An overview of Indian Migration and Diaspora in Africa (extended version)

Original was posted on- 12/04/2015 by lauraljpotter

Original title- A Brief Overview of Indian Migration and Diaspora in Africa

The Indian diaspora in Africa has seen a number of fluctuating migrations in the last two centuries. The majority of Indians came to Africa as indentured servants to the British. The use of indentured servants became particularly popular in the nineteenth century after the abolition of slavery. , as the next form of cheapest labour. 32,000 Indians were brought to East Africa in 1896 to build the Ugandan railway. Once the railway was complete in 1901, after the deaths of 2500 labourers in the five years it took to construct, many settled in various countries of East Africa and had their families join them. The migrants settled into local communities and began to work in the middling professions of these communities such as shopkeepers, artisans and doctors. This mirrors their position racially in the race system of African countries under colonial rule from the British. Whites occupied the most privileged position within the system, with Indians along with other Asians considered inferior to their white oppressors. However they did generally occupy a more privileged position than the Africans whose countries they lived in. It has been suggested that this position was generally accepted due to the fact that Indians found themselves able to flourish commercially, something that would not be afforded to them back in India. The British adapted the Hindu caste system that was already in place in India since Ancient times and they continued to do so in the nineteenth century. The system was as follows; Brahmins (Priests) remained at the top of the caste system, Khsatriyas (Warriors) were next, Vaishyas (Merchants/Landowners) followed them, Shudras (Servants/labourers) were of a lower caste and lastly the Untouchables (those who killed cattle for a living/eating the flesh of cattle) were considered to be out of caste and subordinate to all. The Indian labourers that were employed to build the railway would have been a lower caste.

As well as Indians migrating to Kenya and Uganda, those countries are often studied when analysing the Indian diaspora, other Indians migrated to other surrounding countries such as; Tanzania and Mozambique. These Indian Diasporas have not been studied as much and in some cases until recently. As a result we have less information about them. However, with the limited information we have it is still informative nonetheless. We will start with Tanzania. As with Kenya and Uganda, many Indians settled in India, those who came were mainly from the Gujarat region and were traders. Many Indians who settled in Tanzania were mainly found in the large port city, Dar es Salaam and Stone Town, Zanzibar. Zanzibar in particular was home to many Parsis. Parsis were originally from Persia that migrated to Gujarat and Sindh (now in Pakistan) and practice the Zoroastrian faith. Many of them worked as merchants and for the colonial government as civil servants. The father of Freddie Mercury, Bomi Bulsara worked as a Cashier for the Colonial Office in Zanzibar and the family lived there. After decolonisation there was an anti-Indian sentiment in Tanzania and many left the country for the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. Some went back to India and Pakistan. The situation was no different in Zanzibar. After the 1964 revelation, which was to destabilise the power the Arab/Asian ruling class many Africans were unhappy by this inequality and felt they were unfairly represented politically. As a result many of the Indian diaspora, namely Parsis fled to other areas in the Commonwealth with many settling in the UK.

The countries that have been covered so far were in the British Empire. There was a sizable Indian diaspora in Mozambique. Mozambique was not part of the British Empire but it was part of the Portuguese Empire in Africa. Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer noted how he spotted Hindu traders off the East coast of Africa. Many Indians took advantage of the trade route between East Africa and India for centuries. Some from the Vaishya caste settled in Mozambique during the nineteenth century. Muslim traders were also present in Mozambique and were involved in trade that included; ivory and selling cashew nuts that proved to be lucrative. Beforehand some traders were involved in the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade until it was outlawed. Some of the Indian Diaspora from South Africa continued to move up north towards Mozambique. Mozambique must have been considered a good place for the Indian diaspora and for their trade to prosper. So what went wrong?

Firstly, in the late nineteenth century there was an outbreak of plague in Mozambique and the Indian community was blamed for it. As a result, Indian migration to Mozambique as well as Asian migration in general was heavily restricted. This restriction was imposed from 1899 until 1907. However, it was still financially difficult for Indians who wanted to settle in Mozambique, the restriction was still in “force” in all but name.

