Zanzibar, the Land of Jasmin and Langi Langi!

Author:   Urmila Jhaveri

Zanzibar, the Land of Jasmin and Langi Langi!

Urmila Jhaveri


Also known as Island of spices , Zanzibar was famous as the land of Omani Arabs Sultans , Slave trade , the British Administrators and pioneer settlers from many countries including Middle East, India, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Comoro Islands, Persia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Germany, China, Seychelles, Somalia, Portugal.

From India came Parsis , Bhatiyas ,Khojas both Ithnasheris and  Ismailis , Goans , Hindus, Bohora , Sikhs, Ceylonese , Cutchhis , Sunnis and Shias as well as few Punjabis . More over during the harsh British Raj under the influence of Muslim merchants and mendicants many Lohanas, some Bhatiyas and members of the other communities from Kathiavad and Kutch  converted  to Islam and became Ismaily Khoja .  While some others chose to belong to other sects of Islam like Bohoras, Khoja and   Sunnis.

All these brave youngsters had sailed  in Dhows from Gujarat , Kutchh , Mandvi , Mundra, Mumbai and so on , often  penny less and rootless in search of better life  towards Africa. These pioneers - entrepreneurs in making , brought with them  their  different cultures , customs and  beliefs  and a strong will power in abundance to work hard !  For them their religion and their social values were and still are an important part of their life .
It was a rugged terrain and a struggle for survival : however they took their destiny in their hands and on the way successfully managed to chart a better future for themselves ,their families and their countries of adoption.

Having said that, it is also interesting to note that not all these migrants from India came as penny less youngsters in search of better life during the scorched earth policy of the British Raj.On the contrary, some of the earlier settlers in Africa who came through Zanzibar had already established themselves as successful merchants and seafarers in their country of origin. They owned their own Dhows and ran their family ' Pedhis ' (companies) successfully in their villages and towns in Kathiwad ,Kutchh , Mumbai , Mandvi ,Mundra and so on . Upto now most of their life histories have been confided in official records as mere numbers.

In this article I hope to give identities to at least a few of them and attempt to tell their stories asbest as I can!I am grateful to Dr. Abdul Sheriff imminent historian from Zanzibar, Former Principal Advisor and Curator - Zanzibar Museums, Former Chairman of Zanzibar Indian Ocean Research Institute ( ZIORI 2007 - 12 ) who has written several books and research papers for kindly providing the information much needed for this article, Bipin Suchak and Suryakant Suchak for filling in details about their family history. Fatma Aloo, my friend from Zanzibar for her encouragement and support all the way. Bhatiyas were amongst the earliest merchant travellers from Gujarat who had arrived in Zanzibar since 17 / 18thcentury. Mrs. KalpanaJitendra Sampat  has written a fascinating and long article about her family history from Zanzibar. I present a part of this article in its original form. She writes  : " The first Bhatiyas that arrived to East Africa on the coast of Zanzibar were from the port of Mundra , Kutchh by the old dhows which were similar to Arab dhows , that were still coming to Zanzibar when we were young. 

I had the privilege of visiting one such dhow when our father Ajitsinh Narrottam  Khatau  took the three of us , my sister , brother and I , to visit one such Indian dhow anchored on the shores of Zanzibar manned by the Kharwa community of Kutchh , together with some Muslim Nakkhodaas/ Maalams , as they were called as sailors. My father told us how our forefathers had travelled in one of many such dhows we owned. On touring this dhow we saw how difficult a journey must have been, unlike the ships journey we were enjoying then with so many facilities.

Around 17/18th Century Mr. Jeram Shivji and his brother Mr. Eebji ,whose sixth generation descendent I am , landed on the coast of Zanzibar for trade purposes. We were first Bhatiyas to arrive in East Africa. They traded in cloves and other spices, ivory etc. and became successful too. They started buying lands," shambaas " meaning farms of cloves all over East Africa . And by the beginning of 19th century they owned more than 100 clove shambaas"e, only at a place called Lindi and Mikindani. Very soon due to some personal reasons Mr. Jeram Shivji  left Zanzibar for Kutchh leaving behind all trade in the hands of his younger brother Mr . Eebji Shivji Topan . This was at the pick of their trade Empire and Mr. Eebji Shivji was appointed as Customs in Charge for Zanzibar port by Sultan Sayyed Barghash as we were the biggest traders in Zanzibar. At the time Zanzibar was called Zeng Empire and the language was and still is Kiswahili, but colloquially called Swahili by most. Our people in India called it, "Swahil-desh" and started calling our family "Swahiliwara". Thus our, Odakh-Pahechan   became Swali / Swaly / Sualy which we adopted as our Surname latter on. People with any of this surnames are all one family but some brothers used these different spellings and we still maintain good family relationstilltoday.

