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South Asians in East Africa (1880-1920) with a Particular Focus on Zanzibar: Toward a Historical Explanation of Economic Success of a Middlemen Minority

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image of African and Asian Studies
For more content, see Journal of Asian and African Studies.

The main object of this article is to falsify the common historical portrait of South Asians in Zanzibar and East Africa. Most studies, a-priori, assume the outstanding business success of the Asian minority in East Africa. In explaining this success, they emphasize common explanations and theories for their economic success, like hard work, having a superior business mind, using their ethnic resources for capital accumulation and knowledge of (international) markets. In this article I attempt to explain the success of South Asians in Zanzibar, East Africa, from a historical point of view. My main argument is that South Asians started with a far more favorable socio-economic position as compared to their African counterparts. They were more than Swahilis, accustomed with a money economy and the concept of interest. In addition, they knew how to read, write and produce account books. Finally, they had access to the rulers, and were able to negotiate profitable terms of trade. Nevertheless, many were not successful at all and went bankrupt. Therefore, the success of South Asians in East Africa may be explained as the outcome of a 'trial and error' process. The successful remained in East Africa, whereas others left. India remained a safety net for those who did not make out as well as a source for new recruitment of traders, shopkeepers and clerks.


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