Settled Strangers


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

Author : Gijsbert Oonk

Sage Publications (I) Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi; Year:2013; Pages:270; Price:Rs.795

Reviewed by Brig. Suresh C. Sharma (retd.), freelance writer and adviser to the telecom industry.  E-mail: 

The term “settled strangers” is applied to a migrant population which has settled for three or more generations at a new location.  Alas, the “settlers” are not integrated with the local population.

The book aims at understanding the business, migration and economic history of the Asians in East Africa. It provides a history of South Asians through interviews with the families settled there.  

These “settlers” have been overlooked, both – in the mainstream history of India and Africa.  This is surprising since they outnumber the Europeans ten-to-one and have made significant contribution to the African economy. But they suffered discrimination; they were not allowed to hold certain jobs or possess land. It was done on the pretext of protecting the natives from exploitation by the Asians. This may have encouraged and compelled them to do well in trade and commerce to prove their genius. They depended on the Europeans to get licenses and tax exemptions while the Europeans depended on them to explore trading opportunities and take up jobs in civil services. After independence, they were marginalized as a result of the Africanisation programmes.

India was divided into India and Pakistan in 1947. Fifteen years later, independent states of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania emerged out of East Africa. While earlier, the South Asians were British citizens, they now had to choose citizenship. Often, a family had members and business in two or more of these countries. Some Muslims from Kutch expected more sympathy from Pakistan and would be heard cheering the Pakistan cricket team.

In 1972, President Idi Amin forced South Asians to leave. Many left from the other African states under the apprehension of similar rules there. Most of them opted to go to UK, Canada or USA and not to India or Pakistan. About fifty percent of South Asians in Tanzania and Kenya remained and were proud to play a part in building up the new nations.

The Indian Ocean served as a connection between India and Africa; the ocean was not considered an obstacle. Travel between India and Africa depended on the monsoons. The South Asians had to stay for a few weeks to a few months in Africa. Till the 19th century, only a few Indians settled in Africa. The author interviewed a number of settled South Asians to determine the pattern of migration and their activities. Migrants from India risked their lives travelling by dhow across stormy seas, as also threat from pirates.

Trading relations were strengthened after the establishment of the British Empire in Africa. Between 1880 and 1920, the number of South Asians in Africa rose from 6000 to 54,000. The South Asians had an advantage over the Africans since they were already familiar with market economy and concept of interest. Not all Indians came with capital. They got support from the community. They worked hard and reinvested profits in business.

In the early days, the Hindu women stayed behind due to religious beliefs. In 1832, Seyyid Said, ruler of Oman shifted his capital to Zanzibar and encouraged the South Asians by ensuring religious freedom and concessions for trade. He urged the Hindus to let their wives accompany them. But the Hindus tended to settle with their wives much later than the Muslims. It was due to cultural and religious habits and marriage patterns. The traders from India were exposed to many different cultures and peoples. Interaction with Africans and Europeans led to changes in food habits, dress and language. Some of the Indians who were strict vegetarians started taking non-vegetarian food. A small part of the third generation enjoyed the taste of beer and wine.

In the beginning of the 20th century, there was a decline in the Indian Ocean trade in favour of trade with Europe. The Asian businessmen realized that trade with Europe was more valuable. They learnt the English language and adopted the Western dress style. The Asians were traders, bankers and brokers in Africa. They had to deal with Arabs, Africans and Europeans. This required education and they established their own schools. The more prosperous ones sent their children to UK for studies. This led to decline in interaction with India.

The emergence of independent African states of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania boosted the African people’s confidence and their dependence on the Asians waned. On 5th August 1972, Idi Amin gave the Asians thirty days to pack up and leave. A large number of Indians opted to go to UK, Canada and USA instead of India.

The book endeavours to comprehend the various communities that do not belong to nations, but are still part of those national states.

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