The East African Baloch

In 1821, the Sultan and Imam of Oman, Seyyid Said bin Sultan Al Busaidi, hired an Iranian fleet to invade the islands and ports of East Africa. The Iranian fleet leased by the Sultan of Oman consisted mostly of Baluchi and Sindhi/Cutchi mercenaries, with a few Arab, Persian, and Pathan officers from India. Almost all of these, after their families had arrived from Iran and India, settled in the coastal towns in or around the forts and the newly built camps (e.g., Saa-teeni north of Zanzibar City and Fort Jesus in Mombasa – the largest fortification in East Africa), with the Baluchi cavalry settling in Zanzibar City at the site of the present Haile Selassie School.

With the expansion of Zanzibari trade and political influence in the interior of Tanganyika, Baluchi squadrons were dispatched to Tabora in central Tanganyika and Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika. In 1873, about half of the 3,000 Zanzibari troops engaged in the war in Unyanyembe in the interior of Tanganyika against the Nyamwezi ruler Chief Mirambo were mercenary Wabulushi from Iran and Washihiri from Hadramawt in South Yemen. A number of Baluchi soldiers joined trade caravans as guards and reached the Congo with the legendary Zanzibari trader Tippu Tip (Hamed bin Muhammad al-Murjebi, who had under his command 1,600 armed men – both freemen and slaves – in his caravans and depots). Tippu Tip became the first and only Zanzibari governor of the copper province of Katanga (the present Shaba Province) in Eastern Congo; he later became the first Belgian governor of Katanga for a short time when Belgium occupied the Congo after the European scramble for Africa was concluded in 1890. Many Baluchis thus served in the Belgian Congo army for some years before returning to Tanganyika, Zanzibar, and Kenya just before World War I. During 1891–1919, some Baluchi soldiers also served in the German colonial army in Tanganyika; some of them later joined the British forces in Tanganyika after World War I.

Earlier, the Baluchis in East Africa were known also as Mabulushi (singular: Bulushi), and almost all of them spoke Swahili as their native language. Today, some of them speak a mixture of Baluchi and Swahili because of the influx of new Baluchi immigrants. The early Baluchi settlers frequently intermarried with other Muslims of East Africa, who were themselves of diverse ethnic origin, and adopted Swahili as their native language, though often Baluchi households received ‘‘fresh blood’’ as new immigrants from their old country, Iranian Baluchistan, arrived to join their relatives and friends.

East Africans of Baluchi origin are Sunni Hanafi. There are no special Baluchi mosques or jamati/jamaatkhana (community centers), but the Baluchis usually gather at a particular Sunni mosque and socialize and intermarry freely with other Sunni Muslims. (The few Shia Iranians in East Africa socialize more with the South Asian Khoja Shia Ithna Asheria, whose mosques and community centers they use.) For many Wabulushi in East Africa, the ‘‘Baluchi’’ identity is self-perceived, just as it is for most of the ‘‘Arabs’’ of East Africa; one is a Baluchi because of one’s patrilineal descent, even if one does not speak the Baluchi language.

from Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi, The Baluchi of East Africa: Dynamics of Assimilation and Integration

The Baluch from the coastal region of Makran were pushed from the extreme misery of their country towards Persia and towards the coasts of Arabia. Here, they offered themselves to the Omani sultans as soldiers, sailors and bodyguards for pay that, though even modest, could represent the difference between life and death for them and for their families.

At that time, the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba were administered by governors representing Sa’id bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’id (r.1806-1856) and exercised all power on his behalf. The military support furnished by these representatives with extensive authority over the islands and their affairs, consisted of special troops of proven trustworthiness, that is to say, Baluch corps “closely tied” to the Al Bu Sa’id by fundamentally economic agreements. The loyalty these Baluch soldiers had for the Omani ruling family at a time when there was much anarchy amongst the groups of Oman, earned them lasting trust with the Sultan who deployed them to guard all his palaces and interests in the region.