The Arab Sultans of Zanzibar who originated from Muscat,  as one of the brothers was given Zanzibar to rule , had very good relations with our family . At that time only menfolk migrated to Zanzibar and the Arab Sultans were wondering why the ladies folks had not migrated. So our ancestors explained to them the ladies folk used to follow, 'marjaad' where only a few things / people could touch them and all utensils used were of silver too. So the Sultanoffered. The Portuguese Old Fort to build their houses in Fort, and put silver pipes and silver taps to facilitate the custom of their 'marjaad'. This Portuguese Old Fort still exists opposite Beit-el-Ajaib(house of wonders, one of the seven wonders then)."But our ancestors, politely refused this offer, saying that it will not do. While in actuality, they did not want to get this favour, as they knew about the old saying, " raja, wajaane  waandra ; no kadinakarievishvaas " meaning never trust a Raja-a king , waja - a musical instrument and waandra - monkeys , as you never know when any of these would go out of tune and get one into trouble ! !  Thus the men folks stayed alone for more than a century. They had bought cooks from India who would cook for them and their whole staff who were housed there. 

This massive building in Zanzibar called, Eebji Shivjini Peddhi is situated just behind the Sultan's palace. So every Diwali, we would give Red carpet service, from our peddhi to Sultan's palace's back door to the Sultan, who would then come to our peddhi and light a first "fataaka" - fire work and then only the whole town would light their fire - works".
Thus the Swaly family had a long distinguished family history. The family left ZanzibaraftertheRevolutioninZanzibar.I am not sure about the date but an interesting and historic episode took place during this period. It so happened that Mahatma Gandhi was on a short visit to Zanzibar, when he was enroute from South Africa to India. He was invited to visit Bhatiya Mahajan Wadi in Ziwani - Zanzibar. And when he noticed at the entrance a warning saying,' Bhatiyashivay koine anderaavani raja nathi ' meaning (only Bhatiyas are allowed to enter).  Gandhiji refused to enter the Mahajan Wadibuilding. That really embarrassed the committee. They removed the notice immediately and after persuasion only, Gandhiji consented to enter the building!

The Eebji Shivji  family believed in ," guptadan meaning what the right hand gives even the left hand should not know , "and contributed to many worthy causes .NarabdasSwaly was the head while  Narotumdas Khatau , Hansraj Ladwa Damji were munims - managers of the EebjiShivji  Empire . Many other Bhatiyas were brought on the permit of the company staff and settled down well in Zanzibar.  Eebji Shivji was the head of the Hindu Society and was highly esteemed and trusted by the Sultan of Zanzibar. At the peak of EebjiShivji era they had owned about 90% of land in Kutch, five buildings in Mumbai brought from East India Company ,a Cotten ginning factory , dhows , and even a car or two ! In Zanzibar Eebji Shivji was the head of Hindu Society, his son Late Laxmidas was honoured with O.B.E. by Queen Elizabeth || in England. Members of the Bhatiya community have an astute sense of trade and industry and being hard working many of them became successful entrepreneurs. They contributed and built schools,temples, and community halls in Zanzibar. It is believed that at one time in East Africa, the highest number of Bhatias were in Zanzibar. The Jetha Lila private Bank in Zanzibar was one of them. In fact it can be recorded as one of the oldest financial institutions in East Africa. At the time, all over East Africa including Zanzibar the silver Rupee of British India was the standard coin of the Protectorate while the currency notes were issued in Rupee denominations written clearly in Gujarati language.Interestingly, it has been reported that, recently the world's most valuable African note - 1908  , 20 Rupee note was sold for US $ 225,000 / -  at an auction in 2011. This African currency note is highly priced for its rarity, intricate design and clear writings. Varas Thalia Topan  - 1823 - 1891 : ( Tajdin  Mumtaz Ali Sadie Ali : 101 Esmaily Heroes . Vol.1.IslamicBook Publisher , Karachi . January2003 P416). It is said that Facts are stranger than Fiction: Varas Tharia Topan 's life journey is one such saga.

