Records of Arab/Indian ventures both before and after the abolition of the East African slave trade show that some Indian entrepreneurs were masters of commerce and niche supply. Long-established Arab merchants and rulers became their mentors and trading partners, brothers in arms, chasing lucre in the harsh interior. By the time British ‘discoverers’ arrived (innocents in many ways), these men had seen and done it all.
My maiden surname was
Damji. One Ludha Damji, an early pioneer trader, provided essential goods and ‘mutually advantageous’ (you understand) banking for Speke and Livingstone. There is no evidence of family ties here, but I do feel a frisson that this unknown chap made himself indispensable to heroes of the imperial imagination. Speke was appreciative, understood the hardships of such lone merchants in the jungle, their ‘utter banishment, worse than that of hermits’. Livingstone, on the other hand, complained that Indians were ‘local Jews’ who were sabotaging his explorations. These explorers used knowledge gained by the Indians who had preceded them into the interior. Speke and Richard Burton were among those who were given information and advice. No credit was ever given to the brown pioneers. 6
In the jungle, a number of British explorers and early administrators found dark terrors within their hearts, deeper than any fear previously experienced, primeval. M. G. Vassanji captured the internal chaos of one colonial master in his novel
The Book of Secrets (1994): ‘…bouts of sleeplessness, depression, doubt, taking to his diary to kill time and tire the brain, taking local women to kill loneliness’. One distant relative of mine who was a big-game hunter admitted to the same feelings and once pulped a young servant to near-death in the middle of the night in a camp close to the lions of Tsavo national park: ‘You are going mad sometimes, because nothing you could trust, the eyes of the animals in the night all around, the eyes of the blacks looking at you, thinking maybe of killing you, just like the animals, something happening inside which you can’t stop. The boy stayed with me but was blind in one eye and afraid to speak after that. But I took care of the family.’
Explorations by Europeans were driven by personal ambition and frontier adventurism. However, around 1850 the pressure for greater national influence became an imperative. British Abolitionists grew more determined to stop Arab slave traders, Christian evangelicals clamoured to take the Bible into ‘the heart of darkness’, and Britain’s continental adversaries were establishing spheres of influence.
As the nineteenth century drifted into the unsettling fin-de-siècle, European colonial powers muscled up for yet more savage intra-continental competition, and the Scramble for Africa gathered pace. Explorations into parts unknown to the west had already begun. The formal carve-up of the continent took place from the 1880s through to World War I. In 1888 a royal charter was granted to set up a British trading company in East Africa. Political control soon followed.
The British establishment believed it was meant to rule over ‘savage’ Africans, who were expected to be grateful in return, a wholly new doctrine at this time. 7
Indian indentured labourers were transported over in the 1880s to build a railway line from the coast to Lake Victoria, a lunatic Victorian idea which in the end entirely justified its lunacy. The line finally reached its destination, Uganda, in 1901. Some of the Indian workers were skilled craftsmen, others were humble folk lured by wily agents who got illiterates to place their thumb marks on papers which bound them for years. The illiterates were from the poorest, landless classes, whose lives had got more wretched under British rule. In East Africa, they suffered further, living in unprotected encampments along the lengthening railway line. Death due to attacks by lions, disease and depression saw off many of the workers. Half returned as invalids.
This system also provided labour in plantations around the world. More than two million men and women were taken from India; most never knew where they were headed. They were dehumanized too. The merchants Gillanders, Arbuthnot and Co. officially described indentured labourers as ‘more akin to monkeys than man. They have no religion, no education… no wants beyond eating, drinking and sleeping.’ The same firm reassured a West Indian plantation owner: ‘We are not aware that any great difficulty would present itself in sending men to the West Indies, the natives being perfectly ignorant of the place they go to or the length of the voyage they are undertaking.’
By 1910, concern was growing about this exploitation. The viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, objected to the system ‘of forced labour entailing much misery and degradation, different but a little from slavery. It is not the responsibility of the government of India to provide coolies for the colonies.’ 8 9
Just before he died, an elderly survivor, Lalli, described his enslavement to an oral historian:
I was jobless and heard that in Lahore some people were recruiting boys. I must have been fourteen at the time. I went there. They didn’t say anything about Africa at all… The recruiter gave me a few rupees and I was damn happy. I went off without informing my parents even. Me and the other boys were put on boats to Karachi. I though we were maybe going to India, but we ended up in Mombasa. I was in the first lot of labourers to start building the railway.
Mr Ravinder Singh told me:
My uncle was one of these kidnapped railway slaves. He used to tell us they were beaten on the boat and some were thrown over if they argued with the British captains. If they asked where they were going, they got no answers – they couldn’t speak or understand English. So grown men cried like children. Some killed themselves. Sometimes these were younger boys who were forced to accept sex, the bad way, the sinful way, forbidden by God. My uncle worked making the line until one of his legs had to be cut off after an accident. Every time I travelled on that train from Kampala to Mombasa, I remembered the men who had made that line and how they were treated by the British.
No written accounts exist to tell us about these men, their last impressions of India and their responses when they came off the boats.
They docked in Mombasa. Some must have been overawed by the black men who rowed out to greet them, singing in strange tongues. But they must have felt a surge of pleasure and relief too after their hellish journey. The port shimmered and breeze cooled the skin on the hottest day. Mombasa smelled of the best things in life – food, flowers and salty sensuality. The men had left behind poverty, dry unyielding land and bad governance. How greedily they must have lunged or longed for pleasures to satisfy their desires. The town was described by an engineer, Lt. Col. J. H. Patterson, who arrived there in March 1898 to design bridges for the railway line:
Everything looked fresh and green, and an oriental glamour of enchantment seemed to hang over the island. The old town was bathed in brilliant sunshine and reflected itself lazily in the motionless sea; its flat roofs and dazzlingly white walls peeped out dreamily between waving palms and lofty coconuts, huge baobabs and spreading mango trees.
From September to May, the trade winds brought in boats and the town filled up. Sailors roamed, streets sparkled with lanterns and lights, boarding houses livened up, ladies of the night came into their own. Beautiful carved wooden doors – the designs amalgamations of Indian, African and Arab motifs – guarded the clandestine life within. Intense perfumes slipped into the lanes, the lure of femininity. Hidden in claustrophobic streets were darkened shops where these scents were made. Fathers and theirs before passed down these secrets to sons just as they had done since the seventeenth century. They were still there when we departed for the West.
Female customers waited shyly while one of these olfactory magicians touched their wrists to check their body temperatures, and sniffed hands and backs of necks politely to pick up individual body smells. He made them walk across the room and watched their moves. Then, patiently, he created small vials of bespoke yellow liquid, unique and exact, he claimed. Fully veiled women had only fragrance to entice attention. Many a man stalked and married the object of his infatuation only to be savagely disappointed when the black silk came off. The fragrance had made false promises. Wedding
oudh was kept in a jewelled casket. During special ceremonies (ladies only), a bride-to-be would squat over a smoky clay pot with dying embers of oudh which was first flamed to slowly give up its sticky, musky scent. Small plates of orange-coloured halva, karanga pak (peanut brittle) and salted almonds were always on the perfumery counters and tables, and a kahava maker sat in the corner offering coffee.