The first settlers on the East African coast were the Baluch soldiers, who until the establishment of the Sultanate in the 1840s, maintained army posts in the major centres of Mombasa, Zanzibar and Pemba. These men intermarried with the local Waswahili and were quickly assimilated into their culture and society. They were later followed by whole families who left Baluchistan in the hope of finding better life along the Swahili coast, which arose at the time as an important manufacturing centre and only later became the hub of international maritime trade with Asia. Most of the Baluch came from Kasarkand, although their brothers later followed them in from Sarbaz, Lur and Muscat. Although the life and times of Baluch on the Swahili coast during the 1800s is quite obscure, it seems however that Mombasa was the major Baluch settlement at the time. It is believed that the first non-African to go into Maasailand was a Baluch, so too was the first non-African to be welcomed into the royal court of the Kabaka of Buganda. As they moved inland, the Baluch founded cluster communities in Djugu and Bunia in the Congo; Soroti, Arua and Kampala in Uganda; and Iringa, Tabora, Mbeya and Rujewa in Tanzania; probably there was a Baluch family in almost every main Swahili town.

The Baluch settled in Mombasa and developed a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, preferring to engage in small real estate ventures and trade, or keeping employment with the Omanis and later, the British. Those who lived in the fertile hills of Uganda and Tanzania flourished in the farming and trading industries. The mercantile skills and business acumen of the Baluch earned them high regard amongst the various communities in which they settled. This can also be said of the small but vibrant Nairobi community.

from Beatrice Nicolini, The Tupak of the Jemadar: Notes on the Baluch presence along the Swahili Coast during the 19th century


Further reading:

Encyclopædia Iranica entry on East Africa

Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi, The Iranian Presence In East Africa

Beatrice Nicolini, Slave Trade in the Western Indian Ocean during the 19th century: the role of Baloch Mercenaries

Beatrice Nicolini, The Makran-Baluch-African Network in Zanzibar and East Africa during the XIX century

Abdul Kadir Noor Mohamed, The Baluchis from East Africa

Abdul Kadir Noor Mohamed, The culture of East African Baluchis

The Modernisation of Ayurveda

By the end of the nineteenth century, ayurveda along with other indigenous systems of medicine such as unani (Graeco-Arabic medicine) and siddha (South Indian Tamil traditional medicine) were profoundly influenced by their encounters with Western medicine. The closing decades of the nineteenth century witnessed a proliferation of books on ayurveda in English, Sanskrit, and vernacular languages as the proponents of ayurveda “tried to transform the hitherto relatively inaccessible knowledge into social knowledge as well as a shared system of knowledge among the practitioners”. This outpouring of ayurvedic publications roughly coincided with the rise of nationalism in general and that of Hindu revivalist nationalism in particular. It was also a response to the colonial government’s decision in 1835 to suspend the teaching of ayurveda in the Calcutta Medical College.

While of crucial significance to this early period, ayurvedic publications addressing the theme of ayurvedic knowledge and history continued to sustain the movement through the first half of the twentieth century. Also, Ayurvedic practitioners organized themselves as a professional interest group through the founding of the All India Ayurvedic Congress (A.I.A.C.) in 1907. The annual conferences organized by the A.I.A.C provided another key forum for revival efforts. The proceedings of these conferences along with books, tracts, and journals provide useful source material for the historian interested in understanding how the proponents of ayurveda positioned themselves and their art within the larger nationalist discourse that envisioned a modern, scientific, progressive future for India. … Three themes were central to the ayurvedic revivalist discourse contained in the literature on ayurveda and the conference proceedings of the A.I.A.C: British Orientalism, the synthesis of medical systems, and institutionalization of ayurveda.

Advertisement for Pandit D. Gopalacharlu's ayurvedic cholera cure, 1909. Wellcome Library, London.
Advertisement for Pandit D. Gopalacharlu’s ayurvedic cholera cure, 1909. Wellcome Library, London.

