That the premier engineering institute IIT-Madras found its first home abroad on a small archipelago located on the East coast of Africa is hardly surprising. Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous Tanzanian province, shares historical links with India that go as long back in time as the 16th century or even further. Indians did not just form a robust diaspora community in Zanzibar in terms of numbers, they were also prosperous, politically active and found themselves in a racially privileged position.
Social scientist Saada Wahab, in a paper published by the Gottingen University Press in 2022, has suggested that traders from India along with those from Persia and Arabia had commercial links with the East African coast that went as long back as the first millennium CE.
A Greek written record dated to the first century CE mentions Indian goods on the east coast of Africa. Travellers such as al-Masudi in the ninth century CE and al-Idrisi in the 12th century narrated stories of Indian trade links with East Africa. Indian-made glass beads, cotton clothes, measuring scales, weighing systems and cowries found in archaeological excavations in this region point to the extent of the involvement of those from the Indian subcontinent in East Africa’s economic history.
Records suggest that by the time the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama reached the coastal cities of East Africa in the 15th and early 16th centuries, he was surprised to find a large number of Hindus and Muslims from India in the region, most of them being traders from Gujarat.
The Portuguese arrival and intervention in East African coastal trade, in fact, destroyed the African and Arabic trade links, but was less disruptive towards trade links with India. Traders from India of non-Muslim lineage are known to have found themselves at an advantageous position under the Portuguese.
Historian Edward Alpers in his article, ‘Gujarat and the trade of East Africa’ (1976) noted that “the Portuguese were determined to eliminate Muslim merchants, especially Arabs. Accordingly, the Hindu and Jain merchants of Gujarat were ideally suited to further increase their domination of the traditional trade of Asia.”
In the case of Zanzibar though, the real fillip for Indian migration happened in 1648 when Saif bin Sultan of the Yaruba dynasty of Oman defeated the Portuguese at Mombasa and drove them away from East Africa. Zanzibar then turned into an overseas territory of Oman. Perhaps the most important event that helped consolidate Indian diaspora in Zanzibar happened in 1840 when the Omani ruler, Said bin Sultan, shifted his capital there from Muscat.
As noted by historian Ned Bertz in his article, ‘The Indian Diaspora in Tanzania’ (2021), at that time, there were over a thousand Indians, mostly from peninsular Gujarat and adjacent Kutch in residence in the Omani court in Muscat, plus a few hundred already in Zanzibar in addition to scattered small settlements in the African mainland opposite to the archipelago. Said convinced the Indians settled in Muscat to move with him to Zanzibar and settle and spread their commerce there. Consequently, he also offered them tax-free trade, protections and incentives, apart from installing them in important government positions such as that of the collector of customs at Zanzibar port.
Indians invested heavily in commercial enterprises based in Zanzibar, profiting abundantly from them and finding themselves in possession of significant property. They also financed slaving expeditions and were known to be slave owners themselves. Bertz writes that the “booming economy and abundant opportunities to garner wealth attracted migrants from India, especially those possessing capital, and their population in Zanzibar topped two thousand in the 1850s, three thousand in the 1860s, four thousand in the 1870s and totaled about 5,500 by 1880”.
In an interview with The Indian Express, Bertz explained that “this relative prosperity marked them (the Indian diaspora)… as a privileged, but sometimes resented, minority in the transition to African-led independence.”
In 1890, Zanzibar came under British influence and remained a protectorate until 1963, when it gained independence. Under the British, the Indians played a significant role in pushing for their own political rights as well as fighting for the Independence of Zanzibar. The first organised Indian protest against the British administration at Zanzibar took place in 1909 to oppose higher taxes and the new laws. In 1914, some members of the community came together to form the Indian National Association (INA) to represent the economic and political rights of Indians in the region.
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By the 1930s, a rather bitter and long drawn out struggle emerged and was carried out against colonial policies regulating the clove industry, which was largely dominated by Indians. The incident drew sharp responses from the strongest of nationalist leaders in India at that time, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The episode has been noted by Bertz in his article to have been the “most sustained effort ever undertaken in India on behalf of Indians overseas”.
In addition, several individual Indians joined political parties such as the Afro-Shriazi party and the Zanzibar National Party to demand the Independence of Zanzibar. The role of the Muslim Association, formed in the 1940s by Indian Muslims, in fighting for the Independence of Zanzibar too was significant.
Notwithstanding the life of privilege and prosperity experienced by Indians at Zanzibar, there were also moments of inter-racial conflicts. The conflicts are known to have exploded during the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 that was mainly targeted at the Arab population, but many Indians bore a significant brunt and many fled to the Tanzanian mainland after Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika.