continent had settled in Zanzibar, Tanga, Kilwa, Bagamoyo and other coastal areas of East Africa and were engaged in an extensive trade using dhows. The coconut plantations in Zanzibar, Pemba and in coastal areas of East Africa owe their origin to the Indians who introduced the palms some two thousand years ago from India, the home of the coconut.

Almost every traveller from the ancient days, who visited the east coast talked much about the Indians in Mozambique, Kilwa, Mombasa and Malindi. It is believed that in 1498 when Vasco da Gama passed through Zanzibar on his way to India he took with him a couple of Indians to help in the journey.

The Sultan of Zanzibar greatly valued the contribution of Indian merchants some of whom were appointed to important administrative posts in the Government. In 1835, five years before the Sultan Seyyid moved to Zanzibar, a prominent Indian, Jeram Shivji was appointed as Chief Officer for the Port of Zanzibar and also as the State Banker. The Sultan entrusted the collection of customs duty associated with the dhows trade to Indians, the award for which was being given to the highest bidder. Other well-known personalities were Ibji Sivji, Sivjee Haji, Alidina Visram and Sir Tharia Topan who all contributed in economic and social development of the country. The latter progressed from a stowaway and a sweeper to a wealthy trader then to a Knighthood and finally as the Sultan’s Chief Administrator and most trusted Adviser. The first hospital in Dar es Salaam constructed for Indians and local people was funded by Sivjee Haji and was known as Siva Haji Hospital.

Like the Arabs, Indians had plied the Indian Ocean in small sailing ships for millennia. Through the Persian Gulf they had traded with ancient Babylon and through the Red Sea with Egypt, Athens and Italy. Near the end of the first century A.D. when the Periplus was written they apparently were trading with Rhapta within the area of East Africa.

By 1890 when East Africa had been partitioned among European powers and the old period of Arab ascendancy was at end, the Indians were by far the dominant economic community in Zanzibar and along the East African coast. Beginning 1890 the British employing Indian troops established a firm control over Kenya and Uganda. Both the British and the Germans built railways to the great lakes, and encouraged European settlement and imported indentured labour from India. Between 1895 and 1914 the British recruited 38,000 Indians mainly from Punjab for construction of the Uganda Railway and other public works. Germans too at the same time recruited 200 Indians. Of these recruits eight percent died and the same percentage of Indians elected to remain in East Africa on expiration of their contracts. While some continued to work on the railway or took other employment in government most became artisans and merchants. Many more mostly from Gujarat migrated to East Africa in the hope of improving economic well-being and a few in search for adventure and for curiosity but the major reason was desire to rise above the poverty level. They concentrated on business enterprise but became involved in politics because initially for the need to protect their interests – social as well as economic – in a hostile colonial environment. Some mostly in Kenya in their quest to achieve equality for Africans and for themselves actively participated in political agitation, trade union activity and militant journalism. As I said earlier Indians were far more involved in commerce, road transport, crafts and construction, clerical service and professional work in the field of agriculture and industry than with political careers. Their contribution until the 19th century in the economic development of East Africa was more important than in the political arena. In the early part of the 20th century they became more actively involved in politics initially because of the need to protect their interest – social as well as economic – in a hostile colonial environment. Later mostly in Kenya they took up the common cause for self government. In an open letter to Winston Churchill during his visit of 1907 Kenya government was severely criticized for hiring Indians rather than Europeans as civil servants. Indian immigrants sometimes were described as parasites by European settlers. Yet because of difficulty of obtaining food, clothes and other necessities for their African labourers the Kenya settlers before World War I invited Indians to open shops on their farms but they were prohibited from owning land. The presence of Indians as shop owners in European farms continued until the end of World War II.

After World War I a number of social and political changes considerably increased the resentment and brought all sections of the European community into a vigorous opposition. Britain’s acquisition of Tanganyika, a part of German East Africa, prompted a movement in India aimed at transferring the administration to the Indian government and developing the territory as an Indian colony. Vociferous support for the plan by some local Indians and an endorsement by the East Africa Indian National Congress alarmed the European community. The fact that Indian population was growing at three times the rate of the Europeans and was increasingly dominating the commercial sector was another cause for concern. There was also the move by Europeans in Kenya to follow the example of South Africa by proceeding in Kenya, perhaps in all East Africa, to self-government. The opposition to this move by local Indians supported by the government of India and Britain’s India office augmented the ill feeling. A well known Kenyan politician Masinde Muliro in 1960 said, “If it were not for the Indian politicians … Kenya would have long ago become a white colony like South Africa and Rhodesia. Closely tied to this subject was the question of trusteeship of Africans as illustrated by the League of Nations mandate system. The Europeans called for a share in trusteeship which until then had been vested in the British government. Indians not only opposed the European request but also claimed that they themselves were better suited to exercise the trusteeship.

