Economic contribution and political significance of South Asians in East Africa may be more important than the history of the colonizers: Prof. Gijsbert Oonk

Economic contribution and political significance of South Asians in East Africa may be more important than the history of the colonizers: Prof. Gijsbert Oonk

Settled Strangers seldom consider returning and settling in India. They feel that Africa is preferable because of the climate, the paste of life (easy going) and the prospects in Africa are good as well. Africa has become their home, says Prof. Oonk in an interview with Dr. Sadananda Sahoo, Editor Roots and Routes.

Sadananda Sahoo (SS):  The scholars on diaspora know you through your work on Indian diaspora, especially on scholarly work on Indian trade or business Diaspora in East African countries. What motivated you to study the Indian Diaspora?

Prof. Oonk: The subject came to me by accident. During my Ph-D research I was working with Cotton Textile mill owners and industrialists in Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Some of them had business and/or family relations with East Africa. This was prior to 1992. At that time, no one was speaking of the Indian Diaspora. The word ‘diaspora’ was mainly used in the context of the Jewish diaspora. To be frank, I was student of Indian history and did not have any prior knowledge of trading and business contacts between East Africa and South Asia. However, when I learned that South Asians were already active in Malindi and other places prior to the arrival of Vasco da Gama, my interest was growing. The history of South Asians in East Africa is neither part of the mainstream nation Indian history nor that East African History writing. This is surprising because South Asians in East Africa outnumbered the Europeans ten-to-one. Moreover, their overall economic contribution and political significance of South Asians in East Africa may be more important than the history of the colonizers. In short, initially my interest was not so much related to the South Asian diaspora, as well as to the economic and cultural relations within the Indian Ocean Region. However, when the Indian Diaspora gained academic and political interest it was an easy step to incorporate my research in those areas.

SS: What are the major factors for success of Gujaratis and Sindhis trade in East Africa?

Prof. Oonk: First of all, we have to admit that most Gujaratis and Sindhis were not successful in trade in East Africa. I have seen more than 1100 bankruptcy files of Indian traders in Zanzibar for the period between 1880 and1910. In my work I emphasize a process of ‘trial and error’ in which the successful traders eventually emerged. Through oral histories it was clarified that many early traders started with some uncle or relative in Zanzibar or the East African coast. They came with little financial capital, but they certainly were encouraged with the cultural capital of their Indian trading network. In addition, when they arrived they were much aware of the logics of the money-economy, including the usage and fundamentals of interest. Last but not least, they were encouraged by the Arab and European rulers to fulfill certain economic needs, like harvesting the customs in Zanzibar or act as middlemen between African peasants and European wholesalers.

SS: As you know many African countries have got independence and the dynamics of power relations have changed over time. How do the new generations of Indian Diaspora entrepreneurs cope with the situation?

Prof. Oonk: In general middlemen minorities in the world are aware of their political vulnerability. Being a small minority most South Asians were very much aware that their position is always at stake. The Expulsion of the Asian by General Idi Amin came as a surprise. This is still in the memory of South Asians in East Africa. Therefore, the Indian traders in East Africa share a habit of keeping their presence modest. They have generally learned to keep aloof from the political field and not to show-off in the economic arena. Except for some notable exceptions, like Karimjee Jivanjee and others this is still the case. Having said this, times they are changing. With the economic growth of East African countries and the political situation getting more and more stabilized, we see that that Asian in East Africa become more and more locally active and the relations between the local communities and Asians is improving. Africans are now aware that Asians are not just exploiters, money-lenders and middlemen. They contributed immensely to the local economy. They were major taxpayers, they employed local people, and they spent significant sums of money to local charities, dispensaries, hospitals and educational institutions.

SS: What are the major challenges the present Indian Diaspora is facing in East Africa in general and trade diasporas (including Indian) in particular?

Prof. Oonk: Most people in the South Asian diaspora in East Africa belong to the middle classes or higher. They face similar problems as other middle classes in East Africa. First, good education for the children is rare or too expensive. Many families struggle to give their children proper education. This is true for kindergarten, high schools and universities. Many families try to get their children at universities in India, UK or the USA. Another issue is health care and insurance. It is hard or often impossible to get a proper healthcare insurance. Basic healthcare is nowadays well organized, but specialist healthcare is hard to get. In general, Indian families in East Africa remain close to their families in Europe, North America and India for these reasons. They develop global family and community networks in order get access to good education and healthcare.  Africa has still a long way to provide these services for its people, despite the recent changes for the good.

SS: How are the inter-Diaspora relations among the Indian Diaspora? Are they ghettoized in small groups or there are any pan- Indian Diasporic identities? Do you find there are any differences among Indian diaspora within various East African countries?