"For promoting trade in Kutchh ,MaharaoKhengar I  ( 1510- 1585 ) invited certain Bhatia ShethTopan  in Bhuj and sought his advice. With suggestions of Sheth  Topan the city of Mandvi with a port was built with massive sum. Sheth Topan employed expert carpenters of Sind to build ships.He imported wood from Malabar and formed furnaces in Bhachau and thus laid the foundation of trade and  ship building in Kutchh. He also built many temples in Mandavi. In those days the Ismailyvakil ,Sayid Pir Dadu ( 1474 - 1595 ) had come  from Sind in 1587 and converted a large number of Hindus including ShethTopan in the time of Rao Bharmal l ( 1585 - 1631 ).  The descendants of Sheth Topan contributed to the business in Kutchh for about two centuries. But the latter generations of Sheth experienced extra poverty.
In East Africa , among  the greatest Ismaily heroes of East Africa was Varas Sir Thalia Topan, one of the descendants of Sheth Topan, who came from India as a small boy and worked with  the firm, M/S Jairam Shivji. (Swaly family firm ) and rose to be known as The King of the Ivory Trade.

Born on Wednesday September 21 - 1823  in  Lakhpat, Katchh Tharia Topan was a son of a small vegetable seller  .Unlettered , he was working with his father as a helper . When he was 12 years old he noticed one evening a playmate stealing money from a shop. He caught the boy,  recovered the money and as he went to return it , the owner of the shop , who without  hearing anything raised a hue and cry and  accused  the boy of the theft . Poor Tharia was severely abused and thrashed by the crowd. Fearing the worst and not daring to face his parents, he fled and jumped into the sea, got into the nearest Dhow and hid himself amidst the cargo . Scared and tired soon he fell asleep and when he woke up he found that the vessel was on the high seas and himself a stowaway! Compelled by thirst and hunger  Tharia came out  of his hiding place . The Tandel - Captain took pity on  the young boy and tended to his needs as now there was no chance to reverse the journey ! The captain with Tharia in tow, reached Zanzibar . Fortunately an accountant who was working with prominent Indian Firm Jairam Shivji of Mundra knew Tharia's father . He got Tharia the job of a garden sweeper for 6 shillings a month in the house of Ladwa Damj, the owner of the Firm.
From then on young Tharia's new journey began in earnest. He came to Zanzibar illiterate and penniless at the age of twelve. By the time he was 13 years of age Tharia  Topan learnt to sign his name , and  with his elegant hand writing , at age 18 became a scribe and  by the time he was 22  being honest , Tharia was put in charge of the credit department in the Firm of JairamShivji . He had also borrowed a small loan , bought a Donkey cart and driving it himself started buying cloves and coconuts from small farms and brought them to Zanzibar for sale while his job at Jairam Shivji continued .

Tharia paid back his loan , earned some money and went back to see his parents in Kutchh after ten years . His parents were extremely delighted to see that their long lost son not only was alive but rich as well. They arranged his marriage and he came back to Zanzibar with his wife and started his business with added vigour.  His first wife died in 1847, and his second wife died in 1863. In 1864,Tharia went back to his native land Kutchh once again and married for the third time Lady Janbai who was the mother of his six children. During his visits to India he sponsored and helped a good number of Ismailis to migrate to Zanzibar, many of them with his own expenses and employed them. Tharia then started to deal in spices, cloves, coconuts, timber and ivory as well by organising elephant hunting trips in the hinterland  of Tanganyika . He rose to be known as King of Ivory trade. In 1876 Tharia Topan took over as Chief of Customs in Zanzibar in 1876 and was now chief confidential and right hand man of Sultan Sayed Baragash.  His services or the Ismaily community was equally spectacular and invaluable. He was a munificent donor for numerous causes for the welfare of the community, building schools,hospitals , community halls , Jamaat Khana etc. He secured privileges for the Ismaily settlers from the Sultan of Zanzibar. Sheth Tharia Topan was considered to be one of the richest merchants in town and had already opened his offices in Bombay and also appointed his agents in all European ports. He financed the local and the European merchants as a banker  and had the distinction of meeting explorers like Dr. Charles Livingstone (1821-18 ) . In 1866 he had also played a key role in the Aga Khan case in Bombay.   

Tharia Topan was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1875  in London and again he was knighted  in 1890 in India . His highest honour came when Imam Hassan Ali Shah invested Sir ThariaTopan the title of " Varas"in recognition of his invaluable service to the Ismailia Community.

