Merchant-kings and everymen: narratives of the South Asian diaspora of East Africa
Journal of Eastern African Studies, 1, (1), .
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The building of the Uganda railway at the turn of the nineteenth century brought about radical shifts in the notion of territory and the conception of time within East Africa. A sense of Indian Ocean continuity and cosmopolitanism signified by the pace of the dhow and the seaward perspective of coastal communities was substantially replaced by a new sense of time and territory determined by the speed of the train and the inland focus of colonial ambition. This paper explores this long moment of transition through a number of texts: the first year of the East African Standard (1902-03), the journal of Ebrahimji Noorbhai Adamji (1902-05) and three recent novels. These texts delineate the role of the South Asian diaspora in both the expansion of the colonial economy and the maintenance of an older sensibility. The founder of the African Standard, Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, held the contract for the recruitment of indentured labourers for the building of the railway and financed the establishment of Nairobi. While his newspaper displays complicity with colonial projects, it also reveals the disparity between the overtly expansive ideals and the narrowly national/racial aims of the empire. In Adamji's journal, the oscillation between the use of British time and Arbi - the Arabic Swahili system of time - is a notable imprecision that signifies the writer's position on a cusp between the world of coastal trade and life under colonial rule. Beneath the biographies of businessmen like Jeevanjee and Adamji, the history of the Asian presence in East Africa figures labourers, discarded wives, unsuccessful traders and children of mixed racial parentage: people whose position in the racial hierarchy of colonial East Africa becomes ever more obscure. The paper concludes by tracing the way in which three writers use the novel form to tell the relationship between class complicity and racial hierarchy which defined the Asian East African position during the period of British colonial rule.
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