British Orientalism refers to a set of ideas and practices inaugurated under Warren Hastings, Governor-General of Bengal from 1773 to 1785 that sought to know and understand the languages and culture of India as a key step toward good governance. Deploying eighteenth century Enlightenment ideals, British Orientalists such as William Jones and Henry Thomas Colebrooke translated ancient texts, posited a Vedic golden age of Aryan Hindus, identified Sanskrit as the fount of Indian civilization, and in the process stimulated a vigorous intellectual and cultural ‘renaissance’ among the Bengali elite. This generally positive attitude to ancient Indian culture coexisted alongside the denigration of contemporary conditions which served to justify the British presence in India. In response to this, early reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) sought to selectively reform and recast Hindu socio-religious practices while drawing upon the Orientalist discourse of early glory and achievement – a trend that would characterize several reform and revival movements in colonial India.

Aryans, antiquity, Vedic civilization – ideas that were at the heart of British Orientalism – were invoked in the service of ayurveda. In an early (1895) and widely acknowledged contribution to the ayurvedic revival movement, Bhagvat Sinh Jee, the Maharaja of Gondal (a princely state in western India), Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, and later Vice-President of the Indian Medical Association, provided a brief sketch of Hindu achievements in astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, music, religion, philosophy, architecture, lexicography, grammar, and the art of war during a Vedic golden age and argued that

All this unmistakably proves that the Aryans were the most enlightened race in the dawn of history. … When the state of civilization was so perfect, and when all sorts of useful sciences were regularly studied, there should be no wonder if the science of Medicine too received its share of attention. This Science forms part of the Vedas, and is called “Ayur Veda” or the “Science of Life.”

Pandit D. Gopalacharlu’s Narayana Thailam or Gout, Rheumatism and Paralysis Destroyer. Wellcome Library, London.
Pandit D. Gopalacharlu’s Narayana Thailam or Gout, Rheumatism and Paralysis Destroyer. Wellcome Library, London.

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Muharram in Bombay, c. 1893-1912

Muharram rituals associated with Shi’a communities in the Middle East and commemorating Ashura signify the division of Shi’a from Sunni communities. However, Muharram rituals metamorphosed into non-Shi’i rituals in India. As Kidambi (2007) remarks, even Hindus participated in the rituals in Mumbai during the nineteenth century. In fact, observing Ashura day was an inter-community/inter-religion event and the procession on Ashura day was the greatest festival of Mumbai during the nineteenth century, often called the taboot procession. Birdwood (1915) described the procession as the most picturesque event of South Asia.

The Muharram rituals in Mumbai have radically changed since the nineteenth century. The commemorative act as an inter-communal festival came to an end with the riot of 1893. Edwardes, the Commissioner of Police of Bombay at the time, argued that the riot of 1893 broke out as a result of the Hindu Nationalist movement led by Tilak. The movement was initially anti-British, but Tilak widened his movement against Muslims as well (Edwardes 1923, 104–105). Violence between Muslims and Hindus during the month of Muharram became so frequent in the following years that colonial authorities put tight regulations in place regarding the Muharram rituals. The regulation imposed in 1912, during Edwardes’ era, was particularly important in transforming the Ashura commemoration in Mumbai. This regulation banned the issuing of licences for non-Muslims who wished to carry out the procession. In reality, the regulation (1912) indirectly stopped the procession and was part of the process that gradually made the commemoration a solely Shi’i ritual in Mumbai. Although the Ashura commemoration is still known as the Muslims’ (both Shi’a and Sunni) ritual in Indian cities, it is mainly a Shi’i ritual in Mumbai.

from Reza Masoudi Nejad, Practising Fractal Shi’i Identities through Muharram Rituals in Mumbai

Muharram procession in Bombay, c.1880.
Muharram procession in Bombay, c.1880.

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