Gijsbert Oonk (2009) in his “Karimjee  Jivanjee Family: Merchant Princes of East Africa, 1800 – 2000” describes the Karimjee Jivanjee family as the  “Merchant Princes of EA" and rightly so ! Briefly, Karimjee Jivanjee family's journey started way back in 1825 when Jivanjee Budhabhoy , a merchant  from Kutchh Mandvi sailed to East Africa in a dhow and settled down in Zanzibar. And by the time he died in 1898  his family had not only expanded their businesses in East Africa but had already established solid trade connections with Europe . They were known as " Sisal barons of Tanga " and owned many properties, sisal farms and ran successfully a wide spread business Empire. They belonged to Bohora community. Their family's contribution to public institutions specially  in Zanzibar and all over Tanganyika -Tanzania is immense . They built hospitals,schools , gymkhana  clubs , mosques ,community halls not only in Zanzibar but all over East Africa and elsewhere . Two of Karimjeebrothers , Sir Yusufali and Sir Tayabali were honoured with knighthood by the  British Colonial Government  .   By 1943, they  had established their  offices in Dar-es - Salaam headed by Abdulkarinbhai Karimjee. On March 1958  Abdulkarim Yusufali Alibhoy Karimjee  amid pomp and celebrations, was appointed as the first Parliamentary Speaker of Tanganyika .                                                               

To this day the  Karimjee family continue their family tradition  of working for various social causes and donating generously  in spite of the fact that they had lost a good number of properties that were expropriated  from the family during post revolution Zanzibar as well as during nationalisation drive in Tanzania in 1971.

In response to Late His Holiness Sydenham Taher Saifuddin 's advice a great number of Bohoras had settled down in Zanzibar.  They are well known as disciplined noble people and as successful entrepreneurs. Januwala ,Karimjee Goribai family, Abdulhussain and Karachiwala, Sadikot, Sulemanji and many others have made their names in business communities in Zanzibar-Tanganyika as well as present day  Tanzania. They dealt and deal mostly in hardware , crockery , pharmaceuticals and had tin / glass cutting workshops  , abounded in prosperity and were exceptionally good in cricket, volleyball and other sports while a few qualified as lawyers and doctors . After the Revolution in Zanzibar some moved to Dar-es-Salaam and other parts of Africa where they re-established themselves successfully and others, mostly younger generation left for western countries in search of a better life.                                                                                                     

Zanzibar's oldest newspaper was a weekly Samachar published by Fazal Master whose establishment dated back to 1903. Initially the bilingual - English and Gujarati paper was circulated on Sunday only. It was later reorganised as a daily newspaper and first appeared on Monday August 21,1905. Such another newspaper was 'Zanzibar  Voice ' being published by Ibrahim Kassam and Rati Balsara started ' Adal Insaaf '. The Government Press published 'Mariffa besides the Gazette'.                                                                 

My parents Tarachand Gandhi and Labhuben Gandhi also had arrived by dhow in Zanzibar  in early 19th century  where my father had joined the customs service in Zanzibar. I was born in Pemba in 1931. At the time due to its strategic location near the East African coast and the Sultan's active encouragement, Zanzibar Isles was the main entry point to East Africa for Indian settlers.However, it was the other way round  for Suchak family.                         

Born in Verad in 1880 in Gujarat as one of the sons of Valjibhai Premji Suchak , Muljibhai Suchak sailed in a dhow with his parents  from Porbandar and landed in Dar-es-Salaam in 1893 at a very young age. Initially he worked as an employee and then moved to Zanzibar in 1894 - 95 where he was tasked to manage a clove farm belonging to one of the wives of the then Sultan. Being business minded Muljibhai got involved in buying and marketing cloves  and slowly diversified in to importation of textile as well.

In 1908 - 1909 Muljibhai got married, had 5 five children - three sons and two daughters who were all born  in Zanzibar.As their businesses expanded his three sons - Pradhanbhai  ,Chaganbhai  and Manilalbhai  joined the firm  one by one . Thus family's business identity Mulji Valji And Sons was established in 1920- 21. When the Sultan's wife, whose clove farm Muljibhai was managing, passed away in 1924,Muljibhai purchased her residential home as per her desire and will. Apart from marketing cloves, Mulji Walji And Sons diversified their business activities to include sole agencies of Sugar distribution from Kakirain  Uganda, textiles from India , cigarette from France, Ford cars, Ford Lorry Chasis and Good Year tyres and Carlfax petroleum products. In Late 1940,  they established Oil Manufacturing Unit and bought several sisal estates and properties in and around Dar . Muljibhai's sons Pradhabhai and Chaganbhai followed by their grandsons moved to Dar-es-Salaam and Manilalbhai the youngest son remained in Zanzibar.

