In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Eastern Africa and the South Asian Diaspora

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Diaspora and Transnationalism
  • Identities
  • Literary Analysis/Critique
  • Novels, Short Stories, Poems, and Plays
  • Railways
  • The Indian Question
  • Race and Citizenship
  • Political Participation, Advocacy, and Agitation
  • Newspapers, Political Pamphlets, Photo and Radio Journalism, and Studio Photography
  • Africanization and Nationalization

African Studies Eastern Africa and the South Asian Diaspora
Andrew Mickleburgh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0228


People interacted across the Indian Ocean for centuries before numbers arriving in East Africa from India increased with colonial rule. Although “South Asian”/”Asian” is now commonly used in scholarship and daily life in East Africa to refer to citizens and residents with ancestral roots in South Asia, “Indian” has been deployed for most of the time under discussion, including to migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The label “Indian” has been used to include and exclude, for instance to make and deny political claims. “Indian” has not been an immutable term, but it has been modified, subverted, and reworked in practice. Indians have and occasionally still continue to be treated as an addendum, a separate and distinct phenomenon, strangers and a perpetual foreign group, rather than integral to East Africa where their influence and contributions include, but are not limited to, the economy, politics, civil society, literature, arts, and the built environment. Understanding their lives is also significant for African and South Asian history, as well as to many wider areas of scholarship, including on multiracial societies, diaspora, identity, and gender. It also highlights the dangers of homogenization when naming communities; the importance of understanding inequalities within communities; the need to situate all interactions between people in their specific time and place; and the necessity of recognizing continuities as well as change. Typically one-dimensional representations of Indians in East Africa as male economic actors left Indian women and other political and social roles, identities, and subjectivities largely invisible. Scholarly attention has its origins largely since the 1960s. In the 1960s and 1970s, political scientists focused their interest on the status of Indians after independence, economists on the roles that Indians had played and would play in their economies, and anthropologists on studies of social structures and the persistence of cultural traits. The focus has since broadened to include impacts of globalization, transnational networks and practices, and nationalism in East Africa. Diverse opportunities for further research exist, such as examining how differences between and within Indian communities may relate to particular localities, the roles African labor and patronage have played in the success or failure of Indian enterprises, and issue surrounding recent Indian migrants.

General Overview

To understand Indians in East Africa it has always been necessary to look beyond national and regional boundaries. Ghai 1965 helps to address significant gaps in knowledge and comprehension of Indians in East Africa, plus problems of minorities in plural societies more generally. One of the first major economic and political historical studies of Indians in East Africa to draw extensively on primary documentary and oral sources, Mangat 2012, originally published in 1969, continues to be widely cited. Together, Seidenberg 1996 and Salvadori 1989 provide an unrivalled, comprehensive, and clear overview of the history and cultures of Indians in East Africa up to the closing decades of the twentieth century. The papers in Adam 2015 provide equally accessible updates on a wide range of matters. The general migration history of Indians to East Africans is well documented. The treasure trove of information in the 143 extracts in Mungeam 1978 contain much contextual and specific information about Indians in East Africa. Gregory 1993 demonstrates the exceptional influence of Indians on the history of East Africa and the heterogeneous nature of complex Indian intra- and intergroup relationships. It provides a detailed discussion of Indian employment, including in a number of underreported activities. Bharati 1972 presents a penetrating analysis of racial, communal, and caste politics.

  • Adam, Michel, ed. Indian Africa: Minorities of Indian-Pakistani Origin in Eastern Africa. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Mkuki na Nyota, 2015.

    The thirteen chapters provide multidisciplinary and wide-ranging coverage with an emphasis on how the past and present shape identities and daily lives, including communal activities, family life, livelihoods, and relations with others. Those new to the field are likely to find the glossary and inventory of main places very useful.

  • Bharati, Agehananda. The Asians in East Africa: Jayhind and Uhuru. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1972.

    Ethnographer Bharati (née Stephen Fischer) asserts that caste and ideas of racial purity were a major source of patronizing and antagonistic views toward Africans. Despite the very limited historical detail, it includes a useful chapter on extant interpersonal relations between Indian men and women and a discussion of the processes of caste and class mobility (“upcasting”) among Hindu and Shia Muslim migrants to East Africa.

  • Ghai, Dharam P. Portrait of a Minority: Asians in East Africa. Nairobi, Kenya: Oxford University Press, 1965.

    A widely cited collection of six papers. The contribution by Yash Ghai remains particularly noteworthy as a thoughtful and still pertinent examination of integration and assimilation as approaches to addressing problems facing Indians. Ghai acknowledges that this would require changes in Indians’ attitudes and behaviors, but also an understanding by Africans of Indian dilemmas and sympathy for their efforts.

  • Gregory, Robert G. South Asians in East Africa: An Economic and Social History, 1890–1980. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993.

    Indian employment by occupation is meticulously detailed historically, identifying differences within East Africa and policy issues apropos European and African interests. Scores of short biographies give the book a very human face and comprehensively rebut the paradigm that economic and social development was a product solely of the civilizing mission of Europeans. Concludes with a balanced assessment of critiques regarding Indians’ repatriation of earnings out of East Africa.

  • Mangat, Jagjit Singh. A History of the Asians in East Africa, ca. 1886 to 1945. Jersey, UK: Founthill Trust, 2012.

    Originally published in 1969 (New York: Oxford University Press). Examines major themes and provides a useful overview, helping to fill gaps in the growing amount of literature beginning to appear at that time. Largely sympathetic toward Indians, challenging some of the stereotypes and criticisms levelled at Indians. Suggests that the consolidation of British rule in East Africa assisted Indians, and that, by aiding Indian enterprise, Britain probably gained as much as Indians.

  • Mungeam, G. H. Kenya: Select Historical Documents, 1884–1923. Nairobi, Kenya: East African Publishing House, 1978.

    Provides easy access to key documents and articles relating to Kenya’s early colonial history, with many referring directly or indirectly to Indians. Examples include the foreword to A. M. Jeevanjee’s “An Appeal on Behalf of the Indians in East Africa”; an extract from Simpson’s 1914 “Report on Sanitary Matters in the East African Protectorate”; an obituary notice for Allidina Visram; and a 1921 article from the newspaper Sekanyolya titled “Indian versus Native Claims.”

  • Salvadori, Cynthia. Through Open Doors: A View of Asian Cultures in Kenya. Rev. ed. Nairobi, Kenya: Kenway, 1989.

    Originally published in 1983 (Nairobi, Kenya: Kenway). Assiduously researched, the first and still most comprehensive synthesis of the history and cultures of each Indian community in Kenya, including their places of origin and key aspects of religious and social life. Profusely illustrated with helpful line drawings and photographs; includes useful appendixes covering the locations and dates of schools, hospitals and newspapers and an annotated bibliography of eight works on Kenya by Indians in their own languages.

  • Seidenberg, Dana April. Mercantile Adventurers: The World of East African Asians, 1750–1985. New Delhi: New Age International, 1996.

    A thorough, chronologically ordered description and analysis of the history, economic, political, and philanthropic contributions of Indians to East Africa. Explores race relations, including anti-Indian sentiment and the evolution of Indian disillusionment with British rule in East Africa. Considers many Indian and other personalities; includes a chapter on Indian women influential in various arenas in East Africa whose contributions had, until then, been largely unrecorded.

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