Prof. Oonk: I believe that migration and diaspora are very fluid term. Migrants may go through all kind of stages over time. In Zanzibar and on the East Coast of Africa, there are communities, especially the Ithnasheries, who are partly fully integrated in the local societies. There were inter marriages, they visited the same mosque etc. Vivek Bald writes about the similar processes in New York, when he talks about Bengali Harlem and the lost Histories of Indians in America. These are not exceptional stories, but we tend to forget them, because in these histories the diaspora disappears. These integrated migrants are not recognizable as diaspora any more. At the same time, parts of the diaspora migrants are segregated. In most cases, this includes a sense of self-segregation. Migrants tend to live with each other, as a consequence of chain migration, sharing food and drinking habits as well cultural festivals. In other cases, colonial rules whished the migrants to settle in specific areas in the cities ore areas and in that they were creating ethnic apartheid. In addition we have to recognize that living in diaspora is only a small part of peoples life’s. They are not obsessed with Indian Culture or Indian political and economic affairs. The case of Settled Strangers in East Africa, I describe the period between 1880-1940. Many South Asians were more focused on East Africa or Europe, and not so much on India. In other words, to answer your question, you have to include the global political economy. A last interesting example is the emergence of a transnational Asian African identity. Many South Asians in Africa acknowledge a triple identity; being born in East Africa, being part of a Asian family and exposed –through education- to western culture. In addition they shared the traumatic historical experience of the expulsion that started with Idi Amin in 1972. At the same time, because of the expulsion, they were scattered around the world and they are unable to share these experiences in direct day to day interactions.  Therefore some of these people have set up online networks through facebook or websites.

SS: How do you think the Indian entrepreneurs in Africa different from the new entrepreneurs of Indian Diaspora elsewhere i.e UK, USA?

Prof. Oonk: To be frank, I have no idea. This would be a good question for a new research project. What I do know, however, is that in the colonial days, British officials talked about East Africa, as ‘the America of the Hindu’. They compared the European migrants, who were often entrepreneurs, adventurers and people who wanted to make a living elsewhere, with the Indian migrants in East Africa. The new Indian migrants in the USA and East Africa are obviously better informed. Communication and travels is much easier now, then a century ago. However, I believe that the importance of a strong local network and safety net is still more important in East Africa than elsewhere. 

SS: Over the time, the Chinese Diasporas also made remarkable success in many African countries in various fields including trade. How do you find they differ from Indian Diaspora?

Prof. Oonk: There are a lot of differences. The South Asian diaspora in Africa was very diverse and has a long history. It includes the trading diasporas I am writing about, but also indentured laborers, who came to build the railway around the turn of the twentieth century. The Chinese diaspora was much smaller in the number. The Chinese came to build the Tzara railway in Tanzania in the 1960s. I write about families who came hundred years earlier. In addition, the South Asian diaspora in East Africa is much larger in numbers and most of them were not backed by the Indian state. The Chinese migrants are often part of state projects or projects of state companies. Eventually, many Chinese laborers will tend to settle in East Africa and may follow the same pattern as Indians in East Africa did. But this is not clear at all, yet. But they share some specific characteristics related to the issue of diaspora. They remain visible minorities in an often hostile context; there are few intermarriages with local communities and they tend to reproduce their own culture as much as possible.

SS: Your book Settled Stranger: Asian Business Elites in East Africa (Sage) is about Gujarati trader community. It talks about the evolution of the trade community over the period of two hundred years. You mentioned that they are strangers to locals. How difficult was it for you to do an in-depth study on them?

Prof. Oonk: This type of project requires a lot of time, patience and improvisation. It took me more than ten years to do the research and put the book together.  First, the colonial records about South Asians in East Africa contain very limited material. I have visited the colonial archives in London and Berlin and the national archives in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The material that was available was mostly written by European bureaucrats, civil servants who were willing to please the colonial centre. Having, said that, the Indian community in Zanzibar, Tanzania and Kenya were very open and willing to open up their family archives. I have seen many family-albums and old pictures. Every picture happened to have it is own story. Oral histories and interviews with elderly members of the community were a great joy and inspiration. I had to visit family members in East Africa, but also in Mauritius, United Kingdom and India. Multi-sited research is expensive and time consuming. Fortunately I was able to convince the authorities of my university about the importance of this project. However, in oral histories there is a tendency to overvalue the success stories more than the constraints, difficulties and failures. I would say, one of the major challenges was to balance success stories and failures and bankruptcies. Sometimes you need a bit of luck. In the Zanzibari archives I found numerous previously unknown record of failures and bankruptcies of Indian companies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Therefore, I was able to able to give a balanced picture of the emergence of the South Asian business elite in East Africa.