In German East Africa the European sentiment was similar to that in Kenya. The German settlers not only resented the Indian traders as commercial competitors but also feared them as potential rebels because of their British ties. In 1906, launching a campaign for restrictions on Indian immigration, the settlers accused the Indians of assisting the Maji Maji rebels and inciting African unrest. Though rebuffed initially by the German Colonial Office the settlers received considerable support in Germany, particularly from the right-wing anti-Islamic party, the Zentrum and the German Colonization Society. The latter passed a resolution in 1907 favouring differential legislation against Indians in German colonies. Hence in German East Africa the Indians, unlike Europeans, had no privileged status and were “treated on the same footing as natives”. British government in 1923 both in Zanzibar and in Tanganyika introduced a profit tax and ordered the licensing of all commercial enterprise and required merchants to keep all their books of accounts in English or Swahili.

In Uganda the British government attempted to curtail participation by the Indians in the business of cotton growing and ginning. The government was worried about Indians monopolising the cotton industry. The seriousness of the situation prompted Uganda’s Governor Robert Coryndon writing “no responsible man, public or official, seemed to be alive to the hold on the trade of the country which the Indians already obtained. It was bad for Lancashire and the influence of this type of commercial morality upon the native African is not good”. Coryndon intimated that control should be imposed on Indian immigration. Their agitation, supported by influential organisations and individuals in India and Britain caused a serious problem for the British administration. Indians intensified their support for franchise on a common role basis and actively assisted particularly in Kenya and Tanganyika the growth of African Nationalist Movement. In October 1945 Kenya’s Governor Mitchell advised the Colonial Office in London that the Kenya African Union was being “encouraged and financed by the Indian community”. A number of Indians in the four territories of Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda and Zanzibar participated in the colonial governance of these countries through membership executive and/or legislative councils as was the case with me in Tanganyika.

The newly independent government of India encouraged the Indians to enhance support to African nationalism. In April 1953 on the anniversary of the Amritsar shooting of 1919, Nehru remarked that the Africans of Kenya, Central Africa and South Africa were being persecuted and denied fundamental rights. In Kenya, he said, there had been wholesale oppression of the Africans while a handful of white settlers had usurped all the land. Indian sympathies, he asserted, were entirely with the Africans in their struggle against exploitation, repression and colonialism. As early as 1937 Nehru had defined the policy of the Indian National Congress towards Africa. “The Congress holds by the principle”, he stated, “that in every country the interests of the people of that country must be dominant and must have first consideration”. He counselled the Indians to merge their interests with those of the Africans. Reflective of the new emphasis was dissolution of the Ministry of Overseas Indians in 1947 by Nehru. Subsequently he repeatedly referred to the Indians – a reference very disturbing to Indians conservatives – as mere ‘guests” of the Africans.

Nehru had an able spokesman in Apa B Pant as the first Indian Commissioner for East and Central Africa. Pant arrived in Kenya on 15th August 1948 the first anniversary of India’s independence. (First Indian Commissioner for East Africa was appointed in 1930). He urged the Indian leaders to establish closer rapport with Africans and help them in their struggle to achieve equality.

In the early days of Indian settlement, as stated before, almost all immigrants concentrated on commerce — consisting of importation of manufactured products, wholeselling, retailing, purchasing of produce, on road transportation and exports which occupations dominated their lives and interests but many of the second and third generation immigrants qualified as doctors, advocates, engineers and architects and practised in these professions. Many of these professionals invested their income in some form of commercial enterprise whilst some sought early retirement to devote the remainder of their lives to running established family business or began new ventures such as provision stores, soap making and grain milling industries and acquisition of agencies to market fuel oil, lubricants, lorries and motorcars from European companies.

To further their commercial interests Indians formed a number of economic and commercial organisations. Commerce has always been the central thread of Indian history in East Africa. Some in Tanganyika and Uganda began development in the agricultural sector. A few entered the manufacturing sector in the fifties when it had a small base but offered attractive scope of existence to develop and diversify in the areas of light and consumer industry as well as intermediate manufacturing. A few entered in the field of heavy manufacturing industries like steel. The developmental role which they played was well received by colonial and post-colonial governments because Indians were perhaps the most developed source of available private capital and they also attracted foreign capital. Such investments helped in transfer of technology and generated employment opportunities for Africans. All these have resulted in substantial addition of value in the economy of East Africa Commerce and Industry owned and managed by people of Indian origin today contributes a sizable portion to the GDP of these nations. Even though persons of Indian origin constitutes only around a quarter percent of the total population there is not a single sector of the economy which does not feel their imprint and register their impact. L W Hollingsworth in 1960 wrote: The importance of this community in East Africa is out of all proportion to its numerical strength … From very early times traders from India have visited East Africa … But it has been during the last seventy years with the opening up of East Africa that they have spread all over the interior.

During British administration primary and secondary schools were established solely for children of Indian immigrants. Similar schools were established for European children and for children of the natives. Over the years Indians established many schools and helped in starting universities. They also built clinics, dispensaries and hospitals and continued to provide substantial support to the indigent members of the African community.

I will end this paper by restating that the role of immigrants from the Indian sub-continent in the economic growth and in the development of political consciousness has been quite remarkable. They played a pivotal role in the transition of these countries of the British crown to independent states.

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