COVER STORY: Filling gaps in history: Indians in East Africa

22 Dec 2013


An Indian trader and his family in Bagamoyo, German East Africa, 1906-1918                                               — German Federal Archive
An Indian trader and his family in Bagamoyo, German East Africa, 1906-1918 — German Federal Archive

Gijsbert Oonk’s book Settled Strangers: Asian Business Elites in East Africa (1800-2000) looks at the history and evolution of the East African Asian business community. In Oonk’s opinion, the story of South Asians in East Africa has not been adequately told, even though they have played a great economic and political role, as insufficient research has been carried out amongst elites.

There was already a community of Indian — mainly Gujarati — merchants and brokers in East Africa when the British established control at the end of the 19th century. Trading links had existed around the Indian Ocean for centuries; in Oonk’s words, the ocean served as a connection between the continents, not as their boundary.

The Indian population expanded under British rule. Cheap indentured labour was brought, mainly from Punjab, for the construction of the Uganda railway, and while the majority of the railway workers returned to India after its completion, some remained. Other Indians arrived, from Gujarat, Punjab and Goa, drawn by the opportunities created by the opening of the railway.

The Indians (subsequently referred to as Asians) included traders who moved into newly “opened” districts and set up stores. Asians were also involved in building and construction, transport, service industries and low- to middle-level administration. They were treated as “middlemen,” intermediaries between the white colonisers and the Africans, a role that gave them some privileges, and also made them resented. (Oonk argues that the concept of the Asians being a middleman minority — an intermediary between the Europeans / European markets and the Africans / local producers — is Eurocentric. While the Asians were middlemen from the perspective of the Europeans, the Europeans were middlemen for the Asians who had access to European markets through them.)

Settled Strangers focuses on the history of South Asian business families who have lived in East Africa for three generations or more, belonging to the “higher middle classes up to the national elite.” Oonk challenges the common narrative of the “founding father,” the first person in the family to settle in East Africa, having travelled from India by dhow — the dhow journey presented as a rite of passage — with little more than an entrepreneurial spirit. He argues that this narrative of Indian settlement, told by nearly all successful families, is misleading as it excludes all those who failed and returned to India. It also ignores the fact that the “pioneer” was usually the second son, sent by the head of the family to explore possibilities in East Africa, with India remaining a safety net.

In fact, there was a process of circular migration and slow settlement, with people going back and forth between East Africa and India. And just as migration was a process of trial and error, so was starting a business. Bankruptcies were common, but their stories have been forgotten. Instead, the myth of the pioneering ancestor prevails: the man who came with nothing, worked hard, and built a business that has survived for more than three generations.

During the colonial period, the majority of South Asians in East Africa were British subjects or British-protected persons. With the partition of India in 1947, they had to decide whether to take Indian, Pakistani or British citizenship. For its part, India encouraged the East African Asians to take British citizenship and identify with East Africa rather than rely on the Indian state. The option of British citizenship was not straightforward, as it depended on a person’s existing links with the UK, and many Asians remained British subjects — with limited rights — rather than citizens.

The independence of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in the early 1960s meant another decision, whether to take local citizenship. Amongst the families Oonk has looked at, the women frequently remained British subjects while the men took local citizenship. In this way a family would maximise its opportunities both to do business locally and have access to education and healthcare in Britain. At the same time, many saw retaining the tie with Britain as insurance against the possible consequences of Africanisation policies. (However, having a British passport did not mean entry to Britain was guaranteed, as thousands of East African Asians were to discover during the 1960s and 1970s.) Oonk notes that within a single family it was possible to find British subjects, British citizens, and local citizens. He suggests there are three “generations” of South Asian African business families: the pioneers (born between 1880 and 1920), the Asian East Africans (born between 1920 and 1960), and the “internationalists” (born between 1960 and 1985).

Over time, the business families’ economic ties with India weakened, links with other countries became stronger, and their family businesses became transnational or transregional enterprises. And while the different branches of a family may now be locally “embedded” wherever they are, their primary loyalty is to the family and the company. Oonk gives the example of a family he knows in London:

“During the expulsion of Asians from East Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the majority of the family members left the African continent and built new homes in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, but some members are still active in East Africa. … At present, they own businesses in various parts of the world and they act like a ‘family multinational’. They have evolved from migrants (strangers) to settled strangers, and during the process they became part of the South Asian diaspora. Now, they are world citizens. That is, they are settled and strangers almost everywhere they go. They now belong to the jet set of business class travellers, owning second and third homes in two or three continents and having family members in at least three continents.”

While the idea of looking at the history of an elite such as this is interesting, Oonk’s approach feels confused. His stated intention is to look at a specific class (upper middle classes and above) of a particular section of the South Asian community (Gujarati merchants), but he uses data about the general East African Asian population and also refers in a general way to the South Asian experience when he is referring to that of a specific group (such as the Lohana community). While his informants are mostly in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar, with a few in Mombasa and Nairobi, he talks about a general East African experience.

It is also not clear who the book is aimed at; at times it is unnecessarily theoretical, and at others it is quite basic and simplistic. Various academic concepts are explained at length, but don’t really contribute to an overall understanding of the history and dynamics of this particular community. In addition, it is poorly structured and quite repetitive, and there are problems with the English used, with both grammar mistakes and sometimes inappropriately informal language, giving the impression that it wasn’t edited. Settled Strangers poses some interesting questions about the East African Asian business elite, and provides some fascinating historical material. However, its conclusions are unsatisfying, particularly the idea that members of the community are now “world citizens.” Oonk has clearly done extensive research, and it is disappointing that his analysis is not more insightful.

Settled Strangers: Asian Business Elites in East Africa (1800-2000)


By Gijsbert Oonk

Sage Publication, UK

ISBN 9788132110545