Manilal Mulji Walji Suchak was born in  Zanzibar. After finishing his education in 1938 he joined his family business which was already established by then.  By this time the slave trade was completely dismantled and general  businesses were booming .  Muljibhai had established Kanyashala - girl's school in memory of Velabai - his wife. Manilalbhai  also was a leading member of the community and following the trend set up by his father established  a secondary school for the benefit of students in Zanzibar who had failed to secure a place for further education in Government schools  . He helped many deserving students with fees and facilities. Apart from his numerous commitments Manilalbhai was also President  of Hindu Mandal and and Chairman of VelabaiMuljiWaljiSuchakKanyashala and Hindu Union Secondary School.

His lasting legacy is a road that leads to Hindu Crematorium on the beach just a few miles from the Stone Town. The crematorium is just above high tide mark on the beach with a cliff drop of about a hundred feet. It has been on the same site since 1900. Probably it is the oldest Hindu Institution in continuous existence in East Africa. The cite for the crematorium was donated by Bhanjibhai way back, most probably even before 1900. Interestingly his full name is not known and the place is just known as ,' Bhanjibhai no Shambho - Bhanjibhai's Farm even now . It was in disrepair at the time. Also, for years during the high tide mourners had to struggle to lower the remains down the hundred steps to the pyre on the beach. The community under the leadership of Manilalbhai Suchak built a road from the top of the cliff leading to the pyre on the beach and completely renovated the crematorium.This work was just finished.

On Saturday 14th January 1961 Manilalbhai gave an inspiring talk at the Theosophical Society, and went walking with friends  to check the renovation work that was done at the crematorium. He was happy with the work done and wondered who was going to be the first lucky person whose body was going to be cremated in that almost new crematorium with all the new facilities!  Ironically as fate would have it, he had a massive heart attack and died on the same day and was in fact the first person to pass through that road and first to be  cremated at the newly renovated crematorium.That road is named after him.  In 1941, he had  married Lilamben  daughter of Gangaben and Juthalal VeljiChande. They had an open house for one and all and together they always welcomed students, sadhus , sages,  visiting sports teams , diplomats including Apa Pant and Dr . Radha Krishna as their guests. Manilalbhai died at a young age of 42 years and was mourned by people of all denominations. Over a thousand of them lined up the route when his funeral cortège passed through the narrow streets of Zanzibar. The procession made a brief stop at Mnazi Mona Ground where tributes were paid by HH Prince Jamshed bin Abdulla , The British Resident Sir George Moring , Sir Tayabali Karimjee , Shekh Ali Mushin Barwani , Sheikh Abeid Amani Karume and many others .  His wife Lilamben continued to live in Zanzibar in the same house. In 1971 following the nationalisation of properties in Tanzania she went to U.K. She was the pillar of strength for the whole family living in dignity until she passed away in 1997 leaving behind seven children and fourteen grandchildren. The history of those enterprising pioneers is very long and rich. There were Parsis ,Goans , Memons , Kharvas , Sunnis and Shias and Kutchhi artisans / smith communities who excelled in artwork . They built houses and created the wonderful wooden doors with arches, carved wooden chests, cupboards and so on. This is the stuff which are still a tourist attraction in  Zanzibar. It is a difficult exercise indeed, to describe those times gone by in a few pages.

However, one point though , is pertinent and obvious to all is that each and every one of these self made founders of economic development in Africa,had their women folks - wives , mothers , sisters ,daughters and even grandmothers stolidly standing with them working equally hard,  facing innumerable difficulties and helping guard their families welfare. 

Circumstances changed suddenly on 12th January 1964 when there was a revolution in Zanzibar which overthrew ad hoc the Afro Shirazi government including the Sultanet and established the Revolutionary Government led by Sheikh Abid Amani Karume  in Zanzibar.

But that is yet another story!



Oonk, Gisbert (2009) The Karimjee Jivanjee Family. Merchant Princes in East Africa, Amsterdam: Pallas Publication, 176 pp.


Author’s bio

Urmila Jhaveri  was born in the Island of Pemba near Zanzibar in 1931 and grew up in Dar-es-Salaam, the capital of Tanganyika during the harsh Colonial era. During World War II her family sailed from Dar-es-Salaam, all the way to Jamnagar in a traditional boat called Dhow. In 1948 her formal education stopped and informal education , exams and experiences began in earnest. She got married to Kanti Jhaveri when she was 17, raised her family with two kids and together with her husband took part in heady pre and post independence struggle in Tanganyika celebrating its independence from the British in 1961 and sharing its great and not so great moments. She joined the National Women's Organization - UWT and was much involved since its early formative days, visiting villages and settlements with her fellow African women leaders and stayed in these places to know their problems and issues and provide solutions. Her recent memoirs is: Dancing with Destiny'. Email: [email protected]

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