The Late Pre-Colonial and Early Colonial Period

The mention of railway and lake-port towns has already brought us forward to our next historical period. In the 1880s the European powers partitioned Africa and even the government of the Sultan of Zanzibar was taken under control, The colonial period brought some difficulty to the Ismailis for they were not given full rights of political freedom or this right to settle where they wished. Also the colonial economic policies were not exactly framed with them in view: Europeans did not want orientals to compete with them economically or in running the colonies or in settling there. The Isma’i1īs had to make the best of each situation as it arose. On the other hand the colonial period brought security and better communications. The Isma’ilis know the colonial system, they were already British Indian subjects, they understood its workings. They also knew Africa and the Africans. In the end the Ismailis, who were there before the colonialists, managed to hold on, prosper and outlast them. It was not easy. The study of the biography of a number of leading Ismailis of those days gives us an impression of the times and of the role the community was called upon to play. A fair amount of biographical material is available orally from the ramifies of these men who still live in East Africa. lsmaīlī publications such as Ismaili Prakash and Noorum Mobin have digests of material, and various Who’s Whos like Shanti Pandit's Asians in East and Central Africa (Nairobi 1963) have some historical material, though the portraits are not of the "warts-and-all' variety. Here it must suffice just to tell the tale of Allidina Visram. [16]

He was a Kaira Cutchi who came to Zanzibar in 1863 and expanded the small trading business he had started to Bagamoyo. Thence he traded up to Ujiji. During his visit of 1899 Imam Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah advised Sheth Allidina to pay great attention to Mombasa. He had been trading in cloves, wax and ivory in exchange for cloth and had undertaken contracts to equip and supply hunting and missionary safaris to the interior. When the railway was started Sheth Allidina Visram supplied food and other necessities to the builders. He opened shops to serve them. He even acted in places as a paymaster general. When the railway was completed he extended his operations into Uganda to such places as Entebbe, Jinja, Masaka. and Kampala. He look up cotton buying, ginning and export He had more than a hundred shops; many Khojas came to work in them and in his other businesses. When they had saved something, they began enterprises of their own. The Agha Khan honored him with the title of Vazier. Vazier Visram extended his business more and more and not all his creditors paid him back. The first World War led to great business difficulties in East Africa. The writer's father, W. H. King, who fought1here with the Indian Expeditionary Force from 1915 to 1918. used to say that the whole natural line of business communication between Tanga and Mombasa, Arusha and Nairobi, Kisumu and its southwestern hinterland was broken up. He described the sufferings of the lndian duka keepers who were merrily raided by both sides as the battle ebbed and flowed. The Belgians coming in from the Congo into Rwanda and Burundi and then crossing the lake to push towards Tabora treated the Indian traders in the same way as they advanced and the Germans retreated. Vazier Visram was hard hit by the war and made the long and terrible journeys up to the Congo trying to build up his business again. He largely failed in this and died in 1916.

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