SS: In your book, you claim that the work is ‘the history from below’ as the South Asian trading community has been silenced in national histories of Africa, India and the UK despite their pivotal role in these countries. In contrast, you argue elsewhere that they are the influential group and close to the ruling class in Africa. Could you clarify this contradiction?

Prof. Oonk: The majority of the traders I describe come from a poor background. They arrived almost penniless, and the capital they had, was cultural capital, related to their upbringing, their business habits work ethics. In addition, this history is not a part of the national history of African countries, nor Indian national histories. The history of those communities is a very typical example of a ‘history from below’. We have to acknowledge, however, that a small part of these traders managed to become rich and affluent traders. They are part of the economic elite, but at the same time their history is still not acknowledged fully.

SS: Your book has documented the formation of Hindu business elites.  What about the Muslim merchants who are the most influential and successful as like Hindu merchants over there?   

Prof. Oonk: In my book Settled Strangers, I write about Hindus and Muslims as well as other communities, like Sikhs, Jains and Goans. There is one chapter that is related to cultural change of the diaspora, in terms of food habits, marriage patterns and language issues. Here the examples are more based on the Hindu community. This is due to my personal network in East Africa, that was slightly biased towards the Hindu community. But I would argue that the same patterns emerged within the other communities. Muslim communities from Gujarat also lost their ability to read and write Gujarati over the generations.

SS: Is there any ‘reverse migration’ to East African countries after the resolve of crisis by the South Asian trading community from Europe?

Prof. Oonk: There is a little reverse migration.

SS: How do the African Indian Diaspora business elites view the rising India?

Prof. Oonk: They look at it with great admiration and astonishment. Slowly some PIO and NRI have shown a little interest in investing in India. But the interest is still meager. This has to do with fact that many families remember that during the crisis of the late 1960s, India was not willing to help them. Most of the South Asian families remember that period very well. They felt that India left them alone in that situation. However, Settled Strangers seldom consider returning and settling in India. They feel that Africa is preferable because of the climate, the paste of life (easy going) and the prospects in Africa are good as well. Africa has become their home.

SS: What is your future research plan on Diaspora? Are you working on any other aspects of Indian diaspora or business history of Indian Diaspora elsewhere?

Prof. Oonk: The study of the Indian Diaspora will always be with me, especially in relation to trade and business. I do hope to write some more biographies, like I did for the Karimjees, because this type of history presents us with a real micro study and real new insights. In addition, I see that the field of the history of the Indian Ocean is gaining momentum and is very attractive. However, from an academic and political perspective, my main interest is related to two interrelated questions. The first question: why are some communities rich, whereas others remain poor? Of course, there are rich and poor countries, but within these countries there are huge differences between various (ethnic) communities. Well known successful business communities include Chinese traders and businessmen throughout South East Asia who dominate various local economies in for example Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The South Asians in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda dominated most of the whole sales trade and finance in East Africa. They are an outstanding example of a marked dominant minority. However, the question I try to answer is: why? And what were the secrets of their success? The second question is: how, why and in what direction does the culture of a migrant community change? In other words: How did South Asian culture change in a African society, in terms of food habits, dress habits, caste composition and marriage patterns. In Western Europe, there are huge debates about migration, multiculturalism and so on. However, the Indian and African societies are multicultural societies for centuries. The European debate is somewhat backward compared to the issues raised in the Indian Ocean Region.

SS: Thank you


Gijsbert Oonk (1966) is Head of the Department of History at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) Rotterdam, Netherlands. He is Associate Professor of African and South Asian History at ESHCC. He also serves as the 'South Asian area/history' editor of the Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient (JESHO) as well as editor of Geschiedenis Magazine (History Magazine, published in Dutch). In 2011-2012 he is the Alfred D. Chandler Jr. International Visiting Fellow in Business History at the Harvard Business School (Boston). He specializes in business, migration and economic history. He is particular interested in the role of South Asian (Indian) migrants and settlers in East Africa. His recent major publication includes:

Gijsbert Oonk, Settled Strangers. Asian Business Elites in East Africa, 1800-2000, Sage Publications, 2013.

Gijsbert Oonk, The Karimjee Jivanjee Family. Merchant Princes of East Africa 1800-2000, Pallas Publications 2009.

Gijsbert Oonk (ed), Global Indian Diasporas. Exploring Trajectories of Migration and Theory. Amsterdam University Press, 2007.

Available on Free Open Acces:,d.ZWU


Interview Date:   Sunday, Aug 03, 2014
Person Name:   Prof. Gijsbert Oonk

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