Later on in the twentieth century, things took a worse turn for Indians in Mozambique after the Indian annexation of Goa in 1961. Prior to 1961, Goa was a Portuguese territory. The Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveria Salazar placed Indians in Mozambique in concentration camps and froze their bank accounts. The Portuguese claimed this was to protect them. However, another reason was that they had hoped for the Portuguese prisoners captured in Goa would be released. From the 1970s the decolonisation of Mozambique occurred. During this time many Indians left the country. Most of the Indians were of adherents of Ismailism, a branch of the Shia sect of Islam. However, unlike the Indian diaspora in other East African nations they were not forced out by those from inside the said countries they adopted as their new home. The Ismaili Indians were told to leave by an outside source, Aga Khan IV, an Imam. The case with East Africa being, they were told or made feel to leave from inside the country.

Not only did Indians migrate to East Africa, many had migrated to South Africa. Before the abolishment of slavery and arrival of the British, Dutch traders had acquired Indian slaves from the Mughal Empire and settled them in the Cape. The Mughal Empire ruled most of India apart from the southern tips. These Indian slaves were from Bengal, today the territory is in the Republic of India and Bangladesh during the 1600s. Interestingly enough they were never classed as ‘Indian’ or ‘Asian’ by Dutch Traders. They were called, ‘Cape Malay’ or ‘Cape Coloured’. However, there was no substantial rise in the Indian Diaspora until the British arrived at the Cape. Many Indians were transported to Natal Colony, today part of South Africa to work as indentured labourers, like what has been discussed previously in the post about Indians migrating to East Africa. They came to work on sugar, tea and cotton plantations that were introduced in Natal colony as the land was deemed appropriate for this type of cultivation to flourish. Again, due to a lack of indigenous labour, labour had to be imported from another Colonial hold, India. Over five decades c. 150,000 indentured labourers were imported from Tamil speaking areas, Hindi speaking areas and Telugu speaking areas. In terms of religion many of them identified as Hindu or Christian. There was a smaller Muslim population too. Colonial officials felt indentured labourers were a better choice than African workers because many of them were economically self-sufficient or that the British felt their working practices were not suitable for a growing economy based on a large supply and demand.

As with the Indian diaspora in East Africa some decided to remain in South Africa after their service. Many established themselves rather quickly in industry. These included; agriculture, the railways, fishing and clerks. Others established themselves as traders, but these Indian traders arrived after the indentured labourers. The main difference here was these traders paid for themselves in search of a new life in South Africa, whereas those in indentured labour could not afford this. Their payment was considered to be labour. These traders were mainly Muslim or Hindu Indians from the Gujarat region and Uttar Pradesh. In spite of large numbers settling in Durban, not all of these migrants settled there. Some migrants moved inland towards Johannesburg, establishing trading posts. Much to the dismay of white and even African tradesmen there was some conflict because there were more Indian tradesmen than white and African tradesmen.

Many Indian migrants faced discrimination in South Africa throughout the years, but unlike Uganda they were not forced to leave and unlike Kenya they didn’t feel as if they had to choose between British citizenship and Kenyan citizenship in Post-Colonial times. However, Indian South Africans were far from being free citizens in their new home. Indian migrants suffered from early discrimination in the colonies of; Natal, Cape Colony, Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Some colonies treated Indians more harshly than others. For example in the late 1800s in the Orange Free State, a Boer held territory, Indians were banned from living there. Generally Indians were restricted from certain areas and professions in the other states. For example in the Transvaal, Indians were banned from working in the mining industry and they were not allowed to walk on pavements. In Natal voting rights for Indians were restricted. Moreover, Mahatma Gandhi stated he received racial discrimination when he resided in the country as a Lawyer. In Cape Colony although racial discrimination occurred, it was not as bad in other colonies where they were banned entirely or that there voting rights were restricted. In actual fact Cape Colony proved to be the most lenient towards Indian migrants as they were allowed to vote, own property and prosper in trade.

During Apartheid, effective from 1948 until 1991 the population of South Africa was segregated according to the colour of their skin. People who were not considered to be white were racially discriminated. Indians living in South Africa at the time were not considered to be white, they were often classed as coloured and in some cases black. They suffered racial segregation just as much as the native population. Discrimination occurred in everyday life in South Africa. This included public facilities, employment opportunities, education and events.

The Indian diaspora is one of the largest in the world and although many have left African countries, some migrated back to Africa after the troubles of expulsion or discrimination. Today there are c. 40,000 people of Indian origin living in Mozambique, c.50,000 in Uganda, c.70,000 Tanzania, c.110,000 in Kenya and c.1,300,000 in South Africa.

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